Interview: HTC’s Imaging Specialist Symon Whitehorn on the new HTC One (M8)
San Francisco-based Brit Symon Whitehorn is billed as HTC’s Imaging Specialist. He’s the guy who has hands-on input at the planning stage and works closely with the engineering team when it comes to the camera and photographic aspects of Taiwanese manufacturer HTC’s phones.
As a former Kodak employee and a fan of Leica film cameras, Symon claims to be a photo enthusiast first and foremost. So who better to outline the thinking behind the dual cameras, dual sensors, plus continued use of ‘ultrapixels’ in HTC’s shiny new smartphone, the £529 HTC One (M8), which updates the M7?
On behalf of PhotographyBlog, Gavin Stoker interviewed Symon in London to discover what the new phone holds in store for photographers, why it purports to put a lot more tools in the their hands than ever before, and in the process provides a fascinating insider’s view of the development process…
PBlog: The interesting thing about the HTC One phones to a casual observer is this whole thing about ‘ultrapixels’ versus megapixels, and what you claim your advantage is. Do you think you’ve got that message across? Because people will naturally look at a high end phone with 12 or 13 megapixels and assume that’s better than a mere four ‘ultrapixels’ with HTC.
Symon Whitehorn, HTC: Yeah, we always knew that was going to be a difficult conversation. But essentially that metric is meaningless to people who understand the technology. That’s not to say megapixels aren’t valuable, they are. But we wanted to talk about pixel-well size, light absorption and signal noise. Which, frankly, after a point contribute more to usable image quality. I think HTC has been brave to try and change the conversation. I used to work at Kodak and got to spend time with the guys who invented the digital camera. The most frustrating thing for them was conversations going in the wrong direction as far as they were concerned. But as far as the situations we find ourselves in as photographers 90% of the time the problem is light. Or rather we are struggling for more light.
PBlog: That’s true. But do you not feel there’s more work to be done educating the audience for smartphones as to what contributes to a great looking picture? Because the idea of you needing a high pixel count first and foremost is very entrenched.
HTC: I think that’s a fair statement but we did have a great response to the M7. Feedback has shown people enjoy the pictures they’re getting. Obviously if you’re going to attempt pictures of something that’s three miles away you’re going to highlight some issues. But there are other commodities coming along that can solve that problem. The message we want to get across to people is that because you have much better low light performance, you can do more with the images.
PBlog: Is this concentration on achieving a better low light performance based on consumer feedback?
HTC: Let’s face it – it’s not just people wanting to take better images at night. Even in a dim room at a kids’ party with fast moving children the ability to capture more light is always going to be better. Even indoors on a cloudy day can be a challenging situation. We’ve considered the daily photographic – or video – challenges that people have, and how we can help them.
PBlog: There has been criticism in early reviews of the HTC One M8 of images looking over exposed or washed out when shooting in bright light. That’s if the phone is left on its default settings.
HTC: Did they try the exposure control I wonder? Part of us going all out to optimise the performance was making those sort of controls more readily accessible. When you’re in the camera mode you can drop the exposure compensation setting down. We offer +/- 2EV, which frankly seems to be enough for most. But the beautiful thing about this is, that for someone who really wants to, you can ‘build’ you own camera, essentially. I often drop the sharpness right down because I want to do other stuff with my images.
PBlog: So when we talk about ‘building’ a camera, what you’re really saying is there’s the ability to customise settings to suit?
HTC: Yes. It’s a really nice tool. If you’re shooting outside, or you're a beach photographer, maybe, then you can set different exposure values.
PBlog: I know previous generations of this phone limited the still image aspect ratio to just 16:9. Is that still the case with the M8 version?
HTC: You can actually now do 4:3 and 1:1 on this model. An I’m campaigning to get 3:2 back in, as it’s my favourite. 16:9 was chosen because we know the majority of people will just view their images on screen. It comes with such a beautiful screen that we want to show that off. That is why the sharpening algorithm’s where it is, by default. If you want to print from it I’d suggest you drop the sharpening down. But we’re imagining 90% of people will just look at their shots onscreen.
PBlog: Why weren’t 4:3 and 1:1 included in the previous M7 model, out of interest?
HTC: I’m not sure I can answer that right now. But there may be a software update. The development cycle of HTC is so fast paced that we get to what is really important right away and learn from our customers. We also know a lot of people will crop their pictures afterwards, if they really care that much. By working with the product planning team I ‘interface’ a lot with the engineering team and I like to roadmap and define the camera needs, and actually build a path for us to develop. We’re already working on what’s coming down the pipe next.