Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The best camera is the one you have with you. For many of us, that camera often happens to be attached to a smartphone. Whether your mobile photography is opportunistic or purposeful, these tools can help you coax the best images possible from the camera that’s always with you.
Seek Thermal Camera
Forget the faux nostalgia of photo filters and blind your followers with science. Seek Thermal’s thermal camera records real thermal images, bringing what used to be a super-expensive forensic tool into the hands of the mobile photographer. It plugs into iPhones via the Lightning connector or Android devices via microUSB. Resolution is a mere 206×156 pixels, low-res even by smartphone standards. But relative to the standards of thermal cameras, where you can pay north of $7,000 to make a 320×240 image, Seek’s paltry pixel count seem a lot more impressive. The camera works with a free companion app that lets you snap thermal images and video, plus set four temperature-measurement thresholds that instruct the camera to highlight everything above or below a given temperature. You can also assign a choice of nine different colors to your heat highlights, and swipe back-and-forth between a thermal view and a normal view of your scene.
A versatile stabilizer forged from “aerospace-grade” aluminum, the S1 clamps securely onto your phone with a pressurized thumb screw and V-shaped rubberized plates. Smartphones and “phablets” like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4—with a width between 1.8–3.6 inches—will fit inside the clamps, even inside many cases. Shoulderpod cautions that smartphones housed in large waterproof or external battery cases may exceed the S1’s maximum width. After you’ve secured your phone in the clamps, you can mount the S1 to a standard tripod or slider with its 1/4-20 threaded base. Pop the S1 off your tripod and add the aluminum grip extension and suede wrist strap and you’ve turned it into a handheld stabilizer for run-and-gun filming. For its third and final trick, remove the grip extension and place the S1 on a table in either portrait or landscape mode. It’s now functioning as a phone stand or mini tripod. You can use the wrist strap to hang the S1 off your belt or bag when not in use.
Joby GripTight GorillaPod Video
Bring Joby’s hang-anywhere flexibility to your phone with the GripTight GorillaPod Video flexible tripod and smartphone mount. The GorillaPod Video has Joby’s hallmark multi-joint legs, plus a pan-and-tilt head capable of a 360-degree pan and 135-degree tilt, with a handle for smooth motion. The feet are magnetic, so you can slap them on poles or other metallic surfaces if wrapping the legs isn’t an option. The GripTight smartphone mount can accommodate phones between 2.1- and 2.8-inches wide with a maximum weight of 0.7 pounds. If you’re a phablet owner, spring for the equally priced GripTight XL, which can accommodate phones between 2.7- and 3.9-inches wide. You can also detach the GripTight mount and use the GorillaPod Video’s tripod thread with cameras or camcorders weighing under 0.7 pounds.
HTC Re Camera
Similar in spirit to the Sony QX lens cameras, HTC’s RE is a smartphone companion camera. Unlike the Sony, however, the RE is not meant to connect physically to your phone at all. Instead, you can use the periscope-shaped RE as a hand-held or mounted mobile camera that stays wirelessly connected to your Android or iPhone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The camera has a physical shutter that you tap once for photos or press for video recording; you access the rest of the camera’s controls and compose images using your smartphone. The RE delivers 1920x1080p video at 30 fps or 16-megapixel stills via a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor. It offers a fixed-focus f/2.8 lens with a 146-degree angle of view. While images can be saved to your phone’s camera roll, there’s also a microSD card slot on hand and an 8GB card in the box for additional memory. The RE isn’t a super-durable action camera, but it is waterproof to a depth of 1 meter. HTC claims the included 820mAh battery can last for up to 1,200 captures or about 1 hour and 40 minutes worth of continuous video recording before needing a recharge. All of the camera’s mounts—including a clip and bar and suction mounts—are optional accessories, with prices ranging from $15–24. HTC is also promising a firmware upgrade in the future that will enable the RE to livestream footage over your phone’s wireless connection.
iStabilizer Monopod and Shutter Remote
If you’re still taking selfies, or simply in the market for steadier Vines, the iStabilizer Monopod and Bluetooth Shutter Remote can help keep things steady. The monopod is like an arm extender, pushing your phone out a total of 3 feet for better selfie framing or for achieving a unique angle that your arms alone couldn’t engineer. Or you can clip your phone into the monopod’s universal mount and use the included Bluetooth shutter trigger for the perfect snapshot. The Bluetooth trigger can snap a photo on a phone that’s up to 35 feet away. The iStabilizer isn’t strictly a mobile product, either. Its 1/4-20 tripod thread will screw into any standard tripod socket but DSLRs will be too heavy for the iStabilizer to cope with. The trigger is versatile, too. It can control music playback, activate Siri and start GPS navigation. It works with standard phone camera apps or any third-party photo apps that use the volume rocker to trigger the shutter. The monopod collapses down to a foot in length and weighs 0.5 pounds, so it will slip easily into a backpack.
