If you're interested in picking up a camera with Fujifilm's latest high-performance imager, you may not have long to wait.
During a press conference at Photokina today, representatives of the imaging conglomerate stated that the new Super CCD EXR sensor, outlined yesterday in a pre-show announcement, would see its first actual use in a high-end compact camera to be officially launched early next year – presumably, at either CES or PMA.
"Initially, we'll be producing a premium compact," remarked Adrian Clarke, General Manager of Fujifilm Electronic Imaging Europe, in reference to product-specific uses for the new technology.
Getting back to basics
Maybe it's some kind of corporate penance for having brashly described a FinePix model as "the pinnacle of technology" in the not so distant past, but Clarke shied away from the braggadocio typically associated with imaging product concept announcements in today's conference. Fuji's primary aim with the Super CCD EXR, according to Clarke, is to build a solid, responsive imager that addresses basic challenges common to most compact cameras: limited dynamic range, high noise, and poor color reproduction at high ISOs.
Per their own statements about the latest Super CCD, Fujifilm is apparently banking on the approach that what consumers really want is not more processor-side technologiesand soft features (Clarke called out processor-based dynamic range expansion during the briefing), but a pocketable camera that reconsiders how to capture a better image at the most fundamental level.
Traditional sensor color filter (left), versus EXR color filter
According to Clarke, this is where Super CCD EXR's unique color filter arrangement and tri-fold approach to image capture comes into play. Expanding on technical information provided in the initial announcement, Fujifilm explained that the new imager would utilize three discrete operational modes (as we understand it, the sensor actually features two separate capture technologies, and a third approach that combines the two).
The first approach, termed "Fine Capture," provides maximum resolution for fine detail capture when light is plentiful. For high-sensitivity shooting, the EXR employs a unique approach to pixel binning (Fuji's calling it "Pixel Fusion") whereby grouped pixels sit closer together than in a conventional binned arrangement, lessening the potential for noise introduction at this stage.
Fuji's Close Incline Pixel Coupling provides a unique pixel binning mechanism for high-sensitivity shooting
A third "Dual Capture" system combines two simultaneous captures – one with each approach – into a single image capable of accurately reproducing the full shadow-to-highlight range of high-contrast outdoor images, for instance, and doing so without additional processor-side tone curve adjustments.
Dual Capture system operation
The end result? A sensor that is itself responsive to changing conditions, drawing the obvious analogy (as Fuji did) to the human eye. Rather than depending on a single capture approach, different sensor functionalities can be engaged for different purposes. In theory, at least, you get the best of two different sensor design approaches, and even get them at the same time if needed.
An F31fd for the next generation?
Beyond the technology itself, the subtext of this week's announcement directly concerns the fact that Fuji is clearly in need of a consumer imaging product they can hang their collective hat on. According to information referenced during today's conference, total revenue in the company's imaging sector – which includes its digital camera business – has fallen to a little more than half of what it was just four years ago. While the company has experienced growth overall, consumer imaging technology has apparently not been part of that trend.
At the same time, the level of horizontal integration at Fujifilm makes them an ideal firm to undertake a fundamental redesign of the compact camera from imager to final output. Moreover, if Fujifilm is trying hard not to oversell whatever product we'll see from them in the first quarter of 2009, it's easy to see the potential, at least, that the company's next-generation technology clearly has.
In a final interesting turn, Fujifilm's Clarke referenced building a camera in the tradition of the company's FinePix F31fd during his presentation. Fujifilm seems to be implicitly admitting some measure of corporate dissatisfaction with the more recent FinePix F cameras, which are certainly no longer the dominant devices in high-sensitivity shooting that the F31fd was. In short, in spite of a rhetoric of humility during the conference today, it's seeming more and more like the company has designs to once again build the most impressive compact camera sensor on the market. And this time around, it may actually have the technological tools with which to do it.