Developing Fjorden: ‘The important lesson was to focus on the essential features’
Image credit: Fjorden
E&T spoke to serial entrepreneur Dr Victor Henning about creating the Fjorden Grip, a pocketable and professional iPhone camera hardware add-on designed to give DSLR handling, control and performance with a smartphone.
Everyone's a photographer now. Almost nothing happens in the modern world without at least half of those present whipping out their smartphones to preserve the moment for the ages, or at least to pep up their Instagram feed.
Snapping away in the carefree spirit of a point-and-shoot camera is one thing, but with each new handset model released, the actual optics, lenses, sensors and image processing software of that smartphone camera in our palms and in our pockets becomes exponentially more powerful. The results possible now are so good, and of such high and professional quality, that iPhone photographs have appeared on the covers of such legendary, image-conscious newsstand magazines as Vogue, National Geographic and Time Magazine.
What typically doesn't change is the physical hardware itself. We're still largely limited to tapping at tiny icons on the screen, pinching and zooming (and repinching to unzoom because we pinched too much) to frame the image, but accidentally triggering some unintended action or other with the brush of a finger on the capacitive touchscreen. When you're trying to maximise the full potential of one of these amazing camera devices - when you know it's capable of so much more - it can be a frustrating exercise, often leaving you with the feeling that you're simply not getting the best out of it. The heck with this: where did I put my real camera?
For a lot of photographers, this is the reason why a full-size DSLR camera still holds its appeal. You just can't beat real f-stop rings, focus wheels and shutter buttons. What if there were a way to get similarly hands-on with your smartphone, to have the same familiar, physical, tactile controls beneath your fingers and thumb that allowed you adjust the most common DSLR-style parameters of the phone's lens live in the moment, just as if your iPhone were a 'real' camera?
This was the rationale behind Fjorden, the Norway-based company creating "the world’s only pocketable and professional iPhone camera grip" which recently successfully completed its Kickstarter campaign, smashing its funding goal in the process.
The Fjorden camera grip simply attaches to the back of a MagSafe-equipped iPhone 12 and gives a user DSLR-like physical controls - such as a two-stage shutter button (half-press to focus; full-press to release), a zoom lever and a customisable dial and function buttons to control e.g. exposure, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and so on – along with software integration with pro camera apps and third-party add-on specialist lenses.
The deceptively simple ambition with Fjorden was to turn an iPhone into a pocket-friendly professional camera. One of the core design aims, in fact, was that once mounted on an iPhone, the whole kit and caboodle should be no fatter than an Apple AirPods charging case and thus slim enough to fit into the pocket of anyone's skinny jeans. With the finished Fjorden grip coming in at only 10.7mm deep, skinny jeans mission accomplished.
Fjorden is an entirely new camera company based in Oslo, but one peopled by a seasoned and international team of scientists, photographers, industrial designers, electronics engineers, software developers, UX/UI designers, and manufacturing experts.
Fjorden the company – which is essentially also Fjorden Grip, the idea – originated in the mind of entrepreneur Dr Victor Henning, who previously achieved tremendous success as founder and CEO of Mendeley, beginning in 2008. The innovative academic scientific research platform he helped create has subsequently produced a massive, accessible database of research and has been instrumental in blowing open the doors to more effective, and efficient, sharing of scientific data, enabling new ways of collaborating and measuring research impact.
Ultimately acquired by Elsevier for $100m in 2013, the success of Mendeley freed Henning to pursue other avenues. Just as Mendeley transformed scientific research, Henning encountering personal frustrations with the established order of things and wanting to build something better for himself, so Fjorden is intended to transform smartphone photography for much the same reasons.
Finding himself increasingly choosing his extremely convenient – and technically capable – iPhone over his full-frame DSLR camera, but missing the tactile feedback and immediacy of dedicated physical dials and buttons, Henning began a five-year odyssey to bring everything that we love about 'big cameras' to iPhone photography, all in a pocket-friendly form factor.
With the Fjorden grip now moving towards the production and distribution stages, E&T spoke to Henning about Fjorden's evolutionary path to date.
E&T: You've already had huge success with scientific publishing platform Mendeley. What were the key lessons you learned from that experience?
Victor Henning: Thank you! Mendeley was my first start-up, so I made lots of mistakes – there were many near-death moments! Probably the most important lesson was to focus on the essential features of a product instead of trying to do too many things at once. When you're a founder, everything seems important and it's difficult to say no to perceived opportunities. When we launched Mendeley, we were trying to build desktop software across Windows, Mac, and Linux, plus a social network, plus mobile applications, plus a huge machine-learning data backend – all at the same time, with a fairly small engineering team. It led to many half-baked features, a confusing user experience and huge technical debt.
