Five years ago, the first thing manufacturers talked about when launching a new camera was the sensor. Megapixels made headlines along with backlit designs and sensor stacking. But, has all that changed? Looking at technical tests and rankings like those from DxO Mark, half of all the top ten full frame cameras are more than three years old. A third of those are more than five years old. The 2017 Sony a7R II ranks the same as the 2022 A7R V. Data like this begs the question, have camera sensors stagnated? Has image quality and resolution reached a plateau?
If you chart the growth of nearly any technology, there will be phases of flat lines, periods where growth slowed or stagnated all together. And to be honest, I haven’t really tested any cameras lately that delivered bad images. Sure, some do a bit better at high ISOs than others, but twist a good lens on and there are few things to really nitpick on the images. Instead, much of choosing a camera right now comes down to factors like the autofocus, performance, and ergonomics, though of course there are some exceptions.
Looking at the cameras of the past five years, the gains in sensor technology seem very minor. But while I do think sensors have struck a bit of a plateau, I do think that flat line is short lived. Yes, camera sensor growth has hit a slow down — but I don’t think camera sensors have peaked yet for a couple of different reasons.
The Sony a9 III and its headline-making global shutter sensor is one of those reasons. The third generation of the a9 series is arguably the most innovative camera of the year (though it’s not set to hit shelves until 2024). The a9 III’s global shutter sensor isn’t designed to improve image quality but rather solve common image problems. The design eliminates rolling shutter, yes, but it also supports flash sync at any shutter speed. While that solves some pretty huge problems, unless you’re dealing with rolling shutter, there won’t be a significant jump in image quality over the predecessor.
Organic sensors would bring that global shutter along with several other advantages — and this is where I think the next big spike in sensor innovation will come from. Organic sensors are said to improve dynamic range and light sensitivity as well as improve color accuracy. These sensors have been talked about for years however, without a consumer product to hit the shelves. That means it’s difficult to say when such sensors could be coming, or what unforeseen challenges they could introduce.
Until then, there’s a few small things that I think will bring small blips to the growth of camera sensor technology. Chief among these is in-camera skin softening, which is already available on a few cameras. If we’re going to keep driving resolution upward, triple-digit megapixel counts will become more common. But for those ultra high resolution sensors to actually look better than today’s cameras, they need to be more selective about which details are rendered. Having more pixels than pores tends to render unflattering skin, so adding detail where you want it and smoothing it out where you don’t is going to be key to avoid a major editing headache.
The other side of this, of course, is computer technology has to catch up as well, with the ability to store and handle those large files without drastic slowdowns. I want to spend more time behind my camera than behind my computer and to do that computer technology is going to need to keep pace.
The other area I would like to see improvements on is color reproduction. I specifically chose my current camera system for the hours of post-processing that Fujifilm’s color science saves me. Photographers can only benefit from more color profiles and cleaner color reproductions, particularly in creating consistency across various light sources.
The other point worth making here is that buying the latest greatest gear is a luxury, not a necessity. The 2014 Nikon D810 still has a 97 point ranking from DxO and two of the six cameras with 100-point scores are from 2017. Yes, newer cameras will get your faster autofocus and lots of extras. But a new camera launch with better features doesn’t automatically make those old cameras lesser than they were before.
Yes, the last five years have brought more improvements to autofocus and speed than to image quality. But the slowdown could be an indicator that a major leap is right around the corner.