Interchangeable lenses on smartphone cameras will always be a tough sell

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Like many of you, I’m sure, my smartphone has become by primary camera. I’ve still got a sorely-in-need-of-an-upgrade stand-alone digital camera hanging around, but unless I’m doing something that really demands a tripod, I tend to just stick with my phone.

While in the past the convenience of using your phone as your camera often meant making sacrifices when it came to image quality, manual control options, or advanced features, manufacturers have really been stepping-up their camera games in recent years, and I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that we’ve had a year that’s been more important for smartphone imagery than 2013.

We’re at a solid place right now in the evolution of this field, and that’s got a lot of people wondering what might be coming next. Have OEMs finally learned to control their higher-and-higher-megapixel lust? Will more of them feel comfortable relaxing their desire for extremely thin handsets, so we can cram in some bulkier, more capable camera hardware?

One idea that had me doing a bit of a double-take was one attached to a rumor about HTC’s next flagship. Lacking any particular belief that HTC Two is a more or less likely launch name than the HTC One+, I’ll just stick with the phone’s development codename, the M8 – and last Friday I saw this rumor that the M8 could end up with a pair of interchangeable lenses.

That sounds… good? At least, “good” was one of the many reactions that washed over me, though I’d say opinions like “this sounds wrong” and “extremely unlikely” were the ones that really dominated.

3lens

Where have I seen that before?

Let me back up for a second here – I would love to see smartphone camera quality keep getting better, and for all the “advanced” improvements you can get with tech like optical stabilization, for my money it’s a very simple solution: we need larger lenses, and larger image sensors. Full stop. Of course, all that “large” business doesn’t exactly play well with something as portable as a phone, so are add-on lenses the answer?

Almost unequivocally, I have to say “no.”

As I mentioned when reporting on the rumor, there are basically two ways you can do multiple lenses: you can have some sort of internal carousel system, where the lenses slide into place as needed, or use a series of external lenses. The former sounds incredibly unlikely, as it really demands a ton of space, and introduces a lot of new complexity (and failure points) to the phone’s hardware.

Interchangeable external lenses sound like a great compromise on first pass: you get flexibility – in fact, way more than an internal set of fixed lenses could offer – while keeping things relatively compact. You still need some way to attach the lenses, which is going to complicate a little bit, but the impact should be minor. And no matter what, you’re going to need a physical connection – whether that’s screw-in or a bayonet-style lock, I don’t care, but crap like magnets just isn’t going to cut it.

iphone-lenses

No, no, a thousand times “no.”

Of course, even then you’re still “stacking” lenses, rather than fully interchanging them (unless I’m picturing the details of this theoretical M8 implementation incorrectly), but this is getting away with my core objection: no one wants to carry around extra lenses with them. OK, clearly some people do, as they already exist for some phones (iPhone owners seem to eat this stuff up), but Apple would never be so foolhardy to include such things as in-the-box accessories because we don’t want to carry stuff around; aftermarket, sure? But HTC deciding to make this a core feature of the M8? Not happening.

You know what’s incredibly useful and could really offer a lot of functionality to many smartphone owners? USB OTG. But the full-sized ports just aren’t on our phones, and the feature goes tragically underutilized because nobody wants to drag a dinky little adapter around with them on the off chance they might want to use it. Same principle applies here.

Well, couldn’t you have a more “general purpose” lens and then offer a few extras – macro, wide angle – that you’d only need for special occasions? Sure, but you’re going to leave those superfluous lenses in the box (if not lose them altogether) and then you miss out on one of the key reasons we love using our phones as cameras: the aspect of spontaneity. When you can’t pull your phone out of your pocket and switch lenses as easily as you can change white balance, you’re just not going to use them, rendering the feature pointless.

But like I said, I’m highly skeptical of that M8 rumor to begin with, and I can’t place much faith in seeing its details actually implemented in the finished phone. But whether we’re talking about the M8 or any other smartphone that lies in our future, I just don’t believe that interchangeable lenses are a practical way to deliver improved camera performance. It’s still very much a goal worth pursuing, but this isn’t the right way to do it.

Image: Chuck Pharis, Photojojo

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!