Thoughts On Samsung’s 108 Megapixel Sensor + How It Relates To Fujifilm

16770808038_edc1774179_c

We Will Deliver – Rosamond, CA – Nokia Lumia 1020

Samsung announced (in conjunction with Xiaomi) that they have made an 108-megapixel 1/1.33-inch camera sensor that will soon be found inside of cellphones. At first glance it sounds absurd. What kind of image quality could it possibly have? How ugly will it be above base ISO? How much resolution do you really need for social media posts? But there are some interesting innovations that might someday be applied to Fujifilm cameras, so let’s take a closer look.

How this new sensor directly relates to Fujifilm is that it’s an ISOCELL Plus sensor, which requires a materiel developed by Fujifilm, and only Fujifilm has this material. What Samsung did with it is develop a sensor that has less “cross talk” between pixels, which improves color accuracy, dynamic range, high-ISO capabilities and fine-detail rendering. Essentially, it allows smaller pixels to perform similar to larger pixels. You can put 108 million teeny-tiny light sensitive sensor elements on a small sensor with ISOCELL Plus, and it will perform similar to 108 million larger-but-still-quite-small light sensitive sensor elements on a little bit larger sensor without this technology. Whether the lens will be able to resolve that much detail, as it will need to be a heck-of-a-sharp lens, remains to be seen, but if it can, that would be quite the leap in cellphone camera technology.

I used to have a Nokia Lumia 1020 cellphone, and the phone itself wasn’t especially great, but the camera, with a 41-megapixel 1/1.5-inch sensor and Zeiss lens, was surprisingly good. Well, sort of. It had a very narrow margin, as you needed to stay close to base ISO, and the dynamic range was small, but in the right situations it delivered stunning pictures that you’d never guess came from a cellphone. I have no idea if Xiaomi’s phone with the new 108-megapixel sensor will be similar or not, but it might be, and it might even be better.

14357431707_458e7c4c5d_c

Energy – Tehachapi, CA – Nokia Lumia 1020

Aside from ISOCELL Plus, the other interesting innovation from Samsung with this sensor is quad-Bayer array. Instead of the typical two green, one red and one blue Bayer square arrangement, this has a four green times two, four red and four blue square arrangement, with the four pixels of the same color next to each other in a square. The idea is that the four same-color pixels can be merged through software into one pixel, turning the camera into a 27-megapixel traditional Bayer array. Why wouldn’t Samsung use larger light sensitive sensor elements and set the megapixel count at 27? Why do this weird tiny-pixel quad-Bayer pixel-merge thing? Well, it allows software to do some interesting tricks. For example, it can capture up to four independent 27-megapixel exposures simultaneously and blend them together, extending dynamic range, reducing noise, and/or increasing high-ISO capabilities. Or, if the dynamic range doesn’t need extended, and the noise doesn’t need to be reduced, and the ISO doesn’t need to be increased, it can produce a very large fine-detailed full-resolution picture.

Slowly the technological advancements of the small sensor world trickle up to larger sensors, and someday a version of ISOCELL Plus and pixel-merge could very well be found in Fujifilm cameras. What might this look like? If you were to take this same Samsung chip and increase it to APS-C size, it would have roughly 216-megapixels, and would deliver a pixel-merged 54-megapixel image. I’m sure, however, that there would be a reduction in noise performance, dynamic range and high-ISO over current X-Trans sensors, and, even with the excellent Fujinon lenses available, the question of whether that much detail can be resolved would still need to be answered. What I see more likely to happen is sensor elements being used that are twice as large as those on the tiny Samsung chip, and an APS-C sensor with 108-megapixels produced, which could be pixel-merged to 27-megapixels. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe a quad-X-Trans array is possible. Essentially, it might be feasible to have nearly identical resolution as X-Trans IV, but with improved dynamic range and high-ISO capabilities, and the option for full-resolution 108-megapixel pictures when the ISO is under a certain amount (say, ISO 640). It’s still questionable whether or not Fujinon lenses can take advantage of that much resolution, but even if it is “only” able to produce resolution equivalent to 50-megapixels, that’s still double what it is now. If ISOCELL Plus and pixel-merge ever do come to Fujifilm X, it could very well be a game-changer type of thing. Or perhaps the required processing power and heat dispersion are too difficult to overcome, and it never makes its way to larger sensor cameras. Time will tell.

Rumor: Fujifilm X-Trans IV Sensor Will Be Made By Samsung (Not Sony)

36048378846_28039b002c_k

Fujifilm X100F

I’m going to start a new rumor right here, right now regarding the next generation of Fujifilm X-Trans cameras, which will feature an X-Trans IV sensor that has “more than 24 MP but less than 30 MP.” This was reported by Fujirumors.com, which has a great track record of being right. The rumor that I’m putting out there is that Fujifilm X-Trans IV sensors will be made by Samsung, and not Sony.

There are a couple of reasons that I think this, and I’ll get into each below in just a moment. First I want to make it clear that I don’t know anyone at Fujifilm, Samsung or Sony and that I have no insider information whatsoever, I’m just speculating. This rumor is simply a guess. But I believe there might be some merit to it, and it makes logical sense. I could be completely wrong, though, so take it for what it’s worth. Time will tell.

