Bitplay Snap! 7 iPhone case and lenses: Our first take

The Bitplay Snap! 7 makes smartphone photography feel like photography again

With the feel of a camera and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, the Bitplay Snap! 7 makes iPhone photography feel like photography again.

The iPhone is now one of the most widely used cameras — smartphone or otherwise — but the experience of shooting with one can be a bit uninspiring for anyone who enjoys working with dedicated cameras. The Bitplay 7 case and lens series is designed to make taking photos with a thin touchscreen device actually feel like using a camera again. It gives the Apple iPhone 7 both swappable, screw-in lenses as well as a hand grip and physical shutter release, bringing the iPhone closer to the classic ergonomics of an interchangeable lens camera. While the system has a few quirks, the case design and mid-range pricing could bring the fun back into mobile photography for the right user.

(Our review unit was provided by AC Gears, which distributes the Bitplay products.)

The Bitplay 7 Case

Smartphones are designed first and foremost for communication — but the design of the Bitplay case ($50) gives the iPhone 7 a body that feels like it was made for photography. Using a naked smartphone as a camera creates a number of issues because of the design. Gripping the phone by the sides and reaching over to tap an on-screen shutter button isn’t comfortable or steady. And while sliding the phone out to take a few snapshots is fine, using a smartphone as a camera for long stretches will soon grow uncomfortable.

Even without a lens attached, the Bitplay case makes the iPhone actually feel like a camera.

The Bitplay 7 case takes all the positives of smartphone photography (convenience, simplicity, immediate sharing) and wraps them in a body that’s designed for actual photography. A removable, right-handed grip combined with a physical shutter button that rests right beneath your index finger naturally creates a steadier shooting position. And when you would rather not shoot handheld, there’s a standard tripod screw at the bottom of the grip, meaning you can easily mount your iPhone to any tripod without a specialized holder.

As many users are already aware, the iPhone 7 actually has a physical shutter button built-in. In the native camera app (and several other third-party apps), the volume controls double as shutter release buttons. The problem is that these buttons are located too close to the lens. While this doesn’t cause a problem in portrait orientation, in landscape orientation if you hold the iPhone so that the volume buttons are facing up, you’re fingers will want to fall into a natural resting position that will put them right in front of the lens. So you need to either hold your phone gingerly by the edges or flip it over and trigger the shot with your left thumb with the volume buttons now on the bottom side — not exactly the most ergonomic experience.

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Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

The Bitplay 7 case moves the shutter release to exactly where you’d expect to find it on a point-and-shoot camera — right above the grip, but on the opposite end of the phone from the lens so you won’t end up shooting your own fingers. The newly located shutter release is somehow connected on the inside of the case to the volume button, so it doesn’t need to be plugged into the lightning port or paired over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Your phone doesn’t even know it’s there.

Fortunately, the shutter button remains in place even if you remove the grip, so if you want to keep things compact, you can. The standard grip feels much like the faux leather wrap on many mirrorless cameras and has a nice, molded curve to it. Bitplay also offers a grip upgrade — you can swap out the pleather for a natural wood version for another $45. This stylish enhancement won’t change the user experience but, hey, looking the part can be half the battle.

The Bitplay 7 case moves the shutter release to exactly where you’d expect to find it on a point-and-shoot camera — right above the grip.

The Bitplay 7 takes one more nod of inspiration from the point-and-shoot — a wrist strap. The strap, a typical nylon design not uncommon on smaller cameras, slips through a small eyelet on the corner of the case underneath the grip. The eyelet is small enough that you can choose to leave the wrist strap off and won’t end up with an odd-looking empty hole on the case. For an extra $20, you can upgrade to a leather strap, which undoubtedly will look excellent with the upgraded wooden grip.

The majority of the case is made with ABS plastic, and while it is still plastic, it does feel very sturdy — the case even uses two layers for additional shock protection. The bumper-style case appears to protect the back and sides of the phone from scratches fairly well, and should do fine with short drops. Like any normal case, however, it does not offer any protection for the screen, so you may want a screen protector. (That also means it won’t make our list of the best iPhone 7 cases.)

