Canon has announced the development of the Canon MS-500, the world’s first ultra-high-sensitivity interchangeable lens camera with a Single Photon Avalanche Diode sensor. Canon announced its first 1-megapixel SPAD sensor in May 2021. By the end of the year, they’d upped the resolution to 3.2-megapixels. This might not sound like a lot, but the original 1-megapixel sensor was already the world’s highest-resolution SPAD sensor up until then.
Now, that 3.2-megapixel sensor will reside inside the new Canon MS-500, offering ultra-low-light sensitivity with almost no noise whatsoever. This camera can literally see in the dark and produce fantastic imagery in full colour. Don’t get too excited yet, though. This isn’t a camera for the likes of us… Yet. Right now, its intended purpose is monitoring.
What makes a SPAD sensor so special is how it collects light. CMOS sensors send out signals to the processor based on the number of photons captured in a specific amount of time. SPAD sensors work by detecting each individual photon and amplifying it, allowing for much more accurate low-light images. These sensors are also not only able to see in the dark without the aid of infrared light (like typical night vision), but they can do it in full colour, too.
SPAD sensors were first developed back in the 1970s. And despite the progress Canon has made with SPAD sensors over the last couple of years, we’re a long way from seeing these cameras in the hands of your typical photographers and filmmakers. In fact, we might never see this technology come to the mirrorless and cinema cameras many of us use on a daily basis. For most of us, the technology would be overkill. After all, how many of us really need a 1/263,157,895th of a second shutter speed?
That being said, it’s been reported in the past that SPAD sensors can be made for around the same price as traditional CMOS sensors. Of course, there’s a much smaller customer base for these types of cameras and as with any emerging technology, the R&D costs are going to be extremely high for a while yet. As the technology evolves, there is a small chance we might see them come to cameras designed for more creative purposes, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Chances are that CMOS technology – or some descendent of it – will advance to the point where it’s good enough to deal with many of today’s issues, such as low light performance, noise levels, global shutter capture, etc. before SPAD technology comes practical for everyday use.
Canon hasn’t said exactly when the Canon MS-500 will go on sale nor how much it will cost, but they have said they hope to release it at some point during 2023. They will also have one on display at NAB 2023 in Las Vegas, happening this month. They say it’s a “reference exhibit” and do not explicitly state that it’s a functional device. Chances are, it’ll be sitting inside a glass cabinet. But DIYP will be at NAB 2023, so we’ll try to get a look at it if we can and find out some more information.