Hands-on with the OWLE bubo: Better photos and video from your iPhone (Updated)

A while back, we had a product announcement about the OWLE bubo (US$129.95). That bizarre name is actually a play on words: OWLE stands for "Optical Widget for Life Enhancement" (the company's name) and bubo is the genus for American horned owls and old world eagle owls. The device, if you have an imagination, even looks like a cartoonist's idea of a horned owl.

So, now that we've got the name all figured out, what the heck is an OWLE bubo? You could call it the ultimate iPhone case for photographers, and you'd be pretty darned close. The current bubo is a sleek, machined piece of aluminum that is designed to be held with both hands for better stability when shooting photos or video with the iPhone. The bubo does a great job of making it easier to shoot video, but that's just scraping the surface of the feature set.

bubo also has a 37mm .45x wide-angle/macro combo lens that is awesome for doing close-ups of objects, taking crowd or landscape photos, or doing interviews. In fact, it's this last use case that finally convinced me to purchase a bubo. Since TUAW is going to be doing a lot of video and other photography at Macworld Expo during the this week, I want to see if I can make my iPhone 3GS my primary tool for capturing imagery since I'd prefer to pack light. The lens accommodates screw-in filters at a standard 49mm size, so UV haze or polarizing filters can be added to further improve image quality.

Update: The OWLE bubo has been completely redesigned with a composite case and new name, and now works with the iPhone 4 and 4S. You can take a look at the Phocus for iPhone 4/4S here. Please note that the OWLE bubo is no longer available but is replaced by the Phocus.

The lens is one excellent feature, but there's more. OWLE includes a 3.5mm 4-pin omni-style mic with a windscreen that can be swiveled to pick up either the camera operator's voice or the sound the subject is making. The aluminum case also provides four standard threaded receptacles for mounting on a tripod or attaching other threaded accessories, and there's also a cold shoe mount for adding extras like lights or other mics (see front view at right). That's a quick release for a Manfrotto monopod attached to the bottom, and a 36-LED camcorder light in the cold shoe.

OWLE's testing a bubo made from composites that should be lighter than the aluminum model, although I think I'd prefer the heft and strength of aluminum. They're also saying that a bubo for iPod nano is "coming soon," although there are no pictures or drawings of what that may look like.

The screw-in design for the lens will make it possible for OWLE to sell other lenses for the bubo case. While the company isn't divulging future plans, a spokesperson said that telephoto or zoom lenses were in consideration as accessories.

How does it work in the real world? Pretty darned good! Inside the box is the bubo with the lens attached, the small mic (which plugs into the headphone port on the iPhone), a pair of lens covers in case you wish to remove the lens, a lens cleaning cloth, a silicone case for your iPhone (the bubo works with a lot of standard iPhone cases), a small case for carrying the lens when removed, and instructions.

I had to remove the existing case from my iPhone (an Otterbox Commuter) and used the included case since the Otterbox was a very tight fit in the bubo. The iPhone fits snugly into the case, but users will want to take care not to jar the bubo as the iPhone could simply "pop out." I'd love to see some sort of swiveling tabs to help hold the iPhone in, although in normal use it should remain firmly lodged in the bubo. The photo at right shows the niche that the iPhone fits into.

The construction of the bubo is rock solid. The design of the case makes it very easy to grip it in both hands, helping to create a stable handheld platform for your iPhone photography. I found that using one of the threaded receptacles to attach the bubo to a tripod, monopod, or clamp worked very well in keeping the device completely still.

How does that mic work? A quick test showed that it really helped in terms of clarifying and amplifying sound from speakers who were standing in front of me. However, on several occasions the mic also seemed to be picking up interference from the iPhone itself. Needless to say, I'll be checking this out more completely before doing any major interviews at Macworld Expo.

The cold shoe (as opposed to a hot shoe, which provides power to a camera accessory) was useful in attaching a Sima LED Camcorder light to the bubo, although it was a bit of a tight fit. Whether this is due to tight clearances in the construction of the bubo or the base of the camcorder light isn't clear, but it really required a lot of force to jam the light onto the cold shoe.

Since a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I'm going to show you several images taken with my iPhone 3GS. The first (at top) is taken without the bubo, while the second (at bottom) uses the bubo's wide-angle lens:

Notice that the lower picture, taken with the bubo from the exact same location, shows a wider field of view. The shrubs in the foreground and large spruce off to the left are not visible in the upper shot taken with the built-in iPhone 3GS lens.

The bubo's lens does a fairly good job with close-up macro shots as well. In the next set of photos, the top picture represents the closest picture I could take with the standard lens of the iPhone 3GS, while the bottom picture shows just how close I could focus:

Purists will note that I got a little TOO close on the bottom closeup, as the foreground petal of the artificial flower is slightly out of focus.

Are there other macro / closeup attachments for the iPhone that don't cost as much? Sure. The Griffin Clarifi (US$34.99) is a perfect solution -- if you don't need all of the attachment points that the bubo offers or a cold shoe attachment isn't needed. Likewise, you could purchase the little microphone (VeriCorder Mini Mic, US$20.00) separately for better recordings. But frankly, for self-filming of interviews with an iPhone 3GS on a Manfrotto monopod complete with an attached LED light, there really was no other solution.

If you'd like to see the bubo in action, I'll have it at Macworld Expo next week. Drop by the TUAW Booth (#654) and ask for me, or just look for the middle-aged nerd carrying one around -- that will be me.