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Pictar’s amazing case turns your iPhone into a full-fledged camera

Update on April 26, 2016: Miggo says it will create a version for the iPhone 6S Plus, due to popular demand. The product reached its pledge goal in three days, and has added the Pictar Plus as a stretch goal. The following has been edited to reflect the updates.

Chances are that many iPhone photographers don’t realize that the camera is more powerful than the native shooting app would suggest. While you can select filters and turn on high-dynamic range, the camera app’s controls are limited to automatic. With the arrival of iOS 8, however, it’s possible to access the manual controls that are common in traditional digital cameras, like shooting modes, exposure compensation (EV), white balance, and aperture f-stops. It simulates the functionality of a DSLR, but to accomplish this you would need a third-party app, such as VSCO or Manual.

A new iPhone case accessory from Miggo, called the Pictar, goes a step further. It converts an iPhone into something that resembles a classic camera, complete with dials and buttons. There have been similar case designs in the past, but the Pictar and its companion app combine the physical controls with those aforementioned settings, giving you what feels like an actual camera.

“It’s a DSLR for your iPhone — not so much an actual DSLR, but the usability of one,” Miggo’s co-founder Rafy David told Digital Trends.

Related: 30 Best iPhone 6S Cases

The Pictar also puts a substantial grip to the phone. Anyone who uses a smartphone for photography knows how unwieldy it can be, especially when used one-handed. Like a DSLR, the Pictar gives users something to hold onto. This not only ensures a firm grip (nobody likes having their $500-plus iPhone shatter on the ground), but it also helps keep the phone steady (the iPhone has no image stabilization, after all) or lets you stand it up on a level surface. A 1/4-screw mount lets you attach the unit onto a tripod — just like a regular camera, while a cold shoe lets you attach a microphone or LED light source.

“One thing that’s stayed the same with the iPhone is the way it’s held,” David said. “Inside, it has changed dramatically, but outside is the same.”

With a retro design inspired by the likes of Fujifilm cameras, the Pictar has five programmable buttons and wheels. By default, there is a shutter button with half-press focus locking; a dial for f/stop or exposure compensation; another dial, called the “smart wheel,” for changing modes (manual or semi-automatic), and a front dial that’s used for digital zoom or as a selfie shutter button. Within the manual mode, you can adjust ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and flash. The lens portion of the iPhone is exposed, so that you could attach accessories like lens adapters.

There is also a virtual button on the touchscreen for adjusting other settings. These controls give the user faster access to often-used settings, rather than navigating through various onscreen menus, but they only work with the Pictar app and there’s a unique reason why.

What’s interesting about the Pictar is how it communicates with the iPhone. The case supports iPhone 4 to 6S (there will an option for the 6 Plus and 6S Plus, called the Pictar Plus). To accommodate these different models, Miggo used a patented high-frequency dual tone system that lets the phone talk to the case via sound that’s not audible to human ears. This eliminates the need to support wireless protocols like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, interfaces like Lightning and 30-pin, and also saves battery power. For each setting, say ISO adjustment, the Pictar app uses a unique frequency applied to whatever button the setting is assigned to (and if there’s any interference, you can adjust the frequency). On a single AA battery, the Pictar can last for up to six months, and it won’t draw any power from the phone.

David showed us an early working prototype – so early that mishandling it would easily break the thing. With an iPhone 6 slipped inside, we could adjust the various camera settings as described above. It was a bit like seeing magic happening because there is no traditional connection between the two devices — that dual-tone system actually works, which is cool when you think of other applications that could benefit from this tech.

Keep in mind that the Pictar isn’t adding any image quality improvements to the iPhone — it’s unlocking what’s already there. Although the iPhone is adept at picking the right settings, sometimes you want to adjust the exposure manually; you can do that easily. From a design standpoint, we would have liked Miggo to go with an original case (the retro look can be tiresome), but that’s subjective (a colleague thought it looked terrific).

Related: The 16 Best iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Accessories

Miggo is returning to Kickstarter, where it had two successful campaigns for its Strap & Wrap and Agua products. The Pictar campaign has already surpassed its pledge goal of $100,000 for production, which stands at more than $150,000 as of April 26. Pledges start at $90, which gets you a Pictar, wrist strap, carrying pouch, and app (there are limited early bird specials left, as of this writing). The campaign ends in 36 days, and the Pictar is scheduled to ship in November to backers.

The Pictar is a great case concept. We like that it provides a grip. A cold shoe is also a nice touch for accessories; we can see videographers using this for shooting movies. And having access to physical controls is nice, particularly for anyone familiar with DSLRs or other advanced cameras. The dual-tone technology sounds unbelievable, since we haven’t seen it used anywhere else, but we can say it works.

This article was originally published on April 20, 2016.