Beyond the selfie: Advanced accessories to improve your smartphone photography in 2016

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Now that smartphones are by far the world’s most popular cameras, it’s worth looking at ways to make

the most of, and even go beyond, their photographic capabilities. At CES this year, there was no

shortage of smartphone add-ons that address one or another of the limitations of a phone’s camera.

We’ve rounded up some of the best, and the most interesting — ranging from ones that cost a few dollars,

to those that can cost more than your phone.

iBlazr 2 Wireless LED Flash

My personal favorite is the very slick little wireless flash from Concepter. It is an evolution of their

first-generation model that plugged into your phone. The new model uses Bluetooth to cleverly trigger

the shutter on your phone directly from the flash — so you can use it wirelessly while still having it in

sync with your phone. It also features a touch-sensitive back for adjusting the light temperature from

warm to cool, by varying the relative intensity of its multiple color LEDs. This is a feature I wish my large,

pro-level flashes had! The new model is priced at $59 when ordered directly from Concepter,

a little above the original, but well worth it.

You can sync up to 10 iBlazr 2 flashes for a small studio setup

My iBlazr 2 review unit paired flawlessly with my iPhone 5, but required a couple restarts to get it

paired and connected to my Galaxy S6 Edge. That seems somewhat typical of Bluetooth accessories.

In my experience, they are often a little harder to get working with Android devices, unfortunately,

although it’s getting better. Once connected, you can also use Concepter’s app to further customize your

iBlazr 2’s output. The unit also comes with a small clip for attaching to your phone, and a white cover

that can also serve as a mini-diffuser.

Obviously the iBlazr 2 is not going to throw a lot of light, or throw light very far. But for product shots,

macro, and backlit portraits, it is a great assist. Using the app you can control up to ten of them at a time.

 

Add zoom to your smartphone with an add-on lens

Aukey's add-on lenses come with a sturdy clip, but that doesn't help you align them unless you get the form-fit case -- shown with clipThere are quite a few companies that provide add-on lenses of various

types for smartphones. I’ve been working with one of the better sets,

from UK manufacturer Aukey. They are solidly made and feature glass

elements, while still not costing an arm and a leg. Using Aukey’s

wide-angle lens I captured some images of Lenovo’s Suite at CES, that

would have required a full-size camera otherwise (taking a panorama

isn’t an option with so many people moving around)

 

For the most part, the lenses worked pretty well, with two caveats:

First, if you don’t get a version with a case for your exact phone (Aukey sells one for the iPhone 6 series),

the lenses are hard to align exactly enough so they don’t vignette. This was an issue with my Galaxy

S6 Edge. Second, there is some loss of resolution (sharpness) near the edges, and the additional areas

covered by the wide-angle do show some distortion. I think that if you had a perfect fit, then the

distortion issue could be corrected with a profile for the camera plus lens in software,

but I don’t know if there are any out there.

 

For those who want to take this concept to the next level, and are willing to spend more,

Zeiss and Fellowes introduced a high-end line of add-on lenses at CES. Available in Q2,

they will come with a snap fit connector (only some phone models will be supported) to ensure

proper alignment, and will feature Zeiss optics. There are quite a few other companies that make

various other alternatives, many of which are plastic and optically not as good as the Aukey or certainly

the Zeiss. Although I called this section “zoom” to refer to the additional focal lengths available,

none of the products I looked at are true zooms. Instead they are lenses of alternative fixed focal lengths.

 

Add-on cameras from Sony, Olympus, and now DxO Labs

The DxO ONE snaps into your iPhone via the Lightning connector portSony has released several models of its QX family of add-on cameras

for your smartphone. They all feature excellent sensors (the same

as their RX100 family), and a quality lens, but suffer from laggy

performance due to their use of WiFi for camera control. They are also

fairly large. Interestingly, none were on display anywhere in the

massive Sony booth this year, so they may be phasing it out.

The Olympus Air has a similar design, but is optimized for niche applications where remote control

of a small camera and lens is needed. Unlike the Sony, the Olympus offers support for

interchangeable lenses. The newest, and slickest, entry in this market is the DxO ONE,

from DxO Labs. It packs the same 1-inch format sensor found in the Sony RX100 III into a

tiny package by making use of your iPhone or iPad as the viewfinder and camera control.

By using the Lightning connector (required to use the device) to connect to your phone,

and having its own microSD card for image storage, it achieves real time performance —

making it much easier to use than WiFi controlled add-on cameras.

 

Bevel will let you turn your phone into a 3D capture device

Bevel packs depth measurement using laser triangulaton into a tiny package3D scanner company Matter and Form has brought its laser-

triangulation technology to a small accessory for your phone. When it

ships later this year the $79 (pre-order price) Bevel will plug into your

device’s headphone port and include an eye-safe red laser. The laser

scans across one line at a time, so that to scan an entire scene you

need to carefully move the phone along in a panning motion across

the other direction. One reason Bevel can be so inexpensive is that it uses

your phone’s own camera to view the laser as it bounces off the subject,

and then calculates the distance through laser triangulation.

That means that the device can’t sense glass, and is confused by mirrors, but it works well when

scanning most other surfaces. As a demonstration, Matter and Form’s staff created a 3D scan of

me standing in front of the booth. The results looked as good or better than some of the ones

I’ve had done at MakerFaire that used arrays of DSLRs – at least when looked at straight on.

I suspect that the product will show its limitations when you start to try to move around an object and

create a full 3D model instead of just a depth map from one orientation, but it is much less expensive

than any alternative I’ve seen.

 

Capture the action with Vyoocam

Vyoocam can clip on to just about anything to let you stream both audio and videoSmartphones are great for a lot of things, but getting mounted to your

helmet, glasses, or handlebars to create action footage is not one of

them. The usual solution is to get a GoPro (or one of it competitors),

but now Vyoocam offers an alternative. It is a small, wearable,

video camera that connects to your smartphone using WiFi

(it can also connect directly to a WiFi hot spot, but still needs to be

configured using an app). It is powered by an 850mAh battery that the

company says will last over an hour. In addition, you can power it over

USB using a battery pack. The Vyoocam can record H.264 video in either 720p

or 1080p at 30fps, along with single-channel audio. The device weighs in at under

80 grams. There is also an SDK for developers on iOS and Anroid who want to use

it as an additional camera in an existing application.

 

Today’s accessory is tomorrow’s smartphone feature

One of the most fascinating things about smartphone add-ons is how the best ones often turn into

features in future models of the phones. So look for the most popular capabilities out of those we’ve

discussed here to find their way into flagship phones within a few years. As an example, Google and

Lenovo are already developing a phone with depth-sensing for shipment by mid-year.

 

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