Previous news story    Next news story

Sony uses clear pixels to offer low-light performance and 'HDR movies'

By dpreview staff on Aug 20, 2012 at 20:14 GMT

Sony has announced smartphone image sensors that use clear pixels to improve low light performance and allow 'HDR videos' with greater dynamic range. The chips, which will be branded 'Exmor RS' also use the company's latest 'stacked CMOS' design to maximise the light capturing area of each pixel. Adding a white (clear) pixel to the conventional red, green and blue (RGB) filters has been proposed before but Sony says its processing allows it to 'heighten sensitivity without compromising its high resolution.' The first chips to use the design will be small, smartphone-targeted 1/3"-type 13MP (IMX135) and 1/4"-type 8MP (IMX134) designs.

Both chips will be available as imaging modules (with an autofocus lens built onto the front) or as bare chips. A variant of the IMX134 with a conventional RGB filter (ISX014) will also be offered. Development of the chips and details of both technologies were announced in January.

Press Release:

Sony Develops “Exmor RS,” the World's First*1 Stacked CMOS Image Sensor

Also introduces imaging modules that deliver high picture quality and compact size, for use in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets

Above: Imaging modules (left to right): the 'IU135F3-Z,' 'IU134F9-Z' and 'IUS014F-Z'

August 20, 2012, Tokyo, Japan - Sony Corporation (“Sony”) today announced the commercialization of “Exmor RS,” the world's first(*1) CMOS image sensor incorporating a unique, newly-developed ‘stacked structure.’ Shipments will commence in October. Sony is introducing three models of the “Exmor RS,” stacked CMOS image sensor, for use in smartphones and tablets, which combine superior image quality and advanced functionality with compact size. Sony will also launch three corresponding imaging modules incorporating these sensors.

Going forward, Sony will continue to evolve its digital imaging products, while aggressively pursuing the further development and expansion of its core “Exmor RS” stacked CMOS image sensor technologies and lineup, in order to deliver increasingly diverse and user-friendly image capturing experiences.

Two of the three “Exmor RS” models Sony is launching are the ‘IMX135’, a type 1/3.06 model with 13.13 effective megapixels and the ‘IMX134’, a type 1/4 model with 8.08 effective megapixels, which feature ‘RGBW coding’ function and ‘HDR (High Dynamic Range) movie’ function. The ‘RGBW coding’ function can capture sharp, clear images even when filmed or photographed in low light conditions, such as a dark room or at night by featuring W (white) pixels in addition to conventional RGB (red-green-blue) pixels, and leveraging Sony’s proprietary device technology and signal processing to heighten sensitivity without compromising its high resolution. ‘HDR (High Dynamic Range) movie’ function enables two different exposure conditions to be configured within a single screen when shooting, and seamlessly performs appropriate image processing to generate optimal images with a wide dynamic range and brilliant colors, even when pictures are taken against bright light. The other “Exmor RS” model is the ‘ISX014’, a type 1/4 model with 8.08 effective megapixels, which has a built-in camera signal processing function.

In addition to the higher image quality and superior functionality, the use of a ‘stacked structure’ has helped Sony to achieve a more compact size.

The “Exmor RS” is a CMOS image sensor that adopts a unique ‘stacked structure.’ This structure layers the pixel section, containing formations of back-illuminated pixels over the chip affixed with mounted circuits for signal processing, in place of conventional supporting substrates used for back-illuminated CMOS image sensors.

Sony will also bring to market three compact auto-focus imaging modules equipped with lens units and featuring auto-focus mechanisms that incorporate these image sensors: the ‘IU135F3-Z,’ ‘IU134F9-Z’ and ‘IUS014F-Z’. These three imaging modules adopt a newly-designed lens which has been optimized for the industry’s smallest(*1) 1.12μm unit pixel size to achieve higher resolution.

The ‘IU135F3-Z’ is an auto-focus imaging module incorporating a bright, high-resolution F2.2 lens. The ‘IU134F9-Z’ (W:8.5 x D:8.5 x H:4.2mm(*4)) is thin and compact. The ‘IUS014F-Z’ is an all-in-one imaging module that comprises an image sensor with built-in camera signal processing function and built-in auto-focus and picture adjustment function.

Going forward, Sony plans to continue with the proactive development of its “Exmor RS” stacked CMOS image sensors in order to bring to market imaging modules that achieve higher image quality, advanced functionality and an even more compact size. Sony aims to leverage the characteristics of its ‘stacked structure’ design to respond to the demand for larger screens in devices such as smartphones, where the amount of space available for embedding imaging modules is limited, and to continue expanding its product lineup to better accommodate its customers’ needs.

