Nikon Just Filed A Patent For An Interchangeable Sensor Camera. I Am Not Thrilled

If you are ready any of the photography blogs out there you could not have missed the new patent from Nikon. A patent for an interchangeable sensor camera (brought to light by Nikon Rumors, and machine translated here).

Everyone are saying – Yay! I would love to swap the sensor on my camera when technology changes. YAY!

Nikon Just Filed A Patent For An Interchangeable Sensor Camera

At first glance it seems like the future has opened for cameras that can do practically anything now, at the change of a sensor – Higher res, better video, dedicated chips, say Infra red photography, built-in HDR, better dynamic range. Everything that we can imagine. While the latter (HDR, IR, dynamic range) makes lots of sense, the former (more resolution, better video) is not likely to happen.

What Is This Patent Really About

Here is a time where I wish I could read Kanji :) I can’t. But between Google translate and news covering the patent here is my understanding of what the patent is about – It is a about replacing a camera sensor. Or going to the specifics (as patents often do) it is about gaining higher accuracy when positioning an image sensor in a digital camera. Does not sound so sexy now, right?

Sensor alignment is crucial for the camera to operate correctly – think back/front focus, chromatic aberration and so on. Lenses are designed to be at a certain (very accurate) distance from the sensor plane (called focal flange distance). Deviating from that distance makes the lenses inaccurate.

But solving the sensor alignment issue does not solve all the issues related with a sensor. Let’s take a deeper look.

What It Takes To Make A Photo

While the image sensor is a crucial part of the image taking process it is not a sole player. This is more of a team effort involving several camera components.

So yea, there is the sensor, where the light hits many tiny light sensitive cells and collect photons to represent an image. But there is more, Here is a typical workflow.

Then those photons are transformed into electric charge and moved into a buffer. Then taken from that buffer and fed into an imaging processor which manipulates the RAW data. From there it goes to another buffer and then lastly it travels to a memory card to be kept. Many times writing to the memory card is the bottle neck of this process. But processing time with the imaging cheap is also a factor and so is the width of the buses on the camera (those are the highways where data travels). And of course there is a software (or firmware) that governs the process.

This is why I don’t think that swapping a sensor is good enough to gain higher res or “bigger” videos. Let’s look at a possible sensor swap – from 18MP to 36MP. All the components will have to work twice as fast (at least) to accommodate the higher data flow. Maybe the image processor needs to be replaced to handle bigger files (I am sure it can be reprogrammed for small changes, but at some point it will hit a physical barrier). The buffer will now contain half of the images (at most).

This gets worse with video where more processing and more card writing happens. So Would you swap your sensor for a small bump in resolution? I don’t think so, It would have to be a major thing. Something that in the past triggered you to swap a camera.

Any of those none-sensor components, of course can be changed or replaced (and Nikon for a while even offered buffer extension services) but they are not the image sensor. and will possibly require a swap of the mother board, maybe the memory card interface, and probably a few more components. Not as easy as it was a second ago, right?

Looking At Other Use Cases

Let’s take a look at two other use cases, one that successfully changes engines on the go, and one that… well…. not as much.

First let’s look at RED. RED proud themselves on the modularity of their systems. Their range of video camera is modular by design and enable a wide range of technical options.

Starting with the 6K RED DRAGON all the way to the 4K SCARLET. But any of those is not just a sensor swap. While a lot of the components are external to the camera (storage, optics, interfaces), they are still selling a brain rather than a sensor. While some of it may be marketing, some of it is internal to the components that each of those sensors require. (unless of course they are all similar and limited by firmware, which in that case, RED are geniuses).

This is the nice thing with RED, you can progress as you go. Start with one brain and slowly move up exchanging everything that is not the brains as you need. But it is not only the sensor….

Now let’s look at Subaru. Well, Subaru never had an engine exchange program, and I think I know why. The engine is too intertwined with all the other systems in the car. Swap out the engine and you need to change the cooling system, suspensions, some electronics, maybe get a bigger fuel tank. You see where I am going with this, right?

My point is that none of those companies are doing a core only swap – if you change the core, you need to change a lot of the supporting systems.

Oh, Darn! So What Can Be Done?

Well, not all sensor swaps are designed to gain higher resolution as an upgrade path. Some may be aimed towards gaining specific niches. Remember when Nikon did a D800, D800e thing where one was more stills oriented and the other more video oriented? This is where such a patent may come in useful.

Or maybe the ability to make a high contrast camera or high dynamic range camera. All of those may benefit from a sensor swap, but will not require a full body upgrade to support higher data rates.

Now, all that put aside, I think that this patent, is not even meant for us – the customers. I would strongly suggest that it is aimed at Nikon techs doing maintenance and repair at Nikon Labs, making it easier to service a camera and all this capabilities swap idea is just in our heads.

IR, Moire, HDR, Dynamic Range… repairs

  • Markus

    Hmm, good arguments. I would say, this technique is a pro thing. Not for the mass market. The (new) camera-body should be pro too. High data transfer rates, big buffers, high end processor(s), dedicated software engine upload via memory-card. Such a machine could receive any kind of sensor of the range.

  • Dmax

    how about if you damage the ccd then this would be a good thing right ?

  • David Liang

    I bet a carriage with a combustible engine sounded pretty stupid to people riding horses all their lives too. Wait until it comes to fruition before the asinine speculation, ALL you have is the patent to go on. That’s like trying to trend quarterly earnings by the sale of a single item…you’re missing a LOT of information.

  • Tim

    You might be onto something with the D800/e comparison: how about monochrome and IR sensors?

  • Bob

    It totally makes sense that the technology from the patent has more to do with the manufacture, repair, and refurbish part of the business. Maybe it will never be useful to an end user but it could open up the road to a semi-customizable line of cameras.
    I think it would be interesting to build a noct-sensor. Take all the tech that goes into making the D600 and D7100 look pretty clean at ISO 6400 and apply that to a sensor with half the resolution, and maybe bring back CCD’s as an option. I don’t know what the return on investment would be but I recall in the early days of FX sensors, pixel size was always mentioned as pretty big part in lower-light performance.

  • Mark Berry

    Umm surely this is little different to film; people used to choose a film based on it’s characteristics, so why not apply the same to sensors? OK, so you can get a lot of apparent characteristic change through processing; no need to change sensor, but surely a sensor designed ONLY for low light would be better than one designed to cover a wide range, for example?

  • wishinghand

    Thom’s (from dream is a camera that would be modular like this. His view of how it could be done without the bottlnecks you fear are outlined here:–nikon.html

    • udi tirosh

      yes, that was a great read and he makes some interesting arguments. The split to X components makes a lot of sense to me rather than just switching the sensor

  • KCLiveMusicBlog

    I have a little bit of background in software/hardware design, it’s possible that the interchangeable sensors may be incorporating more guts than just simply a sensor which would eliminate SOME of the issues associated with hardware limitations.

    Depending on what you’re starting with, there may be a lot more overhead left in the hardware than you might think. I would guess that when changing sensors there would probably be an associated firmware update. That could include ramping up the clock speed, new algorithms that type of thing.

    It’s an interesting concept though.