Gizmon iCa iPhone camera case in Review – Barnack would be proud

Steve Jobs (RIP) may have publicly glibbed that the iPhone 4 was “like a beautiful old Leica camera”, but he never saw the Gizmon iCa coming…

No one did. And I’m glad. Perfectly succinct designs, such as the iPhone and the iCa, are obvious only after debut. Why is that? As I sip diluted tea at my dining table and type, scenes from the past two weeks flood over me. These few weeks have seen me skipping, happy, snappy, and experimenting. I’ve found a love for digital photography. Finally.

The prices

  • GIZMON iCA (each color) $65.00
  • Fisheye Lens $55.00
  • iCA Pod Tripod $25.00

So it doesn’t come cheap. That it comes at all to the iPhone is an immense joy.

So what is iCa?

Yes, iCa protects the iPhone’s edges with well-moulded plastic. Yes, it puts a personal face onto the ubiquitous slab of silicon, aluminium, and glass. And yes, it starts with a small ‘i’. But it surely isn’t your run-of-the-mill plastic and graphic.

Oh yes, all those ‘yeses’ were in answer to the question I assumed each of you asked: is it a case?

So, it’s a camera?
But let’s forget about that for a moment. The iCa’s iconic exterior isn’t just for show. It’s feature-packed. There’s a wide-angle viewfinder, an easy-to-press shutter button, camera strap loops, a detachable tripod mount, and a real lens mount. Sounds like a camera, doesn’t it? I think of it as one. Currently, Gizmon have only two lenses for their camera -errr… iPhone: a circular fisheye, and a close-up lens. But couple those with the iPhone’s ~28mm 135 format equivalent lens, and you’ve got quite a powerful and fun camera system. That said, I’ve only got the fisheye to test.

At least it’s fun.

It’s nothing more than a magnifying glass tuned for distance focusing, so don’t expect Nikkor optics. Instead, expect fun, crazy vantages, close-ups, a 180º world view; in short, expect great pictures in that bloated, extended, fisheye perspective.

Both the fisheye and close up lens mount into the iCa case via magnetic backs. If you don’t have the case, each comes with mounting hardware for all but the original iPhone. But with a little sticky tack and some luck, you can attach either to your iPod touch, original iPhone, or iPad.

Photographers know that fisheye lenses can get big, heavy, and scratched. Gizmon have combatted each of these issues. Well, maybe Apple started it. The tiny photo sensor in the iPhone is perfect for fisheye photography because an iPhone lens can be the size of a thimble and still produce great images. Of course, resolving all those tiny (and numerous) pixels is tough work, especially for a 60$ optic. But I don’t think work was Gizmon’s aim.

Half of what I love about the iCa, however, is tied into the viewfinder and realistic shutter button. Attaching lenses for close up and fisheye work means you HAVE to frame your shots like you do with a point-and-shoot digital camera. Just like digital and film cameras that sport tiny viewfinders, you’ll have to be aware of parallax errors. Objects in the distance frame nicely, but the closer you get to them, the more the discrepancy between what the lens sees and what your eye sees grows.

Still, the iCa viewfinder is the bee’s knees.

It’s all about portability
Even packed with accessory lenses and the viewfinder hump, the iCa/iPhone combination remains small and out-of-sight. The fisheye lens disappears in the hand. In its most compact form (with the feaux pancake lens attached), the iCa even slides into skinny-fit jeans.

What encouraged me to whip out the iPhone and shoot is the same wide-angle viewfinder that I blubbered on about above. It’s not a toy. I’ve never gotten used to shooting at arm’s length, staring into dim, reflective LCD’s. The two cameras I use most often, a pristine Canon P, and a well-loved Olympus Trip 35 (stolen from my father-in-law), are natural cameras that keep you focused on your subject, not on a screen, or a menu, or a software shutter button.

