Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


February 11, 2002
7:45 AM   Subscribe

Could this new digital camera technology finally spell the death of traditional emulsion-film cameras? According to inventor Carver Mead, the X3 photographic sensor chip "delivers two to three times the image-producing power of today's digital cameras." Although not the first to try to bring this promising technology to the market place, Carver believes his new start-up company "Faveon," has made the breakthrough necessary to usher in the age of affordable 35mm film quality digital photography. link via techdirt
posted by lucien (42 comments total)

 
This could be a tremendous improvement, or it could be the next SiliconFilm.com. Until there's a working camera based on the technology I'll keep focusing elsewhere.
posted by Qubit at 7:54 AM on February 11, 2002


i was arguing with a friend that digital could never be as clear as 'olde' film because 'olde' creates at a molecular level. he didn't see my point.

anyone see what I am saying or is it a crock?
posted by Frasermoo at 8:13 AM on February 11, 2002


I can scan a photograph at high resolution, but it's no fun to look at on my computer screen because of the increased image size and scrolling required. As I understand it, 300px/inch screen resolution monitors are already a reality. When they become standard (memo to Apple), that's when the real revolution digital photography will take place, I reckon.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:16 AM on February 11, 2002


300dpi doesn't come close to film resolution, though. Film is at least 10x that.

I was looking through my photo collection, picking pictures to be blown up and hung on my walls. I came across a box of slides... and, my god, the quality is *SO* much better than film that I'm thinking it'd be worth going back to them.

Digital would be just fine for most of the crappy "happy camper" tourist photographs that most people take. But when it comes time to pull off a really nice shot that's worth enlarging to 8x10 or poster size, film continues to rule. Better colour range and dynamics, plus better resolution: digital just can't touch it at this time.

I'll probably end up with two cameras. A cheap digital for screen-quality crap and to play around with; and continue with better-quality print or slide film for my good photos.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:24 AM on February 11, 2002


digital could never be as clear as 'olde' film because 'olde' creates at a molecular level.

So, doing a lot of 4 mile by 6 mile enlargements?

For home snaps purposes, digital is already as clear as 35mm. Three megapixel or even some 2 megapixel cameras can give 4"x6" prints indistinguishable from 35mm. That wasn't true of the older megapixel cameras, and it's why they're taking off now.

If the cost comes down with this new technology, great, but when you factor in the cost of film (and having to develop and print a lot of shots you wouldn't bother with if you could pick or choose), digital is already pretty competitive.
posted by rory at 8:26 AM on February 11, 2002


Frasermoo: By "clear", you mean "sharp", yes? I think I see what you're saying, but I don't know that I agree with you. The resolution on emulsion film is dependent on the size of the silver grains: the faster the film, the larger the grain (even the newest high-tech professional grade high-speed film is noticeably grainier than slower film). With digital cameras, it's at least theoretically possible to have even low-light pictures be very sharp, thanks to enhancement algorithms (in-camera or on your computer) and the fact that you're not limited by physical issues like grain size (you're only limited by the number of pixels on your CCD). Or am I missing your point?

five fresh fish: actually, the 5MP cameras are coming down in price rapidly, and if you get high-resolution pictures printed by a professional lab which uses a dye sublimation printer, they're pretty well indistinguishable from traditional prints (and much cheaper, like $5 US for an 8x10). Even large prints (> 8x10, even as high as 18x20) work well as long as they're shot at 5MP and printed on a dye-sublimation printer. Decent ink-jet printers make quite good smaller prints as well. I've studiously resisted going digital for a long time, but I feel that the technology is good enough (and getting better rapidly enough) now that I'm switching. But you're right about slide film, slow slide film gives you saturated colour you just can't get any other way (although some print films like Agfa Optima II give very high saturation levels).
posted by biscotti at 8:36 AM on February 11, 2002


you are adding to my point. thanks
posted by Frasermoo at 8:40 AM on February 11, 2002


The first camera based on X3 technology, the Sigma SD9 SLR, will be demo'ed at the Photo Marketing Association Convention, Feb 24-27. Foveon Press Release and a better explanation of what the technology is all about.

