Snap happy: Why the camera on your phone could be about to get a whole lot better

Let’s face it – no matter how convenient it is to whip out our smartphones and take a quick photograph whenever we feel like it, the picture quality is nowhere near as good as you get with a standalone camera.

But, that could all be about to change after new research has come up with a way to make camera lenses extra thin.

The new innovation has been created by Dr Shuang Zhang, who led a team at the University of Birmingham.

Dr Zhang, who is a reader in metamaterials, has come up with a way that mobile phone cameras could carry lenses which can switch between extreme wide-angle images to a magnified view. His research could mean shots once the preserve of SLR users could be within grasp of those with a smartphone.

“This new device will give greater flexibility in designing and adding new functionalities to optical systems,” he explained. “The focusing properties of the same lens can be altered between a convex lens and a concave lens at will. Furthermore, the compact size and the flat nature of the lens could be useful.”

A prototype of the lens has already been created which has an aperture of just 80 micrometers – which is about the width of a human hair.

Scientists created the lens through the study of metamaterials, which are engineered to have properties which aren’t found in nature. Metamaterials gain their properties not from their composition but from the way they are designed – their shape, size, geometry and the way they are arranged.

The scientists made the new invention by layering gold nano-rods onto a thin, flat shard of glass half the width of a human hair.

While conventional lenses used curved glass to alter the direction of light as it comes into the camera to either magnify or minimise an object, the gold rods placed on top of the lens mean you can achieve this effect on a flat surface, meaning lenses can be a lot smaller to get the same results.

Dr Zhang is already well-known for work he has carried out to make objects invisible. He came up with a way to build an “invisibility cloak” which can hide small objects like paper clips and pins by splitting light.

Most decent smartphones at the moment come with eight megapixel cameras and improvements are being made all the time. The iPhone 5 comes with eight megapixels, just like its predecessor but Apple says it has improved its HDR capabilities for better colour and tone and reduced motion blur.

The Samsung Galaxy 3 also comes with an eight megapixel camera which boasts it works well in low-light and also has auto-focus. And the new Nexus 4 has the same sort of standard.

But, however good smartphone cameras are at the moment, they could be massively improved through this new innovation.  If Dr Zhang’s new invention is rolled out to the mass market through one of the big-name smartphone makers, it could be one of the major milestones in the history of photography.

His findings have been published in the renowned Journal of Nature Communications.

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