Review: Sandmarc Photography Edition for iPhone X

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I have been using and reviewing iPhone accessory lenses, lens cases, and lens kits going back six years now. I’ve tried products from most of the major brands, and some others that aren’t so well known. All of these photo accessories have one thing in common- they are designed to augment and enhance the already ample capability of the iPhone’s camera.

While Apple and other smartphone manufacturers have done amazing work with the space they have available in these increasingly thin devices, they are ultimately bound by the laws of physics. And that is the reason that photo accessories exist. They take the smartphone camera out of its small shell and add capabilities beyond what are currently possible, even with the big money and magic that Apple puts into its lenses and photo processing software.

As the iPhone and other smartphones have taken the place of the handheld camera, and even begun to push into DSLR territory, photo accessories have become more popular and are approaching mainstream use and availability. You see them at stores like BestBuy. They are all over Amazon and eBay. They also cover all kinds of different use cases. Some of these accessories specialize in making photography easier with creative cases and product design. Others offer versatility as their strongest feature. Then there are a few products that hang their hat on the quality of their glass and construction. Sandmarc fits squarely in the latter category.

I was already aware of Sandmarc’s reputation as one of the two best brands in iPhone camera accessories in terms of glass quality before this review. That is the main reason why I wanted to give their gear a shot this summer. Over the last two months, I have been testing Sandmarc’s Photography Edition for the iPhone X, and I will lead off by saying that their reputation for quality glass is very well-deserved.

Sandmarc’s Photography Edition is a set containing their Wide Angle, Fisheye, and Macro Lenses at a $50 retail price reduction over purchasing them individually. Each of the lenses shipped in the same box, but are packaged separately. Essentially, it’s as if you bought them each on their own when you get them. Each lens comes with its own pair of lens caps, carrying bag, cleaning cloth, and clip-on mount.

This is good, because you will have spares of some of the redundant items, in case you ever misplace one.

That covers the basics. Let’s get into the details.

Lens Construction and Design

One of the first things I noticed about Sandmarc’s lenses is the quality of the construction. The lenses are all metal and glass. No plastic to be found on these babies, and that is a good thing.

Anything carried around and attached to your iPhone is bound to take some abuse over time, so the construction of these lenses will help insure that your investment is protected. The one drawback of the metal construction is that Sandmarc’s lenses are noticeably heavier than any other I have tried. I’ll take that trade off any day, but be aware that they are noticeably heavier than other lenses you may have tried.

I also appreciate that the lenses come with full-coverage plastic lens caps for both the front and back.

Each lens also comes with a soft cloth drawstring bag that holds it safely when not in use. I appreciate little touches like these, as they tend to separate the companies that care about quality from the ones that don’t.

All of the lenses attach to their accompanying case or clip-on mount using a threaded connector on the back.

More on this in a bit.

Each of these lenses is unique in its design. While any lens has to be different in some respects, I found these three from Sandmarc to be more unique in their individual designs than other products I have tried in the past.

Wide Angle Lens

The Wide Angle Lens is by far the deepest of the lenses. As such, it is also the heaviest. You do have to account for this if you are holding you phone without a camera grip, because it does alter the normal balance of your iPhone.

It is also the only one of the set with a threaded exterior for attaching a filter.

Fisheye Lens

The most distinctive aspect of this lens is how it protrudes outward from the metal body. I had to get used to this when handling the lens, because it is very easy to inadvertently touch the edges of the glass.

I can also tell you that the field of view is so wide that it will catch things you might not expect.

Look at the right side of the picture. In my case, it actually picked up the handle/mount with wriststrap I was using to keep a good hold on my iPhone. The last thing I wanted was my iPhone and an nice lens at the bottom of the Matanzas River.

You can also see that the sun snuck in at the top of the image. This was one of the first time I used the Fisheye Lens. I was much more comfortable using it after a little time and practice.

Macro Lens

This lens is shallowest of the group, but its most unique feature is the included lens hood that attaches to the front. The clear hood allows light in from the sides when you get in very close to snap small objects and details.

While some competing iPhone lens accessories I have used tend to be simple and slight variations on a common design, Sandmarc’s are clearly individually designed and purpose-built for their specific applications.

Case Design

I have been very impressed with Sandmarc’s lenses since I got them. The cases are a little different matter. Each of the lenses comes with a very thin and light case that snaps on the iPhone, and has a small threaded connector to mount their lens over the iPhone’s own lenses.

It is a very simple and uncomplicated design.

There are positive aspects to this case. First off, the soft-touch plastic is easy to hold and grip. When you are talking about adding a lens to your iPhone, you are going to be shifting it around in your hand. Add to that an unfamiliar weight on the front side, and this can be a drop waiting to happen. Keeping a good grip is essential, and this case does help to accomplish that.

The case is also, as already stated, very thin and light. Personally, I prefer a little more coverage and protection from a case, but I know that doesn’t apply to everyone. Most camera accessory cases tend to be thicker, heavier, and bulkier than this on, so Sandmarc’s definitely stands out in my experience.

