We all know there's a "ceiling" for CCD quality. We've read
before about a paradox, that as CCDs or CMOS image sensors get
better, they get worse. As you increase the number of pixels to
make the picture sharper, you must reduce pixel size, which makes
pictures softer. It would take a technological breakthrough, or at
least a lot of rethinking, to resolve these conflicts, and others
just as vexing. If you've been hearing the buzz these past few
weeks, you've heard the breakthrough has been made. Or so it seems
An announcement by Foveon, two weeks before PMA, described the CCD rethought. Another announcement by Sigma described something more than just thoughts. The new SD-9 digital SLR, similar to Sigma's SA-9 35mm model, would ship in the spring, using a CMOS-based imager from Foveon-dubbed the X3-that sucks the doors off everything. The camera would sell for under $3k - the latest pricing "sweet point" in the pro camera market-while a year from now, or two, cameras under $1k and even $500 could appear. All with a tremendously sharper, simpler, less expensive, more energy-efficient way of making digital pictures.
Is this where we turn the corner?
Everyone's quite sure the answer is maybe. That's about all they agree on. How much sharper is the new chip, exactly? That's hard to say. You'll hear it likened to 3.4, 7, and 10.5 megapixels. The definition of "pixel" itself comes into the question. If the uncertainties are that basic, don't look for quick ways to describe the new system. "Look at the pictures," they suggest at Foveon HQ.
Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter,
shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30
years. His first article predicting the future of digital
photography (1976) is becoming truer and truer. Don is a photo
historian as well as futurist, and is author of the immortal
slogan, "If you have one foot in the future and one in the past,
you understand the present perfectly."
If you have a background in studio photography, you know Foveon well. If you don't, well, you don't. Foveon showed-up in public in the summer of '99, in a refined and low-key reception at the International Center of Photography. Amid wine and, probably, cheese, the first Foveon camera was shown-off. Camera? Well, a big Canon lens, and a bracket to hold it. It and some new kind of imager, that nobody wanted to talk much about. Behind this assemblage and firmly attached, a notebook computer, its screen erect to serve as camera viewfinder.
Call it Foveon's first mystique. At first thought it seems odd, a lens and a computer. Then it seems quite natural. Then quite attractive. What else is any digital camera, after all, but a lens up front, a computer out back? The Foveon camera was the essential digicam, simple, yet definitive. But look at that big viewfinder. And hey, a full keyboard, for captions and notes. Stick a telephone line into its modem ...
The Foveon camera made tremendous sense, on paper. And, through its early trials, it made sense to the studio market too. By photokina 2000, Hasselblad was taking a look. Off-floor demos of an experimental scientific camera reinforced the impression that whatever else it was doing, Foveon was thinking.
That was sort of a comforting thought. The year 1999 was probably a watershed for get-rich investor games in the photo biz. As in other fields, photography attracted its high-tech hypsters and their sound-alike schemes.
Foveon's schemes sounded distinctively their own, and they seemed to work. Equally important, the people on-staff had real pedigrees. Industry lifers describes some of 'em, having cut teeth at places like Hasselblad or Apple. The gent preparing the guest list for that first Foveon evening was Ray Demoulin, "Saint Ray" in his days as Kodak V.P. in charge of Professional. When Kodak opened the visionary Center for Creative Imaging in 1991, it was largely
a Demoulin design. A lot of today's who's whos first commingled
You say you have a radical new technology you want to sell, one that changes everything about the whole photography business? Yep, it could be a big help, especially in 2002, if your people look like they're for real.
The second mystique
In a way, the new Foveon chip seems too simple. Foveon themselves describe its guiding principle as "well-known." If it's so well-known, how come everyone else missed it? Yup, it's good if your people look like they're for real.
But the product's simplicity, in pursuit of the most complex improvements, sounds like something we've heard before, a second Foveon mystique. The first, in the form of the camera, reduced things to essentials, and so does the Foveon X3. On paper at least, it uses a natural quality of silicon to accomplish something that artificial ingredients have heretofore tried.
That something is to make an image sensor see color. CCDs and CMOS chips are basically monochromatic, requiring filtered light to reconstitute color. In standard imager practice, each diode or photosite (or "pixel") on the chip gets a primary-color filter (RGB or CYM, depending). It takes three of these filtered photosites to make one full-color part of the picture.