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A Sony Monochrome Sensor?

Throwing away the colour

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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At the moment if you want to use a dedicated black and white sensor you’ve got the choice of buying an old Kodak DCS camera (in a full 1.2mp or 6mp formats), buying a Leica Monochrom for £5k or a Phase One IQ Achromat for about £36k. Not many realistic options really.

However there are rumours that Sony are looking at producing a monochrome version of one of their sensors as a dedicated lens RX1 which would (hopefully) bring this niche product to market at a reasonable price.

Sony-RX1

But why would anybody want a monochrome sensor in the first place? To know this you have to know how a colour sensor works. I’ll only give you a brief recap of the pertinent details as there is a good explanation of the Bayer array on Wikipedia. The most important fact is that each pixel in the Bayer array is covered by a colour filter. If you’ve ever used colour filters on a black and white camera you know that there is a filter factor involved because they block light. The filter factor for a blue or red filter is about 2 stops. That’s two stops of light blocked!

That means that your native, base ISO is now around 800 instead of 200

Higher Sensitivity

A black and white sensor is the same as a colour sensor but with the colour filters removed. That means that your native, base ISO is now around 800 instead of 200 (presuming a Sony sensor). This would mean an almost noiseless ISO of 6400.

The other good thing (or bad thing depending on your point of view) about having no colour filters is that you can go back to using black and white filters properly again. If you’ve ever tried to use a red filter in front of a colour digital camera you’ll know the loss of resolution you get because you’ve effectively disabled three out of the four pixels available - the green and blue filters receive almost no light with a red filter on. This leads to a more ‘natural’ filter effect (so I’ve been told by people who know better than me).

Now why can’t we just remove the colour filters from a current DSLR to get the same effect? Well you can, but it’s not easy - in fact it’s quite scary by all counts. Have a look at this article.

Some companies will remove the colour filters for you - I know of one that has done in the past and they have a page about monochrome sensors here.

Another advantage of removing the colour filter is sharper pictures.

Sharper Pictures

Another advantage of removing the colour filter is sharper pictures. Depending the subject your resolution on a colour sensor is only a fraction of what it should be. Imaging photographing a girl with red hair. Only the red pixels would pick up the red hair properly and only 25% of the pixels are red. This means less than half the resolution in the hair which leads to blocky, pixelated hairs. On a black and white sensor all the pixels pick up all the information and you get nice consistently drawn lines. In actual fact colour sensors aren’t quite as bad as this but the loss is still significant - estimated at between 15% and 30% depending on who you talk to.

More film like noise

If you do use higher ISOs the noise you get is actually a lot more randomly distributed (because it’s not affected by the different gains the colour channels get). This gives something that looks less digital like if not more film like.

Foveon Sensor?

The Foveon sensor has pixels that collect all the colours of light and hence have some of the resolution advantages of a dedicated black and white sensor but without the sensitivity advantages. Plus there are few high-resolution Foveon sensors. However it does seem like a good compromise for the black and white photographer.

Do I want one?

Well I must say that I like the idea of a black and white sensor and if I were to do a lot more black and white it would definitely be a consideration. If I was a dedicated black and white photographer I think this would be on my shopping list, especially if it has the 36mp sensor! I wouldn't expect to see one until early 2015 though.

I’d be interested in anybody’s opinion who uses either a Leica Monochrom or a Foveon sensor for black and white photography (or even an Achromat or converted sensor).

Featured Comments From:

John Beardsworth: No thanks. And I say that as someone whose first loyalty is to black and white.
Sure, there may be advantages in terms of high ISO (though slow ISO has its value too) and more in terms of sharpness. But as for more film like noise, or rather less digital-looking noise, get a film camera and get your hands wet.

AlexeyD: Just to point out – I would not expect sensor sensitivity to grow a lot with CFA removed. In the old days when camera manufacturers were less concerned about shooting in a dark cupboards at nighttime, the CFA were quite dense and taking them off leaving monochrome sensor did indeed result in 2 stops boost. Looking at Kodak monochrome cameras vs their non monochrome versions it seems around 2 stops gain. Nowadays the CFA are quite weak to accommodate high ISO shooting so taking them off won’t result in drastic sensitivity boost.

Regarding the existing sensor conversion – the link you posted Tim is got to be the most careless one ;). Iliah Borg on DPreview was the pioneer of the conversion (not the one referenced though) – he stripped Nikon D2X sensor CFA off and had monochrome D2X version. From what I recall he used solvent chemicals to dissolve the filters (building an insulation well around sensor chip and using the bath of solvents on the bare sensor surface). His method was repeated by a few brave souls on DPReview with success from what I recall. Considering how many old Kodak SLR/n/c and 14n are left around (they have 14megapixel fullframe sensor) and the sensor construction (where the chip itself sits in a ceramic bath like frame) – solvents method actually looks quite repeatable.

