mCAMLITE: A worthy tool for creative iPhoneography

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I had the opportunity to try out the mCAMLITE recently. It’s a solid metal holder for your iPhone 4/4S with a lens mount accommodating a few lens specially designed for the iPhone camera. Overall, I was very pleased with the results which I’ll show here.

Above: mCAMLITE with the 37mm Wide Angle lens and external microphone attachment.

The first thing I noticed was the impressively solid and sturdy build quality. The case felt quite hefty, and the lens mount was precise, allowing easy attachment and removal while snugly holding the lens when attached. The next thing I saw was the size of the included 37mm lens: it’s much bigger than the iPhone’s standard lens, allowing it to gather more light and improve the picture quality. In addition, it also lets you get really close to your subjects and has a slight fisheye effect, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I tried out this lens with CameraSharp and got lots of great photos — here’s one of my favorites:

Above: Close-up, taken with mCAMLITE about 2 inches from Morgan’s nose.

As you might expect, the mCAMLITE and its lens works great with all of CameraSharp’s features, including all the different shutter modes and other features like tap-to-focus/expose. In fact, the mCAMLITE actually helps make it easier to stand the phone on its side so that you can take photos in self-timer, continuous, and sound shutter modes without holding the phone.

Above: The Encinema kit for Canon lenses.

One feature I was excited about turned out to be a bit of a disappointment: the Canon SLR lens adapter. Don’t get me wrong — it’s still super cool and works as advertised, but a bit impractical.

The kit has a few pieces: three ring lenses (silver in the photo) and a black tube with a lens mount at one end and a focusing screen at the other. One thing that stuck out at me while assembling the kit is that the build quality of this accessory wasn’t on par with the very solidly built mCAMLITE. The focusing screen (the single most important piece of the kit) is fixed to a flimsy circular board, and the board is inset into a groove along the inside circumference of the barrel, allowing it to be rotated by using a finger to push the corners of the fragile focusing screen. It seemed like an odd way to align precision optics, but it’s what the instructions said.

I did some tests using a Canon 18-55mm lens. I tried using a 55-250, but couldn’t achieve focus at any subject distance. Of course, AF and IS aren’t available on any lens using this adapter.

The photos, overall, actually came out quite nice. You’ll notice that they have a unique faded effect with heavy vignetting. While neither are desirable in an SLR, the iPhone is a different story and there are lots of users out there who love this kind of retro style.

The design of the accessory is problematic in that it uses a focusing screen: light doesn’t go straight through the lenses into the iPhone; rather, light from the SLR lens is projected onto a translucent screen, which the inner lenses focus on. In the process, a significant amount of light is lost (the photos above were taken under the midday sun) and several artifacts are introduced.

First, the full-sized images have black speckles where tiny dust particles have settled on the focusing screen. Normally, dust on an SLR sensor or lens isn’t an issue unless you stop all the way down, since these parts are far outside the focal plane. But dust on the focusing screen is exactly in the focal plane. Even tiny dust particles invisible to the naked eye will show up in the photo.

Second, the focusing screen has a distracting Fresnel-lens-like pattern. It’s most obvious near the center of the photo where it’s brightest. For example, click the second photo above to view the full-size version, and zoom in a bit (to ~200%). Imagine if the model had Mickey Mouse ears, and look in that area near her head; you’ll see arches emanating from her hair in the flowery background.

There is hope though! There is an Encinema Nikon adapter, which is just a ring and appears to require no assembly. Best of all, it doesn’t have a focusing screen so everything I didn’t like about the Canon adapter doesn’t exist with this one!

So, the final verdict: I think mCAMLITE is a great iPhoneography accessory and love using it. If you’re a iPhoneography devotee like me, it’s an obvious choice. On the other hand, I’d rate the Canon lens adapter as a really fun toy, a great concept, but too impractical for real usage. I’d love to see an improved version though!