Canon has announced a new CMOS image sensor that is designed to perform in extreme low light conditions. The LI7050’s is a sensor of the 1/1.8-inch variant which means it has the same size as many image sensors that can be found in smartphone cameras. However, this is not the new sensor’s intended use.
Instead it’s meant to be used for industrial applications that require extreme low light capabilities. For example, it could record low light video with realistic color and good detail in security cameras that are monitoring public areas, transport infrastructure or manufacturing facilities. Thanks to its compact dimensions it could also help improve image quality in underwater drones or wearable cameras for security personnel that operates in dark environments.
Canon says in its press release: ‘Conventional nighttime monitoring employs infrared cameras and records video in monochrome. However, network cameras equipped with the LI7050 can capture video at night in such locations as public facilities, roads or transport networks, thereby helping to identify details including the color of vehicles or subjects’ clothing.’
Thanks to the ‘architecture’ of its 4.1 µm pixels the sensor is capable of recording Full-HD color video in near darkness – light levels as low as 0.08 lux – and also comes with an HDR mode that dramatically expands the dynamic range. When recording in this mode the sensor can capture scenes with extremely high contrast (light levels between 0.08 lux and 80,000 lux) while avoiding clipping in both highlight and shadow areas of the frame, achieving a dynamic range of 120dB (approximately 20EV).
HDR mode merges a bright and a dark exposure into one frame and is only available at 30 frames per second. If you need faster frame rates of 60 frames per second the sensor can still avoid clipping anywhere between 0.08 and 500 lux and offers a dynamic range of 75dB (approximately 12.5 EV).
Those are impressive numbers and they are backed up by the low light footage in Canon’s sample clips which does not only have very good exposure but also maintains excellent detail in the bright illuminated areas of the frame, something that a lot of cameras struggle with.
Even though the sensor is marketed as a security and surveillance product there could be interesting applications in consumer imaging as well. Modern smartphones come with multi-camera arrays for different focal length already. Why not add a dedicated low light video camera?
Sample shipments of the LI7050 have started in August and official sales will be launched in late October. We’ll probably see sometime next year if the new sensor will be confined to its industry niche or possibly make it out to the wider consumer imaging market.