The Bitplay 7 case makes shooting with the iPhone 7 feel like shooting with a dedicated camera. The only downside is that the grip makes using the iPhone as, well, a phone a bit more awkward. It also makes it tougher (though not impossible) to slide it into a pocket. While the grip is lovely for taking photos, it’s hard to operate the phone with one hand when it’s attached. You can, of course, easily remove the grip, but then you’re stuck carrying it around separately.

The Bitplay 7 Lenses

Bitplay offers a wide number of lenses for the iPhone 7, from a fisheye to a 3× telephoto. The lenses screw into the case, and getting the threads properly aligned can be a bit tricky at first. The more we played with it, though, the faster we got. It’s not as quick as a magnetic mounting system, as some other iPhone accessory lenses use, but it’s more secure and is easy enough.

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Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

All of the lenses tested didn’t seem to negatively affect image quality, except in the edges, which were a bit soft compared to just the built-in lens. At the center, every lens produced sharp results, but you might want to avoid composing your shots with anything important near the edges.

Build-wise, all of the lenses are constructed with metal bodies, and all but the EF 18mm use plastic lens caps. All of the lenses include a basic slip pouch and all the basic lenses can fit inside a nice $25 case with a foam divider. The largest HD lens requires a separate case, also priced at $25.

Wide Angle With Macro

The standard wide angle ($25) is one of several Bitplay lenses that features a two-in-one design. The two piece lens shoots a 0.68X wide angle, but with the top optic removed, it becomes a macro. Overall quality is good, but this is designed more as a value lens.

Along with some softness at the edges, parallel lines start to curve away from the center. This barrel distortion is common in wide angle lenses and particularly with cheaper options. There’s also some color fringing (called chromatic aberration) when shooting high contrast scenes. The colors and the sharpness in the middle of the photograph, however, are solid.

Fisheye with Macro

The Fisheye ($35) is another two-piece lens, also paired with the same macro. Again, together the two optics work as a fisheye, but remove the top lens and you’re left with a macro. The fisheye is also circular — it renders a completely round image bordered by black.

Image quality is decent and we actually didn’t mind the edge softness so much, since it feels more like part of the effect. There’s some lens flaring shooting towards the light (as many lenses will do), but color and center sharpness is good. If you like the wide, distorted effect, this is a fun lens to use.

Macro

So how does that macro that’s paired with the fisheye and wide angle lens fare? Since the iPhone has a smaller sensor than a DSLR, you can get almost microscopically close. In fact, you almost need to be touching the object to get it in focus — we’re talking millimeters. The tech specs say you can get as close as 14 millimeters, but we found it easiest to actually place the lens right up to the subject then back off slowly until the iPhone was able to lock focus.

Getting in close naturally creates a very narrow depth of field, even on an iPhone, and also emphasizes any camera shake, so it’s difficult to use this lens handheld. It’s worth it to take multiple shots to make sure you get a one in sharp focus.

As for image quality, the lens has good bokeh with soft edges. While the high magnification makes getting a clear image difficult, in-focus shots are sharp at the center and slightly soft on the edges, with a nice falloff into a blurred background.

The macro lens is a tough one to use since you have to get so close, but it offers a 5x magnification that’s pretty fun to experiment with. Don’t expect to get photos like the sample shot of a bumble bee that’s on the box — you’ll probably get stung if you get close enough to get it in focus, and most other tiny critters will likely be too skittish and quick as well. But for still life macro photos, this lens will let you discover an entirely new world without leaving your backyard.

Full Frame Fisheye FX

Unlike the regular Fisheye, the Fisheye FX ($35) creates a standard rectangular image. The super wide angle — about three times wider than the iPhone’s built-in lens — still curves those edges around in the same way, but this lens is designed to fill the entire frame. Quality is similar, with a sharp center and softer edges. You may also catch some lens flare from direct light.

