The Challenges Of Building A Third-Party iPhone Camera Lens

A team of camera-building vets are working SLR-style camera lenses for your smartphone. Instagram addicts rejoice!

The Challenges Of Building A Third-Party iPhone Camera Lens
[Image: Flickr user Massmatt]

As a full-blown Instagram addict, it was an all-to-familiar scenario for me. I was walking by a small church in my neighborhood just as the sun was setting. To my eye, it looked amazing–but when I pulled out my iPhone, the angle was too wide and the shot looked awful.


That’s why iPhones aren’t great replacements for DSLRs, no matter what the New Yorker says: They lack interchangeable lenses. Even as phones become the most widely used cameras on the planet, they lack the ability to adjust focal length. Companies like Photojojo make third-party attachments which let you add lenses, but without being OEM equipment, results will leave you tepid.

“It’s very difficult to do,” says Michael Thomas, a lens designer working on a new camera mount for iPhone called Moment. “When you put a lens attachment on the iSight camera, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to get a decent image in the center, but the image quality falls off rapidly and gets fuzzy at the edges due to aberrations like chromatic blur and astigmatism.”

The goal of Moment is to build high-quality third-party iPhone lenses with no compromises. The startup launched on Kickstarter today, and is working on a pair of high-quality, snap-on lenses for iPhones and Samsung Galaxy smartphones. With backgrounds in building cameras and cinematic-quality lenses, the team behind Moment is hoping to strike the crucial balance between image quality, lens size, and cost that has proven so hard for others to nail.

Thomas knows a thing or two about camera lenses. He comes from Hyperion Development, a company that has built lenses for aerospace and entertainment-industry clients for more than 25 years. He joins Moment cofounder Marc Barros and designer Erik Hedberg, both of whom came from Contour Cameras, a company that makes wearable HD video cameras.

“Other products out there serve a purpose in terms of changing field of view of the iSight camera, but they’re very low-end, usually made in China,” Thomas says. “We decided to use our propriety process for designing cinema lenses and decided to come up with something that did not detract from the iSight camera image quality at all.”


Achieving this particular combination of simplicity, quality, size, and affordability presented its fair share of design challenges for the Moment team. One goal established early on (thanks to extensive user research) was the need for the lenses to work with phones with or our without a case, for example. Hedberg and a colleague thus came up with the backplate and twist-on bayonet mechanism, which had to account for the varying sizes of the camera holes in iPhone and Galaxy cases. Then there was building of the lens itself.

How Moment Works

With Moment, the experience looks roughly like this: Both the 18 mm wide-angle lens and its tighter 60 mm counterpart are small enough to carry around in your bag or pocket. Your phone is equipped with a special plate so you can easily twist and snap each of the lenses on in the bayonet-style mechanism used by DSLRs. You snap your photo, easily swapping between each of the $50 lenses as needed.

“We needed to find the level of quality where people perceive this lens to be as good as the iSight camera,” says Thomas. “If we go over that, we’re just over-engineering and adding cost and complexity. If we go under that, people will say ‘It’s a pretty good lens, but it’s not as good as a camera.'”

Physical and time constraints also forced the team to forgo certain features they would have liked to include. The original concept for the lenses, for example, included connectivity that would enable it to more smartly integrate with the phone itself. This, along with additional focal lengths and extra accessories are things the team will be looking at focusing on next, presuming the Kickstarter campaign goes as planned.