December 3, 2015

How the Hell Do Digital Camera Sensors Actually Work?

Digital Image Sensor
Put on your learning caps. John Hess is about to drop some hardcore science knowledge on you.

If you're anything like me, you have a nagging sense of curiosity about how and why things work the way they do. For me, that manifests itself in learning about things that will likely never be useful in the context of filmmaking, like the science of coffee roasting and the process of building guitars (which is actually a lot like editing a film). More usefully, though, it also manifests itself in learning about how images are captured and stored digitally, which in my opinion, is an essential set of concepts for modern cinematographers to understand. Luckily, it's not too difficult to learn.

In his latest lesson at Filmmaker IQ, John P. Hess details the complex chemistry behind how digital sensors, both CCD and CMOS, actually work. Make sure you stick around to the last few minutes of the video, because Hess also has very compelling message about why all of this is so, so, so important, even if it seems like geeky tech nerd nonsense.

Check it out:

And here's another explainer from Linus at Techquickie, which is a great YouTube channel for learning about how all of the technology in our lives actually works:

Lastly, it's important to note that sensor technology is far from static. Whether it's companies like Sony and Canon who seemingly manage to pull crazy amounts of performance out of existing sensor technology (4 Million ISO cameras, for instance), or companies like InVisage who are trying to fundamentally change the way sensors work, the sensor landscape is constantly evolving. There are so many great concepts being crafted in research labs around the world — graphene sensors and curved sensors come to mind — that there are few reasons not to think that the sensor landscape will look completely different 10 years from now.

Here's a quick look at QuantamFilm, the cool technology that InVisage is working on, which could make its way into smartphone cameras in the near future.

What do you guys think about the importance of understanding the underlying technology in our cameras? Is it essential to the art of being a cinematographer or filmmaker in the digital world, or is it just minutiae compared to things like visual storytelling? Share your thoughts with us down in the comments!      

Your Comment

12 Comments

"learning about things that will likely never be useful in the context of filmmaking"

I never take that attitude toward knowledge of any kind. Filmmaking is technology. Filmmaking is art history. Filmmaking is cultural understanding. Filmmaking is storytelling.

Knowledge enriches the films we make in unexpected ways. My treatise on it covers only 13 minutes - it's a shallow wade into the vast deep ocean of engineering and manufacturing of camera sensors. Do we need to explore every depth? No, but we can and should know that such depths exist. And why not when we base our whole lives and livelihoods on this technology?

December 3, 2015 at 4:08PM

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That was a great answer, John P. Hess^!

Knowledge is what makes those gadgets in our hands capture what matters and makes sense. Without knowledge, we are capturing images that have no connection to ourselves.

Never the less, this is some interesting material in these videos! Great job to NFS for putting this article together and Filmmaker IQ for the video!

December 3, 2015 at 6:31PM

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Brendan Sweeney
Producer, Writer, Director
84

One, stop sucking up. You make it too obvious.

Two, "never the less" is one word: nevertheless.

Three, "Without knowledge, we are capturing images that have no connection to ourselves." - that sounds like half-baked regurgitated backyard philosophy.

That's actually untrue. A lot of great cinematographers are shallow thinkers and they never ponder on the scientific context for their work. Does that make them mediocre? Nope.

"Knowledge is what makes those gadgets in our hands capture what matters and makes sense." - also untrue. Curiosity is what makes us utilise technology in order to accumulate knowledge that can matter and make sense of our lives - sometimes. And you're probably curious so props to you. Keep being curious =)

December 4, 2015 at 4:49AM, Edited December 4, 4:52AM

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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
319

Wow! Raph, are you consciously aware of the fact that you are incredibly rude? Why was that any of that necessary.

Loving the fact that 'that sounds like half-baked regurgitated backyard philosophy' is coming from a person who has a whole "Work Philosophy" page on their website, just FULL of thematically similar treasures (by the way, I point out the hypocrisy here, not your "philosophy").

Just who was it that had the authority to grant your opinion (and let's not forget that it IS an opinion) validity above Brendan's?

