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April 19, 2012

Carl Zeiss and Nokia: From the N90 to the 808 PureView

The Nokia PureView 808

GLOBAL – The launch of the Nokia 808 PureView has been the cameraphone equivalent of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon – it’s been a big leap forward. Judging by your reaction, a lot of you think so too.

In February we travelled to Germany to meet the Carl Zeiss team behind some of the great optics that have made  Nokia cameras so unique. They told us about the history of a company behind some of the world’s most impressive scientific advances, and showed us how ZEISS lenses are built and tested.  

Oliver Schindelbeck has been part of the Carl Zeiss team working with Nokia almost from the very beginning. He reflects on some of the milestones of Carl Zeiss’ collaboration with Nokia, and why he thinks the partnership between the two companies is so strong:  

First steps: Nokia N90

“This was the first phone of the collaboration between Carl Zeiss and Nokia, and it was really important. We needed the two megapixel threshold to feel confident that we were bringing impressive image quality.”

Nokia N90

“The first contact between Carl Zeiss and Nokia was in 2004. We approached Nokia about the idea of using ZEISS optics in mobile phone cameras, and we found we were on the same page. We got into a discussion with Nokia very easily – and both companies had a common understanding of the benefits of a partnership. It took less than three months to get from that discussion to signing contracts.”

“It all started in the snow. The first meeting of the management teams was in January 2005. There were five people from Carl Zeiss and five people from Nokia. They met in Finland, and went up to a guesthouse in snow-covered Lapland.”


“The atmosphere was very open and trusting from the start. It was a good fit between people, as well as between companies.”

“I joined the team in May 2005, and preparations for the N90 were up and running already. The N90 was very challenging for us, because we joined the process at a late point.”

“It was the first phone we’d worked on at Carl Zeiss and we had a lot to learn. Obviously Carl Zeiss is known for working with large, high quality, lenses made from glass. The plastic used in small, camera phone lenses, was a new material for us.”

“We already had  experience in working with miniature lenses. In fact, Carl Zeiss built a camera lens that small as far back as the 1920s, made out of glass. And, of course, Carl Zeiss is a world leader in producing microscopy lenses, which are even smaller than camera lenses.”

“What was really new for us was the scale and volume of production that was necessary for Nokia. We produce some of our bigger lenses in the hundreds, maybe in the thousands. Working with Nokia we were looking at producing millions of lenses.”

Leap forward: Nokia N95  

“Working on the N95 was a big milestone. We moved up to a five megapixel camera. When we started the collaboration two megapixels had seemed challenging, so moving up to five was amazing. At that time it was by far the best camera phone on the market. Even now it’s still an excellent camera.”

The Nokia N95

“What really impressed me personally was that this was truly the first smartphone. The N95 could do everything you wanted from a smartphone – it deserves that title.”

Dreamphone: Nokia N8

“For many of us who worked on the Nokia N8 at Carl Zeiss this is still the number one of all time. It was a big, big step forward.”

“When you start to step up to challenges like making a 12 megapixel camera you really need solid relationships in place with your partners and suppliers.”

 “For us it wasn’t an issue of whether we could make 12 megapixels, but whether we could make a high quality lens constrained by the physical restrictions of a mobile phone. The size and thinness of a mobile phone is always a big hurdle for us.”

Cameraphone lenses

“The size of the camera module is a red line for us. The camera module in the N90 lens was 13mm for a two megapixel resolution. Now camera lenses are less than half that size, and the resolution is four times higher.”

“We elaborated a roadmap with Nokia, and began to work on the lens for the N8 before the sensor had been developed. Essentially, you are working on your part of the collaboration, trusting that your suppliers and partners are working to create their part of the project – and that the capabilities will finally complement each other.”

The Nokia 808 PureView

“Like the N8, we started work on the lens for the Nokia 808 PureView a year before the prototype of the sensor was ready.”

PureView lens

“Sensor development is important because you have to allow higher angles for the light rays. More advanced technology means that optics have to be elevated. Higher resolution requires even greater precision in the production process.”

“Until this phone development had been in logical steps. 2,3, 5, 8 – even 12 megapixels. The scale of the Nokia 808 PureView was totally unbelievable. 41 megapixels. It was crazy! It took us some time at ZEISS to figure out if this was possible.”

“People asked us, what’s the benefit of 41 megapixels? For us the potential of this concept is not 41 mega pixels. It was that you get full five megapixel images, even at full zoom. And the technology for pixel oversampling means that there is amazing clarity, with no noise.”

“A few days ago we took three identical images using a Nokia 808 PureView, a mid range system camera , and a high end SLR camera. Then we printed them at A4 size. We asked people to choose which image had been taken with which lens. Even the professionals got it wrong – the Nokia 808 PureView really is that good.”

“When we started the collaboration between Nokia and Carl Zeiss seven years ago no one would have believed the products we’ve produced, and the journey it’s taken us on. From 2 megapixels of high quality imaging to the Nokia 808 PureView. The excitement surrounding PureView has been unbelievable, but wait until you see the products we’ve got planned for the future.”