Why Chinese language smartphone manufacturers are shopping for European images experience

The launch of its flagship X80 model in Europe this Wednesday, June 15, was an opportunity for Vivo to reveal some details about its photographic partnership with German group Zeiss. This big name in optics is not the only European player to link with the Chinese group: Xiaomi recently signed with Leica (who previously worked with Huawei and Sharp), and Oppo has established a relationship with Hasselblad, whose outlines you can read in our interview with their cameraman.

Although no major smartphone maker is (anymore) European, the “old continent” is still at the center of all photography-related announcements. As much for historical reasons and real knowledge, so much for the image and relations between Asian countries.

Europe, the cradle of photography

Camera – History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital / Todd Gustavson (George Eastman House, Sterling Publishing, 2009) – Author’s personal collection.

Zeiss, Leica, Hasselblad and, in the past, Schneider / Kreuznach: four European companies used by Asian groups for their cameras (Samsung / Schneider) and for their smartphones (Sony / Zeiss, Vivo / Zeiss, Huawei / Leica, Sharp / Leica, Xiaomi / Leica). But without Asian or American brands. This though, between the history of Kodak and Polaroid on the one hand, and all Japanese groups on the other, most cameras produced between the 20th and 21st centuries come from these two countries.

One of the obvious reasons is that these electronic groups need external skills (as do all industrial groups). And for the youngest of these companies, the need for support, advice and legitimacy. And Europe, as the cradle of photography, seems to be the best positioned continent – and its population, which is one of the richest in the world, knows, at least by name, these great names in photography.

Camera - the history of photography from daguerreotype to digital / Todd Gustavson (George Eastman House, Sterling Publishing, 2009)

In the game of photographic influence, the big winners are the Germans. And the losers? The British and the French. If competition between the two countries gave birth to photography and the first war of technology and devices, their industries were quickly swept away. From the Americans and Germans at the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century, then by the Japanese from the beginning of the 20th century. The Japanese who have established almost complete world domination: Canon, Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Sigma, Fujifilm, Panasonic or even Ricoh / Pentax are all Japanese companies.

With a few remnants on the optical side (Angénieux) and the case of Pixie’s horrific adventure, France is holding back and trying to recreate the know-how. But most of what is left in France in terms of image is focused on defense and space. And it doesn’t weigh much compared to the German titan Zeiss.

Is it a European choice of coquetry or romanticism? If one should not be deceived by certain marketing goals of “new” companies to rely on prestigious brands, the reality is that there is real knowledge in Europe. But when it is often misidentified.

European know-how is not what you think

Zeiss has developed a system for simulating optical rendering by generating a digital duplicate with characteristics equivalent to the target optical.  This significantly reduces development costs.
Zeiss has developed a system for simulating optical rendering by generating a digital duplicate with characteristics equivalent to the target optical. This significantly reduces development costs. /

Two types of discourse often appear among Sunday commentators: It’s just marketing “or vice versa” They are the ones who do everything because the brand knows nothing about photography “. Both of these claims are clearly incorrect.

But it is good to remember a few truths: no brand works independently and European knowledge is not necessary in optical design as we too often imagine. “ We do not develop real optical designs explained Benjamin Völker, optical designer at Zeiss. ” But we have been involved in its design from the very beginning. Not only with our partner, but also with a whole horde of suppliers such as sensor suppliers such as Sony or Samsung, optical design offices, manufacturers of optical units such as Sunny Optical, etc. Zeiss, like Leica, therefore provides less magical formulas than design qualifications, material recommendations, optical defect simulations, etc.

The development and production of optics for smartphones is very complex explains Oliver Schindelbeck, senior manager of smartphone technology at Zeiss. ” A good analogy is that with car manufacturers who integrate the products of their subcontractors. In this process, we act as photo coordinators “.

Between the historical knowledge gained from the sale of optics and cameras and the very rigorous color culture of the old continent, Asian groups benefit from welcome support. Support that could come from Japan, right? How is it that the country of the largest photographic groups in the world is not the leading destination of these Asian industrialists?

