Anamorphic

The Truth About Phone Anamorphic Lenses

July 24, 2019

If you’re anything like me, you have an eBay saved search with the keywords “anamorphic lens”. If you’re a little more like me, you check that every day. I do it in the morning, before getting to work. I had eBay ping me every time something new popped up, but those times are gone. I almost don’t buy lenses anymore but I still check the search. It’s my way to stay up to date on prices, what’s more common and what disappeared from the market.

In recent times, I noticed an increasing number of phone anamorphic lenses. Not just used ones in the wake of Moment’s Kickstarter delivery last year, but completely new brands, with prices ranging from $20 all the way to $150+.

This happened in a matter of months. What has changed?

An overview of Kickstarter campaigns and marketing

Anamorphics for phones first came to life in the end of 2013, also through a Kickstarter campaign, but by Moondog Labs back then. It got funded on time, sold a little over 450 units and reached $57k in funding for their $30k set goal.

Moondog Labs had a product aimed exclusively at iPhones, which needed to be updated every time Apple released a new iPhone model. Their product was so different that there weren’t even apps for desqueezing the image on your phone at that time.

The lens costed $125 on Kickstarter and has been priced at $175 after its release. I’d say it was a fad. Some people thought it was cool, “Tangerine” was an interesting movie shot with it in 2015, I made a review for it years too late. The need to buy a new lens every time you upgraded your phone was a big let down for me, plus it was incompatible with anything but iPhones.

The whole thing kind of faded into the background.

In 2017, BeastGrip tried their luck with the same market, also on Kickstarter. Same price point as Moondog Labs, but with 37mm rear threads and a weird case to hold it in place. The project was funded in little under ten days, sold roughly 350 units and raised $155k for an original goal of $80k. It sold less than Moondog Labs’ lens, but Beastgrip’s campaign focused on other products too which helped getting the whole lot funded.

Beastgrip’s PRO 1.33x anamorphic lens + phone cage

It also didn’t go very far and disappeared into the generic pool of phone lenses.

Last year Moment kicks their campaign online. They got funded in 40 minutes, reaching whooping $1.6M for a $50k goal and sold 9500 anamorphics on official pledges only (not considering add-ons). Their campaign also featured other items but its pinnacle was the anamorphic lens.

Moment’s anamorphic lens

The first thing we notice from watching the three campaign videos is how much phone cameras have improved in the last five years. The second thing to notice are the different approaches to the gear. Moondog Labs is straight to the point, technical, and fills their video with somewhat generic shots made with their lens. Beastgrip tries to be more exciting with some epic shots, but the video is more focused on their DOF adapter. They really want to turn your phone into a DSLR.

From Beastgrip’s Kickstarter campaign. I don’t want to attach my full size lenses to my phone. I got cameras for that stuff.

Moment did everything different. Their video, almost 25 minutes long, goes on a trip while they take the lens to several instagram and youtube influencers and film their (mindblown) reactions. They focus on how much fun they’re having while shooting and selling what comes to everyone’s mind when they think anamorphic (if you’re not sure, the keywords are “cinematic” and “flares”). The audience reach they got from the featured influencers is well above 4M viewers.

4M views is a large number but $1.5M in funding is the kind of number capable of motivating a market. That’s what happened. During Moment’s development and delivery, other companies realized there was money to be made from anamorphic lenses for phones. They also dropped prices much lower. So while you have Moment, MoondogLabs and Beastgrip priced to retail around $175, most of the generic versions on eBay range between $20 and $60, for they have no name to back a higher price tag. If you try Amazon the prices are more uniform, though, at $150.

Some examples from eBay. Have you ever heard of any of these brands?

Is this bad? Probably yes for Beastgrip and Moondog Labs, maybe for Moment too (although they just made huge bank) but for shooters, this is good. It creates variety, innovation and competitive prices as each company tries to get a larger share of the market.

Words of caution

For the beginners considering phone anamorphics as an entryway to shooting scope: these lack oval bokeh and many of the visual traits of real anamorphics. You’ll get flares and a wider aspect ratio, maybe some barrel distortion, but that’s about it.

A sample from Moment’s website/campaign. They picked super favorable lighting.

One thing fundamentally wrong with almost all of these lenses: their mounting system is garbage. Pretty much all of them have a different way of mounting to your phone (thanks to the endless variety of phones’ sizes and shapes). Beastgrip does the best job by making their lenses with 37mm threads. Moondog Labs also joined in this trend, although they offer different mounts as well. Standard threads give the lens more versatility, allowing you to connect it to regular photo lenses through the use of step rings, or to swap the phone behind it as long as you keep the 37mm threads in place. All other phone anamorphics are either dependent on special phone cases (such as Moment) or cumbersome attachments. There is an opening in the market for unifying these lens mounts – even camera makers could find some common ground and share lens mounts!

Another thing that worries me with this sudden flood of brands and products is quality control. Anamorphic glass is very finicky and doesn’t handle imperfections well. Bad quality control means poor quality glass getting to users and the loss in image quality is not negligible. If we see the impacts of sample variance with Kowas and Sankors that were never manufactured in stupidly high numbers, think of what would happen in a Helios 44 scale of manufacture. That is likely what is happening with all these new phone anamorphics.

I don’t believe there’s a difference in design. These basic 1.33x squeeze lenses follow the same formula as a Century Optics or Panasonic LA7200 adapter: two cylinders with fixed focus, failing hardcore at close focus and fast apertures. Your phone has no aperture mechanism, so that’s sorted out, only close focus still fails (and I’ve seen it happen with my Moment lens as well as the MoondogLabs back when I had it)

Panasonic LA7200 anamorphic adapter taken apart. Two cylindrical elements for 1.33x squeeze.

What should I choose?

To settle the matter of what’s the best option out there: when Moondog Labs’ lens came out, phones were not quite up to speed but they kept improving. Since everyone is using the same optical design the difference comes from the coatings. Coatings will determine light transmission, overall tone (warmer or colder), contrast, flare colors and fine resolution. I don’t trust the smaller brands with quality control, so the choice stays between the big three.

Moment, Beastgrip and Moondog Labs’ flares.

Moment’s flares take the color of the light source, Beastgrip’s are warm and green and Moondog Labs’ are purple and blue with some amber streaks. I’d go for Moondog Labs any day because of its consistency and its original goal: they didn’t want to be *lit*, or turn your phone into a DSLR. They made an honest product and kept working on it, hoping that the results would bring the audience (kind of what I do in this blog/channel). It takes a painfully long time for that strategy to work, and I hope it pans out soon.

Here’s a head-to-head comparison with footage to back up my theory!

Before you go: if you’re anything serious about shooting content on your phone you’ll need a few more things to get good-looking pictures. The first of them is the FiLMiC Pro app to desqueeze the image on the fly and give you manual control over your phone’s camera. Then throw on a variable ND for more control and a gimbal stabilizer. Your phone is crazy sensitive to movement and that translates into the footage. After all that you are ready to shoot some good phone footage using the anamorphic format!

TL;DR

Lots of options to choose from when picking an anamorphic lens for your phone. I’d steer clear of the cheap unknown brands. Try to score a used Moment or Moondog Labs (prefer the latter) on eBay (just follow the links) and gear up your phone before trying to shoot scope with it.