What’s the first rule of photography? “Have a camera with you,” of course! Even the lousiest disposable in your pocket is better than the $2,000 SLR in your car trunk back at the parking lot.
Luckily for us, we live in a time when ubiquitous smartphones allow almost everyone to carry a very high quality camera wherever we go. With every new generation of these amazing little devices, the quality of the lenses and sensors improves. The iPhone you have in your purse or pocket can take pictures that were out of reach to all but the most expensive digital cameras five or six years ago, and better than anything on the market ten or fifteen years ago.
When it comes to photographing our fungal finds in the field, the iPhone does an excellent job of documenting the appearance of the gross specimens and their surrounding habitat, as well as the excitement on the faces of our successful fellow foragers. However, it does not allow one to take very close-up photographs to document the fine details of the mushroom structure. For this, you need a camera with “macro” capability.
Macro photography is a complicated subject, and those who make their living at it spend a lot of time and money on getting set up with the proper equipment and technique.
Those who are less obsessive can often make excellent macro pictures with one of the more capable pocket cameras like the Canon S120 or Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7K.
But for those who just want to take close-up pictures with their iPhones, there is another alternative that is much cheaper and almost as good: the OlloClip 3-in-1 snap-on macro lens.
The OlloClip fits over the lens of the iPhone camera, clipping firmly to the edge of the phone. This brings up one of its most important drawbacks: You have to remove any external telephone case before you can snap on the OlloClip. But once it is in place, you can use the phone camera as usual with any iPhone app that supports the camera, except that you now can focus at much closer range than before.
The device comes in various flavors, including an older version for those with the iPhone 4. (Note that the iPhone 4 and 5 versions are not at all interchangeable.) There are several kits for the iPhone 5 , some of which come with fisheye and wide-angle lenses in addition to the macro lens. These may be useful to you if you do a lot of landscape, sports, or interior photography. But because I was especially keen to use this accessory for mushroom close-ups, I chose the “3-in-1 Macro” version that has only macro lenses, in 7x, 14x, and 21x powers of magnification.
The Olloclip has 14x and 21x lenses oriented in opposite directions that you can choose between by flipping it iback-to-front on the edge of your phone. You can also unscrew the 14x lens to give yourself a 7x power lens that is useful for somewhat wider close-ups. The whole package is no larger than a matchbox, and almost as light.
The system comes with lens caps and a cloth bag for protection, as well as snap-on diffuser cones that give softer, more filled-in lighting of your subject. These are also very helpful for guiding you to place the lens at the correct distance from the subject, which is an important consideration in macro photography. They also help steady the camera, which is an advantage with longer exposures in low light.
The iPhone lens, while of good optical quality, suffers from depth-of-field limitations due to the small diameter of the lens. What this means in practical terms is that it can be a challenge to get your subject in focus. Three-dimensional objects, in particular, will show part of the object in sharp focus, while any other portion of it that is even millimeters nearer or more distant than the focal point will be blurry.
This depth-of-field limitation is probably the other most serious drawback of the OlloClip/iPhone combination, besides the need to remove the case to use it. This is especially true for the 21x lens. Advanced or professional photographers get around this limitation by using larger and longer macro lenses in the 100-200mm range on their SLR bodies, standing further away from the subject and zooming in more closely. This makes for a much broader depth of field, but by the laws of physics, it is not an option for the iPhone user. It doesn’t really matter though. Having a digital camera means you can snap away repeatedly until you get that one out of five or ten images that is perfectly focused, then delete the rest.
Here is a gallery demonstrating what scale of magnification you can expect with the standard iPhone, 7x, 14x, and 21x lenses, respectively:
Optical purists will note that an add-on lens of this type may introduce some spherical and chromatic aberrations to the image. In my experience these have not been significant, especially with the new iPhone 5 version of the device. The maker has gone to some trouble to use multi-element lenses that minimize these artifacts. The effects are most pronounced at the edges of the images, but the iPhone takes large enough pictures that this can easily be cropped if it is noticeable. At the center 2/3rds of the field of view, the picture quality is as good as with the regular lens.
The following gallery gives some idea of the kind of pictures that can be taken with this apparatus. All of these were taken by me with either the iPhone 4 or iPhone 5 version of the device.
For those who already own an iPhone and do not wish to carry an additional camera, this is a fine and highly recommended product. It slips almost unnoticed into your pocket or knapsack, and can make the difference between merely good photographs, and eye-popping, artistic, scientifically useful illustrations of your mushroom finds.
The cost is not exactly cheap, at $70 list price, but it’s certainly less than any stand-alone camera capable of taking this kind of picture. And given the quality of the materials and construction, it is merited.
You can buy the OlloClip from Amazon.