Telephoto

The Bitplay telephoto lens ($40) brings a 3x optical zoom to the iPhone 7. Having a longer focal length handy is often underrated, but it’s a great option not just for more distant subjects, but also for portraits. It’s no DSLR, but the telephoto lens will help you get softer backgrounds. Of course, like the other lenses, there’s still that edge softness. Still, the center is sharp and this lens is definitely nice to have.

Bitplay HD Wide Angle Lens (EF 18 MM)

Bitplay’s biggest and priciest lens offers the best quality. Unlike the budget wide angle lens, the EF 18 mm ($100) has almost no barrel distortion. Instead, straight lines remain nearly perfectly straight. The lens offers a similar view to the standard Bitplay wide angle, but doesn’t have the line distortion, making it clearly the better option — if you can afford it.

Image quality on the HD lens was the best of the bunch — edges are still slightly soft but much less than with the other lenses in the series. The center is sharp and colors are good. We also didn’t notice any of the color fringing that plagued the cheaper wide angle lens.

The build quality of the HD lens is also better than the cheaper options. The lens is constructed with magnesium alloy — and, with perhaps a smidgeon of overkill, the lens caps are, too. This is also the only Bitplay lens that includes a hood, which helps control flaring and protects the glass.

Bitplay Circular Polarizing Filter

Finally, Bitplay also offers one more option that isn’t actually a lens — it’s a circular polarizing filter (CPL). If you’re not familiar with CPLs, they control reflected light. By twisting the front of the filter, you can either enhance the reflection on a window or other reflective surface or remove it entirely.

CPLs are also good for making the sky a bit more blue and the landscape a bit more green. Just how dramatic the effect of a CPL is will also depend on the angle of the light — in some scenes, you’ll see a dramatic difference while others are more subtle. A CPL will also reduce the total amount of light, so don’t leave it on indoors if you don’t need it.

The Bitplay circular polarizer ($35) performed beautifully, adjusting the intensity of reflections without appearing to mute any colors like cheaper CPLs are sometimes known to do. Since it’s only a filter and not a lens, it also doesn’t create any edge softness.

Design-wise, since the CPL is so thin, it’s tough to get the cover off. It is also only designed to be used with the iPhone’s native lens, the size isn’t compatible to adding it on top of another Bitplay lens.

Comparison

Even without one of the lenses attached, the Bitplay Snap! 7 case makes the iPhone actually feel like a camera.

With the iPhone’s popularity, there’s no shortage of add-on lens options. Bitplay sits in the middle of the road price-wise and the features seem to reflect that.

Zeiss’ popular iPhone lenses don’t suffer from the edge softness of the Bitplay lenses, with sharpness throughout the entire frame — but they also cost significantly more. The Zeiss 15mm is twice as much as the Bitplay HD 18mm, and the Zeiss 2x telephoto is more than five times as much. While the Zeiss lens family offers better overall image quality, the compatible ExoLens case is just a case — there’s no grip, physical shutter button, or wrist strap.

Bitplay lenses are more in line with the cost of Olloclip’s $99 three-lens kit, but the case also doesn’t have a grip. Moment is also launching a similar case with more designs and lenses in the $80-$100 price range, but the iPhone 7 version hasn’t launched yet outside of Kickstarter.

Conclusion

The Bitplay 7 case and lens series is not the best iPhone lens out there — but it might just be the best for the price range. The ExoLens/Zeiss system is nice, but $250 is a steep price to pay for an iPhone lens (in fact, that’s in line with the cost of a 50mm DSLR lens). The Bitplay series is much more budget friendly and topped off with a better case.

It’s worth noting that while the case has been updated for the iPhone 7, the lenses are the same as the iPhone 6 version. The eventual iPhone 8 will likely require buying a new case, but probably not buying an entirely new set of lenses, which is good news.

Even without a lens attached, the Bitplay case makes the iPhone actually feel like a camera. If you’re looking for a more comfortable mobile photography experience and more versatility than you can get with the iPhone alone, the Bitplay 7 should be on your short list.

Highs

  • Great ergonomics
  • Versatile lens selection
  • Good pricing
  • Makes iPhone photography more fun

Lows

  • Lenses have soft edges, some distortion
  • Case and grip adds bulk to phone
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