The iPhone Telephoto Lens comes with a tripod and thin, hard shell case.

The iPhone Telephoto Lens might be the most ambitious mobile photography accessory I’ve ever reviewed. With a huge zoom lens sticking out from a thin, delicate device, this is more than just an accessory — it’s a statement. I took the 12x zooming iPhone 5 version of the lens out for a spin, testing it in a few different photography situations. (The iPhone 4/4S version offers 8x zoom.)

The lipstick-sized lens attaches to a tight-fitting shell case and comes with a tiny tripod to provide the necessary stabilization to prevent camera shake from hand-holding the long lens.

While the iPhone Telephoto Lens may seem like an impractical tool for most iPhone photography situations, the case and tripod are very handy. The case is thin, black and allows for full use of the iPhone’s buttons, sensors and ports so you could use it without the telephoto lens as an everyday case that's also compatible with the collapsible tripod for more stable orientation in landscape and portrait compositions. (And for $35 from Photojojo, it's not a bad deal for the case and tripod alone.)

Up on a mountain above Lake Tahoe, I wanted to get a closer look of the boats on the water.
While the zoom capability of the iPhone Telephoto Lens is impressive, the details lack clarity.

When I first read about the iPhone Telephoto Lens, I expected it to be bulky and cumbersome but I was pleasantly surprised when I unpacked it. The lens is obviously too awkward to keep on your phone all the time, but it’s easily detachable from the case and is light and small enough on its own so it’s not difficult to take with you. 

If you think you can use the lens without the tripod, forget about it. Hand-holding a 12x zoom lens without shutter speed control is nearly impossible. Even when the phone is in the tripod, it’s still a little hard to get a clear shot because of the slight shaking that occurs when you press the button.

Once you have picked the spot for your tele-photo shoot, you have to manually focus the lens. The iPhone’s autofocus will help you once you’ve found a general focal range, but if you have a multi-layered composition, focusing can be a little tricky.

I tested the lens in a few different situations. First, I zoomed in on a landscape. Trying to focus on a sunny day with the iPhone 5’s 4-inch, 1136 x 640 pixel display is challenging, but not impossible.

Standing on a summit looking down at Lake Tahoe, I was really impressed by the lens's zooming capabilities. I could see boats in the water from a great distance, and was able to completely crop the trees in the foreground out of my shots. Once I got home and reviewed the zoomed images on my computer, my excitement quickly faded. There was quite a bit of distortion and my images were too blurry to make me want to share the zoomed-in photos with friends.

I found shorter range zooming was a little better. The distortion is still noticeable, but it's much easier to focus and subjects tend to be clearer.

Over shorter distances, the iPhone Telephoto Zoom delivers slightly better clarity, but there is still a lot of distortion in the scene.
For comparison, here is a photo of the same scene, sans zoom.

As far as the iPhone Telephoto Lens' optics go, there's seems to be more novelty at work here than science. Sure, you can get a decent close-up shot from far away, but you certainly are not going to be able to get a super clean detailed shot to match the results of a DSLR or compact interchangeable lens camera. But for casual smartphone photography, it's a fun toy.

We like: Well thought out product package. Great iPhone case and tripod. The detachability of the lens makes it practical and portable.

We don’t like: It’s a cool toy, but it’s not quite portable enough or powerful enough to make it a must-have iPhone photography accessory. 

Overall rating: