The Brains Behind Your Camera Gear

October 19, 2017

By Greg Scoblete

Behind every photo product lies teams of scientists and engineers. PDN spoke with several of them to learn what they’ve built, what they’re building and what they’d like to build next.

Courtesy of Hasselblad

Designing compact yet high-quality optics for Hasselblad’s camera systems keeps Per Nordlund busy.

Per Nordlund.

Per Nordlund, Hasselblad

Per Nordlund has a somewhat unusual academic background for someone designing lenses for medium-format cameras. He studied nuclear physics at Lund University and wrote a master’s thesis on reactor physics. Still, his interest in optics was evident in his school days when he also “took all the classes I could find in optical technology,” he says.

Nordlund joined Hasselblad in 1989 and he cut his teeth testing competitors’ lenses on the company’s new-at-the-time Modulation Transfer Function (MTF) tester. He gradually shifted to optical design work, where his first project was developing an eye piece for a viewfinder. His biggest challenge at Hasselblad was designing the firm’s HTS tilt-and-shift converter. Rather than build a few dedicated tilt-shift lenses, Hasselblad decided to build a single adapter to bring tilt-shift capabilities to a number of its lenses.

“From an optical design perspective, it was a challenge to reach the required high performance [in the] number of lenses [needed] to cover both wide-angle architecture applications and short telephoto product shot applications,” Nordlund says. It was also difficult mechanically to ensure tight tolerances while enabling large tilt and shifting movements. But the most time-consuming part, he notes, were the calculations and implementation of lens correction parameters. “Aberrations like distortion, vignetting and lateral color [become] unsymmetrical in the image when the lens system is tilted and shifted,” he says. To compensate, they created more than 200,000 output files from every possible combinations of settings and accessories to enable automatic corrections of those optical distortions.

Today, Nordlund is tackling another challenge: how to create high-performance yet compact lenses for Hasselblad’s new X1D camera.

For Nordlund, the pace of change in the medium-format market has been accelerating. “Ten years ago, we had the same CCD sensors and architecture with slow developments. Pixel counts changed now and then, but basically with the same functionality. Nowadays, there seems to be pixel increases and functionality additions with each generation.”

Courtesy of Sigma

Inside Sigma’s factory. Tomoki Kohno of Sigma studied plasma physics and has designed about 15 lenses.

Tomoki Kohno.

Tomoki Kohno, Sigma

Like several of the engineers we interviewed, Tomoki Kohno, manager of Sigma’s lens development department, majored in physics—with an emphasis on plasma—though he admits his “grasp of that topic is tenuous at best these days.”

Rather than studying the (no doubt fascinating) enigmas of ionized gas, Kohno put his knowledge to work designing lenses. His principle challenges at Sigma can be broken down into four domains: designing more compact yet higher-quality lenses; shortening the development period for the creation of new lenses; developing products that “surprise our customers”; and adjusting lenses for each camera company’s distinct mount.

“I would say that I have designed around 15 lenses so far,” as well as the DP Merrill and dp Quattro series of mirrorless cameras. Indeed, it’s his work on those two camera systems that Kohno says he’s most proud of.

Looking ahead, Kohno isn’t necessarily bullish on new tech such as curved image sensors. Instead, he sees the need for innovation around file security. “I think it’s necessary to find a safeguard against how easily files can vanish when an error is made,” he says. The rapid-fire innovations that marked the early period of digital photography have settled into a more predictable groove, he adds. That said, a move toward greater automation in photography threatens to strip some of the fun away “so even [as] performance and image quality improves, I want the experience of using cameras and lenses to largely remain the same.”

Tetsuya Toyoda.

Tetsuya Toyoda, Olympus

Theoretical physicists are often engaged with extremely esoteric matters: Why does time have an arrow? Do we live in a multiverse? What’s up with dark energy? And so on. Tetsuya Toyoda channeled his theoretical physics degree into something a bit more practical: making your camera work better.

