Smartphone cameras have increased in quality over the years. Behind the shift are higher megapixel cameras, better sensors, software and the introduction of a multi-camera configuration. Apple popularised dual cameras in 2016 with the iPhone 7 Plus, and Huawei introduced the triple camera system in 2018. Recently quad-camera configurations have entered the market with smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Nokia G20 and OPPO Find X3 Lite and Pro featuring four cameras.
But why so many lenses? And what purposes do they serve? Essentially each camera acts as a different lens, suited to different environments and photography styles. If you’re familiar with DSLR or mirrorless cameras, multiple lenses are the equivalent of changing between lenses. Each phone will vary a little bit, but the lenses commonly used are
- Wide Angle Lens: This is used for the primary rear and front-facing camera on most phones and was the lens used for single-camera smartphones back in the day as it’s incredibly versatile. With a shorter focal length, wide-angle lenses can capture more of the scene in front of them, making them great for a range of different shots like landscape and group shots. Wide-angle lenses can capture more light which makes them great for low-light or night photography.
- Telephoto Lens: Essentially the opposite to a wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens has a narrower field view with a longer focal length. A telephoto lens can get closer to your subject and lets your smartphone zoom. It is often used as a secondary lens to complement a wide-angle lens as the two have different capabilities. In some cases, two telephoto lenses will be used, like with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, providing extra zoom.
- Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens: Like a wide-angle lens, but an ultra-wide lens can capture even more. But, because of this, the edges can get a little distorted, making wide-angle lenses the preferred option for a primary camera. However, it makes a great addition to a camera configuration with phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE incorporating wide, telephoto and ultra-wide-angle lenses.
- Periscope: These lenses are an alternative to a telephoto lens, built with folded optic technology to get that zoom factor. This technology is like how periscopes on submarines work, with the image reflected vertically. The benefit of this is that the lens lays flatter against the back of your phone.
- Macro: The lens behind extreme close-ups and generally used for small objects and subjects. Macro lenses are not commonly found in smartphone camera configurations but are one to look out for in the future. Alternatively, macro lenses can be incorporated into a camera configuration as an ultra-wide lens, as the new iPhone 13 Pro does. While each lens has a specific purpose, a combination of lenses provides your phone with additional data that can unlock extra features. This data gives you access to features like portrait mode or adding a bokeh effect. Multi-camera configurations also gather more depth data used for augmented reality applications.