Demand is growing rapidly for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and Sony is committed to strengthening its production capacity(*2) for stacked CMOS image sensors, which combine the dual strengths of advanced functionality and compact size. This will enable Sony to solidify its position as the global leader in CMOS image sensors, and to act as a driving force for the industry in the future.

Model Shipment date
(planned) 
Sample price
(incl. tax)
Type 1/3.06
13.13 effective megapixels(*3)
Stacked CMOS image sensor
'IMX135' 
January, 2013  1,500 JPY 
Imaging module
'IU135F3-Z'
March, 2013  8,000 JPY 
Type 1/4
8.08 effective megapixels(*3)
Stacked CMOS image sensor
'IMX134
March, 2013 1,000 JPY
Imaging module
'IU134F9-Z' 
May, 2013  5,000 JPY 
Type 1/4
8.08 effective megapixels(*3)
Stacked CMOS image sensor
'ISX014' 
October, 2012  1,200 JPY 
 Imaging module
'IUS014F-Z'
November, 2012  6,000 JPY 

Main Features "Exmor RS" stacked CMOS image sensor

1) Commercialization of new, independently-developed "Exmor RS," incorporating the world's first(*1) unique 'stacked structure'
2) This stacked structure facilitates higher image quality, advanced functionality and a more compact size.
- Equipped with 'RGBW coding' and 'HDR movie' functions ("IMX135" and "IMX134")
- Equipped with a built-in camera signal processing function, enabling compatibility with automatic controls, picture adjustment and multiple image output formats (such as YUV) ("ISX014")

Main Features Imaging modules(each image sensor is mounted with a built-in lens unit with auto-focus mechanism)

1) High resolution has been achieved by adopting a newly-designed lens, which is optimized for the industry's smallest(*1) 1.12μm unit pixel size.
2) The "IU135F3-Z" auto-focus lens module adopts a bright F2.2 high-resolution lens.
3) The "IU134F9-Z" achieves a thin, compact size (W:8.5 x D:8.5 x H:4.2mm(*4)).
4) The "IUS014F-Z" is an all-in-one model capable of picture adjustment that comes equipped with a camera signal processing function.

Model name IMX135IMX134ISX014
Number of effective pixels 4208(H) x 3120(V)
13.13M pixels 
3280(H) x 2464(V)
8.08M pixels 
3280 (H) x 2464 (V)
8.08M pixels
Image size  Diagonal 5.867 mm
(Type 1/3.06) 
Diagonal 4.595 mm
(Type 1/4) 
Diagonal 4.6 mm
(Type 1/4) 
Unit cell size  1.12 μm (H) x 1.12 μm (V)  1.12 μm (H) x 1.12 μm (V) 1.12 μm (H) x 1.12 μm (V) 
Frame rateFull 24 fps 30 fps  15 fps 
1/2 sub sampling  48 fps 60 fps  30 fps 
1/8 sub sampling  Not supported  Not supported  120 fps 
HD mode  1080p 30fps (HDR mode)
1080p 60fps
720p 60fps 
1080p 30fps
720p 30fps (HDR mode)
720p 60fps 
1080p 30fps
720p 60fps 
Sensitivity
(typical value F5.6) 
92mV (Green pixel)
127mV (White pixel) 
92mV (Green pixel)
127mV (White pixel) 
84mV 
Sensor saturation signal
(minimum value)
260mV 260mV 260mV
Power
supply 
Analog  2.7V  2.7V 2.7V
 Digital  1.05V  1.05V 1.05V
 Interface  1.8V 1.8V 1.8V, 2.7V
Key features RGBW coding function
HDR movie function
Auto-control function
Picture quality adjustment function
Output  MIPI (4lane, 2lane)  MIPI (4lane, 2lane) MIPI (4lane, 2lane, 1lane) 
Image output format Bayer RAW YUV,RGB,RAW, Y/Cb/Cr,
JPEG + YUV (thumbnail), JPEG (4:2:2)

*1: Accurate at time of press release (August 20, 2012)
*2: An announcement has already been made (on June 22) regarding capital investment at Sony Semiconductor Corporation's Nagasaki Technology Center with the objective of increasing the production capacity for stacked CMOS image sensors.
*3: Based on method for specifying effective pixels in image sensors
*4: The dimensions width (W) and depth (D) exclude flexible printed circuits. Typical values exclude tolerance.

Comments

Total comments: 51
Yiotis
By Yiotis (Aug 21, 2012)

I stopped wasting my time trying to understand their so called new technology(This go for every manufacturer). Do you even realize with what kind of info you are bombarding us?