E&T: How has your personal experience and background fed into Fjorden?
VH: With Fjorden, we considered launching on iPhone and Android simultaneously, but it would have stretched us too thin – both in terms of software and the large number of hardware devices to support. So we decided to focus on iOS first and really get the user experience right before trying to build an Android version.
I also learned a lot about hiring and building teams. At Mendeley, we initially only hired people like ourselves: young, inexperienced, straight from university. Even though they were incredibly smart and talented, at some point we realised that we could have avoided architectural mistakes with more experienced engineers – so we began hiring those as well. At Fjorden, I've been working with a more experienced team from the start, and of course, I'm also much more experienced this time around.
E&T: How has your personal background fed into Fjorden?
VH: I've always loved photography! My dad was capturing our childhood with his Yashica Super-8 camera and a Rollei 35 LED. I pretty much stole the Rollei 35 from him when I was 3 or 4 – I couldn't get enough of it! I loved the ratcheting sound of the film transport lever, the clicking of the aperture ring, the satisfying snap of the shutter. As I say in the (Fjorden) Kickstarter video, "I've been shooting ever since". In the mid-90s, my dad also got a scanner and I took up digital photo editing as a hobby. I started shooting with digital cameras in the early 2000s and since then I've switched cameras every two to three years – a typical case of 'gear acquisition syndrome'.
Professionally, I've worked in many different industries: first in music and film, then as a scientist, then a software entrepreneur (Mendeley), then start-up investor. Interestingly, most of the start-ups I've invested in are hardware start-ups, even though I have no personal engineering experience. I've always been drawn to the creation of physical things, however. Fjorden is the result of that: a combination of my love for photography and my fascination with engineering and building hardware products.
E&T: The Fjorden iPhone grip: great idea! How did this product come about? What was the inspiration?
VH: Thanks! The inspiration was that I noticed myself often choosing my iPhone over my full-frame DSLR, even if was carrying both with me. The iPhone was so much better at capturing shots in difficult lighting conditions, due to the 'Deep Fusion' computational photography pipeline which combines elements of multiple exposures. But I missed the speed and tactility of my real camera, so I started looking for products that would help me get a more camera-like experience from my iPhone.
I bought pretty much every iPhone camera grip out there, but they all fell short in some way: either they were too bulky and wouldn't fit in my pocket, so I'd have to carry them separately and attach them when I wanted to capture something, by which time the moment had passed, or they were too simple, with only a shutter button. Many of them only fit a specific iPhone model, so if I upgraded my iPhone they'd become electronic waste.
What I wanted was a camera grip that was both pocketable, had multiple physical controls, yet was detachable and useable over several iPhone generations. So I started sketching and building cardboard prototypes, until I had an idea that I thought might work! I shared the full story with photos of the different prototype versions on a Kickstarter post.
E&T: How long has the development process been and what was learned, and rejected, along the way? Have there been any particularly difficult technical issues to resolve?
VH: From the first cardboard models until now, it's been about 20 months. I've been working with an Oslo-based industrial design firm called Frost Produkt, who really have been amazing. Expanding on my original idea, we spent the first few months exploring five very different form factors to figure out which one had the best ergonomics. Then, we narrowed it down to the grip shape you see now, which we kept iterating on for another several months. There was a lot of trial and error about the layout of the control panel, the amount of buttons and dials, their size, their angle, etc. We also spent a lot of time testing different attachment mechanisms, until we hit on the idea of the Quick Release button which also allows the Grip to be rotated by 90°.
The main technical challenge was packing the components into a fairly small vertical space – keeping Fjorden pocketable was the key goal. We wanted the entire package – Fjorden plus iPhone – to be no thicker than an Apple Airpods case, and that's exactly where we landed!
E&T: You've also built an app to go natively with the grip, to take advantage of the grip's physical controls. Did that present any development problems?
VH: Indeed – the only way to offer multiple physical camera controls for parameters like exposure, zoom, or shutter speed was to build our own app. Apple doesn't give developers controls over the stock iPhone camera app, other than being able to trigger the shutter button. The main challenge is if you want to go beyond standard camera functionality, like building specific DSLR-like focusing modes or object tracking. I wouldn't necessarily call these 'development problems', though - they're just challenges to work through.
