Hands-on with Pictar, which adds buttons and wheels to your iPhone camera

There’s no denying that your smartphone’s camera is getting better and better for every generation, but what’s a poor photography nerd to do about controllability? Miggo’s Kickstarter-funded Pictar is shipping soon, and might be just the thing to teach your iPhone some additional photography skills. At Photokina, I had a chance to try it myself.

“Smartphones have great cameras,” says Sean Henry, the photography industry veteran who brought Pictar to life. “But for advanced users, the functions are either hidden or hard to get to.”

Solving a problem nobody knew existed

Pictar is a fantastically clever solution to that precise problem. It adds a grip with a shutter button and three control wheels to the iPhone. One of the wheels controls the zoom, one is programmable to a number of different functions, and the last is an exposure compensation wheel. The shutter button includes focus / exposure lock on a half-press much like you would find on traditional cameras. And, of course, it takes a photo when you depress the button fully.

The way Miggo’s Pictar communicates with the phone is worth dwelling on for a moment. Instead of paying Apple’s Made For iPhone fees to communicate using the Lightning connector and narrowly averting the bullet of getting made redundant by iPhone 7’s lack of headphone socket, the product uses a really elegant solution. It communicates with the app by playing high-frequency sounds, inaudible to the human ear. The phone app, in turn, uses the microphone built into the phone to listen to the signals and act accordingly. A bit unconventional — and I had some doubts about how well this would work when I first saw the Kickstarter project — but I needn’t have feared. Even on a noisy trade-show floor, Pictar worked flawlessly. Best of all, the same product that works with iPhone 6 and 6s can be used with Apple’s newest iPhone 7.

[gallery ids="1391899,1391902,1391900,1391901,1391898"]

Shipping in December

Pictar is one of those rare products that I never really knew I needed in my life until I tried it myself. Yes, it seems dumb and it is so easy to write it off as a gimmick… But you’d be wrong to do that until you’ve tried it. I’ve certainly never felt I needed a real shutter button on my phone. Having said that, the feeling of relief of being able to make adjustments by turning wheels rather than having to do complicated multi-touch or touch-and-hold maneuvers is strong. As a photographer, the product makes the iPhone feel like a much more capable piece of photographic kit, which is a remarkable accomplishment by Miggo.

All of that isn’t to say that the product is completely perfect; the button-press for the shutter button felt a bit stiff compared to what you find even on an entry-level compact camera, and it’s hard to know by feel whether or not you’ve succeeded in doing a half-press. The turn wheels also felt a bit cheap — cheaper than its $120 price tag would indicate. If there’s ever a second version of it, I hope the manufacturers either drop the price or increase the feel of the product to be more in line with the phones it is designed to contain.

“We are shipping in December,” Henry confirms. “If you want one as soon as possible, pre-order sooner rather than later!”