A diagram of a periscope lens on an Oppo smartphone.

The smartphone camera competition has always been a numbers game. Which company can boast the most megapixels, cameras, or (increasingly) zoom? When it comes to the laws of physics, though, optical zoom and thin phones just don’t go hand in hand.

In July 2020, it was rumored that Apple might add a periscope telephoto lens to a future iPhone. Periscope lenses have been around for a while, and they neatly sidestep the size problems traditional telephoto lenses have.

Here’s how they work, and what this means for the future of the smartphone industry.

In Photography, Size Matters

The biggest limits with photography have always been physical, rather than technological. There are some laws of optics you just can’t engineer your way through. This is why DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses are so big and heavy. To provide long focal lengths and wide apertures, lenses themselves have to be a certain size.

For example, a lens with a focal length of 200mm and a maximum aperture of f/2.8 has to have a front lens element that’s more than 70mm (or 3 inches) wide. And that’s not including any manufacturing considerations.

Smartphone cameras have the same limitations, but on a much smaller scale. Because they have smaller sensors, they get more magnification from shorter focal lengths. However, a lot of trade-offs come with this arrangement.

The iPhone 11 Pro, for example, has a 52mm, full-frame-equivalent telephoto lens, which is really only a 6mm. This means if you wanted to take the same photo with a professional DSLR, you’d need a 52mm lens. Because the iPhone’s telephoto camera sensor is 1/3.6 inches in size (around 5mm diagonally), you get equivalent magnification.

However, manufacturers are starting to run into problems. You can’t shrink camera sensors much smaller without the trade-offs becoming unmanageable. Small sensors perform a lot worse in low light and have a more difficult time with higher resolutions.

If Apple wanted to get more zoom in the iPhone, it could (in theory) halve the size of the sensor. However, it’d probably be expensive to produce and terrible to use.

The better option is to increase the size of the lens.

Sidestepping the Problem

An illustration of the internals of the periscope lens on a Huawei P40 Pro+ smartphone.

Increasing the size of a lens comes with issues, too. The iPhone 11 Pro is only 8.1mm thick. Even if a lens with a focal length of 6mm doesn’t have to be exactly 6mm long, it has to be close. So, it will still take up a significant amount of the available space on a smartphone. There just isn’t enough room to add a 12mm lens to a phone that’s only 8mm thick.

Unless you do it sideways.

A periscope lens works much like a periscope on a submarine. Light enters the front element and is then reflected 90 degrees by an angled mirror. It passes through any other lens elements before hitting the camera sensor and is then recorded as a photo. By changing the direction in which the light travels, longer lenses don’t have to be as deep because they can be wide.

For phone manufacturers, this is a serious advantage. It’s much more practical to find the necessary space for a longer telephoto lens horizontally than it is to shrink the sensor or make a thicker phone.

This way, manufacturers aren’t limited to 50mm-equivalent lenses with 2x optical zoom (or, at a push and with some dubious marketing, 3x). It makes 100mm- (around 5x zoom) or even 200mm-equivalent (around 10x zoom) lenses possible.

Sure, there are still trade-offs and the technology is new, but it neatly skips the biggest limitation of adding optical zoom to a smartphone.

Digital versus Optical Zoom

Now, if you’re thinking your iPhone already has a 10x zoom, you’d be right, but also very wrong. There’s a reason we’ve been mostly referring to focal length, rather than zoom multipliers.

This is because there’s an important distinction between optical and digital (or enhanced, super-resolution, space, or AI-assisted) zoom. With optical zoom, magnification is a result of the optical properties of a lens with a longer focal length. Distant objects genuinely appear closer, as if seen through a telescope, with no loss in image quality.

Example of a bad zoom image of a dog on an iPhone.
This 10x zoom on an iPhone is just a close crop of the 2x zoom.

Digital zoom, in its many guises, is just a fancy way of saying a photo is cropped to look like a zoomed image. Granted, digital zoom has come a long way. With high megapixel sensors, “binning” (multiple pixels treated as a single, large pixel), and better upscaling algorithms, manufacturers are getting better results.

Still, it’s really the same as just taking a photo and cropping it later. You aren’t getting true magnification, and there will always be a loss in image quality as you zoom in further.

Of course, you can’t build a marketing campaign around that bit of truth.

Periscope Lenses Are Available

Apple won’t be the first to join the periscope party. Chinese manufacturers (Oppo and Huawei, in particular) have been playing around with them for several years. The five-camera Huawei P40 Pro+ has a 10x periscope telephoto lens that’s equivalent to a 240mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Wide shot of a river in a canyon.
The wide-angle camera in the Huawei P40 Pro. Huawei

The more widely available Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 5x telephoto periscope lens that’s roughly equivalent to a 100mm. However, Samsung’s overblown marketing does its best to obscure this info with some truly ridiculous multipliers.

Zoom shot of a man on a rope climbing the rocks next to a rushing river.
The 5x optical zoom periscope. Check out the image quality! Huawei

Like so many other phone features, even if Apple wasn’t first, it will still make a huge splash when it enters the market. I think we can safely assume that, between now and whenever the eventual iPhone-with-a-periscope-lens launches, this is going to become a much more sought-after feature.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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