Attention Camera Marketing Departments: Tell Me About the Sensor

Since its spec sheet leaked on Monday, there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Pentax’s newly-released K-3 APS-C DSLR. Many are particularly atwitter about the K-3’s unique anti-aliasing system, which relies on a vibrating sensor to remove moire-effects. Because it’s not filter-based, the effect can be turned off.

Therefore, the K-3 offers the moire-eliminating effect of an anti-aliasing filter when it’s needed, and the greater sharpness of a filterless sensor when it’s not. Not only do people care about this innovation, but for many it was a cardinal feature of the camera.

That’s interesting, because the K-3 surpasses Pentax’s most recent top-of-the-line APS-C DSLR, the K-5 II, in a number of other key areas as well. The K-3 offers a huge jump in megapixels (from 16.3 to 24), as well as an increase in drive shooting speed and in ISO range, but these features seemed to attract far less attention.


That’s a step in the right direction. It wasn’t long ago that companies could base entire marketing efforts on a camera’s megapixel count. My first big boy camera was a 15.1 megapixel Canon 50D, which was notable for its 5.1 megapixel increase over the 40D and not much else. Canon seemed to agree, especially since they gave it the tagline “Outstanding speed and resolution for the discerning photographer: the EOS 50D”.

But a diatribe against the megapixel war would beat the proverbial horse, plus it’s not the important observation here. Pentax attracted plenty of attention for this new camera by making prominent mention of the K-3’s innovative sensor technology in both the press release and on its website.

Fujifilm did something similar with its unique X-trans sensor, which obviates the need for an anti-aliasing filter with a uniquely organized color filter array used in the X-Pro 1, X-M1 and X-E1. There’s also been a series of camera models with special editions built without an anti-aliasing filter to handle the same problem, such as the Pentax K-5 IIs and the Nikon D800e.

But plenty of other recent announcements — like the Nikon D610, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, or the Canon 70D, just to name a few — make only cursory mention of the sensor and why it does what it does. It’s near universal for such announcements to promise amazing image quality, but the most common justification for that claim seems to be high-resolution, high ISO ranges or a new processor.

Even when there’s a little elaboration on the tech under the hood, it’s often phrased in a way that sounds pseudo-scientific, or at least highly uninformative. There’s a great example of this on the promotional page for the Leica M, released late in 2012, which, halfway down the page, promises “outstanding image quality” because “intelligent design and flat pixel architecture enables each individual pixel to gather a particularly large amount of light.” That sounds technical, but it doesn’t actually explain much, and it’s not really an effective marketing statement.

Leica Add

The point here isn’t to rag on press releases for not expanding on the technical fundamentals of each component of a camera. Rather, I want to see more companies publicize the innovations in their sensors as a way to market cameras.

Advances to CMOS sensor design have done more to increase the low-light capabilities, dynamic range, sharpness, and color accuracy of digital photographs than any other component of the camera body. Doesn’t it seem odd that the heart and soul of the product often only gets a casual mention of its resolution and ISO range? If companies worry that this will bore their customers, or that consumers won’t care, test-cases like the Pentax K-3 ought to convince them otherwise.

For one thing, sensor-centric marketing would make it easier for consumers to compare camera models based on the element most likely to effect the maximum quality capacity: the imaging technology behind their sensors, not the number of pixels shoved onto its surface.

For another, when companies realize that a new innovation to sensor design can be dressed up with a sexy name (helloooo X-Trans sensor!) and used to sell cameras, there’s more encouragement to focus R&D efforts on substantive developments to sensor technology.

So, marketing department of whatever manufacturer might be reading this: next time you’re looking to promote your new camera, tell me more about the sensor. It looks like it’s working for Pentax.

Image credits: CCD Sensor by Ahmed2IQ

  • Charles

    This would of been a good post 5 years ago, but not now. The reason they all promise amazing image quality is because they do. Every camera sold out there delivers wonderful image quality. Major jumps in image quality just don’t happy all that often either. Normally it’s every few years, not each camera release. To be honest I am just happy to see better image quality. I don’t really care what is going on underneath to make it happen.

  • Molukto

    disabling the aa filter will have next to no real world influence.
    i can only laugh about peopel buying a D800E when you cant see the difference between a 12 mp and 20 mp camera on A3 prints.
    it´s a feature for pixelpeeper who have nothing to do in their lives.
    photographers care about something else that´s for sure.

