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A look at the high-tech camera feature that could raise iPhone prices

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Photography on smartphones has been getting better and better, but ultimately the laws of physics start to play a limiting factor. With phonemakers trying to keep their devices thin and light, it’s hard to cram a decent-sized zoom lens into the body.

But in the past year or two, the industry figured out a new trick to allow for a much larger zoom lens. And usually reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo of TF International Securities says it’s coming to the iPhone now, too. Kuo, who has connections with Apple suppliers in Asia, says the Apple version of the technology is still a few years away, however, likely arriving in 2022 iPhones. The big new feature rumored for this year’s iPhone is the addition of superfast 5G wireless connectivity.

To improve the phone camera, the basic trick is to turn the zoom lens sideways and place it inside the body of the phone, instead of protruding straight out of the back. To bring the image into the lens, the phone has a prism to reflect light into the lens at an angle. It’s the same principle enabling a submarine skipper to use a periscope to see what’s happening on the ocean’s surface.

The result, as seen in a few phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and Huawei P30 Pro, is the ability to zoom in on a subject from afar and still take a sharp picture.

The lens in the current iPhone 11 Pro’s camera can zoom in two times optically and can get as close as 10X by using digital software tricks that make the picture a bit blurrier. By contrast, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has a periscope lens that can zoom in like an optical lens 10X quite sharply and then use digital tricks to zoom in 100X with some blurriness.

The results can be amazing. Here is a set of pictures that I shot on the S20 Ultra ranging from no zoom at all all the way to 100X. As you can see, up to 30X the picture quality is quite good with sharp details. At 50X and 100X, the edges start to blur, but you can still make out the picture well.

an owl in the woods
Taken with the Galaxy S20 Ultra with no zoom.
Aaron Pressman—Fortune
an owl in the woods
Taken at 10X zoom.
Aaron Pressman—Fortune
owl in the woods
Taken at 30X zoom.
Aaron Pressman—Fortune
owl in the woods
Taken at 100X zoom.
Aaron Pressman—Fortune

The new ability doesn’t come cheap, however. The Ultra starts at $1,400, 27% more than even Apple’s most expensive model, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. When the iPhone with a periscope zoom lens arrives on the market, expect a commensurate price jump.

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