Foveon X3 sensor
The Foveon X3 sensor is an image sensor for digital cameras, designed by Foveon, Inc. (now part of Sigma Corporation) and manufactured by Dongbu Electronics. It uses an array of photosites, each of which consists of three vertically stacked photodiodes, organized in a two-dimensional grid. Each of the three stacked photodiodes responds to different wavelengths of light; that is, each has a different spectral sensitivity curve. This difference is because different wavelengths of light penetrate silicon to different depths. The signals from the three photodiodes are then processed, resulting in data that provides the amounts of three additive primary colors, red, green, and blue.
The X3 sensor technology was first deployed in 2002 in the Sigma SD9 DSLR camera, and subsequently in the SD10, SD14, SD15, SD1 (including SD1 Merrill), and the compact Sigma DP2 series from 2012, the Sigma dp2 Quattro series from 2014, and the Sigma SD Quattro series from 2016. The development of the Foveon X3 technology is the subject of the 2005 book The Silicon Eye by George Gilder.
The diagram to the right shows how this works in graphic form. Depicted on the left is the absorption of colors of the spectrum according to their wavelength as they pass through the silicon wafer. On the right, a Foveon X3 layered sensor stack in the silicon wafer for each output pixel is shown depicting the colors it detects at each absorption level. The color purity and intensity of blue, green and red depicted for the sensors are for ease of illustration. In fact, the attributes of each output pixel that are reported by a camera using this sensor result from the camera's image processing algorithms that employ a matrix process to construct the single RGB color from the data sensed by the photodiode stack. The results, in terms of color accuracy (metamerism index), were state of the art at the time of their invention.
Because the depth in the silicon wafer of each of the three layer Foveon X3 sensors is less than five micrometres, it has negligible effect on focusing or chromatic aberration. However, because the collection depth of the deepest sensor layer (red) is comparable to collection depths in other silicon CMOS and CCD sensors, some diffusion of electrons and loss of sharpness in the longer wavelengths occurs.
The first digital camera to use a Foveon X3 sensor was the Sigma SD9, a digital SLR launched in 2002. This used a 2268x1512×3 (3.54×3 MP) iteration of the sensor, and was built on a Sigma-designed body using the Sigma SA mount. The camera was followed in 2003 by the improved but technically similar Sigma SD10, which was in turn superseded in 2006 by the Sigma SD14, which used a higher-resolution, 2640×1760×3 sensor. The successor, the Sigma SD15, was released June 2010 using the same 2640×1760×3 (4.7×3 MP) sensor as the SD14, and the Sigma SD1 was released in June 2011 with a new 4800×3200×3 sensor aimed at the professional market.
In 2004, Polaroid Corporation announced the Polaroid x530, a compact camera with a 1408×1056×3, 1/1.8" sensor. The camera received a limited release in 2005 but was recalled later in the year for unspecified image quality problems. Sigma announced a prototype of their own Foveon-based compact camera in 2006, the Sigma DP1, using the same 14 MP sensor as the SD14 DSLR. A revised version of the prototype was exhibited in 2007, and the camera was eventually launched in Spring 2008. Unlike the Polaroid x530, the DP1 had an APS-C-sized sensor, with a 28mm equivalent prime lens. The camera was subsequently revised as the DP1s and the DP1x. In 2009, the company launched the DP2, a compact camera using the same sensor and body as the DP1, but with a 41mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens.
Comparison to Bayer filter sensors – operational differencesEdit
The operation of the Foveon X3 sensor is quite different from that of the Bayer filter image sensor more commonly used in digital cameras. In the Bayer sensor, each photosite in the array consists of a single light sensor (either CMOS or CCD) that, as a result of filtration, is exposed to only one of the three primary colors, red, green, or blue. Constructing a full color image from a Bayer sensor requires demosaicing, an interpolative process in which the output pixel associated with each photosite is assigned an RGB value based in part on the level of red, green, and blue reported by those photosites adjacent to it. The Foveon X3 sensor creates its RGB color output for each photosite by combining the outputs of each of the stacked photodiodes at each of its photosites. This operational difference results in several significant consequences.
Because demosaicing is not required for the Foveon X3 sensor to produce a full-color image, the color artifacts ("colored jaggies") associated with that process are not seen. The separate anti-aliasing filter commonly used[n 1] to mitigate those artifacts in a Bayer sensor is not required. This is because little aliasing occurs when the photodiodes for each color, with the assistance of the microlenses, integrate the optical image over a region almost as big as the spacing of sensors for that color.[n 2] On the other hand, the method of color separation by silicon penetration depth gives more cross-contamination between color layers, meaning more issues with color accuracy, especially in the red channel.
