Photokina 2008 Interview: Samsung Camera

In the first of a series of interviews with senior executives at Photokina 2008 we met up with Samsung for chat with Mr. Choong-hyun Hwang, the Vice President of the Digital Camera Business of Samsung Techwin Strategy Marketing Team. He joined Samsung in 1983 and in 2005 was promoted to Global Marketing Director. He is currently in charge of the Product Planning. During his career, Mr. Hwang successfully launched the NV Series, Samsung’s first premium digital camera. Although much of the conversation covered areas we can't talk about yet, Mr Hwang had some interesting things to say 'on the record' regarding the future of compact cameras, technology and stills/video convergence.

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Mr. Choong-hyun Hwang Vice President Product Planning Group Strategy Marketing Team Digital Camera Division

Obviously the big news for us this Photokina is the development by Panasonic of the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the G1, which for us is a very exciting development. We realize you aren't able to talk in detail about anything you may be doing in the future, but we'd be interested to know what Samsung's feeling is about the area of the market between compact and DSLR - high end or larger sensor compacts.

"We believe that there is a potential new segment in digital cameras, brought about because of the dissatisfaction of both DSLR users and compact users. I think this is an area that is of universal interest - even for companies such as Nikon or Canon, so we don't want to overlook it. So we are researching and looking over the possibilities. But for now we can't make any announcements."

We agree that it's important - we see an ever widening gap between SLRs and compact cameras, not helped by the 'megapixel race', so we think Micro Four Thirds is great for the market.

"I think that customers want to have both bigger sensors and more megapixels, so I believe that Four Thirds is not the right format for this type of camera. Four Thirds has not been a successful system; the Four Thirds sensor size should mean that they can make a digital SLR that is smaller than an APS-C camera, but actually the size of the Four Thirds cameras is almost the same".

Going back to normal SLRs, are you going to do anything to create greater differentiation between Pentax and Samsung SLRs?

"Samsung and Pentax have been collaborating now for around three years and we don't expect this to change. We will continue to develop new sensors and DSPs in better ways, and we're going to differentiate maybe by different design, but probably not when it comes to parts/components".

Certainly in the UK our feeling is that faced with a choice between two identical DSLRs, one with a Pentax badge and one with a Samsung badge, the majority of photo enthusiasts would go for the Pentax, even if they knew they were the same.

"Even though Pentax and Samsung DSLR are almost the same, the image quality - not in a vertical way but in a horizontal way; the color rendering - is different because we use different formulas and algorithms. So although the Samsung GX and Pentax K20D are the same system, some reviews have found the Samsung to be better. Right now we have a small customer base, but we're expecting it will grow. Samsung's SLR business started just three years ago, whereas Pentax has a long history of more than 70 years. At this moment most of Pentax and Samsung's customers are already into the Pentax system - it's natural."

We didn't actually know that there was an image processing difference - maybe that's a message that's been lost somewhere.

"You didn't know that certain color renderings and image algorithms were different? Well Pentax and Samsung have their own architecture, but maybe we don't mention the differences because Pentax and Samsung are really good partners, and we don't want to be misunderstood or to hurt our relationship".

Are the lenses identical?

"Yes, we have the same lenses".

On your compact cameras do you use your own sensors

"No, we don't".

Would there be any advantage to developing your own compact sensors?

"In terms of efficiency we're better at the moment outsourcing. We currently buy sensors from a range of suppliers".

Do you make any compact camera sensors?

"No, at the moment we don't".

Do you think that CMOS is likely to eventually take over from CCD sensors in compacts?

"Ah you are asking difficult questions! I think that many people - everyone - expects CMOS sensors to be applied to more compact cameras. Sony has a high speed CMOS sensor in development, and the speed is remarkable".

Is it less expensive to manufacture CMOS sensors?

"Oh no, it's much more expensive. The Sony and Canon high speed CMOS sensors are very expensive to manufacture. The standard CMOS sensors used in mobile phones are very small and are inexpensive, but not those for compacts cameras. Canon has been making a lot of effort to replace CCD with CMOS, and they have not yet been successful because the performance and efficiency aren't good enough yet".

So HD video is now appearing in more and more cameras - is this demand led or simply a case of 'we can do it, so we will'?

"Three years ago we introduced a compact camera with HDMI, which was the first in the industry, and it didn't sell that well. At the time HDTV had just been introduced to the market, and people didn't really have a concept of what HDTV could offer. Right now we're seeing the analog TV services disappearing as TVs are converted to digital, so there's a lot more interest in all countries, and so I believe that HD is quite appealing to customers now. Right now Samsung is the number one in LCD TV panels, and we believe that HD will become more and more common in the marketplace, and that this will affect the 'display culture' and that more sharing will be done via TV screens".

You also manufacture HD camcorders, which must cause some positioning issues when you have products that are so rapidly converging...

"We believe that there will be convergence of digital stills and camcorders. I believe that at some point the border between digital camera and camcorder will disappear, especially with the introduction of high speed CMOS sensors. That's the starting point".

I guess there are issues with things like form factor, continuous focusing, zoom range and so on that currently keep the two lines separate, so do you think that a future convergence product would be more like a camcorder that takes stills or a stills camera that does movie clips?

"I think both actually, but the stills cameras with camcorder function will come first".

As photography enthusiasts I guess our worry is that it's difficult to optimize a multi function product and that if the primary function isn't shooting stills then there will be compromises in stills quality - perhaps in terms of lens and sensor design for example.

"I don't believe that this is the case for convergence products - customers will not feel there is much difference; users will not be able to see a difference between these future products and current stills cameras. They will have to be developed in a way that customers feel that quality is not being compromised. But if they're really high end users who want a really great stills camera, they'll probably still go for a dedicated stills camera, and if they want really high quality movies they'll buy a camcorder. Those products will still exist at the high end, but most users [of compact cameras] will be buying convergence products".

Is removable media storage capacity a limiting factor in such products at the moment?

"Currently camcorders have their own [built in] memory and right now hard disk is better, but we believe that memory will develop in a way that will match hard disks.

Interview conducted by Phil Askey and Simon Joinson, report by Simon Joinson