At today’s Apple launch event, senior vice president Phil Schiller explained two gee-whiz features of Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus—a zoom that doesn’t sacrifice picture quality up to a factor of two, and an ability to create a depth of field effect in which foreground images are clear while the background is blurred. Both of these features are basic requirements for serious photographers. The secret to incorporating them into a small mobile device is stitching together the images captured by multiple camera modules with different focal lengths.
Apple is using two camera modules in the iPhone 7 Plus: a standard 25-millimeter wide-angle equivalent along with a 66-mm telephoto equivalent.
This means that images zoomed up to 66 mm don’t lose pixels, because the 66-mm lens uses the full 12 megapixels of its image sensor. (For zoom levels between 25 and 66 mm software interpolates the images.)
Apple isn’t the first smartphone maker to use multiple camera modules—Huawei introduced a phone with a monochrome and a color camera module, both wide angle, to improve image quality and do some rough simulation of depth of field; LG, like Apple, took on zoom.
The iPhone 7 Plus will likely be the first mobile device out of the gate to do both. I say likely, because Schiller indicated that that feature will not be ready for the phones’ 16 September ship date, and will come as an update later this year, no specific date promised.
Meanwhile, startup camera company Light concluded some time ago that multiple camera modules are the way to do zoom, improve image quality, and allow selective focusing in a digital device, but isn’t stopping at two. The company announced its plan almost a year ago and showed prototypes at CES last January. It will be shipping its 16-camera module Android-based gadget early in 2017, complete with optical zoom to 150 mm and blur at any depth of field, not just background.
We’re done with one-upmanship on how big a camera screen can be (too big, it turns out, for many users). Battery life, a continuing issue, isn’t seeing any major breakthroughs anytime soon. Resolution is going beyond what the eye can distinguish. Phone makers clearly were ready for another quantifiable feature to distinguish their products, and make phone users willing to upgrade, and upgrade again.
So get ready to start counting cameras.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.