  • Demian Linn

    1) Most new camera models don’t actually have much interesting/new going on in the sensor department. B) Most camera makers don’t actually make their own sensors, so hyping a sensor made by Sony or someone else as the #1 reason for buying your camera goes against everything the marketing department learned in marketing school.

  • Stan B.

    Wake me when ya get to the organic sensor thingie…

  • Zos Xavius

    Wake me up when people stop writing wake me up in every internet discussion.

  • scottag

    Have you ever heard of Foveon?

  • delayedflight

    Ugg only enthusiasts or ‘experts’ would understand what and how sensors work. The average consumer would have no idea what’s going on.

  • delayedflight

    Wake me up when it’s all overr~~

  • Stan B.

    Awesome- High Five!

  • greenarcher02

    Panasonic’s press release for the GX7 actually said something about the sensor.

  • Rob S

    Funny because I see the major difference between the K-5II and the K-3 being video and video related features and not much else.

    The “on demand” AA filter is about as relevant as JPEG quality. If you are REALLY concerned about maximizing your image sharpness you are never going to turn it on. If you are really concerned about moire you are going to get a camera with a hard wired AA filter. Besides the fact Pentax says it works best at under 1/1000 of a second, I cant imagine what constantly shaking the sensor would do the alignment and battery life.

    To me Pentax would do better to push weather resistance all the time. No one has the combination of bodies and lenses with weather protection that Pentax has. They should also push DNG RAW file compatibility – something only Pentax does in body – in body stabilization and excellent ergonomics. Off course they would need to be in the retail space where people could actually PICK UP a K-Series camera.

    I love my Pentax cameras but its not sensors that keep me buying them.

  • Mike Rosoft

    “would of”? Really? What happened to the good old “would’ve” or “would have”?

  • Syuaip

    have my like, man!

  • tertius_decimus

    Pentax made a thing which really could be the proper D300s replacement. Hell knows why Nikon managed to be deaf while Ricoh makes it right. On the sensor side, I don’t see anything interesting over Sigma’s Foveon technology. We’ve passed the point where conventional Bayer sensors are good enough to bring top notch performance for low light shooting but I think we’ll never see another quantum leap. Just slow evolution. And also, low light imaging isn’t only area to be improved. Compare detailed deep reds coming from Foveon with clipped hollow reds from any Bayer sensor. There’s no competition in that regard. Wanna see wider choice of different technologies.

  • Thomas

    If you assume that the world only consists of A3 prints, yes.

  • Sarpent

    There are those who print larger than 16.5 inches (A3 max dimension). And there are those who routinely exploit the ability to re-crop and reframe an image, which you can only do if you have the spare resolution relative to your print. Far from being the “pixelpeepers” you’re ridiculing, this group is largely comprised of pros.

  • Norshan Nusi

    I blame Green Day. O_O

  • Robert Mark

    I love the Foveon technology, but they’ve hooked their wagon to Sigma, who, while tearing it up in the world of high quality lenses, seems uninterested in doing anything with the sensor. I wish they would license it to Olympus, or better yet, become a full member of the Four Thirds group and start to sell their own four thirds bodies.

  • bob cooley

    I print a lot of large pieces, so for those of us that do, it does matter.

    And if you can’t see the difference, you aren’t crafting the best prints possible.

  • itsme

    “The K-3 offers … an increase … in ISO range, but these features seemed to attract far less attention.”

    That might be due to the fact that this statement is plain wrong.

    The K-50, K-500 and K5 II share an ISO-range of 100 to 51,200 just like the K-3.
    The K5 even had a range of 80 to 51,200.

  • slvrscoobie

    I love that a photographer whos first ‘big boy’ camera was released a scant 5 years ago is talking about sensor technologies and advances. How bout you take off your pull ups and let the real photographers with engineering degrees discuss this. PEople who have been around since the days when a Olympus E10 was high end, and a D30 was absolutely amazing.

  • Lee

    PENTAX SR tech is more than 10 yrs now, and 3 yrs ago they use the SR tech to do Astrotracer. Now they use it for AA filter. I wouldn’t worry about “constantly shaking the sensor would do the alignment and battery life”. In the older body like K20D, you can feel the sensor shake (when you do sensor cleaning), but since K-7, the shake is ‘ultra-sonic”, you don’t feel a thing. :)

  • Lucas

    Even with people wanting FF and cannikons having a greater market, Pentax manages to conquer it’s users, that’s really great.

