I have a new toy! It cost me just 30 euro! And I can’t believe how good the results are that I’m getting with it. This Apexel 100mm macro lens for my iPhone Xs surprised me by being both simple to use and extremely effective at macro photography, saving me from having to lug out all of my dSLR photo gear whenever I just want to shoot a quick macro close-up.
My iPhone has lately been my go-to camera for daily shooting. While I love the power of my Canon dSLR and the retro vibe of my Leica M3 film camera, the adage ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’ is certainly true. So my interest was piqued when I discovered add-on smartphone lenses have gone from shitty dollar-store pieces of crap to some actually decent (but expensive) gear. Brands like Sandmarc and Moment build $100-and-up lenses for your smartphone and are getting good reviews. At first I was looking at Moment’s lenses, picked by Wirecutter as the best lenses for your iPhone, but getting Moment gear shipped from the US to Europe is not cheap. In fact, neither Moment nor Sandmarc seems to have European resellers, so if you want to order them you’ll be paying for not just the lens, but also for international shipping and customs taxes. Paying $200 for a smartphone lens was a bit over my budget, so I started looking for some cheaper alternatives.
Looking around on Aliexpress quickly gave me an option. The Chinese brand Apexel is not exactly known for their quality gear, having released a shit-ton of different crappy plastic lenses over the past few years. In fact, fair word of warning, if you’re tempted to buy something else from them after seeing this review – don’t. The only stuff I recommend is their line of fully-metal-and-glass Moment-style lens/case combo’s in the new PRO High series line. I got mine direct from their Aliexpress store but you can get the same lens from Amazon.
In the PRO line Apexel sells lens kits with an anamorphic video lens, a 185° wide-angle lens, an 85mm tele lens, and this 100mm macro lens. Each lens kit consists of the lens and a phone-model-specific case, which has a 17mm thread mount located directly above the smartphone’s own lens. Apexel calls this system C-Mount, though the 17mm thread they use appears to be a standard used by many of the cheap Chinese lens producers. In the case of my iPhone Xs case, it has 2 C-mounts – one over the normal wide, and one over the tele-lens. Their lenses screw into this mount, making sure it is seated directly above your smartphone’s lens. This is a huge advantage over using clip-based systems, which are almost always impossible to position perfectly over your phone lens and will also block part of your screen while you’re using them. The case itself is decent enough to keep on your phone permanently, with a soft leather trim covering most of the back – though it does feel like it will pick up scratches fast. But all the buttons work fine, I can plug in all of my charging cables, and wireless charging is not impaired when using the case.
This particular macro lens is called a 100mm macro on the lens and a 50mm macro on some of the packaging and marketing materials. All a bit confusing, and I have absolutely no idea where they get this number from anyway – it appears they want to describe it in the equivalent of the lenses that dSLR shooters are used to? But it doesn’t make much sense, considering every smartphone camera has a different size sensor and lens focal length so there’s no way to accurately say that this would always be equivalent to 100mm. Hell, just on my iPhone Xs alone, how can I call it a 100mm if I can mount it on my wide or my tele lens and have completely different results. Let’s just say that ‘it gets you real close’. How close, you ask? This is our Begonia plant in the living room with the normal iPhone Xs wide-lens, pay particular attention to that little flower in the middle:
And this is what that flower looks like using the 2x tele-lens with the Apexel macro mounted:
So yeah, that’s pretty fucking close, right?
Now I have to admit that flora and fauna are not my actual forte when it comes to macro photography. My favorite subjects have always been my vintage mechanical watches. So let’s give you an idea what the results look like when shooting my Helbros chronograph:
You can see every concentric ridge in the subdial, every scratch on the blued hands, each individual speck of dirt on the dial. And how does it do with the other side, the mechanical movement on the inside of the watch?
Again, you can see every line in the finish of the plates, the perfect little teeth of the gear, even the markings on the screws where they were damaged by screwdrivers during service.
That yellow gear in the middle is about half a centimeter wide. If you’re viewing this on a desktop or laptop computer, it should show up quite a lot bigger than half a centimeter on your screen. But pics from an iPhone Xs are about 3000 pixels wide on the short side, so we’re resizing that to display properly on the site. We can actually get much closer than we’re seeing in these resized pics. Let me show you a 100% crop, a smaller detail of the picture where every pixel displayed is a pixel originally captured by the iPhone’s sensor.
Even closer. Just to give you an idea, that purple jewel bearing on the left has a diameter of about 1mm (!!!). That’s how ridiculously close this macro lens gets you. And sure, that macro lens is mounted on the tele-lens of what is basically one of the most expensive smartphones currently available. But this 30-euro-setup has me shooting macro photography that rivals the results I get out of my full dSLR macro setup. I’m basically getting these pics out of a point-and-shoot camera. If you’re not impressed yet, you really should be.
Of course, there are still some negative points to talk about. When you’re using a real macro lens on a dSLR you’ll be able to set the depth of field by adjusting the aperture. The higher you set the aperture, the greater the depth of field and the more of your composition will be in focus. Here, what you get focus-wise is basically what you get. And when you mount the macro lens it blocks the other iPhone lens, which means you can’t use Portrait mode to affect the depth of field artificially and get that additional bokeh – it needs the other lens for depth measurements. But honestly, if that’s all – who gives a shit? Get one of these and have fun!