Sensor Size and Multipliers

Canon had become a dominant player in the SLR market after their successful launch of the EOS all-electronic mount for AF. Canon was also large enough with enough resources to develop and manufacture their own sensors. Canon launched a professional standard APS-H camera, with a 1.3X lens multiplier that used existing Canon 35mm lenses. Later, when Canon was ready to create a consumer digital SLR market they used a smaller 22.2x14.8mm sensor with an area of 328mm² and a lens multiplier of 1.6X. This is 38% the area of a full-frame sensor.

More recently, Canon has championed the full-frame sensor in their pro cameras and in their pro/amateur 5D model. Larger sensor manufacturing cost has dropped as digital sensors have evolved and it now appears likely the APS-H (1.3X lens multiplier) will eventually drop form the Canon line. Since no lenses depend on that image circle all current Canon full-frame lenses, such as those used with the APS-H cameras, will remain usable on the full-frame sensor pro models that will replace them.

Nikon, Pentax, and Minolta all had significant success in the 35mm film market, so all three had a vested interest in preserving their 35mm lens mount and keeping their current 35mm system users happy. However, none of these three had the resources to develop and manufacture their own sensors, so they partnered with sensor manufacturers to produce digital SLR cameras. In recent years that partner has been Sony, so all three manufacturers have basically adopted a larger 23.6x15.7mm sensor with a 1.5X lens multiplier.

Sony purchased the Photo Imaging division of Konica Minolta in 2006 and carried on the Minolta lens mount under the Sony brand. Today Sony both manufactures their own Sony brand cameras with Sony sensors and they continue to sell sensors to Nikon, Pentax, and Samsung.

Olympus was a huge player in the digital compact market as the market began its slow move to the digital SLR. While Olympus had been a very successful player in the film SLR market, they lost market in the SLR Auto-Focus wars kicked off by the success of the Minolta 7000. Olympus AF cameras remained a fringe product and Olympus eventually exited the market to concentrate on their compact digital offerings.

Olympus had a stake in the compact market remaining dominant and they had little legacy 35mm business to protect. Both developments made them late to the digital SLR market, but they made the best of it with a different approach than the other DSLR players. Olympus developed a new all-electronic DSLR lens mount and camera system based around a Kodak sensor with a 4:3 ratio instead of the 3:2 common in 35mm. With no legacy lenses to protect, the concept of lens multiplier is basically meaningless when talking about the Olympus DSLR system, but the diagonal is 1/2 the 35mm full-frame so lenses are equivalent to a 35mm lens at twice the focal length.

Olympus and its partners also made the 4/3 standard open - that is, it's available to any manufacturer. Currently Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica are producing 4/3 cameras and lenses but other manufacturers may join them in the future. Olympus is also now using sensors manufactured by Panasonic, a development partner, in their 4/3 cameras.

Sigma is best known as an independent lens manufacturer, but they have been producing SLR camera bodies for almost 30 years. Sigma introduced their first digital SLR with the SD9 in 2002. Sigma is the only DSLR manufacturer to use the unique Foveon sensor, which captures all three colors in a digital image in three layers - red, blue green - on a sensor. All other current digital sensors are based on Bayer sensors, which capture all three colors in mosaic patterns on a single sensor layer. Colors are then restored by an interpolation process called demosaicing, which theoretically converts the three color mosaics into smooth full-color images.

For this discussion, the current Sigma SD14 should be considered a niche DSLR player with very small market share. The Foveon sensor falls between 4/3 and the Canon 1.6 in size and has a 1.7X lens multiplier. Sigma is the only third party lens maker to produce lenses for all the camera systems discussed here. Some are full-frame designs with digital coatings to mount on full-frame or smaller digital sensor SLRs. Other designs are based on the largest 1.5X APS C image circle and are designed to work with smaller DSLR sensors ranging from 1.5X to 2X lens multiplier.

Why All these Different Sensor Sizes? CCD and CMOS


View All Comments

  • gheinonen - Tuesday, October 14, 2008 - link

    I am curious why that CMOS sensor in the high end Canon camera body has excellent low black noise compared to the images from a Fuji Pro S3/S5 with its Super CCD? I have used Fuji Pros since 2004 and have discovered that my black details in low light situations include a lot of random color noise which I do not see when reviewing images from the 1DS Mark2 body. What does the Canon body do to eliminate the random color noise in low light black detail? Is it the CMOS Sensor? Is it the body processing?

