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The iPhone 15 Pro could soon show why periscope cameras are awesome


If the rumors are true, the iPhone 15 Pro will get a periscope camera. It’s probably only exciting if you know what it’s about. If not, we are here to explain it to you.

In short, a periscope camera uses clever engineering to fit a chunky telephoto lens into a compact smartphone body so you can take pictures of distant subjects like mountains or musicians.

Apple hasn’t commented on this story, but a periscope camera is a no-brainer. Cameras are the most important feature of most phones, as evidenced by the time manufacturers spend detailing new capabilities at each launch event and the wealth of lenses popping up on the back of new models. Taking photos and videos is one of the most important personal uses of our phones.

We’ll find out on September 12 at Apple’s “Wonderlust” event what the company has packed into the new iPhone 15 lineup.

Here’s an overview of periscope cameras and why they’re a perfect fit for the iPhone 15 Pro.

Why would Apple add a periscope camera to the iPhone 15 Pro?

The main reason is to provide iPhone customers with better photography options. The secondary reason is to catch up with the competition.

For iPhone photography, a 5x or 6x optical zoom would be useful in many situations. Telephoto lenses are useful for photographing people a little further away, like children in a playground or Taylor Swift on a stage. Nature and landscape photography also benefit from better telephoto reach.

A diagram of a prism bouncing light 90 degrees in a Google Pixel periscope camera assembly.

Google’s high-end Pixel phones have had periscope telephoto lenses since 2022. A prism redirects light inside the camera body to accommodate longer zooms that would otherwise be too thick for a smartphone.

Google; screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The iPhone 14 Pro camera suite comes with a 3x zoom telephoto lens, the equivalent of a 72mm lens on a DSLR camera. It’s useful, but it falls far short of the 5x camera of Google’s Pixel 7 Pro or the 3x and 10x cameras of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. The iPhone is competitive (and taking market share from its Android competitors), but its telephoto photography is a weak point in terms of competition.

How does a periscope camera work?

The fundamental problem with telephoto lenses is that they require physically longer lens assemblies. There is no simple solution to circumvent these limitations of optics, physics and engineering.

Periscope cameras, also known as bent cameras, work by building much of this length laterally inside the body of the phone. The outer lens looks like a regular phone camera, but behind it is a prism or mirror that bounces light 90 degrees. A 2016 Apple patent for a “folded telephoto system” shows both options.

Prisms are tilted transparent glass or plastic blocks that have been used for decades in optical equipment, for example binoculars or viewfinders in SLR cameras. High quality prisms do not degrade image quality much.

Today’s periscope cameras offer 5x zoom, the equivalent of approximately 120mm focal length on a traditional camera. But using only the center pixels of a high-resolution image sensor, Google’s Pixel 7 Pro can also shoot at 10x zoom, around 240mm, without any digital magnification tricks.

A diagram of a periscope camera mechanism in a 2016 Apple patent

Apple patented periscope camera technology in 2016, showing designs with a prism or mirror to bounce light back to the longer optics required by telephoto lenses.

Apple

How do periscope cameras compare to traditional cameras?

A periscope camera gives you better zoom, but don’t expect to match what serious photographers can do with a traditional camera and a modest telephoto lens, let alone a $13,000, 7-pound super-telephoto lens that’s hard to fit in. your backpack. In my usage, I found the Pixel 7 Pro’s 5x and 10x modes useful for identifying birds, for example, but not for producing particularly good photos of them.

The reason for this limitation: Periscope cameras still have relatively small image sensors that struggle with weaker light. Larger sensors provide higher image quality, but they cost more, and the larger the sensor, the larger and more expensive the accompanying lens.

One of the problems with periscope cameras is that they can replace useful medium-telephoto cameras. Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra solves this problem by including a full 3x conventional camera as well as a 10x periscope. Higher-resolution image sensors like those in the Pixel 7 and iPhone 14 Pro offer 2x modes that compensate. More unusually, Sony’s Xperia 1 V phone features true zoom continuously reaching 3.5x to 5.2x zoom.

If the rumor of a larger main camera sensor in the iPhone 15 Pro is true, it could also help facilitate other zoom options for Apple. Year after year, flagship smartphones are getting closer to the zoom flexibility of traditional cameras.



CNET

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