Periscope Lens: What is it and what does it mean for iPhone?

We’ve heard reports before that Apple plans to include periscope lenses in future iPhones, and a new Ming-Chi Kuo report suggests coming in 2022 today.

But what exactly is a periscope lens and what does it mean for future iPhones?

Huawei and Samsung, as the latest in high-tech smartphone camera technology, have something new to them …

It has been suggested that the first periscope lens used in smartphones came back in 2004.

In 2004 the Sharp 902 came close. Vodafone was just launching 3G network in the UK and claimed that it was the first phone in Europe with a 2MP camera. More interestingly, it features 2x optical zoom.

Even better, it zoomed in with a single camera instead of switching from a telecom camera as wide as a modern phone. Time has buried a lot of evidence, but it is quite possible that it was a periscope design, saying the square-ish lens is quite beautiful.

And they were used in standalone cameras long before that. The nineties saw a trend towards ultra-slim pocket cameras that used periscope lenses to eliminate the need for motorized lenses that extended a long way from the body. The early ones were of quite poor quality in terms of their optics, but of course Apple would not use it until the company met very high standards for photographic quality.

To understand the benefits of a periscope lens we first need to understand how an optical zoom lens works.

How does optical zoom work?

To avoid ambiguity, the term ‘lens’ usually refers to the complete construction of a lens, while the individual glass lenses inside it are referred to as components.

The actual construction of a zoom lens can involve a great many components, including multiple moving components as well as multiple glass components. At its most, however, a zoom lens requires three components: front, middle, and rear. The front and rear elements can be fixed, but the middle elements are moved between them.

This one minute video is a really simple picture of how it works (complete with camouflage music!).

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The problem with zoom lenses is that the front and rear elements need to have a separate distance. In general, the higher the zoom factor, the greater the distance.

This is a problem when you want to have superior optical zoom on a very slim device like the iPhone. Apple got it with a partially infamous camera bump that saw lenses stuck out of the rear casing, but that’s not an ideal solution and has limitations on how far the lens can extend before it seems silly. This is why current iPhones are limited to 2x optical zoom.

You can of course zoom in more, but it depends on the digital zoom that is just cropping up the image and sacrificing both resolution and quality.

What is a periscope lens?

You may not be familiar with the periscope unless you are a subscreen fan or old enough as a childhood toy. It is basically two tubes with two 45-degree lenses at each end. You can look at one end and see an image reflected from the other end.

A periscope lens uses the same principle, but with only a single mirror, to turn the light 90 degrees. You can see the concept in this Oppo image.

On the left is a conventional zoom lens, which needs to fit all the components in the depth (plus small shaking) of the smartphone. On the right, a periscope lens, which allows the length of the lenses to be longer as the depth of the phone is no longer an issue.

What does the periscope lens mean for future iPhones?

The simple answer is: greater optical zoom.

The question is how open the optical zoom is. Although the periscope design means Apple doesn’t have to worry about the thickness of the iPhone, it doesn’t have to find a place inside the cover for the body lens length that the company will choose. Component space is at a premium within the case, so there are still limitations.

However, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra 10X uses a periscope lens to provide optical zoom, making it definitely practical on a modern smartphone. Business Insider paints a good picture of what it actually looks like. Here is the same picture taken with no phone zoom and 10x zoom:

The iPhone 11 Pro Max also shows the difference between 10x optical zoom with 10x zoom, which uses 2x optical zoom and then the rest as digital zoom. The sample photos are small, so it’s not a great example, but look at the vehicles on the bridge and the trees in the River Cafe on the bottom right to get the original idea.

The cars are the mushy and blocking trees on the right in the iPhone picture

So I think it makes sense to expect the first iPhone with an optical zoom after 10 or closer to the periscope lens. How useful do you find it and when will you use it? Please leave us a comment.

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