Two patents, discovered by AppleInsider, show how Apple might allow users to expand the photographic capabilities of their iPhones. One describes a removable 'back panel' which contains different camera options, and another (slightly more plausible in the near-term) details how users might be able to attach 'modules' to their phones' camera lenses to provide different lens options. 

This latter patent (8,639,106) is called 'Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge' and describes a means of attaching accessory lenses to future iPhone models using nothing more than magnetic attraction. Magnets would keep the module fixed to the phone, while an 'alignment ridge' would keep the lens centered. 

This image, from Apple's patent shows a 'detachable lens' mounted on a smartphone which includes a neat design for funneling light from the phone's flash (204) around the periphery of the lens' inner casing to illuminate a diffuser (806) creating a 'ring light' effect.

Image: USPTO

Apple has a long history of exploiting magnets for quick and easy attachment, and has used them among other things to replace latches in the closure devices for laptop screens, 'MagSafe' AC power connections and in the various 'Smart' covers available for its line of iPad tablet computers. Much more reliable than mechanical connectors for frequent use, magnets 'just work'. 

Patent 8,639,106 also offers some details on the possible 'camera modules' which might be attached to a future iPhone, including the tantalizing possibility that they might contain a 'ring light and 'multiple lens elements' including 'at least one moving element'. This element could be  moved by a 'voice coil motor' to provide 'various optical functions such as autofocus, lens zoom, anti-shake, or a combination of such functions'.

These images from Apple's patent show a multi-element lens attachment which uses a periscopic design to maintain a low profile when attached to a smartphone. Some compact cameras use similar designs in order to incorporate zoom lenses in ultra-slim form factors.

Image: USPTO

The patent also mentions an option for a periscopic low-profile multi-element lens design for 'lenses that require a long optical path and would otherwise project a substantial distance from the compact device'.

Although this all sounds very interesting, it's important to remember that like all similar companies Apple files many more patents ever year than it releases new products. Still though - we can dream. What do you think? Would you be interested in a magnetically attached 'camera module' for the iPhone? Let us know in the comments.