If you don’t already know, Fujifilm X-Trans sensors are made by Sony with some custom specifications as directed by Fujifilm. Most importantly, it has a complex X-Trans color filter array instead of a common Bayer color filter array. Something that happened a couple years ago is that Sony stopped manufacturing their 16-megapixel APS-C sensor. For Fujifilm, that meant the end of the X-Trans II sensor, which Fuji wasn’t done with yet.

Going from a 16 to 24-megapixel sensor isn’t as simple of a task as it might sound. There are processor and programming issues, which aren’t too bad to conquer, but the big problem is heat. Specifically, X-Trans III sensors, which are 24 megapixel, put off a lot more heat than the 16 megapixel sensor. That’s been a challenge for Fujifilm, and it forced the (possible temporary) discontinuation of the X70 line, and plenty of complications with their other X-Trans III cameras.

I could be completely wrong, but I think Fujifilm is a little upset at Sony for abruptly discontinuing the 16-megapixel sensor. I don’t think Fujifilm was done with it when they were forced to use the 24-megapixel sensor. I believe that they had plans to use a 16-megapixel sensor in some of their cameras and a 24-megapixel sensor in others. I’m sure they see lost profit potential from it. If I were Fujifilm, you make the most of the cards you’re dealt (and they have), but you don’t forget the position that your competitor/business-partner (“frienemy”?) put you in.

9387677927_79c9cc99cb_z

Worth One Dollar – Oxnard, CA – Samsung NX200

When I read the report that the next X-Trans sensor was going to have more than 24-megapixels, my first thought was, “Oh, Sony must have made a new sensor!” I then got on the ol’ Google and tried to find information about it, but I found none. It may be that Sony is developing (or has already developed) a 26 or 28-megapixel APS-C sensor, but it’s not publicly known as far as I can tell if that’s the case. I’m leaning towards that they haven’t developed it, that they’re happy with 24-megapixels for APS-C.

Sony has a few competitors in the camera sensor market, but only a few. Samsung produces camera sensors, most notably for their cellphones. Canon makes their own sensors. Panasonic makes sensors. Sigma makes their Foveon sensors. Toshiba used to be a big name, but they were bought out by Sony a couple years ago. There are several small names that aren’t used by any of the big camera brands. Sony is the king of the castle as far as camera sensors go.

A forgotten camera line that wasn’t a big success, which came and went without making much noise, was Samsung’s NX line. I owned an NX camera several years ago. It was actually a pretty good camera! It certainly wasn’t perfect, but better than any mirrorless line made by Canon or Nikon.

Samsung abruptly discontinued the sale of these cameras a few years ago, pulling out of the interchangeable-lens camera business. I can think of two reasons why Samsung discontinued the NX line. First, mirrorless cameras were on the rise, but DSLRs were still the primary tool of choice for serious photographers (which is not necessarily the case anymore), so the market was limited. Second, creating a new brand to compete against the established names was a difficult task, one that proved to be too much trouble for Samsung. I think that they would have been successful had they stuck with it for a couple more years, but they didn’t have enough patience.

I figured at some point Samsung would sell their camera technologies to some other company (perhaps Nikon), but that hasn’t happened. They still own all of the NX line. It’s just sitting there, collecting dust. Samsung has seemed happy to focus on cellphone camera technology.

9336321309_71dc43806b_z

Wasp & Ant – Tehachapi, CA – Samsung NX200

My theory is that, after Sony cancelled the 16-megapixel sensor, Fujifilm began looking for alternative companies to manufacture the sensors for their future X-Trans cameras. Assuming that they shopped around, it makes sense that they had a meeting with Samsung. And Samsung may have said, “You know, we have this 28-megapixel sensor….”

The Samsung NX500 had a 28-megapixel APS-C sensor that was highly regarded but quickly off the market and soon forgotten. In fact, if you visit DxOMark, you’ll see that the 28-megapixel NX500 shares the top APS-C rating with the Nikon D7200 (DxOMark has never tested an X-Trans camera), and the D7200 has the same Sony sensor that’s found inside X-Trans III cameras (with X-Trans array on X-Trans and Bayer array on Nikon). It was a very good sensor, and I bet Samsung wouldn’t mind putting it back into production, giving themselves a chance to make money off of it.

There’s not a big difference in resolution between 24 and 28-megapixels. You would have a hard time even noticing. Still, when you have an APS-C line that’s competing against full-frame, that extra 4-megapixels can’t hurt. Obviously most people don’t need that much resolution, 24-megapixel sensors are overkill for 98% of photographers. And not all lenses can even resolve that much resolution on an APS-C camera anyway, although most Fujinon lenses can.

Where I think 28-megapixels might be appealing to Fujifilm is with regards to in-body image stabilization (IBIS). The only X-Trans camera that has IBIS is the soon-to-be-announced X-H1, which will be marketed primarily to videographers. With IBIS you have the potential to lose resolution at the outside edges of the sensor as it shifts around. A 28-megapixel sensor would ensure that you still have 24-megapixel resolution even with IBIS on. Don’t be surprised if IBIS becomes a standard feature on the upper-end X-Trans IV cameras, including the X-Pro3 and X-T3, and possibly the X-T30, X-E4 and X100V.

I can’t say for sure that the next generation of X-Trans sensors will be made by Samsung instead of Sony. I don’t know what kind of image quality difference it might make if it does happen. It’s an interesting theory, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Not that I’m in the market for a new camera, as I’m very happy with my Fujifilm X100F