Update: The latest report is that the iPhone 15 Pro will be the first iPhone to get a periscope lens. In other words don't expect any huge increases in optical zoom on the iPhone 14.
We’ve already heard rumors that Apple could boost the iPhone’s camera with a periscope-style lens, and now that particular feature has been detailed in a new patent.
Apple has just been granted a patent for a “folded camera” lens (via Patently Apple (opens in new tab)), which could be used to expand the optical zoom capabilities of future iPhones. It's likely too late for this innovation to find a home in the iPhone 13, but the iPhone 14 could be in the running.
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Adding a periscope lens to the iPhone makes a lot of sense, especially when you compare its camera to the competition. The tricky thing about optical zoom lenses is that the more zoom you want, the bigger the focal length needs to be. And that requires a longer lens mechanism to accomplish.
Right now Apple’s optical zoom is stacked horizontally, but there gets to a point where you can only add so much before it starts increasing the thickness of the phone. The current iPhone 12 doesn't offer a telephoto lens at all, while the iPhone 12 Pro offers a 2x telephoto zoom and the iPhone 12 Pro Max ups that to 2.5X.
The iPhone 12 series offers digital zoom up to 5x, while the iPhone 12 Pro goes to up to 10X and the iPhone 12 Pro Max 12X.
A periscope lens would allow Apple to stack the lenses vertically, where there’s already a lot more room to work with. It’s a technique used by several other major phone companies, like Huawei and Samsung, which is why you can buy phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra that have 10x optical zoom capabilities.
Apple’s periscope description is fairly literal. However, the key difference is that Apple has built its ‘folded camera’ with two prisms instead of the usual one. The lens system is located between the two prisms, and includes an “aperture stop and lens elements with a refractive power mounted in a lens barrel”.
It’s certainly an interesting design. The first prism directs the light from the camera into the zooming lens system, which is pretty standard for a periscope lens. However, rather than having the sensor underneath the lens array, the second prism redirects it again. Why Apple has opted to do things this way isn’t made clear, but it’s clearly able to differentiate the design enough for a patent to be approved.
It’s not known how much optical zoom range this particular lens design would provide. However, it means there’s room for Apple to go well beyond the existing iPhone 12 range. The only question is if and when the design will be put to use inside an actual iPhone.
We’re a little too close to the iPhone 13 launch for that to be particularly likely, but we still have plenty of time before the launch of the iPhone 14 for Apple to potentially make this feature a reality. And, considering Apple already has some of the best camera phones out there, this can only make things better.
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