An iPhone With a Periscope Lens Could Change Everything

The iPhone 15 is ready for its close-up

Key Takeaways

  • Rumors say the iPhone 15 will feature a zoomtastic periscope lens.
  • A 90-degree periscope increases zoom range, and could allow a smaller camera bump.
  • A 10x zoom is way better than the current 3x lens in the iPhone 13 Pro.
iPhone 13 Pro Max in blue and in a black box

Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

The iPhone 15 might pack in a radical new lens design, which could revolutionize its camera. 

According to rumors, the 2023 iPhone 15 will use a periscope lens that could extend its optical zoom range to 10x. That would allow amazing close-up shots of far-away subjects, better background blur, and opens up a whole range of possibilities for Apple's computational photography tricks and gimmicks. 

"While many Android flagships, like Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra, have already featured telephoto lenses for a long time, the iPhone 15 series is slated to go official in 2023, which will give [Apple] enough time to tweak its periscope lenses [for] amazing photo quality," technology explainer Victoria Mendoza told Lifewire via email.

Up Periscope

A periscope lens is just what it sounds like. It’s a lens that uses a mirror (or a prism) to reflect light 90-degrees, thus working around the biggest challenge for phone camera optics—lens length. 

To offer high-magnification telephoto or zoom, a lens needs more glass (or plastic) elements. This needs space, which a smartphone doesn’t have. The answer, so far, has been ever-bigger camera humps, but that can only go so far. The answer is to lay the lens down inside the camera, flipping it to sit flat instead of sticking out. The periscope just flips the light into this lens. 

All that extra space means that Apple could add a true 10x optical zoom to the camera, up from the 3x now available in the iPhone 13 Pro. The next time you snap a photograph of that weird-looking bird in the tree outside your apartment window, you might actually get a picture of the bird and not a dot surrounded by too much tree and sky. 

Zoom In

The obvious use case for a 10x telephoto lens is for bringing far-off subjects closer. In terms of 35mm film cameras or full-frame digital cameras, a 10x zoom is the equivalent of 24mm-240mm.

This isn't new—the 2020 Huawei P40 Pro Plus has a 10x pericope lens that reaches 240mm. But the raw magnification of the lens itself is only half the story. What could Apple do when it combines this 10x range with its incredible computational photography skills?

"I feel like the telephoto is the one lens on which Apple is really behind. I like finally having a little more reach with the 3x, but the quality of photos isn't all that great unless there's a lot of light, and even then sometimes it's not as good as I think it should be," iPhone user AirunJae says in the MacRumors forum

black clip lenses on top of a black bag

Prince Abid / Unsplash

Long zooms aren’t all positives, though. They have two significant disadvantages (apart from their physical size, which the periscope works around). One is they magnify your hand shakes. The other is they typically let in less light than a wider lens of the same size. 

Light-wise, Apple already does impressive work with its night mode, and it could combine information from the other, more sensitive, cameras to create a hybrid image. 

The path to fixing the shake is also proven. Many modern cameras use shake reduction, shifting either the lens or the sensor, to counteract your hand movements. Recently, Apple added sensor-shift shake-reduction to the iPhone, and this is probably the option we’ll see in the iPhone 15. Sensors are smaller and lighter than glass lenses, especially 10x zoom lenses, so moving them fast enough is a lot easier. 

Advantage iPhone?

A long, optically-stabilized telephoto lens is already a very valuable tool, but how about combining it with some tech wizardry? One of Apple’s coolest gimmicks is Portrait Mode, which simulates the background blur from bigger cameras. A telephoto lens naturally brings more background blur, which could help feed more accurate depth data to the Portrait Mode algorithms. 

"I feel like the telephoto is the one lens on which Apple is really behind."

More flexible lens choice is one of the remaining advantages cameras have over phones. Would the new periscope lens let you ditch your big camera? Not so fast. 

Purpose-built cameras still beat any phone camera in a few areas. One is that their telephoto lenses can be a lot bigger and therefore gather more light. Another is that you can swap lenses if you like and get really wide or really long. You also get natural background blur, which is still far superior to simulations. And their sensors are way bigger, which means more detail, and better light-gathering abilities. 

And finally, a camera with a viewfinder, button, knobs, and dials is just easier and more pleasant to use. 

Still, for most people, a true 10x optical zoom will make a huge difference to their photos. I can’t wait to see what Apple does with it.

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