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Whither the digital monochrome camera?


The crop above is an actual pixels crop taken from a six-megapixel Kodak DCS 760m image (“m” for monochrome).  Move your mouse pointer over the image to see a version sharpened at {100, 0.3, 0} in Photoshop, and then move it off the image to see the unsharpened version (give it a moment to appear).  Note the “cleanliness” of the image.  No speckled aliasing and no weirdo patterns.  Just clean pixels.

The monochrome DCS 760m digital camera (circa 2002) has no color filter array as found in today’s color digital cameras. Because there is no light loss from these miniature color filters, its base ISO is 400—and that’s from a 3-4 year old camera.  There is no funky color aliasing, because there is no interpolation of color, just pure monochrome values. Color digital cameras are monochrome too (sort of), but each photosite receives red, green or blue light which later requires interpolation (smart guessing) as to the actual color.   If you ever put a colored filter on your digital camera, you can see how much it reduces the exposure.

Kodak only made about 80 or so DCS 760m cameras, most of them allegedly going to government agencies, and they still cost about $8000 used (though finding one is next to impossible).  The camera had its issues, but when operating perfectly, image quality is beautiful.  One can only image what image quality would be possible today, should Nikon decide to create a D2Xm, or Canon an EOS 1Ds Mark IIm.  For more insight into the DCS 760m, please see this article by fine-art photographer Pete Meyers.

I love color, but well-done black and white imagery is gorgeous too. And unlike conventional photographic film,  a monochrome digital camera allows full-spectrum capture, so that infrared, ultraviolet and visible light can all be captured in combination, or separately, using appropriate filtration. Witness the multiple web sites offering to convert color digital cameras to infrared as evidence that the market is sorely lacking a monochrome offering.  Still, such converted cameras cannot equal the image quality that a true monochrome camera would offer; even in a converted camera, the Bayer pattern color filters are still present, and still do their damage to dynamic range, sharpness, aliasing, etc.   These conversion services are also not cheap ($300-500).  That kind of premium over and above a color camera ought to provide an alluring profit margin for a major manufacturer.

Monochrome sensors should be much cheaper to manufacture than color ones (with sufficient production volume—therein lies the problem).  They require no interpolation as do Bayer Pattern sensors, so the camera “brains” can be simplified.  Because they have no color filter array over the photosites, they also offer about two stops more sensitivity than a color camera at the same level of digital noise. An ISO 50 or 100 monochrome sensor would produce stunningly-smooth images with extremely low noise.

A 12 to 16-megapixel monochrome sensor with a wide dynamic range (12 stops or more) is on diglloyd’s short list (so long as it offers true 16-bit files).  Such a camera would produce breathtakingly sharp images as compared to a similar resolution color camera, but should be cheaper to manufacture, needing a less expensive sensor, less computing ability, less memory, etc in the camera.  Are you listening Nikon and Canon?

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