Periscope Lens: What is it? And When Will Apple Use One in iPhone?

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One of the iPhone models that's coming two years from now in 2022 will feature a "periscope" lens, according to information shared today by Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who often provides accurate insight into Apple's plans.

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2022 is a long way off, but periscope lens technology is already built into some smartphones on the market, giving us an idea of what we can expect from the ‌iPhone‌ feature when it launches. A periscope lens offers optical zoom capabilities not otherwise possible in a smartphone camera, allowing for 5x or even 10x optical zoom.

First and foremost, Kuo has very little to say about Apple's plans for a periscope lens, with the information limited to one sentence: "The new 2H22 ‌iPhone‌ will feature a periscope." Due to the lack of information, we have no idea at this time what Apple's periscope lens might be capable of, aside from an increase in optical zoom capabilities.

At the current time, Apple's higher-end iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max models feature a telephoto lens capable of 2x zoom capabilities, but a periscope lens will go even further.

How a Periscope Lens Works

It's not clear how Apple plans to implement a periscope lens, but in general, the technology uses a prism or mirror to refract light onto the lens sensor for magnification purposes, with the mechanics of the lens built into the inside of the smartphone instead of the outside like a traditional zoom lens for a DSLR.

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The 5x periscope lens in the Huawei P30 Pro from an iFixit teardown

Periscope lens technology has advanced enough that in smartphones, the lenses are compact and small enough to fit into a normal lens enclosure and don't even take up too much internal space. Depending on the build of the phone and internal space available, a periscope lens could theoretically be quite long, allowing for impressive levels of optical zoom.

Another look inside the Huawei P30 Pro and its periscope lens

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

The ‌iPhone‌'s telephoto lens is limited to 2x optical zoom, but digital zoom is available up to 10x. Optical zoom capabilities use the lens to capture a close-up image, so pictures taken with optical zoom remain crisp and clear.

Digital zoom is basically cropping in to an image taken with a wider-angle lens, resulting in blurriness and artifacts that often make the photo undesirable due to the lack of detail.

The ‌iPhone 11‌ and 11 Pro offer 0.5x zoom (ultra wide-angle lens) and 1x zoom (wide-angle lens) alongside the 2x telephoto lens. With a periscope lens, Apple would presumably bump up the telephoto lens capabilities to allow it to zoom in further than 2x.

The periscope lens would likely be limited to the telephoto camera, as this technology works best in a single lens situation. So you'd have a single camera that can zoom in super far alongside other more standard wide-angle and ultra wide-angle cameras.

Existing Smartphones with Periscope Lenses

Periscope-style lenses for advanced optical zooming capabilities are trending right now, and several manufacturers have implemented the technology. Apple's main competitor, Samsung, just introduced the Galaxy S20 Ultra with hybrid 10x optical zoom capabilities.

Huawei has come out with the P30 Pro, which also offers 5x true optical zoom and 10x hybrid optical zoom, and the company is rumored to be working on a P40 Pro that has even more advanced true 10x optical zoom capabilities. Oppo too is said to be planning a smartphone with 10x optical zoom.

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Huawei P30 Pro 10x hybrid optical zoom via DxOMark

Samsung calls the zoom functionality in the S20 Ultra "Space Zoom" and it enables up to 100x digital zoom. The periscope lens itself uses a folded 4x telephoto lens combined with a 48-megapixel sensor, which can swap between 4x and 10x zoom. Samsung's zoom feature is technically a hybrid option because it uses some sensor cropping for the 10x zoom.

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The 100x zoom capability uses digital zooming technology that we thought worked quite well up to 30x, but is not particularly useful at 100x. Apple, like Samsung, could combine digital zoom with optical zoom for a similar effect.

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So far, periscope zoom lenses in smartphones that are truly 10x don't seem to be available, but the technology is certainly on the verge of launching, and Huawei's rumored P40 Pro may be the first with 10x optical zoom. The technology should be even more advanced by the time Apple is ready to build it into a smartphone in 2022.

Apple Patents for Periscope Lens Technology

Apple has patented technology related to periscoping smartphone camera lenses, so this is certainly something the company has experimented with and considered.

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A 2016 patent, for example, describes a folded telephoto camera lens system that includes multiple lenses with refractive power and a light path folding element in the form of a mirror.

According to the description included in the patent, light would be channeled into the camera through a primary lens, bounced off of the included mirror in the smartphone, and then would be sent to a secondary lens that moves up and down for the purpose of zooming in.

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