Miggö Pictar
From $99 | www.mymiggo.com

Many photographers would probably agree that the image quality of smartphone cameras has improved rapidly over the past few years and in many cases now rivals the output from some conventional digital compact cameras. However, even if the image quality of the smartphone camera in your pocket is all you need, there is still one area in which conventional cameras offer undeniable advantages over smartphones: ergonomics.

Multi-touch smartphone displays are great for general use and navigation of mobile devices, but many photographers prefer physical buttons and dials for setting camera shooting parameters over virtual controls on a screen.

Enter the Miggö Pictar camera grip. It attaches to your iPhone and provides a number of customizable physical controls, plus a tripod mount and a cold shoe connector. The Pictar is available in two versions. One is compatible with the iPhones models 4s, 5, 5s, 6, 6s, SE and 7 and will set you back $99. The other fits the larger iPhone Plus models, including the latest iPhone 7 Plus flagship, and is $10 more expensive.

I've been using the Pictar grip with an iPhone 7 Plus for a few days. Here are my impressions.

Features, ergonomics and build quality

Attaching the Pictar to your phone is straightforward process. You 'click' the phone in place where it is safely held thanks to a spring-loaded mechanism. Once attached to the phone and connected to the Pictar app the grip offers most essential controls that you would expect on a conventional camera.

The Pictar's chunky rubberized grip allows for comfortable and secure holding.

The shutter button supports half-press for focusing and locking exposure and two dials at the back of the grip are by default configured for dialing in exposure and changing the shooting mode. A front dial acts as a zoom ring, pressing it switches to the front camera. This configuration makes sense but if you don't like how things are set up by default, the Pictar app allows for an impressive amount of customization. You can have a different setup for each shooting mode and even create custom profiles.

The Pictar offers a range of controls and features you would normally find on a digital compact or interchangeable lens camera.

Thanks to its rubberized grip the Pictar is comfortable to hold, even with only one hand, and most of the controls can be easily reached. Only the front dial is in a slightly inconvenient place which means you have to loosen your grip slightly when using it. That's not much of a problem when you hold the phone and grip with both hands but makes for slightly unstable shooting in one-handed use. On my test unit the front dial is also a little stiff, making it difficult to dial in the desired zoom factor with precision.

The grip's open design allows for attachment of most add-on lenses that don't need a phone case but you cannot charge your iPhone while the grip is in place. A cold-shoe mount lets you use lights or microphones with your phone and at the bottom of the grip you'll find a standard tripod mount.

Two dials on the back allow for quick adjustment of shooting mode and parameters.

Two major drawbacks of the Pictar are build quality and power supply. It's made of quite cheap-looking plastic which stands in stark contrast to the iPhone's premium materials. The buttons feel quite flimsy as well and the spring mechanism makes creaking noises when the iPhone is being attached. I have had no particular quality issues during my relatively short test but it remains to be seen how the Pictar will stand up to longer travels or intense daily use over time.

Power is supplied by a 1/2AA battery which Miggö says should last between 4 and 6 months. I had no issues with battery life during my testing but those batteries aren't cheap and, depending on where you are, not always easily available. In this day and age even the cheapest devices seem to be USB-rechargable, and it's a shame that the Pictar doesn't offer this feature.

Pictar App

The Pictar camera app displays all essential shooting information. A histogram, virtual level and framing grid can be activated in the settings.

To use the grip you have to download and install the dedicated Pictar app first. Instead of Bluetooth it communicates with the phone via 'ultrasonic OS'. Essentially, the grip sends out ultrasonic frequencies that are picked up by the iPhone's microphones with a unique frequency for each function. According to the Pictar makers, this drains less battery on both devices. Everything worked well during our test and all of the grip's physical controls were responsive and reliable at all times.

The app's user interface is simple and well-designed. It shows all important camera settings and gives you the option to display a grid, histogram and virtual horizon. You can set focus and exposure points on the display and in some modes one shooting parameter is adjusted on a virtual slider but otherwise most settings are modified via the grip's physical dials and buttons.

The customization options for the physical controls are almost endless.

The mode dial lets you switch between Auto, Manual and Shutter Speed and ISO priority modes. There's also a Macro mode and a Sports modes, which biases toward using higher ISOs for faster shutter speeds, and a filter mode which allows for some live image manipulation. A video mode is included as well, but manual control is limited to exposure compensation.

Unfortunately the Pictar app does not offer the option to shoot images in Raw format, and there is no button to switch between the iPhone 7 Plus dual-camera lenses but you can assign that function to the front button if you want to. Unlike on a conventional camera a press of the shutter doesn't take you back to the capture screen from review mode or when using another app.

Conclusion

In my experience there are two types of mobile photographers: purists who like mobile photography for its inconspicuousness and want to keep their device as compact and portable as possible, and those who like to use any gadget they can get their hands on to enhance their smartphone's camera capabilities or feature set.

If you belong to the latter group and also like to have manual control over your shooting parameters the Pictar grip could definitely be for you. The dials and buttons offer quicker adjustment than most on-screen controls and the tripod and cold-shoe mounts will be appreciated by most more serious photographers.

On the downside, the Pictar does feel a little cheap for a $100 device. We'd also prefer USB-recharging to relatively obscure 1/2AA batteries. Raw support in the camera app would have been nice, too, especially when considering the photographically minded target users. That said, quite a few buyers will probably get the Pictar for its attractive retro-look alone. More information is available on the Pictar website.

What we like:

  • Good ergonomics and comfortable grip
  • Easy to use
  • Customizable configuration
  • Well-designed app

What we don't like:

  • Cheap plastic material
  • Requires fairly obscure 1/2AA battery
  • Slightly stiff front dial makes precise zooming difficult
  • No Raw support in camera app