Olympus & Samsung Partnership Rumor - How Can Samsung Benefit From This?

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Recently, there is a rumor flying around hinting the potential partnership between Samsung and Olympus. Olympus is rumored to be making the camera module for Samsung's next flagship smartphone camera. While generally I don't comment on rumors, but I find this to be quite exciting, and I do hope it comes true. After all, I am currently an Olympus Visionary, having reviewed Olympus' latest cameras and lenses (except that elusive M.Zuiko 150-400mm F4 PRO lens), and I am quite involved with Samsung as well, you can find my reviews of S21 Ultra and Note20 Ultra. I am in quite a unique position to say something, and boy oh boy, do I have a lot to say. I personally think Samsung can gain a lot from this partnership if it falls through, and I want to explore the benefits that Olympus can bring to Samsung's future flagship smartphone cameras. 

I have made a video discussing this topic, you can watch it here (click). 


DISCLAIMER
I do not represent Olympus or Samsung in sharing my opinion in this article. None of these companies have contacted me and I have not heard of any official information regarding the rumored partnership. 

SMARTPHONE LIMITATIONS
Smartphone camera development has come a long way, and any smartphone camera today is more than satisfactory for average consumer use. There is no denying that smartphone camera is the most used camera today, due to convenience, you have the camera with you everywhere you go to. The image quality and performance of smartphone camera has progressed so far that it is sufficient to replace traditional cameras for casual, day to day, non professional environment shooting. I admit I have been shooting more and more with my Samsung S21 Ultra lately too. Nevertheless, there are still many issues that the smartphone cameras need to address, and boundaries to push. There are still some crippling limitations when it comes to smartphone cameras, even the most expensive, top of the line, high end flagship smartphones (from any brand, including the fruity one). 

One obvious limitation is responsiveness. There are all kinds of lag - display lag, Autofocus lag, shutter lag, shot to shot delay, the smartphone camera is almost useless to capture fast moving action, or to nail that critical moment. The job of the camera is to capture important moments, and the lags, even in the most powerful smartphone with the most advanced processor and a million GB of RAM cannot beat a true, professional camera from 10 years ago in terms of speed and reliability in getting the shot. The confidence in shooting is important, and I just can't understand how no smartphone manufacturers can solve this. Maybe it was never the priority to begin with.

Other limitations include optics design, image processing and color science. You can clearly see how poor the lens quality is in smartphone cameras with distortion, chromatic aberration, poor sharpness and contrast rendering, corner softness, the list of optical flaw continues. Many will be quick to point out that smartphones have revolutionize photography by introducing advanced computational processing or AI to enhance the images. I agree to a certain extent, but the smart HDR of merging multiple images to increase dynamic range, or night mode to have that clean noise free shot, can produce images that look good at the first glance. Once you scrutinize the images, they look awful! Smearing of details, lack of definition, and overall everything looks so bad, overly processed, with aggressive noise reduction and over-sharpening artifacts. I acknowledge most people don't care about these issues, except photographers.

Smartphone cameras are too reliant on software to get results - finally it is time to push through the hardware limitations, and take smartphone photography to the next level. I believe partnering with Olympus can open up these opportunities. 

1. LENS DESIGN & QUALITY
Most people underestimate the importance of high quality optics when it comes to photography. There is overemphasis on image sensor, or smart computational photography to achieve desired results. However, lens is the first point that light enters the camera, if you have poor lens in your camera module, no matter how amazing your image sensor and processing, you still get poor results. It is simple, really, as the saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out". A high quality lens ensures light is sufficiently, and efficiently captured, producing images with adequate sharpness, resolving fine details and rendering good contrast - all these are important to add the sense of realism to the image that is captured. Also, good optics have sufficient flaw management - minimizing distortion, purple fringing, flare, etc, which could lead to improved clarity and overall image quality. 

It is no surprise that the most important benefit Samsung will gain from this partnership with Olympus, is the lens expertise. Olympus is the leading optics specialist, not just in designing highly capable lenses for cameras, but also having the know how in mass-manufacturing them. Aki Murata (COO of OM Digital Solutions) in his recent interview with DPReview claimed that the current M.Zuiko PRO lens line-up from Olympus is ready to resolve up to 100MP resolution easily, yet the current Olympus cameras have only 20MP maximum resolution, they have over-engineered their lenses! Having superior lenses will immediately guarantee drastic improvement in Samsung's smartphone camera. After all, what is the point of having hundreds of Megapixels if your lens cannot even effectively resolve half of them? 