  • catfish252

    maybe we could use ‘little words’ for the average consumer or…. they don’t have to read it.

  • AliNoorani

    As sound as your reasoning is to me, it is not going to happen really unless there’s a major boost in that department in one specific model. Even then the marketing focuses on what the boost ‘translates into’ in the camera’s performance.

    If car manufacturers ever shift the main focus of their marketing campaigns on their ‘engines’ and its specs, so will camera makers. Other than the ‘engine buffs’, the rest of people want a comfortable and safe ride with the ‘best features’ and good looks in a car. Not much is different in cameras (though a bit different in pro-levels).

  • Matt

    Love mine. Just wish it did low light and video.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Normal people (including plenty of pro photogs) don’t care about the technical minutiae of their cameras. I care about how a camera performs, not what sensor improvements fuel that performance.

    Anyways, rom a marketing perspective, there’s an obvious reason at least some camera companies don’t make bigger deals of their sensors: not all companies MAKE their own sensors. It makes sense that Nikon might not be quick to point out how great their (Sony-made) sensors are.

  • Matt

    I would love 6×9 Feveon, that would make me dish out what the top of the line DSLRs cost. Maybe a little more :)

  • tertius_decimus

    I’d like to see at least 36×24 at the shelf of gear store.

  • Matt

    I have a hard time convincing myself that a vibrating sensor is a good thing. That just adds motion blur. It might work pretty well for some, but I’m kind of a sharpness fan boy…

  • Jin

    So.. don’t turn it on?

  • Mike

    It’s called “progress” :(

  • Mike

    So how are YOU going to eliminate moire?

  • papap

    I can’t wait for Sony’s full frame mirrorless cameras to come out. fUJI FAIL

  • Rob S

    I have been wishing Pentax would make a Feveon based camera for a long time. I would love to see the next 645D have a Feveon. A “150MP” (50MP x3) 645D priced at 10K would sell out instantly.

  • Rob S

    LOL. Go back to the Nikon D1 – a “Professional” camera with a 2.7 MP sensor and NTSC color space. The D1X and D1H bumped to 5.3 MP and sRGB. Now that was a LEAP in quality.

    Its amazing that even Pentax is buying into the idea that its cameras are not “Professional” quality. Light and subjects have not changed one bit since the D1 was considered “Professional” yet somehow a camera that “only” has a 24MP APS-C sensor that shoots 8fps, has full body weather seals and a complete lens line up is described as “most advanced enthusiast DSLR available.”

  • tertius_decimus

    Unfortunately it seems like Ricoh would drop 645D serie. I’ve never heard they have 3-layer technology in mind and some rumors are saying they wouldn’t produce MF anymore. Nikon has some interesting patents but all signs showing they were registered for bragging rights, especially when we take into consideration the fact that Aptina, Toshiba and Sony produce sensors for Nikon. I rely on Sigma.

  • Markz

    certainly for some it will matter but usually once you’ve passed that A4/A3 stage your no longer holding the print in your hand in a photo book or magazine but it’s now hung up on the wall and you’re standing a couple of meters (or more away).

    The difference between a well crafted print from a 3 MP camera (such as the old canon D30) or a well crafted print from a new 20+ MP camera like the D800E would only be detectable by almost standing with your feet against the skirting board and your nose against the picture frame glass with a loupe pressed in to your eye (OK I exaggerate slightly for effect)

    at the risk of annoying alliteration:
    People who pixel peep prints miss the point.

  • bob cooley

    It’s not a bout pixel-peeping, its about producing a quality print – if you can’t tell the difference from a 3MP image and a 20MP image, then you have a lot to learn about properly exposing your images, or about printing. I can definitely tell the difference in 3 and 20MP image, even in an 8 1/2 by 11.

    For finely detailed images, part of the beauty is the detail (whether it is the fine strands and details of a macro shot, the texture and wrinkles in skin, or the clarity of light reflecting in complex surfaces), which you appreciate in gallery pieces when standing close to them – Have you ever been to a gallery? People don’t stand 6 feet or more away from images – they may start there, but they typically approach and look closely at the craftsmanship.

  • Scott

    Wake me up before you go go…