I Miss the CCD Sensor: A Love Letter to Older Digital Cameras

I’m about to say something that is going to be very unpopular with many of you, but will make a whole load of sense to those of you experienced enough to truly realize what I’m saying. CMOS sensors in cameras these days are all good. The ones in phones, dedicated cameras, etc. They work and they’re all highly capable of delivering beautiful results. I’d guarantee you that if you put the output from a Sony camera and a Canon camera side by side, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell which is which. Why? They’re all so perfect. Because of this, I honestly really miss the CCD sensor–the unique look that it was able to deliver rendered images to resemble chrome film and gave us beautiful flaws that could easily be embraced by the most crafty amongst us. Indeed, the “bad results” truly brought out those of us that could make lemonade out of a pile of lemons.

It’s a tune I’ve been singing for years now.

If you’ve ever worked with chrome film, you’ll know that photographers were able to get infinitely better colors from it vs negative film. Ektar has nothing on Kodachrome in the same way that Pro 400 has nothing on Astia. Sure, negative film is more forgiving and you can push and pull the images more or less accordingly. These negative films are easily likened to CMOS sensors–they’re really good and great for general use because the masses tend to screw up a lot vs actually learning how to expose a scene in the first place; instead opting to go complain about it in DPReview’s forums.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Leica M9 at Bryant Park (10 of 27)

CCD sensors on the other hand were really a work of art. They delivered great images, but at high ISOs they just fell apart. Arguably though, you’d get even better colors with one when paired with more modern glass. CCD sensors also delivered images that simply just looked organic and film-like. You generally didn’t need to apply some filter from VSCO or RNI films, you just got it.

Years ago when most cameras had CCD sensors, in order to actually create or shoot a scene that would look amazing with the sensor’s output you’d need to observe it carefully. Then you’d need to figure out how much contrast was in the scene. The less contrast there is, the better the image you had could be. This is also one of the foundations for why lots of photographers love shooting during cloudy days and the golden hour. There is overall less contrast in the scene so it’s easier to take pictures.

Combine this with the fantastic CMOS sensors of today, and you’ll get better output and versatility. But pixel for pixel, you still can’t get the look of a CCD.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Leica M9 at Bryant Park (6 of 27)

CCD sensors can typically deliver a very nostalgic look when paired with older lenses that CMOS sensors can’t really do. In a period when we all still really like the look of flawed images and a whole app was designed to create and embrace these flaws, this just makes sense overall. Two companies that really did well with CCD sensors were both Leica and Olympus. They sourced their sensors from Kodak and eventually left them in the dust when the industry really started to demand better high ISO output from them.

And from the profit standpoint, and the overall sense of where the industry was supposed to go, it made sense to go to CMOS. Indeed, the output from CMOS sensors is also very nice and extremely versatile; but it doesn’t have any sort of charm to it.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer leica 35mm f2 on epm1 review photos (3 of 5)

Digital photography these days is far too clinically perfect. Every time I step into a meeting with companies, they talk a lot about the extremely obsessive engineering work that is put into the cameras while completely negating the true artistic nature that is inherently part of photography. And there are a few schools of thought on this. At Photokina, a Verge writer straight up told me he didn’t care about any of the art at the show or in photography. But when sitting in the press room with a bunch of folks from DPReview, one writer stated that he hated lenses that don’t have any flare. He reasoned that there is no character. And in my effort to get all these thoughts and beliefs out onto this page, that’s also my reasoning.

Even further, it’s what I tell everyone when people ask about what camera they should get. They’re all good. In fact, they’re all great. If you’re genuinely going to purchase another lens, a few, or even flashes, then we can start to talk more. There are also different needs like weather sealing or ergonomics.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer leica 35mm f2 on epm1 review photos with ep2 (3 of 8)

Strangely enough, the industry has seemed to put its emphasis on putting that charm on ergonomics. Look at Fujifilm and Olympus for example–the best ergonomics in the industry with a retro design. Same with Leica! Their cameras have mojo and charm!

So why can’t our images have that again?

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.