There are quite a few iPhone lens kits that help bridge the gap between smartphones and more expensive interchangeable-lens cameras, but there aren't many that actually make your phone feel like one. That's where Ztylus (pronounced like "stylus") comes in. Ztylus' iPhone camera kits solve the problem with a 4-in-1 lens module that connects with a twist and a snap, so you can have wide-angle/macro, fish-eye and circular polarizing lenses all on one attachment. When you're not using it, there's a handy kickstand to enhance your media enjoyment, making this $100 system ($140 as tested), a well-rounded solution for enhancing your iPhone photography.
Some iPhone lenses are made to be used solely with the phone by itself; the Ztylus is not. Instead, it combines a case and lens module to provide an innovative multilens solution without too much bulk. The case is split into two parts that slide onto the phone with a reassuringly snug fit, and secured by a small screw to make sure the case doesn't inadvertently come apart. At first, I was concerned that the screw might get loose and disappear to wherever lost screws go, but in my two days of testing, it stayed tight and locked in.
The large disc on the back of the case features a fold-out kickstand, which is a nice touch for watching movies or reading when you're not out taking pictures. To remove it, you just push on the small tab, twist a bit and pull away; it helps to use the kickstand for leverage. Attaching the camera module is a little trickier. Ztylus opted for a system that mimics a real camera, which has you line up the red dots on the case and lens, and then twist to lock it into place.
The problem is that if the rotating lenses are out of place, the lock button on the side won't depress fully. You know the lenses are oriented correctly if the label on the side of a lens lines up with the white dot.
Once the lenses are connected, it's easy to switch among them. Twisting the module shifts lenses into place with a satisfying click, and a quick flick of your finger slides out each lens into place over the iPhone's camera.
To compare the image quality of the Ztylus, I shot photos with the stock iPhone 6 camera, and then again with each lens.
Circular Polarizing Lens
While it doesn't alter your photos as drastically as a wide-angle or fish-eye lens, the circular polarizing lens is my favorite. It subtly enhances shots by reducing glare and reflections, and bringing out slightly deeper colors. You can even adjust the lens by rotating it for optimal results. In a photo in New York's Madison Square, the lens cut down on the reflections off the water while capturing deeper green in the foliage behind the statute.
For wide shots, the wide/macro lens did a good job of increasing the field of view (roughly equivalent to 18mm on a full-size DSLR) without much of the bowed-barrel distortion you often see on wide-angle lenses. In a shot of the Flatiron Building, the lens captured good detail in the stonework while expanding the scene on both sides of the streets. There was some chromatic aberrations (rainbow outlines) on subjects around the edges, but they weren't any worse than on images shot using other lenses I've tested.
Compared to Olloclip's ultrawide-angle lens, the Ztylus wide/macro lens captured a narrower landscape, but with about the same level of image quality.
In close-ups, results were less impressive. When I took a picture of a $20 bill under almost ideal conditions, the macro shots offered only a marginal improvement over the stock iPhone camera lens. This was far short of the super high magnification I've seen on macro lenses from Olloclip and others, which let me set things like ink bleed. Ztylus would have been better off creating a dedicated lens for macros.
The Ztylus fish-eye lens delivered the signature super distorted view I expected, but it didn't really distinguish itself from other fish-eye lenses I've used. In most of my photos, including another shot of the Flatiron Building (from the same spot), anything that wasn't dead center in the frame looked soft and had significant chromatic aberration.
The least expensive Ztylus kit is the Lite Series, which features a plastic case available in six different colors (black, blue, green, gray, orange and watermelon), along with the 4-in-1 lens module for $100. The Metal Kit adds polished aluminum bumpers to the top and bottom of the case, and comes in your choice of five colors (no gray), for $115. Lastly, the $140 limited Rose Gold edition features a lovely golden finish but doesn't add any additional functionality.
Ztylus also makes Metal and Rose Gold kits for the iPhone 5 and 5s for $99 and $130, respectively, although the choice of case colors for the iPhone 5 Metal kit is limited to white and black. The kits offer the best deal, but you can buy each component individually, and the lenses are the same as you get on the iPhone 6 version.
Ztylus offers a $60 LED ring light attachment that fits into the same mount as the lens module. This lets you shine soft, even lighting onto your subjects, instead of the often overly harsh lighting you get from the iPhone's onboard flash. Like its lenses, the Ztylus ring light flips out so you can position it directly over the camera, and it includes three color diffusers (warm, nature and cool), so you can choose the right shade of light. Powered by three AAA batteries, the light has an estimated life of about 2 hours. The only problem is that the ring light uses the same mount as the lens module, so you can use only one at a time.
The Ztylus offers a unique take on iPhone lens photography with its detachable multilens kit and durable kickstand-equipped case. While our gorgeous Rose Gold review unit is a pricey $140, the Lite Series model costs $100, which is the same as Olloclip's 4-in-1 kit when you add in its $20 case. I just wish the fish-eye and macro lenses were sharper. I like optional ring light, which is rare to find in smartphone photography; however it would be nice to be able to use it and the lens module together. But, at its best, the Ztylus' clever DSLR-like design and generally solid image quality made me feel like I had a real camera.