Japanese groups are struggling to cooperate

View of the island enclave of Deshima, in the port of Nagasaki, the only place where Dutch navigators could disembark for trade - Kawahara Keiga (川 原 慶賀) (1800-1820) - Public property, British Museum.
View of the island enclave of Deshima, in the port of Nagasaki, the only place where Dutch navigators could disembark for trade – Kawahara Keiga (川 原 慶賀) (1800-1820) – Public property, British Museum.

In recent years, there have been many speculations and rumors about the “Nikon phone”, “Canon phone”, etc. The rumors not only never came true, but are, moreover, contrary to real examples: for his photo part, the Japanese Sharp last year addressed Leica, and not one of these compatriots. Unfortunately, to our knowledge, there is no special study on the lack of synergy between Japanese photo groups and Asian companies. We must limit ourselves to asking questions of elements that cannot be quantified.

The first is the perfectly proven cliché that Japanese companies are sacred secrets. The culture of working in silos and stinginess of details, we experience every day on 01net.com: after more than 15 years of often bypassing photo briefings, Japanese engineers win, in our opinion, the award for the quietest interlocutors. When we are invited to see their research center and their factories, you literally have to put pressure on them and grab them (we don’t even have to drag worms at this level anymore!) To be able to write something just trivial – read the final article in this article “We cannot comment” field.

Japan’s photographic power collides with history

Japanese camera brands Imperial

To this quiet side let us add the almost complete insulating character of this industry. Sony, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sigma, Panasonic and Ricoh / Pentax look at each other like earth dogs and are afraid that engineers will sting them – in some cases it’s just a matter of crossing the road! This paranoia is logically even greater with other Asian countries accelerating their industrialization at a time when Japan is suffering.

Finally, there is history, and especially that of imperialist Japan, a dark period that stretches from the mid-19th century to the end of World War II. Between various Sino-Japanese wars, the Nanjing massacre, the terrible occupation of the Korean Peninsula, etc. The behavior of Japanese soldiers has left its mark on current international relations. Frequent visits by Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine (where many war criminals are buried) regularly provoke Chinese anger. And the refusal of various Japanese governments to acknowledge the crimes committed in Korea – such as the state of “comfort women” – does not leave them in the scent of holiness on the peninsula.

European brands more neutral?

While economic competition and emotional charge towards the Japanese are strong, the physical and cultural distance (as well as significant differences in business volume) with Europeans makes them more attractive.

We must add to this that many Chinese interlocutors we met in various photo departments of smartphone brands emphasize the “cultural heritage” of Europe. With an almost romantic perception of the continent and what it conveys to them: less densely populated cities with less irresistible perspectives, sensitivity to warmer colors and less saturated tones.

Far from being just image agreements (even if there were any), modern contracts between European image experts are a gift from God to Asian groups. Which not only benefit from real knowledge and a good image in Europe, while eliminating all the friction that mentioning the Japanese group could have on the terminals. On the side of Zeiss and other Leic, these deals bring in money, consolidate and develop know-how and allow the brand to shine at a lower cost.

And what about the influence of France, will you tell me?

DxO, a Frenchman who broke away

The homeland of Daguerre, Angénieux and Cartier-Bresson has one of the strongest photographic cultures in the world. But the industrial heritage around boxes disappeared in the 20th century – even if David Barth’s Pixii company tried to recreate the ecosystem. We have to dive to the side of our “mathematical school” and DxO. In the past, DxO had an “embedded electronics” department that did more or less the same job as Zeiss or Leica – the camera module of the shut down Pré de Palma was therefore developed together with DxO. After it went bankrupt, DxO closed this division and some of the engineers ended up in the French GoPro unit in Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Then what was left of the company was divided into two separate entities: DXO Labs, which publishes software – Photolab, Filmpack, etc. And DXO Mark, who regained the test and qualification system for sensors and optics (and now smartphones and microphones) from the former entity. DXO Mark continues to publish its photographic classification of boxes and smartphones, and still sells software for laboratory testing (Analyzer).

Is he also involved in engineering consulting or even upstream joint development like Zeiss? Maybe, but his classification model is not ideal, because it is difficult (impossible?) To judge and judge. In any case, if there is still knowledge in France, it is far from the power of the German Zeiss, both in technology and in marketing – no smartphone has ever been stamped “made with DXO”. But you never have to say never.

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