iPhone 12 could have telescopic telephoto lens, according to patent

iPhone 11 Pro
(Image credit: Future)

A pair of new patents suggest future iPhones – perhaps even the iPhone 12 coming next year - could use multiple lenses stacked in front of an angled mirror, telescope-style, to make better optical telephoto lenses without a bigger camera bump.

If that sounds familiar, it’s how the Huawei P30 Pro manages to achieve a 5x telephoto lens: by stacking lenses lengthwise within the phone’s body and using a mirror to angle the shot out of the phone’s back. For once, Apple is chasing Huawei.

The US Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple two patents on Tuesday – the first for a "folded lens system with five refractive lenses" and the second for a lens with "three refractive lenses.” The former’s paperwork includes this diagram - note that the shorter end faces out through the back of the phone, assumedly where camera blocks are on modern phones.

(Image credit: USPTO)

The five-part version offers the equivalent of 35mm focal length in the range of 50 to 85mm fit for a wide-angle camera, Apple Insider pointed out. Likewise, the three-part version offers 35mm-equivalent imaging for between 80-200mm, which would be useful for telephoto lenses. In other words: Apple might use this horizontal-stacking-with-mirror setup for more than just its zoom photography.

The advantage of rerouting much of the magnification horizontally is obvious. Phones can only stack so many lenses within the current thickness of phones: the iPhone 11 Pro is 8.1mm (or around 1/3 of an inch) thick, and consumers aren’t fond of camera blocks protruding far beyond the back of phones. 

Getting higher optical magnification – which is fundamentally superior to digital zoom – without making phones thicker is a design win (even if more room must be made within the guts of phones to accommodate).

Patents promise tech in future iPhones – sooner or later

Whether these designs actually make it into Apple’s next smartphone, the assumedly-named iPhone 12, or a future model is impossible to tell. Heck, it could never end up in an iPhone if the company finds a superior strategy for zooming in – or just abandons the idea entirely.

But given Huawei has already realized this design in a production phone – with zoom lenses that placed it at the top of our best camera phones list – we’d imagine Apple is looking for ways to improve the photographic capabilities of its next flagship handsets. If this isn’t the way, we’d be curious to see what Apple ends up choosing.

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David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.