2. PROFESSIONAL GRADE IMAGE PROCESSING
In my reviews of Samsung S21 Ultra and Note20 Ultra, I have repeatedly complained about two things: the overly baked color rendition and over-processed images. 

The colors from Samsung smartphone cameras are usually a tad too high in saturation and contrast, looking consumer-friendly, having the punchy, vivid and bold look, as if the colors are screaming out of the screen. While most consumers appreciate the super bright and strong colors, these do not represent real photography. The job of the camera is to capture and represent colors as faithfully as possible. The colors should recreate reality, as seen in real life. Olympus color science is very good, with natural looking skin tone and overall true to life colors, and Samsung can clearly learn a thing or two about making their images look a bit more real, than cartoonish. 

I can see the necessity of HDR processing and aggressive sharpening with noise reduction, but they were all over-done. The HDR created images that look flat, with no depth and definition, while the night mode just destroyed all useful details and made the images look soft, fuzzy and plainly, looking ugly. Professionally processed images will just apply sufficient sharpening without going over-board, enough noise reduction to get rid of the noise without smearing useful details, and overall still maintaining the balance of images looking realistic. Olympus has one of the best JPEG engine out there, even DPReview and many large photoraphy review sites have consistently praised Olympus for having excellent straight out of camera images. Maybe Olympus will share their recipe for that amazing Truepic 9 image processing with Samsung through this partnership. 

3. IMPROVED RESPONSIVENESS
I don't know why but there is just too much lag in any smartphone cameras today, even the flagship, high end smartphones. 

Comparing to Olympus OM-D cameras, there is virtually no lag in the Electronic Viewfinder or LCD screen, with only 0.005s delay for E-M1X. With Samsung's latest flagship, even the S21 Ultra, there is a noticeable half a second lag, what you see on screen is already delayed! The AF is generally quite ok, but is also almost useless when shooting very fast moving subjects, or if you want the smartphone to respond immediately. Olympus OM-D AF is professional level and I have used the OM-D cameras for many years for my commercial shoots, including weddings and events where I need to move fast and capture fleeting moments. I seriously hope Samsung, or any other smartphone manufacturers pay attention to the serious lag issue and fix it! If they can't do it themselves, then get someone who can do it, like Olympus!

4. 5-AXIS IMAGE STABILIZATION
It is no secret that Olympus has the most powerful and effective image stabilization system in the market. No one else comes close. 

Having powerful image stabilization changes the game of photography altogether. Instead of using high ISO which will degrade the image quality drastically, you can use lower ISO numbers in low light with slow shutter speeds, as the image stabilization will steady the shot and get sharp, clean, noise-free results. Generally, image stabilization also increases the chance of getting shake-free shot multiple fold, and this is even more critical for high megapixel count cameras. What is the point of having so many Megapixels if each of your pixels are not optimized? The 5-Axis IS can ensure high per-pixel sharpness, increasing overall image quality output. 

The benefits of image stabilization also extends to video shooting. We have very good digital/electronic stabilization, with smooth, gimbal-like footage, but they also come with some compromises. Digital stabilization will introduce significant crop (20-30%), and the video sharpness will also be decreased. Having powerful mechanical image stabilization will effectively improve video quality, relying less on digital stabilization, much like how a gimbal/steadycam works. Olympus already has this technology - and porting it over to Samsung's smartphone camera will put them ahead of competition, no doubt!

There was another rumor about Olympus making a 200MP image sensor for Samsung, but we all know that Olympus does not make image sensors, and Samsung is more than capable in manufacturing their own image sensors, so I think that rumor does not carry much weight. Maybe they sought after Olympus' consultation in designing or optimizing the image sensor, and I hope the image sensor will be at least 1 inch in size, or even bigger. No point making smaller image sensors now, 1 inch image sensor, or if they can fit in anything bigger, will be beneficial, and show a dramatic improvement in overall image quality. 

Do take note that at this point, everything is still purely rumor and whatever I have shared in this blog entry were my own opinion and speculations. 

