Samsung continues to announce ultra-high-resolution camera sensors for affordable markets. Just the company started the Samsung ISOCELL HP3, a 200 megapixel camera sensor with exceptionally small sensor pixels. Thing is, smaller pixels aren’t always better, as their size makes photo gathering increasingly difficult.
Each pixel is only 0.56 μm (square), which is tiny. So there’s a 4:1 pixel binning mode, which would equate to a 50MP sensor with 1.12μm pixels, or even a 16:1 pixel binning, which equates to roughly a 12.5MP sensor with 2.24μm pixels.
It’s also very impressive that the sensor has quarter-resolution pixel-level phase-detection autofocus. Each group of 2×2 pixels requires an insanely small lens to achieve this.
Samsung calls this its pixel binning feature “Tetra-Pixel”, but the principle is the same as we’ve seen before. Each sensor manufacturer has a different implementation and would create a brand, perhaps for intellectual property or marketing reasons.
It is important to understand that binning sixteen 0.56μm pixels into a virtual 2.24μm pixel is not the same as a physical 2.24μm pixel. That’s because each 0.56μm pixel requires supporting electronics, potentially sacrificing some of the chip’s sensing range. The more pixels you have, the more wires and other things can eat up a detection area.
The additional electronics can also increase the likelihood of introducing (electronic) noise that could affect the performance of the sensor. Smaller pixels can also impact the sensor’s effective dynamic range, but luckily this could be compensated for by capturing more HDR images with stacked photography.
In the past we’ve seen a degradation in performance of around 0.7μm, so I wonder if this sensor would run into similar problems.
These ever smaller pixels are enabling smartphone OEMs to launch affordable camera phones with high megapixel specifications. However, it remains to be seen whether we will see proportional improvements in image quality, especially in low light conditions.
However, depending on where it’s used, this sensor could be an improvement over previous sensors at the same price. For example, it could be slightly larger or allow for faster readouts, enabling 8K recording (or 4K in slow motion) that smartphones in a certain price range were previously unable to do.
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