They obviously have a working chip. They even have sample photos...
posted by xiffix at 8:44 AM on February 11, 2002


Like a lot of computer products, the digital camera's specs have been boiled down to one easy number: resolution.

I don't believe that digital photography will replace film phoography by simply dialing up the resolution. For one thing, most 2-3 megapixel cameras already make larger image files than most people can deal with. The huge files don't display well on screen (scrolling) and few people have a printer worthy of them. Even those who do prolly don't want to spend 45 minutes printing out 35 photos.

What bugs me most about image quality is not raw resolution but compression. My camera's included 8MB card can store exactly two images at highest res and no compression. Plenty of cameras don't even offer the option to turn off compression. And I have yet to use one that has adjustable compression. The resolution of most of my digital snaps is fine, but I hate those crappy little JPEG artifacts that always show up right under your nose and make you look like you've got a booger or something.

So, in order for digital to replace film, we'd need to solve the resolution issue, the file storage issue (why we need compression), the file display issue, and the file printing issue. I'm not waiting around, personally. I use my digital and film cameras for different purposes and find little to compare between the two.

The digital is great for putting up quick online albums. The film is convenient and high-quality for prints.
posted by scarabic at 8:47 AM on February 11, 2002


As it turns out, Digital Photography Review has lots of information about X3 including a hands-on preview.
posted by xiffix at 8:57 AM on February 11, 2002


I've never shot film, besides my 35mm point and shoot, which was cheap, from Target, and broke last year. I bought a Coolpix 990, and I'm in love. I use it all the time, my photos are much higher quality than most of my friends' (both people using SLR and point and shoot, because I run my pictures through Photoshop to clean them up and adjust levels). Most people don't have the time or money to use a dark room to adjust their pictures--they have to take what they get from the local Osco film processor. And plus, they generally all use 400 speed film to do better in dark settings, but everything turns out so grainy.

I'm frankly impressed with the X3 technology--aren't DVDs made using a similar technology--ie: data is "stacked" onto discs, and read depending on how deep the laser penetrates it?

I don't fully trust the X3 site, just because anything can be photoshopped to make it beautiful, but Phil Askey's Digital Photography Review is independent, and he gives it the thumbs up. Check out some of his pictures from a prototype camera.
posted by gramcracker at 8:59 AM on February 11, 2002


I've never shot film, besides my 35mm point and shoot, which was cheap, from Target, and broke last year. I bought a Coolpix 990, and I'm in love. I use it all the time, my photos are much higher quality than most of my friends' (both people using SLR and point and shoot, because I run my pictures through Photoshop to clean them up and adjust levels). Most people don't have the time or money to use a dark room to adjust their pictures--they have to take what they get from the local Osco film processor. And plus, they generally all use 400 speed film to do better in dark settings, but everything turns out so grainy.

I'm frankly impressed with the X3 technology--aren't DVDs made using a similar technology--ie: data is "stacked" onto discs, and read depending on how deep the laser penetrates it?

I don't fully trust the X3 site, just because anything can be photoshopped to make it beautiful, but Phil Askey's Digital Photography Review is independent, and he gives it the thumbs up. Check out some of his pictures from a prototype camera.
posted by gramcracker at 8:59 AM on February 11, 2002


biscotti: do you have more information about good print film? I swear, the regular consumer-grade print film today is far, *far* worse than it was ten years ago. I look at prints made this year, and compare to prints I had made a decade ago, and I'm disappointed. Either I'm getting far worse, or the film is shite...

A large part may be played by (a) the move toward reducing/eliminating silver from the film; (b) the automated developing process (though I'm pretty sure that a decade ago, my film was probably still be developed automatically, and by a machine less sophisticated than today's).
posted by five fresh fish at 9:08 AM on February 11, 2002


People keep saying that digital isn't as good as film, but it's simply not true. If you're talking about printing out your photos on a common inkjet from your home, you won't see lab quality, but if you take it to a lab that has the right equipment, your pictures will rival or surpass those of film...assuming you have a good file size to begin with. I shoot a Nikon D1, and have all my images printed at a lab that uses a Fuji Frontier for printing directly to photo paper. Foveon has already been a player in the high end digital world....when this thing hits, it will truly shape the future of photography. And just a reminder that film is no more convenient than digital....you still have to have it processes, and then have negatives converted to photos, which still involves a lab. I only choose to use a different media in between.

