Samsung announced its first Galaxy S smartphone in the heady days of 2010, and at the time people were too jazzed by its 4-inch Super AMOLED screen and 1GHz processor to fret much about its cameras. The same could be said of Samsung itself — the company's original US press release mentioned them a grand total of zero times outside of the spec sheet.
Eleven years and millions of Galaxy phones later, cameras have become a crucial part of Samsung's smartphone identity. If you needed any proof, just look at the company's new flagship devices, which go on sale today. The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus pack four cameras apiece, while the high-end S21 Ultra sports five (and generally touts a greater emphasis on telephoto shooting). And while pundits and reviewers tend to go back and forth on the merits of Samsung's approach to cameras, most of them (myself included) were impressed with what the company pulled off this year.
That warm reception was music to Joshua Sungdae Cho's ears. After picking up two post-graduate degrees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, Cho signed on with Samsung in 2004 and rose through the ranks to become vice president and head of Samsung Mobile’s visual software R&D. In an exclusive conversation with Engadget, Cho — flanked by PR people and an interpreter in a small conference room in Korea — pulled back the curtain on how the company lands on a vibe for its image processing, highlighted the growing importance of AI and hinted at how the future of Samsung cameras may involve making your photos look totally different from mine.
If you've read any recent review of a premium Samsung smartphone — seriously, pick one at random — you'll probably find a bit that calls out the company's approach to image processing. Fine details in photos are noticeably sharpened, sometimes overly so. Depending on the year, you might find mention of Samsung auto-smoothing people's faces with a computational airbrush, though that's less of a problem this year. Maybe most notably, colors and brightness are amped up to the point where they look punchier and more appealing than reality. Like it or not, this is The Samsung Look, and we've been dealing with variations of it for years. But why is it what it is?
Well, you have your fellow users to blame — or thank, as the case may be.
Despite Cho's role as de facto head of camera R&D, he doesn't act as an impassioned visionary articulating what Samsung's pictures should look like. No single person does. Instead, Cho said through an interpreter that the company relies on in-house imaging experts and color scientists, along with a panel of professional photographers, to hone in on the factors that make photos eye-catching. But expert advice only takes Samsung so far; that's where the company's global survey comes in.
Every year, Samsung reaches out to thousands of customers in all of its major markets, from the US to Canada to Spain and China and beyond, to find out why they like the photos they like. At a high level, representatives ask these people — be it through focus group or distributed questionnaires — about their photographic preferences and the pain points they keep running into. The conversations can get pretty granular, though. In trying to suss out what people like about their favorite images, Cho says discussions can veer toward subjects like color tone and saturation, noise levels, sharpness of details, overall brightness and beyond, all so Samsung can tune its HDR models and its smart scene optimizer to deliver what he calls "perfectly trendy" photos.
In other words, if you don't like the way the S21 sharpens details and amps up saturation, you're not just disagreeing with Samsung — you're also disagreeing with everyone they polled. (Not that that's a bad thing.)
Samsung places a lot of weight on the results of this survey because it desperately wants to please everyone, even if it knows it can’t. How could it? The company accounts for roughly one-fifth of all the smartphones used around the world and individual tastes, nurtured through personal experience and shaped by shifts in culture, don't sit still for long. By gathering and chewing on all of this purely subjective information, though, Cho and his team are trying to capture a sense of a year's visual zeitgeist and reflect it back at you.