I want pictures not blah blah.

0 upvotes
waitformee
By waitformee (Aug 22, 2012)

I am a part time software programmer. This is what I really hate most. Many people do not care about the technology and only wanted better output. It is on that technology advanced then end result can improve. Technology takes a small step every time so it may or may not give you any visible results, however it is nevertheless.. a stepping stone for the next great advancement. So please learn to appreciate what DP has presented to you.

5 upvotes
ET2
By ET2 (Aug 22, 2012)

You are on a site that reviews digital cameras and lenses. If you only want to see photos, try flickr or some other site.

4 upvotes
Yiotis
By Yiotis (Aug 22, 2012)

*waitformee
Like the failed Foveon?

*ET2
this is not a review of a camera, try understanding what you read.

0 upvotes
RKGoth
By RKGoth (Aug 22, 2012)

Failed Foveon? What Foveon is this? The one behind the 46Mp/15Mp sensor in the SD1, DP Merrill range etc?

1 upvote
Nate21
By Nate21 (Aug 24, 2012)

I agree with waitformee post the advanatge of understanding the function sensor gives the user the slight knowledge regardless of final output.

0 upvotes
jfriend00
By jfriend00 (Aug 21, 2012)

So, if I'm understanding this correctly, the clear pixel (the white in RGBW) records raw light luminosity (no color) and because there is no color filter on it at all, it gets much more light at the photo diode than the color-filtered pixels. This allows Sony to record the luminosity of the image with a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than before. It does not improve color noise, but does improve luminosity noise and they apparently think this improves overall IQ.

0 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (Aug 21, 2012)

Correct, except "much" would be an exaggeration.

0 upvotes
Lan
By Lan (Aug 21, 2012)

RGBW is nothing new in a cameraphone; the Motorola ZN5 collaboration with Kodak yielded just such a device (see my profile for samples from that), but the back-lighting and video features are interesting.

It'll be particularly interesting to see how the new sensors compare to those from the Kodak sensor in the ZN5, and the Toshiba sensor inside the Nokia 808 Pureview (which I also have, but no samples posted yet). Based on the sizes, I'd say they'll be cheaper ;)

Of course the processing pipeline is important, and they seem to be suggesting they have some "magic" there too.

Time will tell!

Comment edited 43 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Aug 21, 2012)

fuji did that years ago, nothing new, but still a cool feature

what about shooting video with double the framerate to make hdr video, why did no one use that so far ? ^^

0 upvotes
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (Aug 21, 2012)

Fuji had 1/3" sensors with 1080p30 HDR and 1080p60 years ago ? Show me a link .

Comment edited 30 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
MichaelEchos
By MichaelEchos (Aug 21, 2012)

I had this idea maybe half or three quarters of a year ago, and as I was thinking, I ruled out the possibility of it. I started finding flaws (which I can't remember) in it, and decided it would not be possible. And yet, it appeared!

0 upvotes
Jon Stern
By Jon Stern (Aug 21, 2012)

It should be understood that the use of a clear pixel is to make up for the shortcomings of tiny pixels (1.12µm). This is not going to give improved low light performance over the previous generation (1.4µm). It's simply going to avoid too much of a degradation.

That's why they say "heighten sensitivity without compromising its high resolution". It means they can improve versus a sensor with the same number of pixels in the same sensor area. This is needed because the 1.1µm pixel node with normal RGB pixels (Bayer cell) has been poorly received due to disappointing low light performance.

Full Disclosure: I work for Aptina. A rival sensor company.

10 upvotes
Esa Tuunanen
By Esa Tuunanen (Aug 21, 2012)

Yep, reality is a bitch.
Despite of all the advertised advance sensors are hard pressed to produce just same quality signal than olders simply because more pixels isn't automatically better but the opposite.
Even digicompacts would no doubt have decent dynamic range if MP counts were from 5MP in smallest to 8-10MP in 2/3" sensor.

Another interesting thing is aperture needed for Airy disk size to be smaller than 1.12µm. And that's assuming perfect theoretical lens without being limited by aberrations.

Even in relatively big pixel DSLRs situation isn't so straightforward with adding endlessly more MPs as generally advertised because same lowering of signal quality applies. Also in case of needing big DOF you need to stop lens down heavily producing just more diffraction blurred in focus pixels.

MP should be treated as acronym for Marketroid's Pee!

0 upvotes
ohyva
By ohyva (Aug 22, 2012)

The real question is, of course, how much the stacked circuit structure compensate the pixel size reduction. I have no good enough data of the division of the pixel area between the photo diode and the support circuitry.

