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Digital Monochrome A-Go-Go

Last updated 2010-01-10 - Send Feedback
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Raney’s Ranch Revisited [larger]

Introduction

This is a guest editorial by fine-arts photographer Pete Myers of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pete’s views on monochrome sensors are closely allied with my own, though we might differ in a few specifics — Lloyd Chambers.

UPDATE June 2012: Leica has announced the 18-megapixel Leica M Monochrom.

Pete’s View

Digital Monochrome A-Go-Go
By Pete Myers

Lloyd Chambers and I have been rallying manufacturers for years to put into production a true digital monochrome camera or digital back. For me, as a fine arts photographer engaged in monochrome work, and for Lloyd as an IR photography platform. [Editor’s note: infrared is a huge plus, but full-spectrum work is also appealing.]

My previous experience with a digital monochrome camera was with the Kodak DCS 760m. Though my 18-month journey was magnificent, a technical problem developed with the camera and it was in repair for nearly a year. Upon its return, I sold the camera. It was a first generation product and the limits showed with its 12-bit sampling, dated and limited in-camera image-processing computer (poor CCD equalization) and “tank-like” bulk.

The image above, “Raney’s Ranch Revisited” (© 2008, Peter H. Myers) was shot on the DCS 760m in January of 2003. I created the original image, “Raney’s Ranch” in that year, but have not been satisfied with it. This past week (October 2008) I revisited the image and created a new work for my upcoming show from the original DCS 760m image file. I was once again humbled by the potential of a true digital monochrome camera, and frustrated that such tools are not commonplace.

What I learned through my work in digital monochrome is that the Bayer Matrix is no substitute for a true monochrome. Despite sophisticated math tricks used in Bayer decoding from camera RAW formats, Bayer aliasing and lost detail are still prevalent and are most visible when deriving monochrome images.

Actual pixels, click for more

A true digital monochrome camera can be used in any spectrum between IR photography and UV photography, with conventional monochrome in the middle. All that is necessary to change to explore this versatile tool is the use of the appropriate contrast filter on the front of the lens. This is quite different then when a Bayer matrix defines the spectral response dependent on the exact nature of the pixel filtering created at the time of manufacturing.

Lloyd has reported previously on the development of a digital monochrome back to be built by Phase One as a special product. Jim Taskett at Bear Images in Palo Alto, CA, has been spearheading the effort. At 39 megapixels, the back promises to be of considerable interest towards digital monochrome photography. The Kodak KAF-39000 image sensor has a linear dynamic range of 71.4-db and quantum efficiency of about 30% (compared to film at about 2%). A 49mm by 36.8mm, the image sensor is significantly on the medium format side of the equation. It should begin shipping in December of 2008.

As much as I would like to have one for my work, and barring any last minute lottery wins, technology sales, or sponsorship from Exxon, I am afraid the price of a 39MP digital back is way out of range for my work, and I would suspect all but the rare photographer. Their intended purpose is for institutions, such as museums, not individuals.

But it is not really the back that is wanted or needed. What we want is not far out of range, but seemingly impossible to convince either Hasselblad or PhaseOne to develop. Both companies have digital backs with square format sensors for the Hasselblad V type camera body. At Phase One it is designated the P20+ and at Hasselblad it is the CFVII. These square sensor backs are 4Kx4K pixels and use a Kodak image sensor, the KAF-16802 (now discontinued.) With large 9um photosites, and a nearly 37mm x 37mm format, it uses the central portion of a medium format lens for imaging. This has the result of avoiding some of the wide-angle issues common to digital backs.

What we want is a monochrome version of this back using the KAF-16803 monochrome image sensor. With a whopping 80-db linear dynamic range (about a stop and a half greater then most production digital backs) and a quantum efficiency of 60%, such a digital monochrome back would be a real showstopper. It would take digital photography into a new realm.

Adaptation of either of these backs would be relatively straightforward for either company. Minor changes in the electronics design and firmware rewrite for monochrome data storage and monochrome histograms are the extent of the modifications needed. It would not require building a new digital back from scratch, which is costly.

So why is this type of digital monochrome back not in production? Because these companies are lacking the vision that there is a viable market for digital monochrome cameras or backs. Their engineers simply do not understand that equivalent results cannot be derived from a Bayer back as one could image from a digital monochrome camera. I think that at US$9K, there would be quite a few photographers that would pursue such a photographic option. But they need to hear it from you! IR photographers, monochrome photographers, UV photographers all need to start voicing their wishes for a digital monochrome back from these manufacturers. And even companies such as Leica (with the M8.2) and Nikon (with the D3) and Canon (1Ds Mark III) need to start including true digital monochrome options to their prime products. Most of these products need only a non-Bayer image sensor of the same type and a change in firmware to provide such a product.

In professional photographry there has always been a strong niche for monochrome. With the switchover from film to digital, a true digital monochrome has been lagging way behind. It is time to make our voices heard loud and clear that digital monochrome is wanted, needed, and ready for prime time.


Conclusions

Like Pete, I covet a monochrome 39 megapixel digital back. But I’d settle for a Nikon D3m or Canon EOS 5D Mark IIm—monochrome variants. The chances of such cameras are somewhere between slim and none. But over time, as the megapixel wars cool down, monochrome may be seen as a fruitful area, where big gains can be made in true resolving power. Time will tell.

Pete previously wrote on the DCS 760 at luminous landscape.

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