How Lens Attachments Make Your Smartphone Camera Better

They won’t make your iPhone 4 shoot iPhone X–quality images. But they can help you get more out of your camera.

Moment and AMIR phone camera lenses.
Moment and AMIR phone camera lenses. Photo illustration by Slate.

The camera is one of the most important features on today’s smartphones. Hardware makers invest countless hours, money, and research into improving the size and quality of smartphone cameras, and companies like Apple produce entire marketing campaigns around their phones’ superb photo quality as a bid to lure in new buyers. In a survey conducted by website Phone Arena, the camera’s importance ranked second only to a device’s battery life among potential phone buyers. However, some commenters made a valid point: A phone with bad battery life can be saved by a battery pack or charging case; with a bad camera, you’re out of luck.

But for several years now, smartphone owners have been able to augment their devices’ built-in cameras with the addition of a third-party lens attachment. These lens accessories come at a variety of price points and sizes, making them an appropriate option no matter what smartphone model you’re using. Like lenses for DSLR cameras, smartphone lenses are designed for specific applications: There are wide-angle lenses for capturing a broader scene, telephoto lenses for high-quality-zoom capabilities, macro lenses for providing intense up-close detail of subjects, and fisheye lenses for a fun, circular view of the world. Often, these lenses come as a pack, giving you various options depending on your photo-shooting needs. They range in price from $21 for such a three-pack to $100 or more per individual lens.

A lens attachment is generally a good way to enhance your camera’s image output: It can allow for closer or wider shots and offer more variety in your smartphone photography. But if you’re in the market for a new phone—particularly because of its better camera—is it enough to stave off that purchase for another year or two? It depends on what you’re looking for.

While lens attachments expand the capabilities of your camera, allowing you to take more interesting shots, they don’t necessarily improve the overall image quality your smartphone camera is able to produce—that is, your 8-megapixel camera isn’t suddenly going to produce 12-megapixel photos. As professional photographer and videographer Tristan Pope explains, a lens is just a piece of glass over another piece of glass—it can change what your camera sees, but it’s not going to make the glass, or the mechanics inside your smartphone camera, improve. However, it can compensate for some of the features you’d get on a newer phone. On the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus (as well as phones by LG, Huawei, and Samsung), you get two cameras built into the rear of the device, which offer things like improved zooming capabilities or wider-angle shots. Third-party lens attachments can accomplish this as well, but there are some things to keep in mind.

“You should be careful about the quality of the lenses you’re adding: The better the lens quality, the better the result,” says Erin Lodi, professional photographer and author of Wirecutter’s “Best Lenses for iPhone Photography” guide. “I’ve been testing and researching these lenses for years and many of the inexpensive ones are difficult to use and can seriously degrade image quality.” Specifically, Lodi notes that they can cause issues such as blurring, distortion, and vignetting.

Pope recommends Moment lenses. “Small, lightweight, solid, great optics, no edge issues—I have used these on professional shoots before and am always amazed at the punch for the size,” Pope says. Lodi agrees: In her in-depth review on Wirecutter, she concludes, “For avid smartphone photographers concerned about high-quality, print-ready results, Moment lenses are worth the investment.”

If you’re looking to enhance the features of your smartphone camera but are happy with the overall photo quality it produces, yes, it’s possible a lens attachment might stave off your need to purchase a new handset. This is especially true if your current phone is only a couple years old. Unfortunately, there’s no lens in the world that will bring your old iPhone 4’s pictures up to par with an iPhone X. If the camera is what you care about, and budget is a big factor, you can grab a great camera for less than a new smartphone too. Forced obsolescence and feature envy don’t have to force you into a new smartphone.