How Oppo fit a 10x zoom camera into its 5G phone

The cameras on the Europe-bound Reno flagships were five years in the making.

Oppo may have already teased its first 5G smartphone in Zurich earlier this month, but today, the company is bringing its entire Reno family -- including the mid-range Reno and the flagship Reno 10x Zoom -- to Europe. This means the Chinese brand will be going head to head with Huawei using its very own 10x hybrid zoom camera outside of its home territory. With the $1,000 Reno 5G leading the party ahead of its May launch, the Reno 10x Zoom follows with a €799 (about $890) base price due in early June, whereas the Reno lands at a more modest €499 ($560) on May 10th.

As we saw at the Shanghai launch event, all three Reno phones tout a cute pop-up camera wedge for 16-megapixel f/2.0 selfies, along with a 48-megapixel f/1.7 main rear camera. The Reno 10x Zoom is basically the Reno 5G sans 5G radio, featuring the same 13-megapixel f/3.0 periscopic zoom camera plus an 8-megapixel f/2.2 ultrawide camera. Together, the three rear cameras cover a focal length of 16mm to 160mm, hence the "10x hybrid zoom." The smaller Reno, on the other hand, only has a 5-megapixel f/2.4 assistive camera to add bokeh to the main camera.

Ahead of today's launch event, Engadget sat down with Senior Camera Engineer Li Longjia to hear how Oppo's 10x hybrid zoom technology came together. It turned out that this camera project goes as far back as 2014, when Li's camera team was tasked with a mission to boost the mobile camera's zoom range. This led them to Hoya which offered a tiny periscopic camera with 3x optical zoom -- apparently the first of its kind in the mobile industry.

In the end, Li's team deemed this solution infeasible, mainly due to the fact that Hoya's supply chain was an unfamiliar territory to Oppo and its peers. Li added that a purely continuous zoom solution like this -- as opposed to the current hybrid zoom tech -- comes with many limitations, especially the zoom range and package size. In this case, going beyond the mere 3x zoom would require much more space to accommodate different lens sizes. Still, Hoya's periscopic camera would end up on the ZenFone Zoom, but that didn't turn out so well for ASUS.

In 2015, Israeli-based Corephotonics -- which was reportedly acquired by Samsung earlier this year -- approached Oppo with a cunning concept consisting of a normal camera plus a 3x zoom periscope. This "folded camera optics" solution boosted the overall zoom range to a more practical 5x, yet it was able to maintain a slim component height as the telephoto lenses could stick to similar diameters.

Li was convinced, and by the end of 2015, his team pulled some resources together to start designing a new camera based on Corephotonics' solution. The first component samples came out in mid-2016, and these would eventually evolve into the demos shown at MWC 2017. As to why this wasn't commercialized soon afterwards, Li explained that there were still many hurdles surrounding the optics assembly method, optical stabilization in the periscope and lossless transition between the two cameras.

Most interestingly, Li confessed that the periscope's prism in the original design was prone to detachment, and this was partly due to the prism's single-axis stabilization. Consequently, a revised design swapped things around: The prism was tasked with dual-axis stabilization, whereas the group of telephoto lenses only had to deal with autofocus. Problem solved. In fact, dual-axis stabilization is actually easier to apply to the prism than the much heavier set of lenses, anyway.

Oppo Reno 10x Zoom

Fast forward to today, Li's team boosted the hybrid zoom range once again to 10x using a more powerful 5x zoom periscope, while achieving an impressive f/3.0 aperture thanks to two large D-cut lenses. To put things into perspective, the P30 Pro's telephoto camera has a slower f/3.4 aperture. The downside is that this new camera module comes in at 6.76mm thick instead of the old 5.7mm, but given how it's vertically aligned down the middle of the Reno 10x Zoom (and Reno 5G, for that matter), I'm OK with that so long as it delivers.

Understandably, Li refused to comment on the competition, so it'll be interesting to compare the telephoto modes and low-light modes on the Reno 10x Zoom and the P30 Pro. The pre-production Reno 10x Zoom I've been given still packs non-final camera firmware (plus a China version of ColorOS 6, based on Android 9), so I'll save the camera shoot-out for another time.

Oppo Reno 10x Zoom sample shots: 1x vs 10x

What I can say so far is that the hybrid zoom does come in handy even at just the default 6x stop, which has the best balance between zoom range and sharpness of the lot. This really showed under the bright sunlight today. Anything else beyond 6x often required several attempts before I could get a sharp enough shot, and jumping to 20x -- a manual setting in the scroll bar as a last resort -- would make things a lot more challenging. Hopefully Oppo can still improve the performance on this end of the scale, but before that, it has some bugs to fix on the ultra wide camera as well as low-light modes.

Photography aside, one thing's for sure: Oppo is somehow beating Huawei to bringing the first 5G phone to Europe, and it's doing so with help from Qualcomm as well as local carriers EE plus Swisscom. The company has also pledged to invest $1.5 billion into R&D this year, with focus set on 5G, AI, photography and IoT. With Oppo trailing closely behind on the charts, Huawei may want to play its cards carefully in the 5G and foldable screen games this year.