Telephoto lens attachment for cell phone cameras: useful tool for citizen-science applications like iNaturalist

Smartphones with high-quality cameras and gps capabilities have facilitated an explosion of citizen-science projects in which members of the general public share observations about the natural world with scientists. However, one limitation of making photo-based observations with smartphones is that most phones are not able to take good images of animals that are far away. A solution to this problem is to use a telephoto lens that can be clipped to the phone. I have used the Godefa Cell Phone Camera Lens, 12X Zoom to make observations on iNaturalist and HerpMapper. They come in handy in a variety of situations, including documenting snapping turtles looking for nesting spots, nervous baby rabbits, and birds way up in a tree. These lenses are typically available from amazon for less than $10.

The lenses I’ve ordered come with the lens, a clip to attach to a phone, an attachment to protect your phone from scratches, and a lens wipe. Here a photo of what has been in the lens packages that I’ve ordered:

telephoto lens kit for iphone or android

The lenses screw into the clip, and then easily clip onto the phone. I use an iPhone in an otterbox protective case. The lens clip fits easily onto my phone. The only drawback of using the lens with the protective case is that at the most zoomed-out situation a black ring appears around the edges of the photo. [Aside: you can pick up phone cases with some of my photos at my MrBufo Zazzle store]

telephoto lens attached to iphone

There are a couple things to keep in mind about this lens. First, this lens is not equivalent to a high-quality Canon and Nikon telephoto lens! You can get decent photos with it to help identify animals at a distance. But in my experience, the photos aren’t high enough quality that I would want to hang them on my wall. Second, the lens can be hard to focus, especially if you zoom all the way out. In this case, stabilizing the camera on something can be helpful, but does not always solve the problem. Despite these minor hiccups, the lenses meet my needs: they let me get good photos of distant animals for citizen-science projects. Here are a couple examples of the kind of photos you can take with these lenses.

I photographed this greenfrog from an observation deck in the Cleveland Metroparks. In the first photo, I did not use the zoom lens attachment, and this photo is not zoomed in using the phone’s zoom feature. You can barely make out the green frog near the middle of the frame:

regular photo of green frog

Without the telephoto attachment, here is the best zoom on the iphone. The green frog can be seen, but the is not good quality, and it is hard to make out details of the frog’s body and color pattern.

zoomed in low quality photo from iphone

And here is a photo of the green frog using the telephoto lens. The iphone zoom function is only slightly used to get rid of the black circle.

green frog image with iphone with telephoto lens attached.

Now for a more controlled example. In this example, I am about 15 feet (4.5 meters) away from a birdbath. There is a small statue of a bird in the middle of the birdbath. The first photo was taken with my iphone not using the zoom function. You can’t make out the ceramic bird very well. This would not be a good voucher for a citizen-science database like iNaturalist:

test of iphone at 15 feet

And here is the photo when I have zoomed all the way in, but still have not attached the telephoto lens. The image doesn’t look great, and the ceramic bird is still small. If this was a real animal, you could probably make it out for identification purposes, but probably couldn’t get much other information from the photo.

iphone zoom test

Now I have attached the telephoto lens over my iPhone with otterbox case. The iphone is not zoomed at all, resulting in a ring around the edge of the photo. I don’t think the ring would be present if I did not use the otterbox case, but I haven’t tested that.

telephoto lens on iphone with black ring

Now I have slightly zoomed in to hide the black ring. I could have focused better, but was in a hurry taking the photo. This is already better than the photo without the telephoto lens.

use of telephoto lens attachment on iphone

Finally, here is a photograph with the telephoto lens attached, and the iPhone’s zoom feature fully engaged.

zoomed in with telephoto lens attached.

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