Why clipping a lens to your phone can’t turn it into a great camera

Clip-on phone lenses are the bait for a lot of web scams.  Here’s why you shouldn’t bite.

  • It’s risky to get involved with a web scammer.  Also, regardless of their sales pitch, the lenses they offer aren’t very good.
  • A camera (even the one in your smart phone) has several parts whose quality is crucial to catching a high-quality image.  The lens is just one of these parts.  
  • Getting a great camera (including magically turning your phone into a great camera) won’t make you a great photographer.  Just as buying a master’s palette and brushes wouldn’t make you a great painter.  Photography is an art.

Beware of phone lens web scams

A scammer is someone who takes your money by trickery or theft.  Keep in mind that the scam is not in the product; it’s in the way it’s sold.  A good product can be the bait in a scam; however, I’ve yet to see an online phone lens offering in which the lens was better than mediocre.  Getting involved with a web scammer poses a risk of theft from your credit card account.  Here are some phone lens scams that I’ve researched:

How a digital camera (even the one in your phone) works

(Real photographers, please forgive me for my limited mastery of camera technology.). I found this nice diagram of a SLR (single-lens reflex) camera on ScenicFramer.com .  The camera in your phone works basically the same way.


What’s going on here:

  1. Some light from the subject of the photograph enters from the left.  The light is focused by lens elements.  Also, the aperture (an adjustable “valve” built into the lens) positions and throttles the light beam.
  2. The light beam is diverted to a viewfinder by a mirror and prism arrangement.  Some high-end cameras have a mirrorless design.  Your phone solves the problem of both putting up an image on the viewfinder (the phone’s screen) and saving it by forwarding the image from the sensor to the screen.
  3. When the photographer presses the shutter button, the mirror lifts out of the way; the shutter opens for a brief moment to let the light beam shine on the sensor.  Then the shutter closes and the mirror moves back into place.  In the case of a phone, an electrical shutter function controls the exposure of the sensor to the light.
  4. The sensor is the digital equivalent of film; its job is to capture the image.  Then the camera copies the image to memory, such as an SD memory card.

Clipping a lens to your phone doesn’t have much effect on how its camera works

Imagine clipping an external lens to the outside of the lens barrel at the left end of the diagram.  Hopefully this thought will stimulate suspicion of the scammers’ claims about making a phone outperform a $4,000 DSLR (digital SLR).  Let’s take a closer look at some of these parts.

  1. If you clip an external lens over the camera’s lens, the light beam goes thru both lenses.  So, the added lens has no effect on the quality of the built-in lens.  Nor does it affect the built-in lens’ aperture.  So you can’t improve the camera’s low-light performance by clipping on a lens.
  2. Clipping a lens to the camera doesn’t affect the way it shares the light beam between the viewfinder and the sensor.
  3. The shutter is a crucial part of the camera.  The faster it can open and close, the sharper the captured image.  The shutter must also expose every part of the sensor to exactly the same amount of light throughout its cycle of opening and closing.  Clipping on a lens doesn’t affect the quality of your camera’s shutter.
  4. The sensor is also a crucial part of the camera.  The larger and more sophisticated the sensor is, the more precise and detailed the captured image can be.  Another measure of camera quality is the speed with which it can copy a captured image from the sensor to memory, because you can’t take another picture while this is going on.  Clipping on a lens doesn’t affect the quality of your camera’s sensor.

Okay, now for the good news.  Modern smart-phones already have lenses, shutters and sensors that are about the quality of an entry-level camera — quite good enough to take pictures you’ll be proud to show off, and to enable you to learn about the art of photography.

Taken with an unmodified iPhone 6.

Getting a better camera won’t make you a better photographer

A good photographer has mastery of his camera’s features and functions, skill in image composition, some degree of control over lighting, and the dedication to create or go to interesting subjects.  Clipping on a lens doesn’t affect any of these attributes.

Certainly, adding a good quality lens to a phone can give a photographer more flexibility over his composition.  And it can be a fun thing for anybody to do.  But a good quality phone lens costs about as much as an entry-level camera that will probably give better results.  If you still want to try a phone lens, TechRadar has posted a review of the best ones available.

Instead, consider taking some photography classes at your local community college.  (Borrowing a real camera for these would be a good idea.). If you have a camera that you don’t know how to use, a one-day hands-on class in camera basics will pierce the mystery.   From there you’ll see the way to go as far in the art of photography as you want to go.


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