The downside of this aspect of the case is the fact that the biggest risk you face while using a camera accessory is dropping your phone while moving it around. This case will not provide much protection of that occurs. Take that for what it’s worth. Also, Sandmarc has informed me that a thicker and heavier case may be available in the near future as an option for those who prefer more protection.

This is where I will interject and say that Sandmarc has redesigned their case somewhat, and actually sent me one two weeks ago so I could include it in my review. The original is shown next to the current one below.

The major design difference is the dual threads, allowing the lenses to be used with either of the iPhone’s built-in lenses. A smart change, to be sure.

While I didn’t see a lot of visual difference in the case, I did notice that the new design feels better in the hand. One of my major complaints with the three originals that came with my lenses was that the edges on the bottom were sharp and rough, making the case uncomfortable to hold and shift in certain positions during normal phone use. The edges of the newer design are not as rough and sharp and it feels much better in the hand.

My primary issue with the case also extends to the design of the lenses. As already mentioned, the lens connection on the case is threaded. While the connection is very secure, which is a good thing, the downside is that getting Sandmarc’s lenses on and off is more of a challenge than with other similar products. I have also had a couple of instances where I got a lens started cross-threaded, and had to back it out. I’m not sure how easy it would be to harm the threads on either the lens or the case, but that is a little bit of a concern. If you are in a hurry to swap lenses, it is easy to fumble around and make a mistake, so there is a downside to the security of the threaded connection. You just have to take your time when you swap them.

While I mention all of this, I don’t think any of it is a deal-breaker with this product. Just be aware that the case isn’t built for speed.

The Clip-On Mount

I am a little conflicted when it comes to Sandmarc’s Clip-On Mount. I really like the design of it. It is solidly built. There is a loop for a lanyard built-in, which makes it easy to carry a lens securely. I also like the swiveling base on the inside of the clip, which is a smart design touch.

The swivel insures that the base will sit evenly on the back of your iPhone or case, and that the lens will sit level against the iPhone to insure that pictures are clear and even.

The beauty of the clip is that you can bypass the issue of having to swap lenses more slowly with the included case. Since each lens comes with a clip, you could have them all at the ready and switch them out, as needed. In my testing, the clip works pretty well with the iPhone alone, so it you carry your iPhone naked, this will be a good solution for you.

My hope was that the clip solution would be a great way to get around using Sandmarc’s lenses with any iPhone case. The reality is a little more complicated. The Fisheye lens worked ok with my Spiegen 10th Anniversary Limited Edition case, which is definitely on the thick side. Unfortunately, the Wide Angle lens was very difficult to line up, with small dark areas appearing in one or more of the four corners. This necessitated cropping the edges out of the pictures, which kind of defeats the purpose of using a Wide Angle lens. The Macro was pretty much impossible to set up with this case.

However, I was able to get the clip to work just fine using a thinner case on my iPhone. I used was a pretty generic clear TPU iPhone X case from Saharacase. Using the clip-on mount with this one, the lenses lined up quickly and little effort. More on this in a sec.

I was also able to use the Fisheye Lens to take a couple of pictures with my iPad Pro, which you can see below.

I was able to line up the lens with my Pro’s camera using the clip with no issue. I will note that the case on my iPad Pro is also thin enough to make using the clip mount easy.

Using the Saharacase on my iPhone X, I took the Wide Angle and Fisheye lenses to an exhibition soccer game last Saturday evening, and was MUCH happier with the results. I was able to swap out the lenses and get them lined up much more quickly than if I had used the threaded connection on the case. The lenses held level and stayed secure. I also didn’t have any trouble moving the lenses into place like I did with the thicker case.

While the clips work better with thinner cases, my experience shows that they do have some limitations. That said, I don’t see this as a failing on the part of Sandmarc, and I actually applaud them for including an alternative method for attaching their lenses right in the box.

Lens Performance

Now we get to the good part, as lens performance is where Sandmarc’s lenses really shine.

Wide Angle Lens

This lens is definitely the most versatile of the group, as it simply takes the iPhone’s excellent camera quality and extends it’s reach to a wider angle. If you love landscapes, this lens is just the thing, as it widens the iPhone’s field of view without cutting down on the available light. It also doesn’t distort the image, even at the far edges. As you can see in the comparison shots below, if you simply want more in your shots, Sandmarc’s Wide Angle does the job, and does it well.

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Wide Angle Lens Using the Case

The Wide Angle also does a really good job giving you a wider shot for video. As anyone who takes a lot of iPhone video knows, you automatically lose range when you switch from photo to video mode, The Wide Angle lens helps you reclaim a little of that width.

Fisheye Lens

Sandmarc’s Fisheye Lens not only gives you an even wider field of view, but it also adds a subtle curvature that can be used to dramatic effect. However, one of the more positive aspects of the Fisheye is that this curvature isn’t so dramatic in typical use that it limits the lens’ versatility. Here you can see the Fisheye version of the beach pic just above.

The curvature does come with more softness at the edges than you get with the Wide Angle, but when used properly, this adds depth and emphasis on the center of the photo.

