Are Liquid Lenses the Future of Photography?

Xiaomi recently teased a liquid lens for their newly announced Mi Mix smartphones. The liquid lens can change shape to alter the focal length and focus to suit a range of applications. Is this the future of lens technology?

In this short video, Lew from Laterclips discusses some of the future potential of liquid lens technology based on a teaser released by Xiaomi earlier this week. A liquid lens would work more like the human eye in that it would change shape to adjust focus and aperture rather than using motors to move heavy glass elements around in a tube. This technology isn't a new idea; there are already industrial applications that use liquid lenses, such as high-speed machine vision on production lines.

One Lens To Rule Them All

The idea of a lens that can change shape is quite an exciting prospect for any photographer who has ever carried a heavy bag of lenses around for any length of time; the very notion of one lens that can do everything is surely the stuff of dreams for anyone who regularly needs to change lenses in adverse conditions. 

I'm probably getting a little ahead of myself here; after all, Xiaomi is a smartphone company, not a camera company. But we can dream, can't we? 

The claim is that this technology will eventually be used to allow smartphones to have one camera with a liquid lens instead of the huge camera arrays with multiple lenses and sensors that we're seeing in the current lineup of flagship smartphones. This would allow for either cheaper devices by having a single image sensor or the potential for larger sensors on smartphones, which could have huge advantages in image quality. As is the case with most new technologies, the software and implementation will be key to how useful this technology can be.

When Will We Be Able To Use a Liquid Lens Smartphone Camera?

The new Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold was announced on March 31st, 2021, this is claimed to be the first smartphone to feature a liquid lens in its camera setup. That's right, a folding smartphone with a liquid lens. We really are living in the future. 

Unfortunately, for many of us, this phone isn't available in Europe or the USA. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold features an 8-megapixel “bionic” camera that uses a liquid lens powered by a motor that uses precision manipulation on that packet of fluid to switch between 3x telephoto zoom and a macro mode that allows for close focus down to just 3 centimeters. This liquid lens is said to work in temperatures ranging from -40 degrees to 60 degrees Celsius (-40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), so it should function well anywhere you might find yourself using a smartphone.

Interestingly, despite claims that this technology would replace large camera arrays, the Mi Mix Fold does still feature a camera array of three cameras. The primary camera is a 108-megapixel Samsung sensor with a 13-megapixel ultra-wide camera beneath it, in addition to the liquid lens camera. Whether Xiaomi didn't have complete faith in the technology yet or they wanted to be the first to bring this to market isn't clear. Without getting hands on with the phone, those of us in the West will have to wait until similar technology makes its way to phones in our region before we can see first hand how it performs. It's still an exciting piece of technology if nothing else.

What do you think about liquid lenses? Do you think that liquid lenses will eventually make their way to professional cameras? 

Let me know in the comments.

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18 Comments

Casper Maarly's picture

Will they be able to get them so they work without any problems at 60 below zero to 140 above?

Brad Wendes's picture

Apparently so. Can’t see why anyone would be using a phone outside that temperature range though.

Timothy Roper's picture

Do beer goggles count?

Dan Grayum's picture

Yea, but the photos always look different the next day.

Hector M's picture

It will be interesting to see how versatile such a lens can be. I got to thinking about DPAF and feedback-based autofocus and our own eyes. Wondering how precisely these liquid lenses can be shaped and focused to yield the distortion-free results desired. There's a lot to discover now that this concept is in the spotlight. Looking forward to hearing more about it as time goes on!

Brad Wendes's picture

Definitely an exciting concept. I’ll be looking forward to seeing reports of real world performance of this smartphone camera.

J.d. Davis's picture

Old tech - a shutter concept from 1955, someone just figured out how to make the shutter into a lens

https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Kerr+Cell

Brad Wendes's picture

You’re right, it’s not a new concept. Liquid lenses are already used in many industries. Interesting point is the use in consumer tech and whether that will result in us ever seeing liquid lenses on DSLR or mirrorless cameras

Salty Cremepuff's picture

It's certainly one tool that will be in the future of photography. I don't think it'll be right for all applications, but the technology seems to have some very real advantages in certain circumstances.

Jeffrey Puritz's picture

I would say that we are about to find out.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Marketing speak. It'll be a thing in this iteration and dumped in the following. Hitting Smartphone peak or rather plateau development I see this no more than a means to sell a product with not much commitment towards the idea. Throw it at the board and see if it sticks kind of thing. Also this will probably present more problems than benefits being inside of a smartphone given what they tend to go through during its use. Let's see this taken up by a company who has more related interest in optics and such.

Brad Wendes's picture

It does seem that some smartphone makers just throw features at customers and see what sticks. This might be good for their marketing or this technology could have significant impact on consumer camera tech. Either way, it’s interesting

Jørn Tv's picture

Wait, is this an article referencing a video of a guy reading a PetaPixel article out loud, which again is mainly quoting DPReview and The Verge?

What are the limitations of this currently? Why have a smart phone manufacturer achieved this before any manufacturers of “normal” cameras/lenses? I had really hoped for a bit more in-depth information...

As for multi-camera smartphones, I don’t think that will change anytime soon. This could allow for more focal lengths for a single camera/lens, but smartphones use multi-camera setups for simulating shallow depth of field, noise removal, 3D mapping, stabilization and a whole lot more. A liquid lens will as far as I understand not address any of these things.

Brad Wendes's picture

This piece of news is about the use in a newly announced smartphone. I’ll be interested to see how these new liquid lenses perform in the real world once the phone is available

Jørn Tv's picture

According to the title it is not about the newly released phone, but about whether or not liquid lenses are the future of photography. Therefore I would expect a little bit of information (or educated guesswork) about the possibilities and limitations of this technology for photography in general, not just a quote of a quote of a quote about a phone announcement.

Jim Sternhell's picture

A liquid lens will work well with a curved sensor, allowing zooming. Curved sensors offer huge advantages-no need for aspherical lenses-can use spherical lenses, no need for additional elements for flatness of field, fewer elements, corner to corner sharpness, no need to stop down for better images, ability to make the sensor oversized and have the algorithm compensate for shake and focus issues-may be able to add depth of field among other advantages.
Once the technology for curved sensors and a couple of liquid lenses is perfected, all our old gear will become expensive door stops. The sky will be the limit with curved sensors and liquid lenses.

Brad Wendes's picture

You’re right, that’s a great use case for liquid lens technology. I wonder how long it will take for this technology to reach interchangeable lens cameras

Tdotpics photography's picture

That looks and sound amazing wow