Light gathering and low-light performanceEdit
Another difference is that more of the photons entering the camera will be detected by the Foveon X3 photosensor than is possible with a mosaic sensor. This is because each of the color filters overlaying each photosite of a mosaic sensor passes only one of the primary colors, absorbing the other two. The absorption of these colors reduces the total amount of light gathered by the sensor and destroys much of the information about the color of the light impinging on each sensor element. Although the Foveon X3 has greater light gathering ability, the individual layers do not respond as sharply to the respective colours. Thus color-indicating information in the sensor's raw data requires "aggressive" matrixing (essentially, removal of common-mode signals) to produce color data in a standard color space, which can increase color noise in low-light situations.
According to Sigma Corporation, "there has been some controversy in how to specify the number of pixels in Foveon sensors." The argument has been over whether sellers should count the number of photosites, or the total number of photodiodes, as a megapixel count, and whether either of those should be compared with the number of photodiodes in a Bayer filter sensor or camera as a measure of resolution.
For example, the dimensions of the photosite array in the sensor in the Sigma SD10 camera are 2268 × 1512, and the camera produces a native file size of those dimensions (times three color layers). This amounts to approximately 3.4 million three-color pixels. However, it has been advertised as a 10.2 MP camera by taking account of the fact that each photosite contains stacked red, green, and blue color sensing photodiodes, or pixel sensors (2268 × 1512 × 3). By comparison, the dimensions of the photosite array in the 10.2 MP Bayer sensor in the Nikon D200 camera are 3872 × 2592, but there is only one photodiode, or one pixel sensor, at each site. The cameras have equal numbers of photodiodes, and produce similar RAW data file sizes, but the Bayer filter camera produces a larger native file size via demosaicing.
However, the actual resolution produced by the Bayer sensor is more complicated than the count of its photosites, or its native file size, might suggest. The reason has to do with both the demosaicing and the separate anti-aliasing filter commonly used to reduce the occurrence or severity of color moiré patterns that the mosaic characteristic of the Bayer sensor produces. The effect of this filter is to blur the image output of the sensor, thus producing a lower resolution than the photosite count would seem to imply. This filter is largely unnecessary with the Foveon X3 sensor and is not used. The earliest camera with a Foveon X3 sensor, the Sigma SD9, showed visible luminance moiré patterns, but not color moiré.
Subsequent X3-equipped cameras have less aliasing because they include microlenses, which provide an effective anti-aliasing filter by averaging the optical signal over an area commensurate with the sample density, which is not possible in any color channel of a Bayer-type sensor. Aliasing from the Foveon X3 sensor is "far less bothersome because it's monochrome" according to Norman Koren. Therefore, in theory, it is possible for a Foveon X3 sensor with the same number of photodiodes as a Bayer sensor and no separate anti-aliasing filter to attain a higher spatial resolution than that Bayer sensor. Independent tests indicate that the "10.2 MP" array of the Foveon X3 sensor (in the Sigma SD10) has a resolution similar to a 5 MP or 6 MP Bayer sensor, and at low ISO speed even similar to a 7.2 MP Bayer sensor.
With the introduction of the Sigma SD14, the 14 MP (4.7 MP red + 4.7 MP green + 4.7 MP blue) Foveon X3 sensor resolution is being compared favorably by reviewers to that of 10 MP Bayer sensors. For example, Mike Chaney of ddisoftware says, "the SD14 produces better photos than a typical 10 MP dSLR because it is able to carry sharp detail all the way to the 'falloff' point at 1700 LPI whereas contrast, color detail, and sharpness begin to degrade long before the 1700 LPI limit on a Bayer based 10 MP dSLR." Another article judges the Foveon X3 sensor as roughly equivalent to a 9 MP Bayer sensor. A visual comparison between a 14 MP Foveon sensor and a 12.3 MP Bayer sensor shows Foveon has crisper details.
Comparison to Bayer filter sensors – noiseEdit
The Foveon X3 sensor, as used in the Sigma SD10 camera, has been characterized by two independent reviewers as noisier than the sensors in some other DSLRs using the Bayer sensor at higher ISO film speed equivalents, and specifically chroma noise has been noted. Another has noted higher noise during long exposure times.[n 3] However, these reviewers offer no opinion as to whether this is an inherent property of the sensor or the camera's image processing algorithms.
With regards to the Sigma SD14 which uses a more recent Foveon X3 sensor, one reviewer judged its noise levels as ranging from "very low" at ISO 100 to "Moderate" at ISO 1600 when using the camera's Raw image format.
Comparison to Bayer filter sensors – actual samplesEdit
Sigma's SD14 site has galleries of full-resolution images showing the color produced by the current state of Foveon technology. The 14-MP Foveon chip produces 4.7 MP native-size RGB files; 14-MP Bayer filter cameras produce a 14 MP native file size by interpolation (demosaicing). Direct visual comparison of images from 12.7-MP Bayer sensors and 14.1 MP Foveon sensors show Bayer images ahead on fine monochrome detail, such as the lines between bricks on a distant building, but the Foveon images are ahead on color resolution.
