Sony Sensor Announcement Versus Rumor

Sony Semiconductor recently posted a new list of sensors available to camera companies, updating their long-existing public list with some new items.

The "official" Sony Semiconductor sensor list tends to postdate actual sensor use, not predict future sensor use.  

For example, the "new" 26mp ASP-C IMX571 appears to be the base sensor used by Fujifilm in the recent XT-3 (the XT-3's sensor had some Fujifilm changes, of course, particularly due to the X-Trans filtration; any big customer can take one of the available sensors as a base and have their own changes made to it). This is pretty common to see in the Sony Semiconductor list: a sensor that premiered in a camera finally makes its way into the official list of publicly available sensors. 

Another example of that was Nikon's use of a 36mp full frame IMX084 sensor. That sensor technology wasn't in the official sensor list for a couple of years (it's now gone). Likewise the 24mp full frame IMX410 sensor in the new list is likely the one behind the Sony A7m3 and Nikon Z6 (those two cameras seem to differ in how the phase detect pixel rows are created, another of those customizations camera companies are doing on base sensors). 

So what officially available sensors are there? Strangely, the list seems very incomplete at the top:

  • MF 4.2 — 150mp BSI IMX411
  • MF 3.4 — 100mp BSI IMX461
  • Full frame — 24mp BSI IMX410
  • APS-C — 26mp BSI IMX571
  • APS-C — 24mp FSI IMX271

There's also m4/3 and 1" sensors on the list, but just look at those last three sensors in my bullet list: where are the 36mp, 42mp, and 45mp full frame sensors, and where is the 20mp APS-C sensor? Those are all used in current camera models. And looking at the MF sensors, Fujifilm and Hasselblad are using an MF 3.4 sensor that's 50mp, where did it go?

The implication is that while Sony Semiconductor may still be producing all the sensors I mention in the last paragraph for the companies still using them, they're no longer selling—or at least promoting—them for future designs.

Which brings us to the rumor. More than one source is now reporting two upcoming Sony Semiconductor sensors in a fair amount of detail: a 36mp BSI full frame that provides both 16-bit ADC output as well as high frame rates (10 fps at 16-bit), and a 60mp BSI full frame sensor that's capable of 8K video at 60 fps. 

Right now in full frame we have 24 and 36-45 megapixel counts as our "regular" and "high pixel" sensors. The implications of the rumor are that the future of full frame may be 36 and 60mp: moving each full frame sensor up a full step. 

What's a step? Something near a 20% increase in linear resolution, and something near or exceeding a doubling of bandwidth (moving of data off the sensor). 

The camera makers have all professed that they want to (need to) go further "up-scale" as the ILC market continues to shrink. These rumored sensors are right in line with that idea. Imagine a Nikon D750 replacement that's 36mp and 10 fps and a D850 replacement that's 60mp and 10 fps (14-bit), for example. Ditto to produce a Sony A7m4 and A7Rm4. Those would clearly be steps up from the current cameras. 

That would also provide full frame a bit of headroom above APS-C. Note that the Sony Semiconductor APS-C world is 24/26mp, with no rumor beyond 28mp that I know of. Easy enough to produce with current technologies at cost effective prices, and it keeps APS-C below full frame in capability. At least until someone decides push the envelope (it's no surprise that Fujifilm is the first to use the 26mp chip: they're not going to be able to keep up with full frame pixel counts soon). 

Of course, as I pointed out in my pushback article on sansmirror.com, many of you are balking at the current pixel counts. Suddenly a 16GB storage card is looking mighty small with the high megapixel count cameras, and your aging desktop computer is going to be slow at processing images that have lots more data in them. 

This puts the camera companies in a Double Whammy. Wham one is that they want more money for a higher-end camera from you. They don't want to sell you a US$1000 camera, they want to sell you a US$3000 camera. 

Wham Two is that if they do sell you that expensive camera, you suddenly are spending several thousand more to upgrade your computer and storage, and maybe your software. 

Buying a 60mp camera very well could turn out to be a US$6000 proposition for some customers when all is said and done. Demand goes down with price, remember. And aren't the camera companies trying to deal with declining demand? You can see how this could go off the rails for them very quickly.

If you're not ever thinking about printing your images above 13x19" or displaying them on anything other than a phone or tablet (or even computer), you're probably already in pushback territory. You don't need the pixels. As I've been writing for over a decade now, convenience—ability to share images easily from the camera—is likely to be more important to most photo takers, not insane levels of image quality. 

The devil in the details is your television, though. As I've pointed out before, 1080P is really a 2mp image, while 4K is about 8mp. 8K, though, is 33mp. If people were really sharing to their TVs—which I believe will eventually happen—and if those TVs become 8K devices, then suddenly the difference between how a smartphone image and a high-end dedicated camera image looks would be clearly discernible (at least with today's smartphones and cameras). 

Clearly we're in a dangerous zone for the camera companies. We're already heavily into a photophile era, and as with Hi Fi gear (audiophile) when the consumer market collapsed, this is being pushed higher and higher by the Japanese companies. The question is where does the price/volume stabilize? Or does it?

The answers to those questions are unknown, but Sony Semiconductor seems to be feeding the upward scramble with business as usual at the moment. 


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