FFF - look at Kodak Portra films, or Fuji NHG films.
posted by nwduffer at 9:13 AM on February 11, 2002


scarabic started to hit on the real issue of film vs. digital photography: storage! Until reliable and really-cheap storage is available, then I think film-based photography will still be the better option. I love the fact that I can always pull out my negatives or slides if I want to make a new print. With digital, you're at the mercy of your storage. If you have all your pictures on your harddrive, and it crashes and burns, there goes all your photos. If you get a deep scratch on your CD-R of photos, oh well.
posted by misterioso at 9:14 AM on February 11, 2002


Just went to the Digital Photo Review site. *VERY* impressive. I'll want to see the results from Imaging Resource, next.

NWDuffer: Thx. Is there a trustworthy site with information about the better-quality films?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2002


good points scarabic, however i might say that i am of the impression that digital storage is becoming increasingly cheap, as demand does not seem to be abating ; ). the ccd does not exist in a void, and no matter how amazing the resolution, the rest of the system must be up to the job of preserving that quality.

frasermoo- another feature of traditional film is that the 'pixels' are of a more random size and arrangement than the digital alternative. as the human visual system is especially tuned to reccognising paterns, the regular arrangement of pixels can be more easily spotted in the digital than in the analogue film. nowadays, with many high-street vendors using digital printers for film development it is less easy to find comparative examples to show your friend the difference.
another method of avoiding this problem is to take advantage of a known phenominon of human perception; that we see horizontal and vertical lines more easily than other angles. if you have pixels which are not square, then you can break up the horizontal and vertical ccd edge paterns. i believe the nikon finepix technology uses hexagonal ccds, but i could be wrong.
posted by asok at 9:30 AM on February 11, 2002


If you get a deep scratch on your CD-R of photos, oh well.

A deep scratch on your negatives doesn't do much good, either. As with any important data, the answer is plenty of backups on multiple media. One of the beauties of digital is that backups are easy to make. As for 'really cheap', CD-Rs surely qualify by now.

But it's true that the most significant limiting factor for home snaps is no longer resolution, it's storage, and not just for archiving but also when taking the photos... 8MB compact flash is useless; I find that a 128MB card plus a 64 is only just enough for a weekend trip.
posted by rory at 9:34 AM on February 11, 2002


Agreed, rory. I think just like anything else with electronics, unless (and it'll probably never be) someone invents a way for data to never be lost... backup, backup, backup.

I shoot my 3mp at "normal" compression, don't ever see any JPEG jaggies, and can get a good deal of pictures out of a 64MB card. Anyone know of cheap solutions for travel storage? There's these, but they're all fairly pricey.
posted by gramcracker at 9:46 AM on February 11, 2002


A number of people have pointed out the storage problem, and a few have addressed the problem of backups. But what we have with digital photos, like anything else digital, is the issue of maintaining long-term integrity of the images. If you just want something fun for your desktop, digital is fine. But if you're a professional photographer, or someone else who wants to preserve images for posterity (think in terms of decades, and more), then you'll need to address not only backups but *migration* of backed-up files to newer media every five years or so. Digital file storage and migration is a major issue in the field of preservation.

Digital is convenient, and prints and negatives can be destroyed as easily as digital files--but at least with traditional formats, there are known preservation strategies. I believe more reliable strategies for long-term digital file storage will be developed; let's hope someday soon.

For more info, check the following site:
posted by datawrangler at 10:03 AM on February 11, 2002


In addition to storage issues, is capturing color authentically. It seems the lower-end digicams cannot capture flesh-tones very well, often the images look as though they have a grey haze over them. Is it because of cheap chips or bad compression?
posted by MJoachim at 10:04 AM on February 11, 2002


Oh lord, the link didn't work. With apologies, here it is again (please copy-and-paste; my apologies):

http://palimpsest.stanford.edu
posted by datawrangler at 10:04 AM on February 11, 2002


While we're discussing photography, does anybody have any favorite places they like to get their digital pictures printed at? I've been trying to find a local place in town with a dye-sublimination printer, but I cannot find one. I have seen some of my friend's prints from OFoto and they looked incredible! I saw a 1028x768 image blown up to around 20 inches and to my disbelief, I could not see any pixelation in the printed image...!
posted by crog at 10:27 AM on February 11, 2002


Plenty of cameras don't even offer the option to turn off compression. And I have yet to use one that has adjustable compression.

