Why The Nokia 8 Pro's Penta-Lens Camera Might Be Something Truly Special

Paul Briden

21/02/2018 – 11:45am

The Nokia 8 Pro's penta-lens camera could be much more than just a mere gimmick

With the new rumour going round that Nokia (well, HMD Global) will be launching a new Nokia 8 Pro in the tail end of 2018 which will be equipped with a penta-lens camera, there is, somewhat understandably, a certain amount of confusion over what this entails.

It doesn’t help that the information we actually have on the new camera hardware is extremely limited; next to nothing has been revealed so far.

Some of this seems to be manifesting as cynicism or even outright disbelief, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments in the blogosphere on the subject – which is fine of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it seems to me this is largely driven by some key misunderstandings.

Consumers and reviewers, it seems, get quite irritated when firms appear to “pile on more of the same”, we’ve seen this with processor cores, we’ve seen it with camera megapixel ratings, we’ve even seen it to some degree with display sizes and resolutions.

More for, apparently, the sake of more, isn’t met with much enthusiasm, as it is seen as a rather shameless arms race and cash grab. Perhaps it is seen as representing a lack of imagination and a preference to just add “more” of the same rather than truly innovate.

Now with dual-sensor cameras becoming a prominent feature of many flagships, the idea of someone coming in and throwing five on the back of a new phone does seem rather nuts.

But this is where I find myself having to defend HMD/Nokia. For starters, there is a difference with what is apparently being proposed here from the dual-sensor trend. Note the use of the word “lens” in describing a penta-lens setup, as opposed to sensor.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at what we actually know about the phone and its hardware so far.

Basically, we have the above and below schematics from Chinese social media, and the words from those sources which also say this is a penta-lens, aka five-lens, arrangement with an LED flash module thrown in.

It’s also thought to be running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, which actually has built-in support for up to seven cameras up to a 32MP rating, with 4K video support and dual-pixel phase-detection autofocus.

According to a report from NPU, which sourced a patent by camera firm and Nokia partner Carl Zeiss, this will likley facilitate a rotating zoom mechanism. The patent is dubbed a “miniature zoom camera”.

These multiple lenses can rotate and come in focal path of a fixed primary lens and detector. This by design will help in changing the focal length and providing with a large zoom range. The patent does mention that this is meant especially for Mobile Phones,” said the report.

So it would appear this setup has five lenses, not five sensors, at most it seems to have just one or two sensors, like a current flagship dual-camera phone. 

The report then went on to quote its original source:

“The invention relates to a miniature zoom camera which can be used especially in mobile phones. The invention is based on the object to provide a zoom camera, which realizes at a low depth in the direction of the optical axis of the optical system, sufficiently good image quality and a comparatively large zoom range.”

“According to the invention it is provided that the miniature zoom camera having a miniaturized zoom system, which lens group and a plurality of interchangeable second lens groups is constructed (as seen in the direction of light) from a fixed first, each of the second lens group has a different focal length and is arranged on a common lens wearers and wherein the lens carrier is supported and movable, that each one of the second lens groups is positioned in a beam path between the first lens group and the detector.”

Incidentally, this also fits rather well with a promo  video from Carl Zeiss and Nokia announcing their cooperation last year.

What we’re looking at here, though not yet confirmed, appears to be the first true mechanical optical zoom camera in a smartphone, one which will rotate various zoom lenses in front of a main camera sensor.

Zeiss and Nokia seem to be trying to actually innovate, rather than simply adding more sensors for the sake of it – the dual-sensor trend so far has offered some limited zoom capabilities, but quite often at the cost of overall image quality.

This penta-lens tech may well be a no-compromise solution, and would also go some way to genuinely closing the gap between smartphone cameras and traditional cameras with changeable lenses.

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