On Samsung’s Open Source Approach and What It Means for Photographers and Photography as a Whole


We photographers like to talk gear and in a way we are all geeks. The late great Ansel Adams even made a name out of how to best utilize gear in the form of the fabled Zone System. But there is another side to us photographers too, very much out of geek’s way. In short, we are very conservative. It would take a whole lot to sway us from any established norm in our realm. And that brings us to the topic this article. Yes, there is a new trend sneaking in and I am not talking about whether mirrorless will take over from DSLR though the gear in question is indeed a mirrorless, namely the Samsung NX2000 and Samsung’s new flagship, the NX300. It’s all about the firmwares these cameras run on. What makes these firmwares special are not the firmwares themselves nor the cameras. It’s the action that Samsung has taken with the firmware that interests me and should interests everyone interested in photography. It’s open source — Samsung’s Open Source Release Center has published the cameras’ open source firmwares. Anyone can use and alter them.

But the question is: what does it have to do with us photographers and photography in general, and what does it have to do with us being geeks or conservatives. To answer that, we must first have a basic understanding of what open source and open source culture are and how they are shaping our surroundings. For a start: open source is not a new thing first and foremost. In its most earliest form it had been targeting softwares and namely software source codes. But let’s make this more simple. What open source basically does is it lets the publisher of any material (usually intellectual property) publish that piece of material under an open source license (most common one being that of GNU/GPL and all its derivatives). That in turn infers that anyone can freely take that content, use it, modify it and redistribute it — as long as it’s redistributed under the term the license it came from (which basically mean its again freely available to anyone open source manner).

The underlying culture of that is to allow users to freely choose whatever that might help him or her to best do the job, and if there is no such tools, he or she is empowered to build his or her own out of the foundation that others provide (in that open source software) and in turn contribute into that pool of tools and resources. Sounds familiar, oh yes. It’s nothing less than the geek’s version of Flickr, Facebook, whatever. Except instead of sharing with friends, it’s sharing with the world. In fact the whole copyleft movement and the creative commons culture is one that which grown out of open source.

Most of us share photos online and not just to friends either and his very act is very much a by product of the Net, the social medias, and yes it’s very much a development that’s brought upon by the culture libre fostered by open source. Thus it should came as no surprise that Samsung, among all of both old and new photography equipment manufacturers, would choose to adopt an open source approach. After all, Samsung had been in it for a long long time and been successful with it with all its Android devices. Many probably still think of Android being that of Google’s… which, well, is certainly true, but the part is that Android is indeed an open source project and in turn it offers a platform for many open source (and proprietary or closed source) developments and projects.

Samsung had quite a lineup of products using Android as the platform, from the Galaxy Camera all the way to the newly announced Galaxy NX. But what really empowers Samsung under the hood is that all those developments in Android also draw interest in a wider manner from around the world for which Samsung had engaged in its own grand Open Source project, Tizen. And indeed the NX2000 and NX300 firmwares have bits and pieces of Tizen in there.

Experience tells us that the larger the pool of talents working on development, the more likely we will see breakthroughs and innovations. What Samsung had done with the NX2000 and NX300 firmware, and in fact with adopting Android as a platform for the cameras is to take advantage of that pool of talents and ready materials. Future Samsung cameras and lenses might see fit to utilize such software as developed open source by third parties and combine them with their own. In short, the manufacturers can significantly reduce development cost and are likely able to shorten development cycles — and yet are able to provide more user-centric features.

With an Android or Tizen platform, photographers would also benefit from the liberty of choosing either to work with the manufacturer’s own preferences or to use whatever that might come about. Videographers have already seen the advantage of such possibilities in the form of open source cine RAW DNG, hacked GH2 firmware and lately the hacked Canon 50D and 5D Mark III RAW video feed output. Though most of them are not really open source but all these goes to show when the lid is off, the possibilities ae only then limited by what the hardware would be capable of.

So, for real, what does this really bring to Samsung, and what does this bring to us photographers, and again what does it do to photography as a whole.

The fact is that we photographers as a whole have already being changed. The previously mentioned online sharing of our work is perhaps the most influential of them all, and this is brought about by an Internet that’s not only possible because of open source but in fact are mostly powered by open source equipped platforms both hardware and software. From the most rudimentary sharing of photos to cloud-based image processing and storage.

That goes right back to our topic, the question what does this hold for us photographers, photography as a whole and for Samsung (and all the other photographic equipment manufacturers). The keywords here are possibilities and changes (sounds like Obama, I know). But more importantly for us photographers in general, it’s a change of culture. In my own profession, I have come to realize that most people are afraid of changes, and this is readily so with photographers. In old days, it would take a gun to the head to force a photographer to use anything but his or her treasured Kodachrome, Fujifilm Velvia or whatever. Today, we are seeing people more open to experimentation with diverse means of imaging. Canon and Nikon users share their Picture Style respectively Picture Control settings and ask compatriots to try them, perfect them and in turn share them.

