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Nikon 1 Exclusive: Interview with Masahiro Suzuki, General Manager R&D, Nikon Imaging Company
(Thursday, September 22, 2011 - 18:32 EDT)

Imaging Resource Publisher Dave Etchells had a few minutes to sit down with Masahiro Suzuki at the Nikon 1 rollout in New York the other day, and took the opportunity to discuss the new model line and some of the technology that went into creating it. Mr. Suzuki is the General Manager, Research & Development Department, Development Headquarters, Imaging Company, and managed the team that created the new products.

Interview with Masahiro Suzuki, General Manager of Research and Development Department, Development Headquarters, Imaging Company, Nikon Corporation

Dave Etchells: Mr Suzuki, you were in charge of development for the new Nikon1 product line, but we're curious where the rest of the team came from. Were the engineers from the Coolpix or SLR sides of the house.

Masahiro Suzuki (through translator): [smiles] We combined efforts, we took several people from DSLR and also from Coolpix,  and combined them.

DE: Very interesting, that makes a lot of sense for products like these. This next is not so much a technical question, but I'm curious: In the product briefing, the presenters described Nikon 1 customers as being not Coolpix customers, not SLR customers, but rather a new sort of customers. What sorts of cameras do you think those people are using now? Are these people that are using Coolpix, but they want more? Or are they people using SLRs, and they want less?

MS: Basically, they’re currently compact-only users, but who are eager to step up, seeking a better quality image; but who feel that a DSLR would be too much, because of the complexity, or the bigger size. So, there's some hesitation for a DSLR.

DE: Okay, so it's kind of the traditional customer that the industry is seeing as the compact system camera user; people that are stepping up who don't want the complexity or size of DLSRs.

MS: Mmm, yes.

DE: We're curious; what led Nikon to develop its own system, rather than joining Micro Four Thirds, or some other existing system. How did that decision come about?

MS: When we started with this development, it was quite some time ago, it was prior to the Micro Four Thirds launch. So we were actually some steps ahead of those guys, and our aim was to achieve the most for image quality and high performance--especially for speed--responsiveness, compactness, and ease of use. Those factors combined led to this camera. So rather than adopting Micro Four Thirds, we believe this new format is better.

DE: And this development began well before the Micro Four Thirds was announced.

MS: Yes. Especially when it comes to lens size; DX format and Four Thirds lenses are bigger; a smaller sensor was essential to achieving compactness.

DE: Yes, yes. We immediately noticed how compact these lenses are. So actually, you said development began before Micro Four Thirds was announced. How long have you been working on this?

MS: Almost four years.

DE: Wow!

MS: Out of those four years, the first two years was for early-stage development. After that, it was for the production stage.

DE: So essentially, you had two years of early engineering, and then two years of preparing to manufacture. I can imagine it's quite an investment in manufacturing, because you have a whole collection of lenses, and two camera bodies, so it's a significant investment.

MS: Yes, absolutely!

DE: How did you decide on the size of the sensor? What were the trade-offs that you evaluated, and why do you feel that this particular size is the best choice?

MS: This was the answer from the initial development stage, as what gave the best result overall. The first priority was for quality; image quality. The second priority was for responsiveness; speed like SLR. The third priority was for ease of use, good handling and good compactness. The perfect honing of these three priorities led us to this sensor size.

DE: And you mentioned one inch. So using the videcon parlance (you know, terms like 1/1.8-inch, 1/2.5-inch), this is a one inch, 1/1-inch size sensor? [Editors note: In conventional units, the sensor size is 13.2 x 8.8mm.]

MS: Yes.

DE: Okay. So to use the larger sensor, obviously the cameras would have been slightly larger. But you felt you could get good enough image quality; that you could meet your image quality objectives with this size sensor?

MS: We are quite confident that we achieved almost exactly the same quality as our DSLR.

DE: (surprised) The same quality as DSLRs.

MS: Yes...Please evaluate! (laughs)

DE: Yes, obviously, we'll test and we'll hold you to that! That's very interesting, because this is a much smaller sensor, but you say the same quality.

MS: Mm-hmm.

DE: One of the pre-announcement rumors that turned out to be true was the cameras' high-speed capabilities. At IR, we have a little concern because, we've seen some very high-speed CMOS sensor-based cameras in the past, but image quality was not very good. Can you say anything about what you did to achieve good image quality, in combination with that very high speed? Were there things you did on the sensor that are different from other CMOS sensors?

MS: The major difference from the others is that this camera's image sensor has embedded phase detection AF, so that achieves very fast focusing. Also, that enables this camera for the end-user to have a Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector; those two big advantages are also enabled by that sensor, as well as full High-Definition movies.

DE: Maybe I can ask that question slightly differently: In making such a high-speed sensor, what challenges did that present; to maintain image quality, with that high speed?