Do you think there is any truth to the rumor about Samsung getting Olympus to help them improve their cameras? Do you see any other benefit in engaging Olympus' expertise for Samsung's future smartphones? Do share your thoughts!

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3 comments:

Glen BArrington said...

I won't be disappinted if it is true. But we also need to think about what OMDS would get out of it. Certainly there should be access to newer sensor technology,that is a given. But I think there should also be a recognition that Olympus m43s is the official step up system for people looking to expand their horizons photographically. This should mean cross marketing opportunities, opening up Olympus software to be able to service Samsung images, special deals on Olympus branded photoservices (printing, personalized Book creation, etc.) The whole point should be to get the world of Samsung users to see Olympus as a respected photographic brand who is someone they would WANT to do business with.

fred schumacher said...

I think your critique of the limitations of smartphones as cameras are exactly on target. I have an iPhone 7, but the only time I use it as a camera is when I want to send a photo or video to my grandchildren's smartphones. Otherwise, I hate the ergonomics of the smartphone-as-camera. A phone is the clunkiest "camera" I have ever used in my life. I posted a long response on this subject to your video on 43rumors. I'll just repost it here. If you have any influence with the new OM, I hope you would forward it on. Thank you.

Smartphones are today's Instamatic cameras and are used as primary cameras for most people for the same reasons, inexpensive and easy to use. (Inexpensive in that the camera portion does not add much to the phone cost.) Smartphones are much better cameras than Instamatics, except for one factor, ergonomics. Smartphones, as flat plates, have terrible ergonomics as cameras.

This is where a real camera manufacturer can produce significant improvements in smartphone-as-camera ergonomics, and OM already has a starting point in the Tough TG line, the insides of which can be merged with a flat plate smartphone, by placing a hand grip on one side which would contain a folded zoom lens and camera controls.

My wife's Samsung phone dimensions are 72 x 145 x 10 mm. The LCD panel is 62 x 110 mm. The TG 6 dimensions are 62 x 110 x 30 mm., smaller than the smartphone except in thickness. Its LCD panel is 44 x 62 mm. The actual working thickness of the TG 6 is somewhere around 20 mm., only twice that of the phone. A lens/controls/hand grip could be placed on one side of the phone without increasing overall dimensions, except in thickness at the hand grip end.

The way I use my TG 6 one-handed is by squeezing the camera between a vertical thumb on the back side and middle and ring fingers on the front, leaving a gap on the front large enough for a 10 mm diameter lens, same as the TG 6 has. The TG 6 folded optics zoom lens and 1/2.3" sensor with IBIS could be contained inside the hand grip.

Most smartphone users opt to take photos vertically, that is, half-frame format as in the old Olympus Pens because that is the easiest way to hold a smartphone-as-camera. A hand grip along the long side of a smartphone would allow space for a larger sensor and zoom lens and an EVF/flash combination at the top, with the lens starting at the bottom of the hand grip and the user's hands placed in the middle. The TG 6 sensor is 4.55 x 6.17 mm. (28 mm2). A larger 2/3" sensor is 6.6 x 8.6 mm (58 mm2). A 4/3 sensor is 13.0 x 17.3 mm. (225 mm2). A 1" sensor is 8.8 x 13.2 mm (116 mm2).

Paul C said...

Robin - you were spot on "Smartphone cameras are too reliant on software to get results"

.....but given the limitations of smartphones in terms of size, price, what results- and crucially, how fast those results are improving!

So the future for cameras isn't just in the current craze for releasing huge heavy $1000 lenses at F1.6 rather than f2.0, but in harnessing those processing advances. Samsung, despite all its industry and investment, couldn't sustain camera production itself - even for compact cameras where they always came behind Lumix, Sony and Canon in terms of features and image quality.

Check out the Zeiss ZX1 - that is the first "flawed" model that signposts to where we are heading. Now it needs the expertise and energy of companies such as Samsung and Olympus to turn the advance of the ZX1 into an affordable and workable mainsteam camera for us all.....but why not Samsung/Olympus rather than Nikon, Canon, Fuji or Sony. To me, the race has just started - and ultimately the winners will be creative photographers who will get even more in-camera control and creativity.

So Robin, keep talking to your Olympus insiders and maybe we will get equipment in the years ahead that actually delivers rather than promises!

best wishes - Paul C