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September 25, 2014

Creating a PureView with ZEISS: Lumia Imaging Innovation

Lumia smartphones have better cameras.

No matter which Lumia you have, you love the camera’s harmonious balance of sensor, image processing and optics. Lumias such as the Lumia 720, Lumia 1020 and our new affordable flagship, the Lumia 830, are equipped with ZEISS Tessar lenses, whose groundbreaking four-element design was invented in 1902.

That exceptional camera is the result of a close and exclusive collaboration between Microsoft and ZEISS, a global leader in optics and optoelectronics. The partnership began in 2005 with the Nokia N90, which had a 2-megapixel camera and sported a unique swivel design.

It continued through the innovation of Optical Image Stabilization (starting with the Lumia 920), the peerless 41-megapixel Lumia 1020 and the new Lumia 830, our slimmest and lightest flagship phone to date.

We wrote last year about ZEISS and the camera phone milestones that were reached through the partnership. This week at Photokina — the world’s largest conference for the photography industry – we continued that conversation with Oliver Schindelbeck, research and product development manager for ZEISS, and Sandra Gold, a product-marketing manager at the German company.


How did the partnership between ZEISS and Microsoft come about?

Oliver: We observed that the technology in mobile phones was getting better and better. Our internal target for reasonable image quality was that the camera [in a mobile phone] should have at least two megapixels.

From two megapixels on, you could visibly see whether you’re using a good or bad optical system. Below two megapixels, you could use almost any optical system because the resolution would be so low. In 2004, we got the feeling that the camera-phone industry was going to reach this target quite soon.

Then we [did] some studies on which mobile phone manufacturers would fit our company. There were many players, but it came out that Nokia was, by far, clearly the best.

At the end of 2004, our management contacted the management of Nokia, and we quickly found that we had a common understanding that imaging was a very important feature for the future and that a cooperation of our companies would bring together the best expertise in mobile industry and imaging. Also, the cultural fit between Carl Zeiss and Nokia was excellent. It took less than three months from first contact to a signed contract.


Logistically, how did the engineers at ZEISS and the engineers at Nokia collaborate?

Oliver: We had a team-building event for almost a week when we first started working together. From that time on, we have regular meetings at least twice a year. And for ongoing development work, we have face-to-face meetings, weekly teleconferences and tons of emails.

Have you faced any challenges in developing the cameras for the Lumia devices?

Oliver: The general, always-existing challenge is the size of the camera module and the height of the module. That is one of the most critical things because that affects the thickness of the mobile phone.

With the Lumia devices, like the [41-megapixel] Lumia 1020, the camera module needs to be thicker to house all the innovation and power inside. How to bring this technology to slimmer devices? That’s when we helped Microsoft to develop the camera module for the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 930 with the 20 megapixels. Lumia 830 now has a 10-megapixel also with Optical Image Stabilization.

Because of a smaller sensor on the Lumia 830, we needed a smaller lens diameter. So we created a different optical design to make the lens thinner, and by doing that, we could also reduce the thickness of the module.

Can you talk a bit about how you test the cameras that go into Lumia smartphones?

Oliver: When we have the first prototypes of lenses, modules and complete devices, we then do lab testing and field testing. We can simulate almost any environmental condition in the world, such as extreme temperatures.

Quality is very different to measure. Image resolution is easy but that is just one part of image quality. The overall perceived image quality cannot be totally tested with just equipment. You also need the human eye to evaluate. Luckily, we have lots of experienced people in the photography field here!

Can you talk about what camera-phones in the future would look and act like?

Oliver: Well, we would like to see camera modules that are even thinner. With the existing technology, we are getting closer and closer to a limit. If you want reasonable image quality with existing technologies, I would say five to six millimeters would be probably the limit. However, there are some upcoming technologies that are promising so that we may be able to manufacture significantly thinner camera modules some time in the future.

Readers, what ideas do you have of how the Lumia cameras could evolve? And if you’ve taken some especially great shots with your Lumia phone, please show Oliver and Sandra in the comment section below.