MS: It wasn't only for the image sensor itself, but we also newly developed the EXPEED 3 image processor, that has two processing pipelines, and that is five-times faster than the current DSLR, than the D3.

DE: Five times faster than the D3? Wow.

MS: That's right. That's the reason why this camera has such a good image quality.

DE: Because you have a lot of processing power…

MS: And also the reading out.

DE: How is the data read out so fast? I know the D3 had multiple channels of read-out on the sensor; does this have many parallel channels for read-out as well?

MS: Twenty-four channels.

DE: Twenty-four channels, wow. Twenty-four channels, and then two completely separate image processing pipelines.

MS: D3’s analog output has twelve lines…

DE: Twelve lines? And this has twenty-four?

MS: Yes, and these are digital output… The D3 had analog output, and this is digital.

DE: Data comes from the sensor digitally here?

MS: Yes. Actually, that makes it much faster.

DE: Ah, so A to D is on the sensor, and you have twenty-four channels coming off, and each one of those is digital.

MS: Yes, yes.

DE: Very interesting. And that also helps noise and image quality, because you're not having to move the analog data, you can digitize it right there.

MS: Yes, exactly.

DE: Okay, very interesting. It's amazing how much more powerful this is than the D3, in this little package.

MS: Of course, we don't deny our DSLR.

DE: Oh, no, no. Well, what this says, too, is how much more powerful your next DSLR will be now.

MS: (laughter)

DE: Either that, or the next D3 will only cost $600

MS: (much laughter) Big pressure for him! (Translator's comment, directed toward Mr. Suzuki.)

DE: On the sensor, we at Imaging Resource were very glad to see that it was 10 megapixels, not 16, or 20, or something. Do you think consumers will accept 10 megapixels? I think people that know a lot about image quality will say, "Oh, 10 megapixels, great!" But consumers that aren't as aware; they may see 10 megapixels here but 16 over here, and they may want more. How will you communicate about this to the customers?

MS: Our message will be that image resolution is not everything. We offer you additional value. The image quality from 10 megapixel sensor is excellent, good enough for the kind of use that consumers make of their pictures, even for quite big enlargements. On top of that, the Motion Snapshot, the Smart Photo Selector, and the movie, all those kind of new elements are things these cameras have to offer. So we'll communicate these additional benefits to the end-user as well.

DE: So the key will be to not just sell them numbers...

MS: That's right, totally. Focus on the whole function.. Make sense?

DE: Yes, yes. We're very happy to see people fighting against the megapixel race, so... If the image quality is there, we'll be very supportive, because we want to educate people that sometimes, fewer pixels are better.

MS: We try too.

DE: Again on the sensor… So people tend not to think of Nikon as a sensor company. Did you develop the sensor with another company? Is there a partner you work with, who does make sensors? What was the genesis of the sensor? How did it come about?

MS: We developed it; we engineered and developed this sensor inside Nikon. But for the production side, that is done by our partner.

DE: Okay, so you did all the engineering in house? You have your own sensor engineers now?

MS: Yes.

DE: Turning to the lenses, were there challenges for designing smaller lenses like this? What was different about engineering these lenses; what difficulties did you overcome in developing them?

MS: The starting point for us is the sensor size, everything flows from that.

DE: So it's not particularly more difficult to make a lens for this sensor size, versus full frame or any other size; you just do what you've always done making lenses, but now starting with the target being a smaller sensor. The engineering's really the same?

MS: Yes, for the engineering side, and development side,. Also on the production side, it's easier.

DE: Easier to make them smaller?

MS: Yes. The major difference point is, depending on lens type, for the focusing areas (gesturing) are so much different from this compared to DSLR, DX Nikkor, so that part is more difficult to make.

DE: Ah - So the focusing has to be particularly precise? Let me ask, will there be adapters to mount F-mount lenses on this?

MS: Yes.

DE: Yes. And presumably, that will only be F-mounts with the motor built inside, so no body motor so it has to be the motorized lenses?

MS: Yes, with the AF-S lens, it can be used.

DE: We're running short on time now, so this will be my last question, then - Let me ask you to take out your crystal ball and look into the future: If we come back ten years from now, and look at the Nikon product line then, we'll find consumer SLRs (like the current D3100 and D5100) and we'll also have cameras like this. Ten years from now, will it be 10% Nikon1 type and 90% SLR?, or will it be 90% compacts and 10% SLR?

MS: At this moment we don't know what will happen in ten years, there is no crystal ball available at Nikon's side at this moment; we'll have to see consumer’s reaction after we launched this one into the market.

DE: So, no one's that smart; you need to see what the market wants and what the consumers want to do.

MS: That's right. This year, we feel that we will capture or maintain, or even grow the business for DSLR as well; these new products are creating practically a new market.

DE: So you don't see these cannibalizing DSLRs? DSLRs grow separately, as will the new compact system cameras?

MS: Yes.

DE: OK. Very good! Thank you very much Suzuki-san, we appreciate your time!

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