Why Chinese smartphone brands are snapping up European photo expertise

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

While no major smartphone manufacturer is (any longer) European, the “old continent” is nevertheless at the heart of all announcements related to photography. As much for historical reasons and real know-how, as for reasons of image and relations between Asian countries.

Europe, the cradle of photography

Camera – A History of Photography from Daguerrotype 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 that Asian groups have used for their cameras (Samsung/Schneider) and for their smartphones (Sony/Zeiss, Vivo/Zeiss, Huawei/Leica , Sharp/Leica, Xiaomi/Leica). But no Asian or American brands. This even though, between the history of Kodak and Polaroid on the one hand, and of all the Japanese groups on the other, most of the 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 (like all industrial groups). And for the youngest of these companies, a need for support, advice and legitimacy. And Europe being the cradle of photography, the continent seems the best placed – and its population, which is one of the richest in the world, knows, at least by name, these great names in photography.

Camera – A History of Photography from Daguerrotype 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 it was the competition between these two countries that gave birth to photography and the first war of technologies and devices, their industries were quickly swept away. By the Americans and the Germans at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century, then by the Japanese from the beginning of the 20th century. Japanese people who have established almost total 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 case with the formidable adventure of Pixii, France retains and tries to recreate know-how. But most of what remains in France in terms of image is focused on defense and aerospace. And does not weigh much against the Germanic titan that is Zeiss.

Is the European choice a coquetry or a romanticism? If we should not delude ourselves into certain marketing objectives of “new” companies to rely on prestigious brands, the reality is that there is real know-how in Europe. But who is often misidentified.

European know-how is not what you think

Zeiss has developed an optical rendering simulation system by generating a digital double with characteristics equivalent to the target optical.  This significantly reduces development costs.
Zeiss has developed an optical rendering simulation system by generating a digital double with characteristics equivalent to the target optical. This significantly reduces development costs. /

Two types of discourse frequently emerge among Sunday commentators: It’s just marketing “or conversely” They are the ones who do everything because the brand knows nothing about photography “. Both of these assertions are obviously false.

But it is good to remember a few truths: no brand works independently and European know-how is not necessarily in the optical design as we too often imagine. “ We do not develop the actual optical designs explained Benjamin Völker, optical designer at Zeiss. ” But we are involved in its design from the start. Not only with our partner, but also with the whole horde of suppliers such as sensor providers like Sony or Samsung, optical design offices, optical unit manufacturers like Sunny Optical, etc. “. Zeiss, like Leica, therefore provides less a magic formula than design qualifications, material recommendations, simulations of optical defects, etc.

The development and production flows of smartphone optics are very complex explains Oliver Schindelbeck, Senior Smartphone Technology Manager at Zeiss. ” The good analogy is that of car manufacturers who integrate the products of their subcontractors. In this process, we act as the coordinators of the photo part “.

Between the historical know-how acquired by selling optics and cameras and the very rigorous color culture of the old continent, Asian groups benefit from welcome support. Support that could just as well come from Japan, right? How is it that the land of the biggest photographic groups in the world is not the flagship destination of these Asian industrialists?

Japanese groups struggle to cooperate

View of the island enclave of Deshima, in the port of Nagasaki, the only place where Dutch navigators could land to trade - Kawahara Keiga (川原慶賀) (1800-1820) - Public domain, British Museum.
View of the island enclave of Deshima, in the port of Nagasaki, the only place where Dutch navigators could land to trade – Kawahara Keiga (川原慶賀) (1800-1820) – Public domain, British Museum.

Many speculations and rumors have circulated in recent years about a “Nikon phone”, a “Canon phone”, etc. Rumors not only never materialized, but what is more are contradicted by real examples: for its photo part, the Japanese Sharp last year appealed to Leica and not to one of these compatriots. Unfortunately, to our knowledge, there is no specific study on the absence of synergies between Japanese photo groups and Asian companies. We must confine ourselves to framing the question with non-quantifiable elements.

The first is the perfectly proven cliché that Japanese companies are shrines to secrecy. The culture of working in silos and the avarice of details, we experience it daily at 01net.com: after more than 15 years of often very evasive photo briefs, Japanese engineers win, in our opinion, the prize for the most silent interlocutors. When they invite us to see their research center and their factories, you literally have to put pressure on them and snatch them (we don’t even have to pull the worms at this level anymore!) to succeed in writing something else only trivialities – in this article, read the final box “We cannot comment”.

Japanese photographic power collides with history

Japan Camera Brands Imperial

To this silent side, let’s add the almost total insular character of this industry. Sony, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sigma, Panasonic and Ricoh/Pentax look at each other like earthenware dogs and are afraid of being stung by their engineers – in some cases, it is precisely just a question of crossing the road! This paranoia is logically even greater with the other Asian countries which are accelerating their industrialization at a time when Japan is suffering.

Finally, there is the history and in particular that of imperialist Japan, a dark period which extends from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the Second World War. Between the various Sino-Japanese wars, the Nanking massacre, the terrible occupation of the Korean peninsula, etc. The behavior of Japanese soldiers has left its mark on current international relations. The frequent visits of Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni shrine (where many war criminals are buried) regularly attract Chinese ire. And the refusal of the various Japanese governments to recognize the atrocities perpetrated in Korea – as the fate of “ comfort women – does not put them in the odor of sanctity in the peninsula.

European brands more neutral?

While the economic competition and the emotional charge vis-à-vis the Japanese is strong, the physical and cultural distance (as well as the notable differences in business scope) with the Europeans makes them more attractive.

We must also add to this that many Chinese interlocutors that we were able to meet in the various photo departments of smartphone brands underline the “cultural heritage” of Europe. With an almost romantic perception of the continent and what it conveys for them: less dense cities with less overwhelming perspectives, a sensitivity to warmer colors and less saturated tones.

Far from being just image agreements (even if there were any), modern contracts between European image specialists are godsend for Asian groups. Which not only benefit from real know-how and a good image in Europe, while eliminating any friction that the mention of a Japanese group could have on the terminals. On the side of the Zeiss and other Leica, 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 has spun off

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 company Pixii tries to recreate an ecosystem. It is on the side of our “mathematical school” and of DxO that we must dive. In the past, DxO had an “on-board electronics” division which did more or less the same work as Zeiss or Leica – the camera module of the defunct Pré de Palm had thus been co-developed with DxO. After going into receivership, DxO closed this division and some of the engineers ended up in the French unit of GoPro in Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Then, what remained of the company was split into two separate entities: DXO Labs which publishes software – Photolab, Filmpack, etc. And DXO Mark, which recovered 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 cases and smartphones, and still markets lab test software (Analyze).

Does it also do engineering consulting or even upstream co-development like Zeiss? Perhaps, but its classification model is not ideal, since it is difficult (impossible?) to be both judge and judged. In any case, if there is a know-how still alive in France, it is far from the power of the German Zeiss, both in techniques and in marketing – no smartphone has ever been stamped “made with DXO”. But you should never say never.

Leave a Comment