Really? Every digicam I've owned (three) has had adjustable compression, and two of them can save uncompressed images. The newest one actually can save raw CCD data, before any in-camera sharpening or interpolation is applied.

The biggest problem with digital cameras is that at the resolution of the CCD, two thirds of the data in the image is made up, because each camera pixel captures only one primary color of light. They could do like video cameras and add a second and even third CCD, but that would make the cameras require even more light than they need now. It's really hard to make fast, sharp lenses as small as digicam buyers demand.
posted by kindall at 10:37 AM on February 11, 2002


crog: I've been very happy with the quality and prices at ezprints. And they are happy with non-IE browsers, which I've found to be a problem at many other photo sites.
posted by louie at 10:40 AM on February 11, 2002


Which is, duh, exactly the problem Foveon solves. They are right on with their approach. I wonder how their technology affects light sensitivity, however. I note that all of their sample photos are either taken in the studio, or are outdoor shots with plenty of light and not much motion. I'd like to see some action shots...
posted by kindall at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2002


five fresh fish: I agree about consumer-grade films. I don't know why this is. Some of it may be that there are so many one-hour photo places around these days that you're more likely to run into one that doesn't maintain their machines very well. Either way, my current favourite film is the Agfa Optima II (the 100ASA saturates beautifully, like slide film, but it's so saturated it's not realistic, the faster films look more "natural"). The Fuji Superia line is also very good, and Fuji still does fleshtones best. All in all, the best advice I can offer is to spend the extra couple of bucks and buy professional grade film (and get stuff from the fridge, that way you know you're getting close to exactly the film the manufacturer sent out). And also, be choosy about where you have it processed. You don't have to go to a pro shop, but look around, not all photo shops are created equal, you want a place that maintains their C-41 machine properly. I've had negatives ruined by wrong chemical temperatures and scratched by poorly-maintained machines.

crog: OFoto is the one the people I know use. One fellow had them do a 16x20 from a 5MP picture and he says nobody has ever guessed that it's digital.
posted by biscotti at 10:54 AM on February 11, 2002


kindall "I wonder how their technology affects light sensitivity, "

a good question. so i read some of their blurb:
"The revolutionary design of Foveon X3 image sensors features three layers of photodetectors. The layers are embedded in silicon to take advantage of the fact that red, green and blue light penetrate silicon to different depths—forming the world's first full-color image sensor."

does this design require more incident photons to create the picture? also, how much of a simplification is this explanation? (thinking aloud)

in other news - did they choose the name foveon because they could buy the .com address, or does it have *deeper* meaning?
posted by asok at 11:22 AM on February 11, 2002


Why is it that every time a new digital imaging technology comes out, somebody crows that it's the end of film?

Regardless of what new digital technology exists, there will be people who prefer film -- the look'n'feel of it, the tactile experience of it, the process of going into the darkroom and making pictures, not just taking them. People are still making diguerrotypes, for pete's sake, and nobody's convincing them to switch to Kodachrome, let alone a CoolPix.
posted by me3dia at 11:41 AM on February 11, 2002


Nice collection he has:
"Mead exudes a quiet confidence as he sits surrounded by his prized collection of thousands of electrical insulators, those knobby baubles that connect high-tension wires to power poles."
posted by benh57 at 12:19 PM on February 11, 2002


asok: from the looks of it the X3 will function pretty well exactly like colour film does. Each layer will absorb the colour of light it's sensitised to, but allow other-coloured light to pass through. So as I understand it, it won't require more photons to create a picture, in fact it may require fewer, and it should allow more of the light to actually be used in creating the picture, since it's not randomly throwing away light the way current CCD's do (i.e. if red light hits a pixel that's sensitised to blue, the light isn't used in a standard CCD as I understand it, whereas with the X3, blue light will be absorbed in the blue-sensitive layer, but will allow green and red to pass through to the green and red sensitive layers). That's just my reading of it, though, I could be wrong.
posted by biscotti at 12:20 PM on February 11, 2002


Well, have you ever looked at a color film negative? They are actually very dark and have lousy dynamic range in and of themselves. And they have an orange cast. This all happens precisely because each layer absorbs so much light.