I’ve used other fisheyes, such as the ones from Ztylus, that create a “snowglobe” effect. While interesting, this definitely limits a lens to more situational use. The Sandmarc Fisheye is more versatile, in my opinion. All that said, when you want a more dramatic effect, this lens is capable of providing it. Here is an example taken with my iPad Pro.

I tilted the iPad toward the ground when I snapped the photo, which extended the curvature well beyond what you normally get holding the camera level.

Wide Angle and Fisheye Comparison Shots

Here are some groups of shots taken from the same perspective and relative location for direct comparison.

St Augustine Gazebo

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Wide Angle Lens Using the Case

Sandmarc Fisheye Lens Using the Case

St Augustine Resort

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Wide Angle Lens Using the Case

Sandmarc Fisheye Lens Using the Case

Baseball Stadium

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Wide Angle Lens Using the Clip Mount

Sandmarc Fisheye Lens Using the Clip Mount

Front Yard

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Wide Angle Lens Using the Clip Mount

Sandmarc Fisheye Lens Using the Clip Mount

Macro Lens

The Macro Lens is definitely the most situational of this set, as it is only useful for extreme close-ups. However, this is a common accessory lens for a reason. They are handy for for collectors of items like coins and stamps, and are often used by people who sell items online to take closeup detail shots of items for sale. Of course, the Macro can be used for any kind of closeup, such as the outdoor flower shots below.

I did find that Macro Lens is capable of dramatic shots with a depth that you don’t often get in smartphone pictures. The only issue I had was that the automatic focus of the iPhone’s stock Camera app can struggle a bit with the extreme close-ups.

The photo above came out much softer than I would have liked.

I had better success with third-party apps that allow you to manually set the focus, such as Halide or ProCamera. It’s not that the lens won’t work with the iPhone Camera app. It just takes more time and effort to get a shot with the right focus. With the ability to either manually set the focus, or at least set the focus zone, it’s just easier to get the right shot right away. It is also easier to get consistent results using either a tripod or a smartphone camera grip with this lens.

With Sandmarc’s newer case design, I was also able to move the Macro Lens down to work with the iPhone’s Telephoto Lens. The results were some really cool looking extreme close-ups, which you can see in the comparison shots below.

iPhone Alone

Sandmarc Macro Lens Using the Case with iPhone Wide Angle Lens

Sandmarc Macro Lens Using the Case with iPhone Telephoto Lens

iPhone Alone (ironically, the iPhone struggled a bit with focus on this shot without a lens attached)

Sandmarc Macro Lens Using the Case with iPhone Wide Angle Lens

Sandmarc Macro Lens Using the Case with iPhone Telephoto Lens

Conclusion

I can confidently say that Sandmarc’s lenses are by far and away the best that I’ve tried with my iPhone. You can tell this company cares about quality and good design. The Photography Edition lenses are well-made from durable materials. The glass is higher quality than you will find on the majority of iPhone accessory lenses. The included case holds the lenses securely. The clip mount gives users an easier way to change lenses quickly. Despite a few reservations about the case, I think the entire package works very, very well

All of those qualities aside, the Photography Edition is ultimately a success for one primary reason- it helps you take better pictures. It’s a very simple equation- better glass and construction leads to consistently better pictures than you will get with most completing products. I own and have reviewed other camera accessories that are less expensive and easier to use with the iPhone, with lenses that are easier to switch between. However, if picture quality is more important to you than convenience, then a little extra work to change between lenses isn’t s dealbreaker. 99.9% of the time, I’m going to go with Sandmarc’s better glass.

Now we come to price. You have to pay more for quality construction and good design. While $189.99 may sound like a lot of money for a set of iPhone camera lenses, I don’t see the price as unreasonable. If you look at what competing accessories that don’t have Sandmarc’s level of glass quality cost, the price actually lines up pretty well. In fact, Sandmarc’s gear actually costs less than lenses from Moment, another company known for iPhone accessory lenses with high-quality glass. I think this is the best guidepost when it comes to price.

When you consider that these three lenses add capabilities to your iPhone that you used to have to pay a lot more for in a camera with exchangeable lenses, the price really isn’t unreasonable. I also think it’s important to point out that the lenses in the Photography Edition aren’t designed to work with only one iPhone model. All you have to do is get a new case from Sandmarc for your upgraded phone, and you can keep on using these lenses for several years. Add to this Sandmarc’s included lifetime warranty, and you get some staying power in return for your hard-earned money.

The bottom line is that, if you want to take your iPhone camera work to the next level, and picture quality is a priority, then the Sandmarc Photography Edition is a great way to get started.

Sandmarc’s Photography Edition for the iPhone X is available for $189.99. Each of the lenses in this set are also available for individual purchase. Sandmarc also has a Telephoto Lens that is not included in the Photography Edition, but is included in their Pro Edition for $289.99. Stay tuned, as I may review the Telephoto Lens separately in the future.

Sandmarc’s Photography Edition was provided for review on iPad Insight by Sandmarc. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the About page.


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