Toyoda joined Olympus in 1992 where he initially worked on technology development for film cameras and image processing technologies for film scanners and later, digital cameras. He now serves as the General Manager for the Imaging Systems Development Division in Olympus’s Research & Development Group.

Toyoda and his team were responsible for the image quality performance of the E-1, Olympus’s first DSLR camera. You also have him and his team to thank for features such as Olympus’s Art Filters, focus stacking and High-Res Shot mode. He tells us he’s most proud of the work he’s done around on-chip phase detection autofocusing to help improve AF tracking of moving subjects.

“On-chip phase detection AF technology on mirrorless cameras is different from the phase detection AF technology in SLR cameras,” Toyoda explains. For mirrorless cameras, it requires developing not just the image sensor but AF algorithms and image processing engines so they work harmoniously.

Today Toyoda is tasked with shepherding the company’s technology strategy, particularly around image processing, autofocusing and application software development. Looking ahead, Toyoda sees improvements in sensor technology and multi-spectral imaging making possible the acquisition of far more information than cameras can now collect. That plus “a fusion of new technological innovations such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality can be expected to bring new kinds of imaging expressions,” he says.

Kentaro Tokiwa.

Kentaro Tokiwa, Fujifilm

Kentaro Tokiwa, who works at Fuji’s Optical Device & Electronic Imaging Products Development Center, studied at the Precision and Intelligence Laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. His first job at Fujifilm was developing the mechanical design of one of the first multi-megapixel compact cameras ever built.

For Tokiwa, successful product innovation means harmonizing the efforts of a cross-disciplinary team of engineers spanning mechanics, electronics and software. Marketers pitch in, too, providing insights from customers on desired features.

Today, Tokiwa works on features and improvements for both the X-mount and medium-format GFX-mount camera platforms. Both systems, but particularly the X-series, were catalyzed by the company looking ahead and seeing a decline in the traditional camera market due to the emergence of smartphone photography, he says. Today, when Tokiwa looks ahead he sees a convergence of still and video recording, thanks to improvements in image sensors and semiconductors alongside the continued miniaturization of cameras. Photography will embed itself in even more industries in the future, he predicts.

As for what he’d like to build, Tokiwa says he wants to preserve the realism of everyday life. That means not simply capturing visible details but “everything beyond what humans can recognize, the details, light, temperature, distance, maybe even smell…” to perfectly recreate moments in time.

Courtesy of Panasonic

The Venus Engine for Panasonic’s GH5. Processing power is integral to unlocking new capabilities in digital cameras, such as capturing and understanding richer data from the world around us.

Hiroki Takahara.

Hiroki Takahara, Panasonic

Hiroki Takahara, Panasonic’s General Manager of Product Engineering Department, played an instrumental role in developing the world’s first consumer 3D video camera, the HDC-TM750. The creation of the HDC-TM750 was a challenge, and an achievement he’s proud of. “As the 3D image is produced from two lenses, it was crucial to match the position of both,” Takahara says. “It was a huge challenge to avoid the vertical shift as even the slightest shift could affect the final image.” It took an “uncountable” number of tests to achieve a 3D image that wasn’t marred by this shift.

Where some of the engineers at work at imaging companies took a somewhat circuitous academic path to their current role, Takahara was well equipped for his gig when leaving school. He majored in electric- and electronic circuitry, acquiring the skills he now puts to use designing electronic circuits for Panasonic’s imaging division.

He joined the company in 1992 and was assigned to the product engineering department for Panasonic’s camcorders. “At the beginning, I was not in charge of the digital circuit design,” he recalls. “I started my career as an engineer of analogue circuits for camcorder accessories such as batteries, battery packs and DC lights.”

Today he leads the effort to commercialize Panasonic’s imaging products. What does the camera of the future look like to him? “The eternal theme of [photography] is how faithfully, beautifully and dramatically we can store the light of nature. It’s hard to say in one word but I believe there are still many things we can do in terms of digital technology and optical technology to realize footage that can impress people. In 20 years I assume cameras will be capable of not only 2D output but also be able to give virtual 3D experiences of precious moments.”