We’re no stranger to how nature inspires many outstanding works of art and photography innovations. But have you ever thought about a camera inspired by a prehistoric creature? A group of researchers recently shared how they were able to make such a camera with a record-breaking depth of field.

The researchers based their lens design on the unique bifocal compound eyes of the extinct trilobite Dalmanitina socialis. In their April 19 report in Nature Communications, they described how they replicated the trilobite’s ability to see both near and far by constructing a metalens. This type of flat lens is comprised of millions of differently-sized rectangular nanopillars. Their arrangement resembles a cityscape with skyscrapers one two-hundredth the width of a strand of human hair. With it, light passing through different parts of the lens resulted in two different focal points.

This design allowed their camera to simultaneously focus on two points from three centimeters to almost two kilometers away.

Next, they designed a computer algorithm to correct the aberrations, again inspired by the “biological neural compensation mechanism” of the trilobite. The corrections also sharpened objects between the near and far focal lengths to create the final, all-in-focus image resulting from the extreme depth of field.

The metalens modeled after the trilobite’s compound eyes features a flat surface covered in rectangular ‘nanopillars.’ With their shapes and orientations, light bends so both distant and nearby objects could be focused in a single plane (right), resulting in an image with high depth of field. Image by S. KELLEY/NIST.

“As a result, the proposed camera system is capable of achieving full-color light-field imaging with a continuous DoF ranging from 3 cm to 1.7 km with close to diffraction-limited resolution. We envision that this integration of nanophotonics with computational photography may stimulate development of optical systems for imaging science that go well beyond traditional light-field imaging technology,” the researchers wrote.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology said in a Phys.org article said this technology will drastically transform high-resolution imaging systems in the future. Applications will range from highly-detailed photos of cityscapes to accurate images of groups of organisms.

“Such lightweight, large-depth-of-field cameras, which integrate photonic technology at the nanometer scale with software-driven photography, promise to revolutionize future high-resolution imaging systems. In particular, the cameras would greatly boost the capacity to produce highly detailed images of cityscapes, groups of organisms that occupy a large field of view and other photographic applications in which both near and far objects must be brought into sharp focus.”

Any thoughts on the possibilities such an extraordinary depth of field can open up for photography? Share your insights in the comments below!

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