Olloclip 4-in-1 Camera Lens
The versatile Olloclip 4-in-1 packs four different lens options into a single, pocketable package. You’ll get a 180-degree fisheye, a wide-angle that roughly doubles the angle of view of the iPhone 5s’ built-in lens, a 10X macro lens with an 18mm focusing distance and finally, a 15X macro with a 12mm focusing distance. The fisheye lens sits on top of one of the macro lenses and can be popped off when you want to get close. Ditto for the wide-angle, which sits atop the other macro lens and quickly detaches when you’re ready to shoot wide. The entire four-lens accessory clamps onto the edge of your phone, with versions available for the iPhone (5s/5c and 4/4s), iPad (first-generation Air and Mini) or Samsung Galaxy (S5 and S4). The lens barrels are forged from “aircraft-grade” aluminum and the glass lenses feature multiple elements for reducing distortion. The Olloclip 4-in-1 is available in a choice of red, black or white. While the lens will work with any app, Olloclip has its own freebie for iOS and Android that lets you refine the curvature of your stills, adjust macro focusing and more.
Sony QX1, QX30
Sony’s QX1 and QX30 lens camera accessories don’t make your phone camera better. Rather, they are better cameras that work with your phone. You can physically clip the QX1 or QX30 cameras to your iPhone or Android device using the clamps that are included, and then pair them via NFC or Wi-Fi to use your phone as a viewfinder and shutter together with Sony’s PlayMemories app. You can also decouple the cameras from your phone to capture unique angles. Images are simultaneously saved to the camera’s memory cards and your smartphone. Now on its second generation, the QX line’s new pair of mobile lens cameras delivers a few new tricks. The QX1 works with interchangeable E-mount lenses so you can mount a range of optics to the QX1 and in turn mount the QX1 to your smartphone—turning innumerable heads in the process. The QX1 offers a 20-megapixel APS-C-sized Exmor CMOS sensor. It brings a number of familiar Sony imaging features—such as a Bionz processor and Superior Auto mode, plus RAW image capture and even a pop-up flash—to the table. If you don’t like the thought of adding accessory lenses onto your smartphone accessory, the QX30 offers a built-in 30X optical zoom lens. It features a burst mode of 10 fps, 1920x1080p60 video recording and a 20-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch Exmor CMOS sensor.
This simple accessory lets you make 360-degree panning videos or still panoramas on your smartphone with ease. You place your phone on the unit via its tripod screw, point your phone to where you want your time lapse to end, then twist the top-half of the Camalapse and hit record. The Camalapse will then slowly turn its way back to your end point while your smartphone clicks or records away. It takes 60 minutes to complete a full 360-degree turn, but you can twist it short of that if you’re impatient. The Camalapse has its own tripod socket on its base, but you’ll need a tripod adapter to use your phone in the landscape position. The Camalapse isn’t strictly a mobile gadget, either—you can mount any camera up to 5 pounds, though you may need to use a balance plate to keep larger cameras from tipping once the twisting begins. It’s water-resistant and fairly discreet at 2.3×2.7 inches and 3.9 ounces.
Smartphone cameras always struggle when the lights go down, and while many recent models incorporate a flash, they’re not terribly powerful. With the iblazr plugged into your phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack, you can turn up the lights and shoot with more confidence in the dark. Using four LEDs, the iblazr can be used as either a continuous light source or a flash with a 70-degree beam of light and 5600K color temperature. It uses a built-in rechargeable battery that can power up to 500 flashes so as to not run down your already meager smartphone battery as you shoot. When used as a continuous light source, the iblazr can output at 16 Lux (at 1 meter) for up to three hours, 60 Lux for up to 50 minutes or 120 Lux for up to 25 minutes before needing a recharge. It’s dimmable from between 0–100 percent power. A built-in sensor prevents over-heating, while a 16.6-inch flexible charger accessory ($15) lets you use the iblazr off your phone—as a macro light, reading lamp or fill light. It can also recharge the iblazr when the light is set to its lowest power continuous light mode. You’ll also get a cold-shoe mount, so you can slide the iblazr atop a traditional camera if you need some extra illumination for your “real” camera. A Premium version has an aluminum housing.
Price: $50; $70 (Premium)