Add the RGBW and the stacked structure, this new sensor may potentially give a good challenge to any older sensor with 1.4um pixels. I guess we will see the facts in not so far future.

0 upvotes
Camediadude
By Camediadude (Aug 21, 2012)

Fascinating ... (and mostly way over my head lol), but it is very cool to think of what this bodes for the future ... these are exciting times, of that there is no doubt! And good to see Sony not getting too comfortable or content to rest on their laurels, they are really rockin' it lately it seems.

1 upvote
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Aug 21, 2012)

Looks like Sony still has some pretty good R&D scientists working for them. Canon, for instance, apparently does not.

0 upvotes
Stephen123
By Stephen123 (Aug 20, 2012)

This is a little confusing. It has to do with putting more of the circuitry on a different layer. But also has something to do with clear sensor pixels. The point of clear pixels would be if they can be stacked on top of other pixels not circuitry. Are they really saying, a three layer stack? Clear monochrome pixel, then color filtered pixel, then circuitry? At each pixel location? If so, that's rather significant.

0 upvotes
Richard Butler
By Richard Butler (Aug 20, 2012)

No. There are two technologies being used at the same time:

1) At the silicon design level: A stacked CMOS design that allows more of the surface to be devoted to the light-sensitive part of the pixel.

2) In terms of the filters in front of the sensor: A color filter array that includes clear/white regions, as well as red, green and blue ones.

Combining them means that all the pixels are stacked but every forth pixel doesn't have a colour filter in front of it. They don't have to be combined, though - you could put a standard Bayer filter in front of a stacked CMOS chip (that's what ISX014 is), or you could put the RGBW filter in front of a CCD, conventional CMOS or backlit (BSI) CMOS chip.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
6 upvotes
Stephen123
By Stephen123 (Aug 21, 2012)

Thanks R Butler for making it a bit clearer.

1 upvote
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Aug 21, 2012)

What all this has got to do with the art of photography, I wonder? A cell phone camera is a cell phone camera, after all.

0 upvotes
Mike Fried
By Mike Fried (Aug 21, 2012)

What this has to do with the art of photography is that if you consider the light component of the W (white / clear / unfiltered sensor) element you have a significantly more sensitive component at 1/4 the full image resolution. This enables you to capture gray levels in the shadows where the noise floor under the filtered sensors tops out -- exactly where you have issues with smaller sensors. I don't know how many stops of light the color filters remove, but by measuring this 4th channel at a higher sensitivity sans spectral filter you recover significantly more light intensity detail in the shadows.

Take your cell phone into a restaurant or a dimly lit living room and record some 1080p video of your family, etc. You will get much better results with the new technology. This will no doubt trickle up into the higher end models, too.

0 upvotes
fmian
By fmian (Aug 20, 2012)

Good to see sensor development moving full steam ahead. Will be nice to start seeing it in larger sensors eventually.
If they could only improve technology at the same rate with batteries, computer monitors and home printers.

0 upvotes
raincoat
By raincoat (Aug 20, 2012)

dslr have microlenses, which may be why this design is only relevant for phones.

0 upvotes
Richard Butler
By Richard Butler (Aug 20, 2012)

I think it's more that DSLRs have huge photodiodes, so the tiny amount given-over to circuitry isn't limiting their performance.

5 upvotes
fmian
By fmian (Aug 20, 2012)

I was thinking more along the lines of high end compacts actually.
But I guess it seems like phone cameras are encroaching into that market anyway.

0 upvotes
Esa Tuunanen
By Esa Tuunanen (Aug 21, 2012)

Same size pixels as previously but with higher performance would be advance.

Adding more Marketing Pixels which will be softened by diffraction isn't that.

0 upvotes
balchinian
By balchinian (Aug 20, 2012)

Monochrome pixels would be a great idea for Foveon sensors. It could go a long way toward improving the versatility of the sensor.

0 upvotes
G Davidson
By G Davidson (Aug 22, 2012)

Whatever anyone says, I'm pretty sure Foveon is the future. Stacking this and perhaps other types of pixels (phase detection AF etc) will make for much more versatile sensors, requiring less from the lens and camera.

0 upvotes
_sem_
By _sem_ (Aug 20, 2012)

Seeing the development of automatic highlights-recovery algorithms in LR4 and RT4, for example, white pixels are the logical development. I hope these algorithms make it into in-camera processing soon.

2 upvotes
semorg
By semorg (Aug 20, 2012)

The timing of this announcement only means one thing. IPHONE 5's new camera will be based on this sensor.

3 upvotes
jcmarfilph
By jcmarfilph (Aug 20, 2012)

Not again. Another overrated horrivolutionary camera phone? Hopefully it will catch up on a 2-3 year old camera phone out there.