Joe Cornish: I am slightly skeptical whether the theory of the pure black and white camera quite translates in print as we are led to believe; and the control of tone using colour channels remains an attractive aspect of mono conversion from digital colour, to my way of thinking. Nevertheless I do think too that a Sony RX-1 monochrome would be a massively appealing product for traditional street photography, and open up that approach to those of us who still think the price of the Leica Monochrom is too high.

Jürgen Metzler: I Had the chance so see a comparison between b/w prints from the M9 and the Monochrom last year and I couldn’t believe the difference, sharpness and tonality of the MM prints were in a different league. Only for watching on a monitor I wouldn’t buy a monochrome version. However, for me, b/w is strictly connected with film, I don’t like the digital clearness in monochrome.

 



  • No thanks. And I say that as someone whose first loyalty is to black and white.

    Sure, there may be advantages in terms of high ISO (though slow ISO has its value too) and more in terms of sharpness. But as for more film like noise, or rather less digital-looking noise, get a film camera and get your hands wet.

    But above all, I see using lens filters and locking your greyscale tonal relationships at the point of capture as a big step back from choosing what filtration best suits a colour image. I never could get a red-green grad, but it’s easy in Photoshop if you decide that’s what suits the scene.

    • It will be interesting to compare the results with an equivalent colour sensor – we’ll try to get hold of one when it comes out. I must admit that it is nice to apply tonal changes in post processing which is why I’ve been experimenting with shooting colour negative for shots that I intend to process as black and white.

      People who have used the Leica Monochrom do say the results are quite different and beautiful (although after spending that much I might too!)

      • Adam Pierzchala

        Hi Tim, I tried shooting colour neg with traditional b&w colour filters a few years back, but ended up with very odd vertical streaks on the negs. I never got to the bottom of what went wrong, it certainly didn’t look like flare though that still seems to be the most likely culprit. However, I had more success in foggy conditions though the effect of filtration was very subtle. I feel that mono conversion in software is more successful.

    • Jon Butler

      Me too John, my passion is B&W done on sheet film and printed in my darkroom.
      I do occasionally convert colour files from a D800e and get good enough results but I certainly wouldn’t buy a monochrome digital camera, that’s a lot of film and paper!!
      Cheers J.

  • AlexeyD

    Just to point out – I would not expect sensor sensitivity to grow a lot with CFA removed. In the old days when camera manufacturers were less concerned about shooting in a dark cupboards at nighttime, the CFA were quite dense and taking them off leaving monochrome sensor did indeed result in 2 stops boost. Looking at Kodak monochrome cameras vs their non monochrome versions it seems around 2 stops gain. Nowadays the CFA are quite weak to accommodate high ISO shooting so taking them off won’t result in drastic sensitivity boost.

    Regarding the existing sensor conversion – the link you posted Tim is got to be the most careless one ;). Iliah Borg on DPreview was the pioneer of the conversion (not the one referenced though) – he stripped Nikon D2X sensor CFA off and had monochrome D2X version. From what I recall he used solvent chemicals to dissolve the filters (building an insulation well around sensor chip and using the bath of solvents on the bare sensor surface). His method was repeated by a few brave souls on DPReview with success from what I recall. Considering how many old Kodak SLR/n/c and 14n are left around (they have 14megapixel fullframe sensor) and the sensor construction (where the chip itself sits in a ceramic bath like frame) – solvents method actually looks quite repeatable.

    I am with you on monochrome camera – I’d like to have one. Seen the results from Iliah’s D2X and they do have different feel to them (as opposed to simple B/W conversion in PP).

    • True enough – it does depend on the sensor. It does seem that Sony sensors have more opaque CFA filters though (from the evidence of channel gains, equivalent ISO performance between A7R and D800 etc). The Leica Monochrom is a stop more sensitive than it’s coloured brethren and I imagine this is the sort of difference to expect.

      I know the CFAs can be removed quite well and MaxMax seem to do a very good job of it – I hope I didn’t suggest that they were in any way similar to the Petapixel article linked to.

  • Chris

    High ISO seems to imply hand-held with available light. I don’t think that you’ll be able to max out the sensor’s resolution that way, so the sharpness argument seems moot for that usage scenario. OTOH, with color you can easily remove lateral chromatic aberration, while in monochrome, you might be left with softer edges. A very good lens on a tripod might realize the resolution gain, but otherwise?

    Don’t get me wrong – I want a monochrome sensor, too. But more for improving my monochrome shooting mindset (and for a bit of nostalgia), not for sharpness and better high-ISO.