- Though its use is almost universal with Bayer sensors in digital cameras, it is not absolutely necessary. Kodak once produced two digital cameras, the DCS Pro SLR/n and DCS Pro SLR/c (Digital Photography Review, Kodak DCS Pro SLR/c Review, June 2004, Retrieved March 3, 2007) using Bayer sensors without such a filter. However, significant moiré patterns were produced when photographing very fine detail. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
- Microlenses are commonly used in all types of image sensors in digital cameras; in Bayer-filter sensors, microlenses allow the area of the optical image being averaged (integrated) per sample to approach 25% for red and blue and 50% for green, resulting in very little anti-aliasing, while for Foveon X3 sensors the area being averaged can approach 100% for each color, resulting in a significant anti-alias filter effect.
- This observation is consistent with a comparison of the images, displayed in Digital Photography Review, taken by the Sigma SD10 (see here) with those taken approximately contemporaneously of the same scene by the Bayer sensor equipped Nikon D70 (see here)/page15.asp. Both retrieved March 6, 2007.
- Foveon Announces New Image Sensor Manufacturing Partner: Dongbu Electronics of Seoul, South Korea Retrieved Jan. 18, 2014.
- El Gamal, supra, p. 2.; A. Rush and P. Hubel, X3 Sensor Characteristics, Foveon X3 Info Page (undated but ≥ 2001, based on n. 1), pp. 1-3 Retrieved March 6, 2007.
- Rush and Hubel, supra, pp. 3-5.
- Paul M. Hubel, Foveon Technology and the Changing Landscape of Digital Cameras; Richard F. Lyon and Paul M. Hubel, Eyeing the Camera: into the Next Century (Santa Clara, California: Foveon, Inc., X3 Technology – Technology Papers). Retrieved May 20, 2010.
- Ji Soo Lee, "Photoresponse of CMOS Image Sensors Archived 2009-02-19 at the Wayback Machine," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Waterloo, 2003
- Digital Photography Review: 18 February 2002
- Digital Photography Review: Sigma SD10: March 2004
- Digital Photography Review: Sigma UK to start shipping SD15 digital camera: 11 June 2010
- "Sigma SD1 Price & Availability Announced". Retrieved 2011-05-24.
- Digital Photography Review: Sigma releases SD1 flagship digital SLR: 21 September 2010
- Digital Photography Review: Polaroid x530: 09 February 2004
- Imaging Resource: 15 April 2005
- Digital Photography Review: Sigma announces DP1 to be available spring 2008: 13 January 2008
- Digital Photography Review: Sigma UK: DP2 now available: 14 May 2009
- Hanvision: HVDUO-5M Digital Color Camera
- Hanvision: HVDUO-10M Color Camera
- See, Optical anti-aliasing filter section of anti-aliasing filter
- Brian W. Keelan (2004). Handbook of Image Quality: Characterization and Prediction. Marcel–Dekker. p. 390. ISBN 0-8247-0770-2.
- Brian Griffith (2007-07-05). "Know raw? Part 2". Photostream on auspiciousdragon.net. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- "Sigma SD14 White Papers". Retrieved 2007-04-29.
- Phil Askey (November 2002). "Sigma SD9 Review". dpreview.
- Norman Koren. "Sharpness: What is it and how is it measured?". Imatest docs. Retrieved 2007-12-16.
- Popular Photography & Imaging, Vol. 69, No. 6 (June, 2005), (table on p. 47).
- Digital Photography Review, Sigma SD10 Review, March 2004, Retrieved March 3, 2007.
- c|net Reviews, Sigma SD10 Retrieved March 6, 2007.
- Mike Chaney (2007). "Sigma SD14 Resolution: 14 MP? 4.6 MP? How does the SD14 stack up against high end cameras like the Canon EOD 5D?".
- "Foveon X3 Sensor Claims Put to the Test". Archived from the original on February 5, 2008.
- Carl Rytterfalk (February 23, 2010). "A tiny Sigma SD14 vs Nikon D90 comparison.." Archived 2010-07-15 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
- See, e.g., c|net Reviews, Sigma SD10 Retrieved March 6, 2007 and Steve's Digicams Sigma SD10 review (November 28, 2003) Retrieved March 6, 2007.
- Camera Labs: Sigma DP1 Gallery
- Sigma DP1 Review, photographyreview.com
- Imaging Resource Sigma SD10 review (First posted 10-22-03.). Retrieved March 6, 2007.
- Michael J. McNamara (December 2008). "Camera Test: Sigma SD14". Retrieved June 6, 2013.
- Mike Chaney (March 16, 2007). "Sigma SD14 Resolution: 14 MP? 4.6 MP?". Digital Domain Inc.
- Richard F. Lyon and Paul M. Hubel. Eyeing the Camera: into the Next Century. 10th Color Imaging Conference: Color Science, System and Applications. IS&T and SID, Springfield, Va, USA, 2002. P. 349-355.
- Sample gallery of Sigma SD14 with Foveon X3 sensor
- Foveon X3 technology page
- DPReview Foveon X3 prototype preview
- Sample Sigma/Foveon photos
- Sample Polaroid x530/Foveon photos
- Sigma DP1