    Separately, the white detail on my Fuji Pro S3 has such expanded dynamic range that I can shoot higher exposures and then lower the exposure back to normal in software and it appears to lower or mask the noise floor in the same way that Dolby Noise Reduction works for audio.
  • bonedaddy - Wednesday, April 30, 2008 - link

    I've been a 35 mm fan for years, and have a significant investment including multiple lenses, macro, ring lights etc. For trips etc the smaller cameras seemed fine--always had small 35 mm, for instance. However, re the digital small cameras, the amount of compression is really disappointing.

    Is my only choice to go back to a body/lens SLR if I want wide angle and telephoto capability AND good resolution?
  • Midwayman - Thursday, May 1, 2008 - link

    No. But if you want wide/tele and really good high iso performance a SLR is where you need to be. PS camera have alway been a compromise. Small 35mm film cameras had focus issues, and lens issues too. Plus most people use iso 200-400 film which has reasonable quality even in a PS digital camera. The biggest difference is now we're blowing up the picture to 1:1 on our monitors and can see the quality defects easily. I bet if you printed your old compact photos at something like 16x20 you'd probably be unhappy with them too. That's the sort of scale we're looking at on our monitors zoomed in.
  • CyniCat - Thursday, April 24, 2008 - link

    Good article, but one glaring mistake: you claimed Sony was the first to make a 12+Mpixel CMOS sensor. I think you meant the first AFTER Canon - the 5D, with its 12.8Mpixel sensor, was on the market in 2005, and the 1Ds Mark II, with a 16Mp sensor, was on the market earlier than that.

    On a different front, I thought the Nikon D3 was using a Sony sensor, not a Nikon?
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, April 25, 2008 - link

    The 5D and 1Ds II and III are full-frame sensors. The Sony was the first consumer (read affordable) APS-C sensor. Canon now has their own 12 megapixel consumer sensor in the XSi, which we are now reviewing.

    Nikon did their own designs for the D3 sensor, but they do not, to our knowledge, have the capabilities to manufacturer that sensor. Sony has manufactured sensors for them in the past and present with the D300, D60, D80, and others.

    Since the new full-frame is CMOS it is likely manufactured by Sony, or possibley Samsung. Sony and Samsung (who make the Pentax 14.6 megapixel sensor) jointly own several patents on CMOS manufcaturing technology.
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, April 25, 2008 - link

    That should read the read "First consumer 12 megapixel APS-C sensor". As mentioned several times in the article Canon pioneered CMOS technology in a consumer DSLR with the Digital Rebel. Reply
  • Midwayman - Wednesday, April 23, 2008 - link

    This article complete skips of fuji's fantastic super CCD technology. Its not really a traditional Bayar array, nor a foveon. True they don't produce a interchangeable lens SLR but they do make prosumer SLR's with their sensor. Also the very notable fuji f30 series cameras were made with this sensor. It was a true triumph in PS camera high iso usability.
  • ElFenix - Thursday, April 24, 2008 - link

    fuji makes interchangeable lens SLRs with Nikon F mounts. Reply
  • Midwayman - Friday, April 25, 2008 - link

    Hell, then there is no excuse for it not to be included in this article. Especially when it quite clearly states there are no other sensor options at one point.
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, April 25, 2008 - link

    There will always be fans of one technology or another who feel slighted. I apologize for that, but Fuji is still basically a Bayer sensor with a differnt pixel shape. I have added the following to the Bayer vs. Foveon page to make Fuji fans a bit happier:

    "FujiFilm produces one current DSLR with a variant of Bayer technology. It is called the Fuji S5 Pro and is basically a Nikon D200 body with a Fuji Super CCD sensor. The Fuji S5 Pro uses the Nikon lens mount. The Super CCD still uses red, blue and geen pixels in the same standard Bayer ratios. However, the shape of the pixel is hexagonal rather than the squate or rectangular pixels in other Bayer arrays. In the latest version Fuji also added smaller photosites between the normal pixels to gather "dynamic range" data.

    Fuji has updated the camera body from the S3 to the S5 in the past year, but the sensor has not been updated for more than 3 years. The current Super CCD is still a 6.3 megapixel sensor, but Fuji specifes it as a 12.3 megapixel due to the addition fo the tiny "brightness" pixels. Tests indicate the true resolution is more comparable to an 8 to 10 megapixel sensor from competitors. The Fuji sensor is still basically a Bayer sensor with a different shape for pixels."

    We can probably now all argue whether the Fuji Super CCD is really a Bayer variant or not. It certainly appears that way to me, and as a CCD instead of a CMOS sensor it is need of a serious update if it is to continue as a player in the DSLR market.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now