    Chris

    • Good points Chris – a black and white sensor demands better lenses definitely. I was going to add a section on the ‘shooting mindset’ but wondered if it would sound a little shallow. Forcing a black and white ethic makes sense, it’s something I’ve started to do myself by just taking out black and white film and nothing else. Without that I can’t help thinking in colour …

  • I own a M9 and a M Monochrom and I can offer you to do test pictures of both and load the RAW files up to any address, that you give me and publish here as well.

    I would use the Leica Super-Elmar 21mm/3.4 without filter on the M9 and with red filter on the MM.
    The above link goes directly to the Monochrom album at my flickr.
    Let me know, if there is any interest.
    dierk

    • That would be fantastic dierk – I’d be really happy to publish an article with those images. You can send them to tim@onlandscape.co.uk using wetransfer.com and I’ll mail back for a chat about a possible article.

      • I did the test shots today and also included the 36 MP Sony A7R. I used the Leica Tri-Elmar 16-18-21, because this lens does not show color shift on the A7R like the 21mm Super Elmar does.

        BUT:
        I noticed strange small patterns like clouds on the M9 images :-(
        Tomorrow I will send the image to Leica and find out, what the problem is. I did not use the M9 for 8 months now.

        If there is any interest in the images from the M Monochrome and the A7R, let me know. Or we wait, till the M9 is ok. again.

  • A monochrome-only camera does offer the intriguing possibility of experimenting with the tri-colour technique of shooting three separate images with red, blue and green filtration respectively and then combining them in post (after first adding in the appropriate base colour). Think of the resolution!

    I’d be very tempted if the rumours prove to be correct.

  • I am slightly skeptical whether the theory of the pure black and white camera quite translates in print as we are led to believe; and the control of tone using colour channels remains an attractive aspect of mono conversion from digital colour, to my way of thinking. Nevertheless I do think too that a Sony RX-1 monochrome would be a massively appealing product for traditional street photography, and open up that approach to those of us who still think the price of the Leica Monochrom is too high.

    • David Higgs

      I think that is the key, you might be able to see a difference at 100% on a monitor, but in reality looking at a print is there a difference?
      It’s an interesting time in photography in that unless you are making massive mural prints there is little to choose in reality between cameras/sensors other than ergonomics and some functionality. The flip side is that prints are all starting to look the same which is no surprise given the similar sensors and printing media. I predict a resurgence in old lenses, old media and printing techniques as people try to escape ‘perfection’

      • I’m hopefully getting a comparison of the Leica colour and monochrome sensors so we’ll see the difference hopefully.

      • Jürgen Metzler

        I Had the chance so see a comparison between b/w prints from the M9 and the Monochrom last year and I couldn’t believe the difference, sharpness and tonality of the MM prints were in a different league. Only for watching on a monitor I wouldn’t buy a monochrome version. However, for me, b/w is strictly connected with film, I don’t like the digital clearness in monochrome.

  • I would be interested if the price is according to my budget as the Leica is out fo range.
    This will not be my main camera but could be useful and interesting to use it daily as a visual notebook.
    I would love to read a complete test as well before.

  • Andrew Forrester

    Here is a link to a comparison between the Red Epic & Red Epic Monochrome

    http://nofilmschool.com/2012/11/red-epic-monochrome-vs-red-epic-comparison/

    Being mainly a B/W photographer I would welcome a Sony mirrorless camera with a monochrome sensor, especially if it were in an A7 body, which would allow me to use my collection of old Zeiss Contax and Canon T/S lenses

    • Chris

      Impressive. A difference that large would certainly make shelling out the bucks for a dedicated monochrome body much easier.

      Re old lenses on the A7, have you read the recent posts about sensor stack thinkness on the lens rentals blog? That does not bode too well for wide angles in particular:
      http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2014/06/the-glass-in-the-path-sensor-stacks-and-adapted-lenses

      • Andrew Forrester

        Yes I read the Lensrental blog, but I’m not overly worried. Sensor technology will rapidly advance over the next two years with Canon & Sony working on stacked sensors, then their is the Sony curved sensor and hopefully a monochrome sensor to. Exciting times ahead

  • Dan Barthel

    No one has mentioned one of the best options for black and white around: The Sigma DP Merrills. Stunning B/W at a now very affordable price. The Fovion sensors stack all 3 colors in each pixel, so the effect is very film like.

    • James Mills

      I agree. I’m no expert on b/w but some images I’ve taken in snow with a DP2 and DP2 Merrill look far nicer than similar shots with my Canon 5d mk2. The main disadvantage of the Sigmas is the RAW file not being compatible with Adobe Lightroom.

  • There is another option: Removing the bayer filter from your sensor yourself. This crude method will have the side effect of removing the microlenses as well, because they are stuck to the bayer filter layer, and is obviously risky and time-consuming, but still worthy for some:

    http://petapixel.com/2013/08/04/scratching-the-color-filter-array-layer-off-a-dslr-sensor-for-sharper-bw-photos/

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