I would apologise for being so blunt and rude in return but it's okay cos look - I finished with a nice little smiley!

=)

December 4, 2015 at 8:23PM

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I'm consciously aware of the fact that people who get offended by my opinions (yes, I'm conscient these are just opinions and I never claimed otherwise) usually find me rude. But again, I don't exactly live to please strangers on the internet, and being straight to the point is, in my books (and clearly your books dictate otherwise), a more attractive feature than being politically correct.

And secondly, the fact that you went as far as checking my website instead of actually understanding the nature of my argument speaks volumes about the nature of your judgement. You're the type of person who seeks systematic validation.

If I turned out to be a rising star, your speech would have been entirely different. So don't mention the notion of hypocrisy to me.

And finally, how sure are you that my finish wasn't actually a praise? Do I really have to either commend or critise the entirety of someone's opinions or statements, or am I allowed to break 'em down into parts - some of which I'd find adequate, the others not so much? You tell me.

December 12, 2015 at 12:13PM

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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
319

That said, you're right about that "work philosophy" page. It's shit.

It's not going to be there for long because it doesn't add the value and the whole website is very mediocre anyway.

December 12, 2015 at 12:16PM

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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
319

Hey John, I'm a fan of your videos and recommend them to people I know who are interested in filmmaking.

Also, I noticed your green screen key on the last clip in the video was noisier than the rest of the videos. Looks like you forgot to do the black clip level in After Effects?

December 3, 2015 at 6:43PM

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Jeremiah Kuehne
Filmmaker
755

I agree great answer. The more you learn the better off you are. In the thing (refrigeration) I actually make a living at (unfortunately not this business yet) knowing not just how it works but why it works that way has enabled me to be a the top of the game instead of the bottom. When they have a problem the parts changers can not figure out they call me. Most of the so called technicians in every discipline are okay when conditions are perfect but when something is outside of normal they are lost. Never stop learning.

December 3, 2015 at 10:19PM

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Refrigeration and filmmaking have a surprisingly intimate relationship. If you look up images of the Jazz Singer premiere in 1927 you'll see a banner advertising the Warner theater having "refridgerated washed air". The movie palace was the first time many got to experience air conditioning which people weren't exactly sold on when it first came out (why would you want to breathe air from a machine). Without AC, we wouldn't have the summer season. No blockbusters, no Jaws or Star Wars.

My whole childhood at the movies would not be possible without "refridgerated air"

December 4, 2015 at 1:14AM

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I Completely agree!

December 4, 2015 at 1:40AM

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Julio César Ruiz Quezada
Director / Director Of Photography / Editor
81

Knowledge is Power, it's always good to learn new things, no two ways to it. Also, John, who as usual did a great job with the video presentation, came up with something very interesting in the end. "Please respect the technology".

The main reason why our earlier generation DOPs / Filmmakers were attached to 'Film' is because they were part of the process to make a moving image, the drill required military like precision to capture each shot followed by the long process of developing it, the wait was eternal I guess, to the see the rushes. So, they kinda worshipped it, should I say 'worshipping' - Mr. Tarantino - Hateful Eight.

But with digital technology, everything is happening on the chip right in the box, with instant replay to see what we got. So, we take it for granted. And when you understand the sophisticated process which is enabling us to make Digital Videos, it will make us responsible enough to create WORTHY content, if it is for public viewing.

Lastly, Should we not thank the scientists who made this "Magic" possible, yes we do. Thank You Sirs / Ma'ams.

December 4, 2015 at 11:57AM

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Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making
323

The more I understand the technology the better I work with it and avoid issues that are frequent with ignorance.

Thanks for the explanation on rolling shutters and the difference between CMOS and CCD. It will come in very handy in future camera purchases.

December 4, 2015 at 9:19PM, Edited December 4, 9:19PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
167

Fincher often relates a piece of advice from his father - 'knowing your craft will never stop you from being a genius' or some such. Sounds right to me.

December 6, 2015 at 2:46AM

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