Shooting Insects with an iPhone + Olloclip

As you can probably tell from my blog posts, especially the one raving about BugShot 2011, I am in love with insect photography!  There’s something about pulling a camera out and shooting outside for an hour or more that makes me supremely happy.  However, my current DSLR setup is an absolute behemoth and is absolutely not a portable camera for taking to, say, the grocery store in my bag.  Instead, I’ve carried my Canon G11 point and shoot with me for the past 2 years.  It’s much smaller and takes great photos, but it’s surprisingly heavy and doubles the weight of my bag.  My iPhone, on the other hand, is a lightweight and portable camera.  It also takes decent photos so long as I don’t need to zoom in.  Or take photos in low light.  Or photograph small things, such as insects.  That last trait is a bit of a problem for me, but I’m determined to turn my iPhone into an insect photograph taking machine!

My main concern was getting closer to my subjects.  Happily, there are solutions for this!  You can simply tape a 10x hand lens over the camera lens and increase the magnification of the iPhone camera.  It’s a cheap camera hack, but it requires a bit of setup work and isn’t a fast option when I find an insect running down the sidewalk that I must have a picture of RIGHT NOW!  Instead, I’ve looked into the PhotoJojo and Olloclip “macro” lenses for iPhone.  These lenses provide magnification, but are easier to use than the hand lens method.   The PhotoJojo 3 lens set is $25 cheaper than the Olloclip, but to use them you also have to stick a big magnet on the back of your phone.  The Olloclip slides over the phone’s frame instead, so I thought it was probably worth the extra cash.  As luck would have it, I happened to win a cash prize days after I decided I wanted to buy the Olloclip, so I ordered it and waited impatiently for it to arrive.

The Olloclip looks like this:



And it looks like this attached to the phone:

Olloclip on phone

Olloclip on iPhone

The device is two-sided, so depending on which of the three lenses (“macro,” wide-angle, or fish eye) you want to use, you simply slide it over the frame so that your choice of lens sits over the camera lens.  To use the macro lens, you unscrew the wide-angle lens from the Olloclip and it’s ready to use!  It’s a very simple device.

But would it work for insect photos?  I immediately pulled out a box of bugs and selected a few to photograph.  This was one of my first shots, dragonfly wings:

Dragonfly wings

Dragonfly wings

It worked pretty well for that.  The photo was taken indoors under artificial light with a still (dead) subject.  I did have to edit the image to correct the white balance, but that was an easy, minor fix that I could do on my phone.  It’s all well and good that the Olloclip could take photos of a flat, non-moving object, but would it work on a  bigger insect with some depth?  This is how a photo of a midas fly looked, after some color correction for the overhead fluorescent lights:

midas fly

Midas fly

Not half bad!  The Olloclip was able to pick up on some of the surface details of the fly.  So I took my phone + Olloclip outside, because this is ultimately where I’ll be using it.  I photographed a few leaves, then came across an enormous grasshopper.  (Yes folks, it’s November in the Sonoran Desert!)  I moved the phone toward it to try to get a shot… and scared it horribly.  It flew directly into my face, which scared me horribly.  That photo didn’t turn out so well.  But I wasn’t deterred!  I shot some more photos of leaves and a few other things.  This was the best of the bunch:



This was not as promising.  The photo was blurry, even though I was anchoring my arms against my body AND supporting the leaf with my other hand to prevent it moving in the wind.  Clearly there were a few issues to deal with…

I’ve played with my Olloclip for about a week now and I’ve discovered several limitations.  For one, the lens has virtually no depth of field.  While I can easily photograph something flat, photographing anything with depth leaves most of the image out of focus.  I’ve produced some dreamy shots of plants, but my attempts at insects have been mostly disappointing.  In addition to the depth of field issue, you have to be very close to the subject, within a half-inch, to get the camera to focus.  This is awfully close for some insects, as the grasshopper incident proved.  And, when you’re that close, every tiny movement looks like a very big movement to the camera!  I’m having some issues with motion blur, which is not ideal for photographing mobile insects. There’s a fair amount of noise on all the photos.  Finally, and I just learned this today, screen protectors and the Olloclip really don’t mix.  I ripped mine right off when I saw a trap jaw ant I wanted to photograph today!  Really annoying.

The verdict: the Olloclip is a fun little device, but not ideal for taking crisp, clear photos of insects.  It does produce some lovely botanical images and the wide-angle and fish eye lenses are great, but my iPhone will not be replacing my point and shoot for insects any time soon.  I took a shot of the midas fly with my point and shoot under the same conditions to compare the quality:

Midas Fly

Midas fly - with point and shoot

Much better!  Guess the point and shoot is worth the extra weight after all.

Do any of you have any suggestions for other things I can try to improve my iPhone’s camera so I can stop carrying my beast of a point and shoot around?  If so, please leave a comment!


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2 thoughts on “Shooting Insects with an iPhone + Olloclip

  1. You’re running into physics, unfortunately. An upgrade to a 4s might help a tiny bit, but not as much as a bigger sensor and bigger lens. Phone camera parts are just too small to collect enough photons.

    Do you have decent thrift stores in your area? If so, haunt them. Since resale value on digital point & shoots are so low, a lot of them end up super cheap at thrift stores when the owner upgrades. There’s a fair chance you can score a working 3-4 year old subcompact that does reasonable macro.

    Since you’ve got the iphone, you can look up specs, reviews, and replacement battery prices on the spot. Assume that the batteries are dead, or nearly so–lithium cells only last a few years even under good circumstances. is a good place to get third party camera batteries for much cheaper than the manufacturer ones.

    Keep an eye out especially for the 7 megapixel cameras (4-5 years old, probably). Most of them used a really good sony sensor that was slightly bigger than the typical p&s sensor.

    Depending on budget and who owes you a good present this year, it’s a good time to look for good deals on the Canon S95. The S100 should be available fairly soon so the S95 price is on the way down. It’s $290 new at adorama, and they have a few refurbished and used ones for slightly less. Canon has also rebates on other p&s going, so maybe one of those is cheap enough to be worthwhile.

    Be sure to check for black friday deals at the usual online camera sources–adorama, b&h photo, amazon, and even newegg. You never know what might turn up, and older models that are being dumped could be a bargain.

    Have a great thanksgiving!

    • Thanks for all the suggestions! I am trying to decrease the amount of stuff I carry because it’s a pain carrying a camera and a phone when I’d prefer to carry just one. But I can keep carrying my p&s until my phone camera is up to snuff. It’s heavy, but it’s also a really good camera with a great macro setting.

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