Let me me take you to the era when we may have used the zooming feature on a mobile phone quite often. There could be any reason that you would still be using that “zoom” option on your phone’s camera, but if you didn’t know, that’s been a worst feature of any phone out there.

That “digital zoom” has always been a crap option in mobile phones’ cameras. “Optical zoom”, on the other hand, has mechanical movement inside the lenses and most importantly the distanc in between, requiring more space in a body. Hence this kind of zoom is limited to dedicated cameras with bulky bodies.

It was 2012 when Nokia turned the table and shocked almost everyone by introducing an impressive camera tech in a mobile phone. That made possible a leap from traditional unusable “digital zoom” to a usable “lossless digital zoom” in mobile/smartphone cameras.

Hybrid Zoom

While Nokia referred it as simply a “lossless digital zoom” because it’s still a software driven zoom, today (with some improvements and AI involvement) it’s called as “hybrid zoom” which I guess is a better term to use. This hybrid zoom is mostly achieved with an impressive image processing technology that mostly works around a super high-resolution image sensor. The extensive amount of image data from high-res sensor is then combined to produce great detail in normally sized final image.

Zooing in on the final image makes it possible to retain actual image quality of the sensor without stretching pixels. The higher the resolution, more the hybrid zoom possible in normally sized images.

A 40-megapixel camera, that now might be a very common thing for you, was once referred to be a “monster camera” on any phone that the Finnish phone maker brought to the industry seven years ago with the name of Nokia 808 PureViewyou can read more detail about how it worked to deliver lossless digital zoom.

nokia-808-pureview-camera
Nokia 808 PureView with first ever 41MP Camera and still largest sensor size of 1/1.2″

People weren’t interested in having
larger camera modules in their phones

That monster camera actually had a physically large sensor inside, making a bulky camera module on the phone. Even though it impressed the photography enthusiasts, it was hardly accepted by mobile phone community. That is still the largest (1/1.2″ type) image sensor ever used in a smartphone till the time of writing this.

Nokia’s next phase of PureView camera improvement was introduced in a Windows Phone – Lumia 1020. It carried all the tech from the 808 PureView and a large sensor (not as large as 808’s) but still the second largest in smartphones. This phone is the pioneer with an optical image stabilization (OIS).

Dual/Triple Camera and Optical Zoom

That large sensors you just read above were even able to take impressive bokeh effect “optically”. Means, there was no reason to destroy edges of the subject due no-software involvement. But with that bulky camera, having no interest in consumer market, made the smartphone makers take another route. They kept working on rather smaller mobile image sensors but using two of them in a phone. Where the one (primary) camera is supposed to take the normal shot, the second camera was used for depth calculation with software algorithms. That would give you the software driven bokeh effect in images. However, even the high-end phones today aren’t flawless with bokeh effect but that’s out of the topic.

huawei-p9-review-profile-rear-dual-camera

Huawei P9 was the first phone to offer that dual-camera setup in 2017. That was the setup which was instantly adapted by other smartphone makers including Apple and Samsung. But with two cameras on board, the phone makers tried different options for different features from the two cameras.

Optical Zoom

In addition to creative background blur (the so-called bokeh effect), we saw a combination of ultra wide-angle and telephoto lenses (with optical zoom) along with the standard focal length in smartphone cameras.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera
Huawei P20 Pro with Triple-Camera Setup

Then suddenly the dual-camera turned into triple-camera on smartphones. Well, every little improvement did have its benefits as the triple-camera would do more things in a single phone than the dual one. All the different possible combinations of camera features in dual-cam setup were now possible in phone with three cameras at once. It would take standard and ultra wide-angle along with narrow angle shots – sure that bokeh effect too.

At this stage, smartphones had achieved a little bit of optical zoom with a fixed telephoto lens among the three cameras. But due to limited space in smartphones and lens structures, those telephoto lenses could only offer 2x zoom, only good for portrait shots at around 50mm (35mm equivalent).

More Optical Magnification with Periscope Lens

It was the famous tech show Mobile World Congress (MWC) going on in 2017, when the Chinese smartphone maker, OPPO introduced its concept of 5x optical zoom in smartphones.

OPPO’s 5x Zoom Lens (Concept) / MWC 2017

With the help of periscope design consisting of a angled-mirror on the front and a longer focal length lens structure lying perpendicular inside the housing instead of parallel to the image sensor. This will definitely give enough space between the lens’s outer glass and the image sensor to take shots at longer focal lengths.

Who knows for what reason, with all that in hand, OPPO couldn’t deliver a commercial phone in two years with such a camera design. So once again, Huawei took the lead and introduced its currently-latest P30 Pro with the similar periscope design in March 2019. That literally means, the tech giant Huawei was already working on this kind of technique even before OPPO. We have usually seen that Huawei refrains from showing off its tech before it’s fully usable.

Huawei P30 Pro 10x Hybrid Zoom
Huawei’s P30 Pro 5x Optical Zoom Lens (Commercial) / Huawei

Currently (at the time of writing), Huawei P30 Pro has the most admirable smartphone camera with 5x “optical zoom”, thanks to the periscope lens. Further the camera offers 6x to 10x lossless/hybrid zoom. That means, the phone can deliver impressive detail in up to 10x zoom shots. If we consider the standard 27mm focal length of the cameras in Huawei smartphones, it would deliver 270mm focal length shots with 10x zoom.

A bit later, but OPPO has also finally launched its OPPO Reno smartphone also with 10x hybrid zoom. It also carries the 5x optical zoom with the same periscope design.

Wrap-up

The most advancement in camera technology from smartphone makers we have seen is in the recent decade. The credit must be given to both the smartphone makers for their research and development as well as the sensor manufacturers. Well, do not forget their relations with the optics experts, the most famous Zeiss and Leica.

Personally, I saw once Nokia as the pioneer in quality camera provider in mobile phones all alone for years. Then Huawei broke the silence with amazing camera tech beating the heavyweight champions like Samsung and Apple. I must appreciate OPPO for its early concepts in variety of camera technologies.

Who knows what we are gonna see tomorrow, but innovation in smartphone camera is worth praising.

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