Panasonic Doubles Color Sensitivity in Sensors with ‘Micro Color Splitters’


Panasonic is claiming a major breakthrough in the world of camera sensors, saying that it has doubled the color sensitivity with a new technology called ‘Micro Color Splitters.’

Pixels in camera sensors are colorblind and can only capture color information with the help of special filters that isolate red, green, or blue light. That’s why Leica’s new M Monochrom camera can improve on image quality by limiting itself to black-and-white — it simply does away with the color filter array (CFA) to allow the incoming light to hit the colorblind sensor unimpeded.

Color filter arrays are ubiquitous and work well, but have the downside of only transmitting some of the incoming light onto the image sensor itself. Much of the light is absorbed by the filter itself (that’s what filters do, right?) — Panasonic says the light loss traditionally sits at 50-70%.

Photography is all about capturing light, so why should cameras throw any of it away?

Panasonic’s new Micro Color Splitters are an alternative to these color filters. Instead of filtering out light, the splitters act as tiny prisms to split the incoming light into red, green, and blue light onto multiple pixels on the sensor. Color information is still captured, just as with CFAs, but a theoretical 100% of light is directed onto the sensor.

Panasonic is replacing light-absorbing color filters with prisms that splits light into RGB colors and directs all of it onto the sensor

Panasonic’s new Micro Color Splitters are tiny prisms that split light, directing 100% of it onto the sensor below

So what does capturing 100% of light do for cameras? It greatly improves low light performance. Photographs can be captured with far less noise when shooting in dimly lit environments.

Panasonic says its technology increases camera sensitivity by one whole stop. This means its cameras will theoretically produce the same level of noise at ISO 1600 as Bayer sensor-equipped cameras do at ISO 800.

A photo captured with a traditional Bayer sensor (left) next to the identical scene photographed with Panasonic's new sensor technology (right)

A photo captured with a traditional Bayer sensor (left) next to the identical scene photographed with Panasonic’s new sensor technology (right)

Another amazing property of the new micro color splitters is that they can simply replace the existing color filter arrays in modern digital cameras — they don’t require specially designed sensors underneath!

The new technology competes against Sigma’s Foveon X3 sensor, which uses three stacked sensors to capture more light information that traditional Bayer sensors. The obvious disadvantage with Foveon technology compared to Panasonic’s new development is that it’s an entirely different sensor rather than a new filter layer above traditional sensors.

No word yet on when we might see Panasonic’s Micro Color Splitters arrive in the real world, but it definitely looks like something we should be looking forward to.

Image credit: PRISM 1 by refeia

  • Samcornwell

    Although I’m struggling to understand the technical aspects of how it doubles light capture, it is indeed exciting stuff, since the photo is enhanced somewhat.

  • Neoracer Xox

    But at the end of the day, its viewed on your LCD it capable of displaying more? Maybe the next gen of displays can do that

  • registerwithdisqus

    Finally Panasonic!

  • Michael Zhang

    I think the basic idea is: 50% of light is lost to the color filter in traditional cameras (it gets blocked and doesn’t reach the sensor itself). In this new design, 100% of the light passes through, since it’s a prism splitting light rather than a filter isolating light.

  • Neil AUTY

    Anything that improves the dynamic range of sensors has to be beneficial in the long term.This should allow for IR photography to be undertaken using the same set as UV photography alongside visible light, as the filters are replaced by diffraction, therefore less light loss… Awaits resulting bionic implants.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Diffraction, eh? I suppose the question now would be, “How well does it handle chromatic aberration?”

  • Samcornwell

    Ah, I get it! Thanks Michael.

  • Josh

    It’s not about increasing color gamut, it’s increasing sensitivity…or more specifically decreasing the amount of light lost on its way to the photosites.

  • Burnsides

    depends on the color, red and blue only have 25% of the pixels on most cameras.. So you lose 75% of your(pure) red and blue sensitivity. Video cameras have prisms to separate red, blue and green onto 3 different ccd sensors.. The only loss in that case is due to the glass.

  • Mike

    Great news. It’s getting to the point where adding more and more pixels isn’t going to be useful. The megapixel race can only take you so far, at some point you need better pixels, not more pixels.

  • newZZZ

    Does this mean it works in a subtractive color system(CMY) and is then coverted to the additive color system(RGB)? W-R=C, W-B=Y and W+B/W+R=M???

  • Gordon L. Scott

    This is a clever variation of the 3 ccd video cameras produced a decade ago. I wish someone would use that 3ccd technology to make a modern still frame camera!