Meaning: they are engaging users in the manner of open source. Dedicated photographers share camera, lens and printer profiles for others to download and use. Photography blogs share numerous tips, tutorials and experiences that previously would be difficult if not impossible to dissimulate and deliver to those who can make use of it. That change of culture also extends to our work and as mentioned before how we display photos. Instead of formal clubs meets, exhibitions and competitions nowadays we are more likely to just share our photos online; on Flickr, Facebook, etc., shown to the public and the world. The open source initiative creates a specific culture that fosters sharing, perfecting and empowering, and this is what open source has done to and for us photographers, mostly through acts in the background that gradually but steadily keep creeping in.

Technically speaking, open source has given photography loads of tools that previously were impossible to imagine, not because they are not worthwhile but because it’s impossible to deliver them in a commercially viable manner. And this is where Samsung and other photographic equipment manufacturers might benefit in the fashion of add-ons, plugins or apps. Open source being used as a mean for product development also empowers the manufacturers to be closer to the end users as typical open source development has far more involvement from end users than most had anticipated. And a byproduct of such development culture is that there will almost always be possibilities and tools of niche need. Did anyone notice this Adobe actually had a release candidate for their Camera RAW and Lightroom (as well as many others of their products) before the final releases? They have learned from the open source development models where end users are usually asked and in fact encouraged to engage in the product testing right from the start — and then give the developers feedback about what they think, like and don’t like.

Talking Samsung, the first thing to note is that there won’t be anything radically new to expect from these open source changes. We will still be buying cameras and lenses to take pictures. But just imagine you had gone off to buy the latest Samsung Galaxy NX. But then you want more and you start researching. Bingo! There is loads of Android apps that can either let you do things that you never thought possible before, and you’ll find plenty of new ways to work with your images. Come time you may want to upgrade the apps, or even the operating system itself. And by then some dedicated folks might already have a better firmware to access, control and display the image with the hardware itself.

That scenario is actually not very far from reality. We witness this each and everyday with the use of our own computers. The adoption of open source in a camera turns the hardware into a platform that now can be independent from the manufacturers. The end user can explore new possibilities that the manufacturer doesn’t provide and customize the computer. All camera makers would benefit from adopting and incorporating open source development into their own which then would allow them to concentrate on their core business to deliver the product — and leave it to third party developers to fill the house so to speak. However they must learn to develop a culture of customer relationship and customer support. It’s no longer just about the piece of equipment, the manufacturer and the customer. End users likewise will have to adopt too. But there is nothing to fear. Thanks to the wide adoption of mobile devices we are all already well-versed in this new relationship between manufacturer, product and end user.

As a final note, you must be asking what does this have to do with us photographers being geeks or conservative. Well, ask yourself what you want from your gear and what you have been doing with your imaging workflow. We are all geeks in this new digital imaging era as we are always asking to expend the horizon. Yet we are conservatives because we’re still stubborn to change even if it’s for the better of it. So in this regard Samsung is a step ahead of all camera makers and us photographers.

  • Ray

    First, it takes firmware to become a major criteria in our camera selection. Second, it introduces us to weekly updates for new builds. Third, it exposes us to flaky firmware ala constant updates to “fix” stuff.

    Look where Firefox is going in the browser wars. A good proxy for open source.

  • So you’re saying too much choice shouldn’t be a choice.

  • B. D. Colen

    A couple of thoughts:
    First, DanTheme has it right;
    Second, all photography has always been “open source” – open up the camera, and put in a different kind of film, mount a different lens on the box, put a different filter on the lens, etc. etc.;
    Third, and I mean no disrespect, but talk of open source firmware is for engineers, not photographers;
    Fourth, and finally – the Zone System was anything but open source – it was and is an anally precises system of exposure and development, created by someone who was a far better technician than he was a photographer – sorry – for people who are far more interested in the technicalities of photography than they are in the subjects they are photographing.

    Oh, and all of the above is just my personal opinion and doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t agree with it. ;-)

  • Maybe it’s a desperate attempt by Samsung to gain more market share?

    Open source today is slightly different from the past. As the author notes Canon 5D Mark III hacks produce better video than Canon’s original solutions. Welcoming the ingenuity of users is certainly not wrong, but the question is what all these new functions have to do with photography per se. Most are a distraction.

  • Ray

    The word “choice” appears no where in my comment. Again, until firmware becomes a major criteria in camera selection none of the “benefits” of any given firmware, be it positive or negative, will matter.

    I don’t believe having the choice to buy a camera with open source firmware will have much impact on the vast majority of photographers.

    I have installed open source firmware on one of my Canon’s. Here’s the first 2 paragraphs on the download page.

    “The branch labelled 1.1.0 which is considered to be ‘stable’. This branch is used for minor changes and bugfixes, backward compatibility between updates and has more stable code and behavior.

    The branch labelled 1.2.0, also called the “unstable” or development trunk. This branch is now in the stabilization phase of the release process and will soon become the stable release. Users are encouraged to give it a try.”

    Version 1 is up to release j. I can hardly imagine many people will want to go through the pains of getting from a to j, let alone delve into 1.2.x.