Samsung will keep beating iPhone at this one camera feature until 2023

Newer phones from Samsung and Huawei offer improved zoom ranges thanks to periscope lenses.

Person holding modern smartphone with triple-lens camera against dark background

A new research note from Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggests that the iPhone will adopt periscope lens technology starting in 2023. Such technology gives cameras the ability to zoom in on subjects from farther away before the quality of a photo begins to degrade.

Apple has long been a market leader in smartphone cameras, but when it comes to zoom, the telescope lenses found in today’s iPhones pale in comparison to smartphone cameras from the likes of Samsung and Huawei, which feature periscope camera modules that allow for subjects to be captured from much farther away.

Greater detail — Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, for instance, features a 10x telephoto camera with periscope zoom. In a test, it was found that the S21 Ultra can be pointed towards the moon and capture immense levels of detail not possible with Apple’s latest iPhone 12 Pro Max, which comparably features only 2.5x telescopic zoom.

Periscope zoom achieves longer zoom distances by packing multiple lenses side-by-side inside the camera body, and then using mirrors to reflect into the image sensor. The result is that multiple sensors can be put inside a phone without creating a bump like that seen on the iPhone.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max features 12x digital zoom, but that’s little more than cropping and enlarging an area of an image, which explains why digital zoom creates grainy pictures. Optical zoom leverages physical lens elements that adjust the distance between a subject and the camera sensor. When the lens is further from the sensor, the focal length increases but the field of view decreases, instead magnifying a smaller area. As you zoom with an iPhone, the camera automatically switches to the telephoto lens that has a longer focal length.

Catching up — It’s been previously reported that Apple was working on introducing periscope zoom to the iPhone, but with an introduction in 2022. Kuo’s new report suggests that Apple is taking longer than expected to introduce the technology. But its phones remain a standard bearer in the industry for cameras that create high-quality photos that are consistent. Hardware isn’t the only factor that makes a good camera, but also the choices the software makes in how to process a photo, such as the white balance and saturation profile.

In the same research note, Kuo says that 2021 iPhone models will get an upgraded telephoto lens with five elements instead of six, which can offer more zoom, though less than periscopic might. High-end iPhone models in 2022 will receive a seven-element lens.

Another recent report suggests that Apple is working to automatically diffuse flash when it’s used to take photos, which would make photos taken at night appear less harsh.