CCDs don't do well at all in low light and it strikes me that the lowest layer of the silicon will be seeing very low light indeed. Most likely they'll put the blue sensors there, red in the middle, green on top.
posted by kindall at 12:32 PM on February 11, 2002


does it have *deeper* meaning?

How deep do you want it to be? The fovea is the portion of the retina directly behind the pupil, with the highest concentration of image sensors. When you move your eyes to cause the image of something you're interested in to fall on this area so you can see it better, you are said to be "foveating" it.
posted by kindall at 12:35 PM on February 11, 2002


fovea + photon = foveon?
posted by gramcracker at 12:38 PM on February 11, 2002


kindall: the orange cast on colour negative film is from the masking dyes in the film used to smooth out the colour. And the layer order on the X3 is blue on top, green in the middle and red at the bottom, same as colour film (this is the only order that works AFAIK because of the different colour wavelengths).
posted by biscotti at 12:49 PM on February 11, 2002


kindall - Most likely they'll put the blue sensors there, red in the middle, green on top.

I guessing, too, but my guess is blue on top, green in middle, red on bottom.

This is because the higher the frequency (more toward blue), the more likely it is to interact with the medium and absorb/scatter, meaning the highest frequencies should be handled first (least penetration required) and lowest last.

If it deviates from this, my guess would be that it moves green to the front because the human eye is most sensitive to variations in green, making accurate greens the most critical to creating convincing image quality.

One thing I wonder about with digital imaging: does the ability to deal with colors as independent layers mean that camera makers could ignore chromatic aberration, shift resources to addressing other quality concerns, and addressing chromatic abberrations in software at least as well as it had been addressed by varying the refractory index of various lens elements?

(on preview I see that biscotti confirmed my main guess, but I think I provide a bit of insight as to why, so I'll go ahead and leave that in)
posted by NortonDC at 12:58 PM on February 11, 2002


DPReview has a review of the Foveon chip.
posted by gen at 1:16 PM on February 11, 2002


in the article, they also say:

"Mead sees another upside. Later versions of X3 will be able to handle processes like auto-focus directly on the chip, instead of with the complicated optics that film cameras -- and most digital cameras -- use. "The way cameras do auto-focus today is just stupid," Mead says, with characteristic bluntness. "

i don't understand this; i don't see how the image can be focused with post-processing on the focal plane. can anybody else shed some light on this?
posted by astirling at 1:35 PM on February 11, 2002


a deep scratch on your CD-R of photos

This is probably drifting just a little bit offtopic, but it reminded me: removing scratches from a CD.
posted by walrus at 5:27 AM on February 12, 2002


addressing chromatic abberrations in software

There are actually some Photoshop actions that can do this already, so my guess is that once the camera firmware is no longer busy with the interpolation, we'll see manufacturers start to add that kind of functionality.

i don't understand this; i don't see how the image can be focused with post-processing on the focal plane.

Perhaps he means moving the CCD instead of the lens. That's about the only thing that really makes sense to me.
posted by kindall at 12:20 PM on February 12, 2002


I think that current systems split the incoming image with a prism and use the sidestream light on the autofocus sensor, a setup inhereted from film SLR's (the stream destinations being viewfinder/film (depending on mirror position) and focus sensor). He probably wants to use the chip as the focus sensor, which makes sense to me.
posted by NortonDC at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2002


Ah. Yes, and a traditional color CCD would likely have too much trouble with detecting edges because of the aliasing caused by the interpolation.
posted by kindall at 2:54 PM on February 12, 2002


« Older This year's Anti-Bloggies...  |  Chocolate french fries?... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments