PMA 2009 Interview: Samsung Camera

Soon after the announcement of Samsung's 'NX' hybrid interchangeable lens system at PMA 2009 we met up with Mr Seung Soo Park, Vice President of the Strategic Marketing Team and Mr Choong-Hyun Hwang, Vice President of the Strategic Marketing Team's Product Planning Group from Samsung Digital Imaging Company to see if we could find out any more about their plans for the system.

Mr. Seung Soo Park
Vice President Strategic Marketing Team

Mr. Choong-Hyun Hwang
Vice President Product Planning Group
The Samsung NX system camera - announced at PMA 2009.

Although they remained tight-lipped about the fine details of the system - which is slated for full launch some time in the second half of 2009 - they were able to give us a little more insight than was contained in the the rather vague press statement (click here for our report on the initial announcement).

The NX system was hardly a surprise (Samsung had hinted at its development over a year ago, and we spoke to Mr Hwang about it during our Photokina 2008 interview), but the unveiling of a relatively finished camera at PMA was unexpected. We were certainly led to understand that the camera shown behind glass was more than a mere 'concept' mockup, and that the shipping product would be substantially similar to what we saw, even if the fine details are still being ironed out.

What is certain is that the basic idea is very similar to Panasonic's Micro-G system: an interchangeable lens camera with a large (APS-C in this case) sensor in a smaller form factor enabled by replacing the mirror and prism (the 'reflex' bit of a Single Lens Reflex' camera) with an electronic viewfinder and full-time live view system.

We couldn't get any concrete information on the sensor, the electronic viewfinder or the lens roadmap (and inevitably much of our conversation has to remain 'off the record' for the time being), but we did end up with a clearer view of where their ambitious plans for the NX system are headed. Mr Park supplied most of these answers.

First question is about the lens mount. Is it a new lens mount? Is it the Pentax K mount?
It's our own mount.

So it's a new mount, smaller. Will it be compatible with the K mount used on your current DLSRs?
As far as I understand it will be, using an adaptor. That's part of the plan.

We couldn't get a clear answer on whether such an adaptor ever allow autofocus - or even aperture control - with K mount lenses, though it would seem that AF with any lens without a built in motor would be nigh-on impossible.

So when are we likely to see the first 'real' NX cameras?
Second half of 2009 - that's all I can say at the moment. It will be decided based on the market situation. In terms of the technology we don't have any problems, but we're measuring the timing based upon market conditions.

So the specifications have been more or less decided?
Yes

That's interesting, because one of the questions we had prepared was about how the current economic situation affected your product development schedule. But you're saying this is simply about the timing of the release, that's all?
Actually the economic situation doesn't impact on the product development at all. It only influences the timing of the launch.

At the time of launch how many lenses do you expect to make available?
We won't be revealing those details until we launch, but I can assure you that we are preparing a series of lenses for this product. So I can't say the exact number today, but we will bring the full system to the market.

The announcement of the NX system throws some uncertainty on how far the Samsung / Pentax collaboration actually goes. Samsung has struggled to make much of a mark on the DLSR market with its re-badged versions of Pentax DLSRs (though it does supply the sensors for Pentax), and we wondered if this new system represented a break in the partnership - something Samsung wasn't keen to comment on. What did become clear is that the new system is 100% Samsung.

I'm sure you won't want to answer this question, but does this mean that you're abandoning the 'full size' reflex camera system?
The market exists in three different form factors at the moment. One is the existing DLSR, second is compact, and hybrid is emerging. We will not abandon the DSLR market, we will just focus more on the hybrid form factor.

We ask because there's not been a Samsung equivalent of several recent Pentax DSLRs.
We simply want to focus our energies on our own hybrid first.

So is this something that you're developing completely independently of Pentax?
Yes. The lenses, sensor, processor, display - everything comes from Samsung.

So there won't be a Pentax version?
At some point maybe we'll collaborate - but not only with Pentax. To fully develop this kind of product we'll need a lot of collaboration with other industries in general terms, so there are lots of partners we have, but the majority comes from Samsung, all coordinated by Samsung, all done by Samsung.

I presume you intend to open the system to third party lens manufacturers?
Certainly. Once we've succeeded with this format that is our intention. We will open our system and license it to others.

To body manufacturers as well?
Yes, sure.

Since the announcement we've seen quite a lot of feedback on our forums, with many questions not covered by the initial announcement. People are quite cynical about this announcement - it's easy to say 'we intend to do this', they're waiting to see when - and if - you actually ship anything.
(laughs) We will announce the first products in the system in the second half of 2009.

What was the thinking behind designing a camera that looks like a mini SLR rather than, say, a digital version of a rangefinder camera?
It was all decided by market research. We always implement very pervasive market research, so when we first brought this idea to verify the concept, we did lots of research first.

So you tested different form factors / shapes?
Yes, always.

And is that research done internationally?
Yes, we always do global research, and even though it's small and light and designed for portability, what they want is a 'professional' feel.

Interestingly Panasonic said exactly the same thing about the G1.
Although ours looks a little like an SLR the design is quite sophisticated; all the lines are more 'aerodynamic'.

With your sensor size being a little larger I presume that means that the lenses - and indeed the cameras - have to be bigger too?
Yes, the sensor size is larger than Micro Four Thirds, but the lens size will be almost exactly the same. The thickness of the body is almost the same too.

So does the reduced flange-back distance give you problems with wide lenses? - you've got quite a big sensor and the lens is pretty close. This is one area where Four Thirds would seem to have an advantage in this kind of camera.
That was one of the challenges when designing the system - working with wide angle lenses. We solved those issues. For one thing our flange-back distance is slightly longer than Micro Four Thirds.

I presume there will be an element of in-camera correction (such as for corner shading)?
That is correct.

Can you tell us anything about the sensor specification - such as the pixel count, for example?
All I can say at the moment is that it is APS-C. Of course we already have the specification but we're not revealing it now.

Image quality is going to be the making or breaking of this new system. Will the NX be based on your existing image processing?
For the hybrid we are opening a completely new horizon.

So it's a completely different team developing it? Will developments make their way into all your cameras?
Sure, It's a completely different team, different sensor, different processor, etc etc. We're constantly working on improving image quality and we're structured with an advanced development group working on the hybrid camera that will have a benefit on the development of compact cameras down the line.

Finally, one quick question going back to compacts, is there any reason why a camera like the TL320 (WB100) doesn't have a raw mode ?
I recently asked exactly the same question. There was a discussion about including raw mode, and later - after we launched - we realised that raw mode is essential if we're going to claim this is a serious users model, and we're working very hard to ensure that we have raw mode in our compact premium models in the second half of 2009.

Interview by Simon Joinson