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The Science Of Camera Sensors & Film

By Kishore Sawh on December 4th 2015


If any of you have been with us here at SLRL within my ‘tenure’, you’ll probably know that I am rarely short for words, though I always listen first. And when I’m silent and listening, it’s usually because I’m trying to synthesize and soak up information I’ve never been exposed to, or that I’d like to be able to grasp wholly. I’m an absolute information whore.

Being that way, it’s more on the rare side I come across pieces in the photo world that really grab attention, and the video featured here from Filmmaker IQ is one such. It’s a 13-minute long overview of camera sensor technology, and it’s absolutely fascinating, if not bordering on the very geeky. We’re speaking here about some of the quantum physics of film and digital sensors; Photons, electrons, measuring quantum particles smaller than the wavelength of visible light, and then making them work for us, and using them to tell a visual story.


Every time we shoot, even something trivial with our iPhones, we’re utilizing some rather impressive tech, and I’d wager the lion’s share of those using this tech hasn’t a clue about how it works, or how it came about. That’s fine by the way, just like how if you ask a Formula 1 team engineer, he’ll tell you that the drivers really don’t know nearly as much about the science of it all as they do, but they are still incredible users of the tech.

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And so it is with us photographers, that we don’t need to know about the mountains of data hidden under our touchscreens and lenses to make our cameras work. Knowing a bit more though, will likely illicit some more appreciation. This short video actually breaks down some of the key differences between terms that we all hear, such as how CCDs vs. CMOS sensors work, and that may give you a better understanding of the camera market and which is better for you.


It probably merits saying here, however, that what you’ll watch here may not make you a better shooter, but at least one that’s better informed, which may help you make better shooting and even purchasing decisions. I mean, do you really need to know how it was possible to get a whole set of photodiodes to create an image for us? Probably not, but it may very well be useful to pull out at a cocktail party when wanting to be left alone. But really, I think a little bit of appreciation goes a long way.

Source: Filmmaker IQ

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dave Haynie

    Pretty cool. It’s bben decades since my Semiconductor Physics course back in school, glad I haven’t forgotten too much.

    One short clarification: a plain old CCD, like most CMOS sensors, would need either a mechanical shutter or deliver a similar rolling effect. Because of the slower readout, early CCDs never developed a sequenced exposure and readout like a CMOS sensor — they always used physical shutters. Pretty much all modern CCDs use either a frame or interline transfer mechanism. The problem is that shifting the whole sensor while active will cause smearing, since in that “bucket brigade” architecture, each bucket is still live during a shift operation. In a frame transfer CCD, there are basically two copies on the sensor, one masked in darkness. When the electronic exposure is done, the active sensor transfers to the dark sensor, very quickly, then shifted from the dark sensor to thevrest of the camers. In interline transfer, every other line of pixels is masked. After exposure, the whole image shifts one pixel over, from light to dark, then they’re shifted down and out.

    There are a few CMOS sensors with global shutters… they do similar things, adding a second layer of storage on the sensor to allow the entire image to be moved out of the exposed array in one cycle.

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  2. Max Bridge

    To begin with, I was confused. By the end, I understood it 100%…it’s freakin magic! Either that or I missed some key piece of information.

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  3. Colin Woods

    Fab, thanks for that. It reminds me of some of the lectures we had at uni – bombarded with info at top speed. At least with this I am not expected to take notes and regurgitate it in an exam room.

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  4. Joseph Ford

    It’s a very good explanation between modern day sensors and the trade offs between the two. While long, still very informative.

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