Canon has not been at the forefront of imaging sensor development for a while, but this new development may change that.
If you have been into photography for any length of time you should likely understand the idea that generally bigger is better when it comes to imaging sensor size. Smaller sensors have gotten pretty good over the years, but no matter what, cameras with larger sensors have always had that ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ leg up over cameras with smaller sensors. While most sensor manufacturers seem to be focusing on making their smaller sensors better and better, Canon has chosen to go the opposite and just make the worlds biggest ultra-sensitive CMOS sensor – which is a whopping 20cm square.
For those counting, that is an insane 40x the size of a standard 35mm full frame sensor. Thanks to some engineering trickery Canon was able to resolve some inherent problems with CMOS sensors of this size using a parallel processing circuit. The resulting sensor, an enormous silicon monstrosity, can capture 60 FPS video with only 0.3 lux of illumination. This is, roughly, the same amount of light that is reflected on the earth by a full moon. This feat, until now, was not possible; and Canon is already touting its uses for ultra-high sensitivity applications such as video recording celestial objects, nocturnal animal behavior, auroras, and Nightwatch cameras.
But let’s be frank here for a minute; unless Canon plans to release a new large format camera system, which it does not, why should we care about this at all? Well, because like all companies, innovation at Canon trickles down. So, the things that Canon has learned in producing this sensor can be utilized to improve their smaller sensors, and by extension, your next camera. But let’s even set aside current Canon products and talk about some fun potential for derivative sensors of this beast.
For example, what if Canon joined Fujifilm and Hasselblad with a mirrorless medium format system based around a sensor utilizing what they learned building this beast. But not the ‘crop medium format’ that Fujifilm and Hasselblad use, but a true 6×4.5 or 6×6 sensor. This could be a practical use for the technology on the professional/consumer level. Do I think they will actually do something like this, no, but it could be a cool application for this tech.
But in terms of things they could actually do to utilize this tech within the current bounds of their products, let’s look no further than the Sony A7s series of cameras. In theory, Canon could utilize what they learned making this huge 20cm sensor and apply that to 35mm full-frame sensor, giving them their own A7s competitor sensor. This may not be something that would be a huge pull for them in terms of actual interest from a majority of the population, but what it would do, assuming it was able to truly compete or beat the A7s II (or III), would give them some very sorely needed PR/Marketing ammo in their current fight with Sony.
Right now, in the sensor world, everyone is talking about what Sony is doing. This is for a good reason, for a while now they have been innovating and pushing those limits to deserve the attention. But the result, compounded by their inability to adjust their strategies, has been this general perception that Canon’s sensor tech is inferior to that of Sony. Is it true? That depends on what aspects of the sensor you are talking about, and what is important to you – but it’s safe to say that Sony definitely has the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people right now.
However if Canon were able to come to market with some impressive tech like this, that competes with what Sony is doing on the consumer level, they just may have a chance to stop the bleeding. Honestly, consumers don’t care much about these sort of grand one-off modern marvel projects. They want to see cool tech that they can actually use, that can actually make their life or their job easier. As cool as this Canon sensor is, it is not helping consumers in their daily lives at all. This is one thing that Sony has done very well; not only have their innovations been impressive, but they have been impressive on the consumer level, in ways that consumers can see and interact with.
But Canon is over here by itself playing the ‘but ours is bigger’ game.
So, in my humble opinion, maybe Canon should put the tape measure away and start producing some sensors worthy of this level of attention on the consumer level.