The iCa transforms the iPhone into the easier to use of the two: the Olympus Trip. Well, as an iPhone, it does a lot more than the Trip does. The Olympus Trip has two only shutter speeds, requires film, doesn’t focus for you and doesn’t automatically do instragram.

A street camera in disguise
Just like the GoDAP transforms your iPhone into a HiFi listening device, the iCa transforms your iPhone into a street camera. The process, which involves twisting two parts, sliding two others, and snapping one into place, takes about a minute; and, as you snap it all together, the realisation deepens that the iCa ain’t just looks.

No. With a flick of the camera icon on your lock screen, your iPhone disappears. Bring it up to your eye, frame a shot, and press the shutter release. You have your shot in as natural a pose as is possible for a camera. (Yep, that button on the top that looks like a shutter release _is_ a shutter release. The others: film rewind knob, film advance knob, shutter speed dial, etc. are just for show.)

And what a show it is.

Snap-shooting around Akihabara, I practically forgot that I was shooting with a phone. It’s probably because I carry it in two hands like a camera, and squint into the finder like I do into a real camera. While for some, using the iPhone like this may seem quaint, for me, it is freeing.

Since the lenses are so small, changing them in ‘the field’ is easy as pie. (When not in use I deposited the fisheye in my trouser pocket as really who needs a belt or camera bag to stow a thimble?)


A few tough realities
The iCa isn’t without it’s faults, though. Believe it or not, raising the iPhone to your eye will draw eyes more than holding it out at your elbows. Why, i have no idea. Then of course, the shutter lag that ever plagues the iPhone is still present. The iCa is a boon to iPhone looks and operations. It does’t fix problems inherent in the iPhone camera hardware. Then, there are the tiny camera eye loops. You need cat nipple milking gloves and a watch maker’s dissection kit to attach them. Extreme myopia also helps. Even if you get the iCa attached to a camera strap, you have to get it into your head that your 500$ iPhone is hanging from a bit of plastic. One drop and it’s all over.

The included tripod mount is cute. It doesn’t lock into place. It works, but again, don’t expect it to keep your iPhone safe in wind or even moderate angles. Trust me, with even a little stress, your iPhone will fall. Unless you glue the mount to your iPhone and sandbag the tripod you’ll never be 100% safe.

And of course, just like a rangefinder, for close-up photography, you’ve got to deal with parallax, but even more so as the lens and viewfinder are on exact opposite sides of the camera. Oh well, I think it’s a small price to pay.

The only other problem with the iCa involves texting. It may look like a Leica III, but you can text on it. If you want to be cool on the train or in that camera circle, you’re only cool till you start texting on your Leica. Any camera geek knows that a circa 1935 camera probably didn’t sport a touchscreen keyboard. (Probably metal, antennas, a bunch of glass bubbles, and a whirling radar dish. Then again, I wasn’t alive in 1935, so I can’t be sure of what sort of texting outfits they had then).

But to get back to modern-day texting, the iCa impedes progress. You HAVE to go two hands unless your fingers are as thin as bendable as Twizzlers. The iCa is so much bigger than the regular iPhone. But then again, you knew that didn’t you? You want the viewfinder, better shooting ergonomics, lens mount, and the promise of more to come.

You don’t care about texting. Not really.

Gizmon’s iCa is the most innovative iPhone photography accessory I’ve come across. Its looks put on a show, sure, but in hand, it transforms your clunky iPhone into a classical viewfinder-toting camera. No more squinting against the sun, or hiding from glare, no more shaky shaky from outstretched arms. It’s all there, even in sometimes awful parallax glory, but in a world where digital cropping can fix any framing defect, iCa is king.

Kiss It Rating - 5/5

Gizmon iCa Summary
Earphone: GIZMON iCA Maker: GIZMON
Price: $65-70 USD
  • Looks like a Leica III
  • Shoot like a real camera
  • Comfortable and solid in the hand
  • Real lens mount
  • Accessories galore
  • Natural grip blocks iPhone camera
  • Not the best protection for iPhone

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