Everyone’s talking about an iPhone 15 ‘periscope’ camera — but what does that even mean?

Samsung Periscope Lens
(Image credit: Samsung)

If you've followed iPhone 15 or are anywhere near the Apple pipeline, you might have read or heard "periscope camera" a few times in reference to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. This feature has been talked about since before the iPhone 14 launched, so it's no small deal.

It's one of the many reasons why the iPhone 15 Pro Max will raise in price by $100. But with all of this blabber about the existence of a periscope camera, not many actually understand the technology. What does "periscope camera" even mean and why should you care that it's coming to iPhone?

What is iPhone 15's periscope camera?

News focusing on the phrase "periscope lens" are just describing a technology that is meant to act as a selling point. In practical application, this new lens allows the iPhone 15 Pro Max to zoom 5x optically. Previous iPhone models could only perform a 3x optical zoom, which allows for a far greater hardware-based zoom before it turns into a grainy mess thanks to digital.

iPhone 14 Pro

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Imagine a traditional telephoto lens, the kind that you see attached to professional cameras. When they zoom, you can see the lens physically get longer, causing it to jut out. This cannot be done with smartphones on a large scale, which is why telephoto optical zoom has been limited for years.

Periscope instead utilizes the reflection of light through multiple lens aligned through the phone's height or width, reflecting light at a right angle at the final step. Imagine the opening of the lens, but instead of it having to jut outwards to zoom further in, each lens is aligned inside the phone across its body and then reflected through a 90-degree prism to go through the lens.

This technology isn't simple, but have you ever played with one of those toys that looks like a long rod with two openings at the top and bottom? When you look through the bottom hole, you can see clearly through the top hole, which always blew my mind as a kid. That's exactly what periscope is. Depending on your age, you can probably Google "periscope toy" and immediately understand. 

But this technology isn't all that new. In classic Apple fashion, the company is hopping onto a trend quite a bit later than other companies. Samsung has been doing it since the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which released all the way back in 2020. And even now, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra boasts a 10x optical zoom thanks to the periscope lens. Google Pixel 6 Pro also had a 4x optical zoom with periscope, while the Pixel 7 Pro upgraded to 5x.

Claire Tabari
Contributing Writer

Self-described art critic and unabashedly pretentious, Claire finds joy in impassioned ramblings about her closeness to video games. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Media Studies from Brooklyn College and five years of experience in entertainment journalism. Claire is a stalwart defender of the importance found in subjectivity and spends most days overwhelmed with excitement for the past, present and future of gaming. When she isn't writing or playing Dark Souls, she can be found eating chicken fettuccine alfredo and watching anime.