As the back of every Nokia Lumia 1020 will tell you, the amazing camera contained inside was developed in partnership with the optical innovators at ZEISS. The camera performance comes from the balance of sensor, image processing and optics working in harmony – and today we take a closer look at how the Nokia and ZEISS partnership has blazed a trail of innovation in the field of mobile imaging.
It’s not the first time that Nokia and ZEISS have worked together. Far from it, the partnership stretches back to 2005. Research and Development Project Manager Oliver Schindelbeck and Project Marketing Manager Sandra Gold talked us through the milestones.
“Our first product in the partnership was the Nokia N90 in 2005,” explains Oliver. “It was the first of Nokia’s N-series smartphones and came with a massive (for the time) 2-megapixel sensor.”
“Before that moment, there really wasn’t any point to putting an advanced lens into a camera phone. The resolution was just too low to benefit from one.”
“ZEISS always focuses on exclusive partnerships – by partnering with only one manufacturer in each industry sector it works in,” Sandra tells us. This might sound like a missed opportunity, but it actually means that it can work far more closely with its partners than would otherwise be the case.
Since 2005, Nokia has been its sole partner for camera phones.
The next big project came in 2006, with the Nokia N93, which was unique in its own way with a 3X optical zoom. The rather unique design that was needed to accommodate such a lens highlighted the necessity for an alternative solution to using zoom on a smartphone. And the beginning of the journey of innovation that was to arrive at the Nokia Lumia 1020 seven years later.
So while Nokia worked with ZEISS to produce the Nokia N95 – “the first real smartphone,” says Oliver – and then the Nokia N8, “still a benchmark of mobile phone photography in many ways”, a plan was taking shape to do something that – in 2006 – sounded really crazy: to put a huge megapixel sensor into a mobile phone.
Catching up and moving ahead
Of course, other areas of camera technology beyond the sensors and lenses were developing rapidly while the Nokia Lumia 1020 was taking shape.
The most challenging and innovative of these was Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), which arrived with the Nokia Lumia 920 and revolutionised what was possible with low-light photography on a camera phone.
Marrying OIS with the 41-megapixel sensor is, “the most amazing thing in the Nokia Lumia 1020,” says Oliver.
Nokia’s OIS is different, and better, than the technology with the same name that exists on other devices.
“Conventional OIS only moves one lens element, which achieves the job but compromises image quality. The flow of light is decentred.”
“On the Nokia Lumia 920, the whole lens barrel moves. That was tricky enough on its own, but when you try to apply it to a camera module as large as the one in the Nokia Lumia 1020, it’s quite a feat of engineering.”
But – as always happens with electronics – everything was getting smaller. So despite the addition of OIS, there was an opportunity to create a camera for the Lumia 1020 that was smaller than the one installed on the first debut for the 41-megapixel sensor, the Nokia 808 PureView.
“New sensor technology means that we have been able to reduce the size of the lenses. The Nokia 808 had a pixel-pitch of 1.4 microns, leading to an image diameter of 12.4mm. On the Nokia Lumia 1020, it was possible to reduce the pixel-pitch to 1.1 microns and so the image diameter drops down to 10mm.”
Contrary to what you might think, the addition of a sixth lens into the optical assembly – debuted in the Nokia Lumia 925 – actually helps to reduce its thickness.
“The lenses have to work hard to take the light coming in and expand it to the size of the sensor. With five lenses, they have to be placed further apart. With six, they can be pushed closer together, for the double benefit of a reduced overall thickness and improved image quality.”
While the last seven years have been a long and gruelling, yet very rewarding journey, it’s still a fairly short period of time in the scheme of things. It’s almost frightening to imagine the sort of camera technology we might be carrying in our pockets in the next seven years if the Nokia Lumia 1020 is anything to go by.