Upgrade Your Smartphone Camera

Why settle for good when you can make it great?

By David Isaac

Some ideas just work—and the camera phone is one of them. The first unit sold in 2000, and by 2003 companies were selling more camera phones than digital cameras. The cameras they contain have come a long way in the meantime, from their origins as limited fixed-focus devices. So today, the odds are that your smartphone camera takes pretty good pictures. But if you want to step it up a notch, you can take advantage of some remarkable accessories that can help make your pictures and home movies look like the work of a videographer.

Sony ILCE-QX1 Lens Style Camera

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If you’re looking to put your smartphone camera on proton pills, the Sony ILCE-QX1 Lens Style Camera is for you. It turns your smartphone into a DSLR-style shooter, enabling you to take professional grade images with your iOS, Android, or Windows device, and to edit them with Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app.

The ILCE-QX1 features a 20.1MP APS-C-size CMOS sensor, the same kind that many DSLRs carry. It’s compatible with all of Sony’s E-Mount lenses, so you use it with everything from macro lenses (to magnify details) to telephoto zooms (to capture distant shots). The camera gets solid ratings for its high-quality images, and has been praised for its performance in low light and night settings. The built-in, pop-up flash introduces no noticeable red-eye. The only drawback to be aware of is that the QX1 isn’t a very fast shooter and so may not be suitable for action shots.

The ILCE-QX1 attaches to your smartphone with a built-in clip. But you don’t have to attach the camera to your smartphone in order for it to work. Thanks to NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity, you can place the camera anywhere and take shots using your smartphone as a wireless controller.

Sony’s camera also captures AVCHD video. It retails for $400.

KumbaCam 3 Axis SmartPhone Stabilizer

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If your shooting hand is about as steady as Gene Wilder’s in Blazing Saddles, you’ll want to take a close look at the KumbaCam 3 Axis SmartPhone Stabilizer. This stabilizer includes three motors to level your smartphone and eliminate the effects of shaky hands.

I had an opportunity to test the KumbaCam, and it really impresses. When you turn it on, it takes over from your shaky hold, positioning your smartphone and stabilizing it. Run, jump, even skip rope while holding the KumbaCam—and it still delivers steady video. This device really shines when taking video of children. Whatever their antics, you’ll end up with professional-looking video of your kids.

The KumbaCam offers three modes. Default mode gives you controlled pan left and right. Locking mode freezes the three axes (pan, pitch, and roll) and is good for interviews. The third mode, Pan and Tilt, gives you controlled left/right and up/down movements. Your phone will always point forward in this mode and the camera will tilt at an angle when you press the up/down control buttons. It’s designed for capturing different perspectives or for minimizing power use when your battery is running low, the company says. You can see a video of the different modes here.

The mount fits even very large phones like the iPhone 6s, though you may want to purchase a counterweight (sold separately for $30) when using an especially heavy phones. Other accessories include an extension pole ($30), a GoPro mount ($40), and a battery life extension kit (regular batteries last 4 hours and recharge via mini-USB).

The KumbaCam retails for $350.

360Fly

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With the advent of Virtual Reality, people have been talking a lot about the lack of content. With a 360-degree camera, you can make your own. This vaguely bug-eye-shaped device turns your smartphone into both a viewfinder and an editing suite, capturing video in either 360-degree video or standard 16:9 format.

Somewhat unusual for 360-degree camera setups, everything here is done with one lens. The advantage of using a single lens, according to the company, is the system doesn’t have to seam or stitch images, which in turn eliminates the need for complicated software.

The 360Fly seems resilient. It’s shockproof, dustproof, and water resistant to depths of 10 meters (34 feet) underwater. Factor in its 4K First-Person Mode, which lets you use it like a traditional point-and-shoot camera, and the 360Fly resembles a 360-degree version of the very tough GoPro.

The camera comes with 32GB of internal memory (capable of storing up to 3 hours of footage), a magnetic power cradle, a USB cable, a mic plug for water use, and an action camera adapter for existing mounts.

The 360Fly is currently on sale for $299, down from an original list price of $400.

Photo credits: Sony, KumbaCam, 360Fly Inc.