Nikon patents “sensor and camera” – is it that weird square 4K 1,000FPS BSI CMOS from 2021?

Jan 5, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Nikon patents “sensor and camera” – is it that weird square 4K 1,000FPS BSI CMOS from 2021?

Jan 5, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Nikon has been granted a new patent entitled “Image Sensor and Electronic Camera”. It was accepted at the end of December but filed back in April 2021. The filing may be related to that strange 4K 17.8-megapixel 1,000FPS CMOS sensor announced back in February 2021, although YM Cinema reports that it’s not explicitly mentioned in the patent. In fact, the patent doesn’t seem to give that much away at all.

While Nikon appears to have patented the design, Nikon doesn’t actually make sensors. They make equipment for making sensors but not the sensors themselves. Most Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras over the years have contained sensors designed by Nikon but manufactured by other companies, such as Sony, Toshiba and TowerJazz. I wouldn’t expect that to change now.

The abstract for the patent reads:

An image sensor includes a first voltage source that supplies a first voltage and a plurality of pixels supplied with the first voltage. The pixel includes a photoelectric conversion unit that photoelectrically converts incident light, an accumulation unit to which an electric charge resulting from photoelectric conversion by the photoelectric conversion unit is transferred and accumulated, a transfer unit that transfers the electric charge from the photoelectric conversion unit to the accumulation unit; a second voltage source that supplies a second voltage, and a supply unit that supplies the transfer unit with a transfer signal based on either the first voltage supplied by the first voltage source or the second voltage supplied by the second voltage source.

This doesn’t really reveal all that much, but there are things mentioned further down in the patent and in the descriptions of illustrations that give us some clues. It is a stacked BSI CMOS sensor, although nothing appears to have been revealed regarding resolution, aspect ratio, frame rate or physical size. So, whether or not it relates to 2021’s weird sensor is unknown. Even if it is, this might not be a sensor (or camera) for the likes of us.

What makes the sensor announced in 2021 weird is the fact that it’s square. At the time, it seemed likely that the sensor was destined for industrial use, with its extreme dynamic range and ultra-fast frame rate. But given that it’s square and capable of 4K x 4K resolution and has physical dimensions of around 25.4 x 25.4 mm (a slightly larger width than APS-C), then there is the potential for it to go inside a consumer camera that could easily be switched from horizontal to portrait orientation without having to move the camera – or giving us a large 4K x 4K square image that we can choose to crop either way in post.

You’d likely need full-frame lenses to reach the corners of the sensor without cropping or vignetting, though, even if APS-C lenses would hit the full width and height through the centre. That being said, it is entirely possible that you could use APS-C lenses if you were choosing to crop horizontally or vertically in the camera. Given the amount of vertical content out there now – even vertical content that promotes horizontal content, like movies and TV shows – being able to shoot both aspect ratios simultaneously and choose your crop in post could come in very handy for a lot of social media users, both personally and professionally. And being able to shoot vertically without having to rotate the camera sure would make rigging a lot easier, with most camera rigs designed for cameras mounted with the sensor oriented horizontally.

I still think that such a sensor is more likely to appear in industrial applications before consumer ones, though. That is, assuming it ever reaches consumer applications. I’m sure that at some point, square sensors may eventually become a thing, even if just for the ability to record a frame that lets you pick your horizontal or vertical crop in post. But, I don’t think it’ll be Nikon that does it. They’re not exactly the trailblazers they once were when it comes to consumer cameras.

If you want to have a full read of the patent, check it out here.

[via YM Cinema]

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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