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November 6, 2013

The camera maker and the picture taker, part one

During Nokia World Abu Dhabi, Conversations brought together National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez and the man leading the team behind Nokia’s imaging technologies, Juha Alakarhu.


Although they’d spoken previously, they’d never met. We spent an hour with these two imaging masterminds, each famous for their contribution to photography from either side of the lens.

Stephen had just found out that RAW support was coming to the current crop of high-end Lumia smartphones and was genuinely excited. It was something he’d wanted to ask Juha about during their previous phone discussions, but felt “it would be too much to ask”.

Juha outlined that actually RAW support was something he’d been toying with for a long time. Having arranged for the two of them to “interview” each other for this piece, RAW support was actually Stephen’s answer to Juha’s first question “what would you like to see next?”

And this was all before pleasantries were properly covered off. However, what followed was a fascinating insight into the passion these two have for their subject and the mutual respect each has for the other’s craft.


The design process

Stephen Alvarez – I’ve got a question about the design process. Other manufacturers seem to come at design from a “what can we sell” and then “what can we build economically”. You put a 41-million-pixel sensor into a phone, so clearly your design process is different. Are you coming from a place more like “what can we build?” and worry about it later?

Juha Alakarhu – It’s an interesting question. I don’t know how other companies are doing it. But at Nokia, we have a very strong team in imaging, with strong characters and we have been pushing things that may seem impossible. Maybe the most important thing in our development process is that we have developed very accurate metrics for image quality. For example, the low light performance or image sharpness. Our internal camera development process is based purely on these metrics: so, we talk about the subjective image quality rather than camera specs. This process kind of automatically pushes us to develop things that make the image quality great, like oversampling or optical image stabilization.


When we came up with this idea of the 41-megapixel sensor to tackle the dilemma of optical zoom. I think the initial reaction from everyone in Nokia at that time was “wow, let’s do it”. But then the challenge was how we make it pocketable and still have great imaging performance. We have a lot of experience of putting a big image sensor into small pocket, and, of course, it would not have been possible without that experience. In the end, it is so rewarding to see the results in our hands after so many years of development.


The role of the professional photographer

JA – You are a professional photographer and you see for example what teenagers do today. Their communication is so visual. The way to say hello from Abu Dhabi is to take a picture on the beach and then share it. Taking amazingly good images is becoming very easy. Technology gets better and also people are grown in the world of visual communication. For a professional photographer what kind of opportunities or challenges does this represent?

SA – That central question of photography – how to make a living in a world that is saturated with great images? You make a couple of interesting points. One is the way to say hello from Abu Dhabi is to take a picture of it and send it. To communicate visually across a vast distance.


I think people are primarily visual communicators. I think the world of writing and texting is important but it’s kind of a blip in human history. Mostly we’ve communicated visually our entire 200,000 year existence. This democratisation of imaging that you’re bringing about is really exciting because it’s bringing it back to the forefront.

People are more visually literate now than they’ve ever been. They see images all the time and they’re beginning to be able to discern a good picture from a bad picture in a way that they couldn’t 20 years ago. And that’s a really exciting time to be a photographer.

It means you’ve got a whole lot more competition. However if you don’t think you could compete with that, why are you involved? It’s an interesting time.


JA – I can also imagine that people who communicate visually with photographs since their childhood days, when they then see some amazing pictures taken by professionals they are really like “wow”. People learn to “see” good images and respect them.

SA – It inspires them because they realise what went into it. Take Steve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” – pointing to the October cover of National Geographic and one of the 20th century’s most iconic images – that was not an accident. There’s a lot that goes into making those images that have so much staying power.



The evolution of digital

JA – You’ve been really positive about that evolution to digital and now smartphones.

SA – The river is going one way so why try and swim in the other direction? There are so many great things about it. The ability to communicate visually is fantastic. My question back is, in enabling that part of your design process, and enabling the ability to share, is that what drives you to make these innovations?

JA – We have a team that has been working together, learning together, and growing for more than 10 years. It is so inspiring to work in this team. If I have a new algorithm in my camera prototype, I can’t live with myself unless I go out and start taking pictures and then I spend the whole night analysing them and making the whole family crazy.

Working with cameras is so exciting. That’s the first thing. You can immediately show the difference. You can immediately tell your grandmother, “Look, I created this”. Or you can also hear the grandmother say, “Hey this is image is too dark. Can you fix it?”


Whatever you do, it’s always visible to everybody and it’s amazing to think that the decisions we make impact the lives of so many.

I remember when I joined Nokia in 2004, I went to some image sensor training. It was five days and the professor told us that when he was young, his professor told him that “you should learn imaging, because imaging is the language of the future”. And then in 2004 he told me “I can tell you exactly the same, that imaging is the language of the future”. I can definitely see that is the case. People are visual animals.

We conclude this 2-part series here, with reflections on what imaging means for young people in the twenty-first century, and where Nokia might go next with imaging technologies.