E&T: The grip also works with existing popular third-party photography iOS apps such as ProCamera and Obscura. Can users expect the same control over the iPhone's camera settings there as they can with the native Fjorden app?
VH: I think so, but ultimately that will be up to the respective app developers to decide! In some cases, you might even have more control over the iPhone's camera settings than with the native Fjorden app. ProCamera, for example, rightly calls itself a 'Swiss army knife' for photography; it's extremely full-featured and does photography, videography and photo editing. Other apps may choose to implement just basic controls. We will just provide the SDK (software development kit) and API and then leave it to the third-party app developers to decide the best way of integrating the physical controls into their app.
E&T: Is there anything you wish you could have brought to the grip, but which was not possible? Either at this time, or at all?
VH: There are two hardware features which we would have liked to add: a cold-shoe mount and a tripod screw. Both would have required us to make Fjorden thicker and sacrifice the pocketability aspect, so we decided against it. However, the Fjorden MagSafe cases are compatible with MagSafe tripod mounts and we are thinking about other ideas for adding the cold-shoe mount. Stay tuned!
On the software side, there is one major limitation imposed by Apple: iPhone users can't choose their preferred camera app that opens when you swipe the lock screen; that spot is exclusive to the stock camera app. I hope this will change in the future!
E&T: Smartphones are typically promoted on the basis of their camera's new and improved capabilities. What are the drawbacks, as you see them, of using a phone as a camera?
VH: I think there are two main ones. The first is that the sensor size and aperture don't allow for a real shallow depth of field and the computational aperture/portrait mode is still fairly hit or miss. If you want a real, beautiful bokeh [the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas], that's hard to achieve on mobile phones. The other is that the optical zoom range is fairly limited, though with telescope lenses, that is also improving.
E&T: Conversely, what do you consider to be the upsides of using a phone as a camera?
VH: That cliche about 'the best camera is the one you have with you' – I think it's true and that's why I wanted to build Fjorden. The iPhone is the camera you always have with you, and with Fjorden, I wanted to make it even better. The second big advantage is the power of computational photography. With my iPhone, I routinely capture shots that would be impossible with my full-frame DSLR: tack-sharp, three-second handheld exposures of the night sky; evenly exposed images across dark and bright areas that don't have the fake HDR look, and sometimes amazing portrait photos that would have required huge lenses. Even better, you can then edit these images with fantastic apps like Darkroom, VSCO, Snapseed or Adobe Lightroom and share them immediately. It's so seamless and I love that about mobile photography.
E&T: About the future of iPhone hardware: do you foresee anything coming in the future that might pose a potential problem for the grip? Or potential opportunities?
VH: I'm an eternal optimist! I'm convinced that the two drawbacks I mentioned above – the hit-or-miss nature of the artificial bokeh and the limited optical zoom range – will gradually disappear. The more capable iPhone cameras become, the more they become a viable alternative for serious photographers and the more they'll want to have a real camera experience with fast, precision controls - which is what Fjorden delivers.
E&T: How is the future looking for DSLR cameras? Is the market shrinking or are better smartphone cameras in fact nudging more people into 'serious' photography? New DSLR, mirrorless etc models are still regularly being released by the big camera companies, which suggests there's still demand?
VH: Camera shipments have declined by more than 90 per cent since the launch of the iPhone and some established brands like Olympus have been sold off. I'm sure the high-end market will always be around for professionals and I don't see myself giving up my DSLR any time soon, either. But I think camera manufacturers will have to embrace computational photography to make their cameras 'smarter' and they'll have to invest in UI/UX, so that their cameras become as intuitive and seamlessly integrated with the photography workflow as casual photographers are used to from their smartphones.
E&T: With that thought in mind, what do you think of Leica's move into smartphones, with the Leitz Phone 1? After partnering with Huawei for years, supplying the camera lens and image processing, now Leica has a 'dedicated' photography smartphone all of its own. What does this development suggest to you?
VH: If I'm not mistaken, it's a rebranded Sharp Aquos R6 - which is the first smartphone with a 1-inch image sensor? I think it's fantastic. Leica is the world's most storied camera brand and they're willing to put their name behind the entire phone, not just the lenses. Smartphone photos have been on the cover of Vogue, Time Magazine, and National Geographic – they are becoming serious photography tools with professional applications and I hope we can accelerate this trend with Fjorden.
The Fjorden iPhone Grip is available for pre-order now. You can read more about it at the project's Kickstarter page.
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