1 upvote
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Aug 20, 2012)

Nice to see all the breakthroughs offered for phone and tablet cameras, many of which outperform P&S cameras and videocams. No need to ponder what that means for budget camera sales. The stacked-sensor cameras may also take a bite out of more expensive device sales too.

1 upvote
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Aug 21, 2012)

Oh yeah, and don't forget, it is so much more convenient to carry along a 10-inch diagonal screen tablet with you in your shirt pocket and snap away with it, oh yeah!

0 upvotes
jj74e
By jj74e (Aug 20, 2012)

wow, translucent mirrors, now clear pixels. now sony just needs to invent clear lenses for their e-mount ;)

1 upvote
FTW
By FTW (Aug 20, 2012)

Sony will bring along new e-mount lenses before end of this year, probably for Photokina, with a new 11-18 and a new 16-50 pancake lens and a new superfast rpime too. So NEX system will improve and get a better marketing strategy. One other prime and a new mid range zoom will follow for 2013. But, anyway, the nice thing of NEX-7 is it's way to shoot manually and with some adapters you have unlimited possibilities. Even with good Nex lenses, I will stick to Leica, Voigtlaender and Jupiter glass that performs like a dream on it. The sharpest lens I ever have tested on it is the Sigma 30-1,4. It beats everything in sharpness, except in corners. You can get it in a-mount. I use the Nikon one.

4 upvotes
Kexi Cao
By Kexi Cao (Aug 20, 2012)

Too bad my new iPhone 5 wouldn't have it :-)

1 upvote
Rooru S
By Rooru S (Aug 20, 2012)

or maybe this announcement being made just before the iPhone 5 comes to the market means that they kept it secret to prevent major leaks about the upcoming phone.

1 upvote
Richard Butler
By Richard Butler (Aug 21, 2012)

They didn't keep it that secret - Sony announced that it was going to be developing these sensors back in January.

www.dpreview.com/news/2012/01/23/SonyBacksideilluminatedCMOS

2 upvotes
Peiasdf
By Peiasdf (Aug 21, 2012)

It might. Apple is always willing to pay to get the best hardware.

2 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (Aug 21, 2012)

"It might. Apple is always willing to pay to get the best hardware."

I wish this was true. The truth is that the IQ of the 4S is still definitely inferior to the 2010 Nokia N8...

1 upvote
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Aug 21, 2012)

Apple stuff is pretty junky IMO, and always a good 2-years behind the times.

0 upvotes
mpgxsvcd
By mpgxsvcd (Aug 20, 2012)

Wow those are some impressive specs. I like the sound of this:

1080p 30fps (HDR mode)
1080p 60fps
720p 60fps

3 upvotes
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (Aug 20, 2012)

This will make people forget about the Nokia 808.

3 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (Aug 21, 2012)

"This will make people forget about the Nokia 808."

After the (compared to Nokia's flagships like the N95 / N8 / 808, pretty lame) cameras of past iPhones (3G vs. N95 / N82 / N86, 3GS / 4 / 4S vs. N8; 4S vs. 808), I too hope they will, this time, produce something worth using. Too bad I don't believe it at all.

0 upvotes
inevitable crafts studio
By inevitable crafts studio (Aug 21, 2012)

come on, the iphones cam is great, for video and for photo, you calock focus and exposure and it has a hdr function.

at least, it makes every pocketsized compact camera up to the size of an x100 obsolete, and thats pretty good for a phone, and even better for a device, i carry around 24/7 :)

0 upvotes
magneto shot
By magneto shot (Aug 21, 2012)

the 808 cant be replaced for a long long time....sensor size rules...and has always been, these are just workaround to make smaller cams more mobile. i still have an old nikon d50 APS-c, yet to see any "smaller" sensor beating that 8 year old camera in IQ.

1 upvote
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Aug 21, 2012)

Nokia 808 should be priced at 5x of any Apple phone, he-he-he.

0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Aug 20, 2012)

But ,,,, but ,,,, but ,,,, have I missed something? Was not the entire idea behind back illuminated sensors that the circuitry was below the sensitive area? Has that fact changed now? Or ,,,, what am I missing?

0 upvotes
Richard Butler
By Richard Butler (Aug 20, 2012)

No, it was about the light sensitive area (and, up until now, much of the circuitry) being closer to the surface.

This builds on that by having the circuitry further down (or up, depending on how you look at it).

3 upvotes
hello bill
By hello bill (Aug 21, 2012)

yes, r butler...is it a particle or a wave?...depends on if you are looking at it!

0 upvotes
Total comments: 51