A CCD bigger than film
by John Henshall

"... and the winner is ..."
Trevor Howarth, Dicomed President & CEO, displays the Seybold Editors' Award for "Sizzling New Product" at Seybold Boston

All instantaneous capture digital cameras produced so far have one major drawback: their CCD sensors are smaller than the film apertures of their adopted parent cameras.

Kodak cameras have their viewfinders masked-off to show the reduced area of the CCDs, Fuji/Nikon cameras have relay optics which give full-frame bright viewfinder images but restrict the maximum aperture of the taking lens to f6.7. No one has quite filled the 24x36mm film aperture of a 35mm film camera with a CCD - though the Kodak DCS460 comes close.

But now Dicomed, the small Burnsville, Minneapolis, company headed by Trevor Haworth from Bury, Lancashire, have done it. No, not filled a 35mm film aperture - Dicomed have jumped a format and filled the film aperture of a Hasselblad. Well that's not quite accurate. In fact they have overfilled it.

Loral Fairchild make the 3x3cm area array used in the Leaf digital camera back. It is not exclusive to Leaf, however - both Megavision and Screen use the same CCD. Loral also have a 6x6cm area array but this massive mosaic of 4096x4096 pixels (total 16,777,216) is exclusive - to Dicomed. It 'overfills' the film aperture because a 6x6cm Hasselblad back is, in fact a 5.6x5.6cm back. Remember how we used to call it 'two and a quarter square'? Well that was more accurate than '6x6cm'. Now, if I had a big rasp, maybe...

The chip was developed for satellite imaging. You know the kind of hype, "able to read the Pravda headline in Red Square from out in space." Though that was never quite true, these chips are serious technology. Unfortunately, much of the market for them ended with the cold war. So what use do they have when you can now read Pravda headlines at the National Airport news stand, without ever having to leave Washington? With defence spending cuts, who might buy this bleeding edge technology? Who would possibly have the money? Why, photographers like you, of course.

It's a year since we first heard about Dicomed's instantaneous exposure camera back, the BigShot, using the 6x6cm chip and - just as incredible - a liquid crystal tunable filter which is able to deliver instant colour within the twinkling of a flash. The filter is still not ready for release but the good news is that the monochrome version is now ready to ship at $35,000.

At Seybold Boston, the ever tolerant Trevor Haworth once again allowed me to destroy his exhibition booth. Dicomed have had their fair share of (deserved) enthusiastic coverage here, so I guess the upheaval is worthwhile. Anyway, we always draw a crowd, keen to see some 'real' photography in action

I swept away the still-life set-up of flowers and Seybold Award for "Sizzling New Product", turning out all but one of the lights and substituting a subject so full of character and craggy detail that it was eminently suitable for such a high resolution camera: the face of "The Photographer" magazine's Art and Design Editor, Brian Whitehead.

My picture of Brian Whitehead was taken under such extreme circumstances (90% crowd control, 10% creativity) that I began to imagine I was a wedding photographer. I set the 150mm Zeiss Planar to its minimum object distance and moved in until Brian's right eye was sharp. I used the same exposure meter I use when lighting television productions. It's the only one that counts: the camera. I guessed the aperture at f5.6. Click. Overexposed. Stop down to f8. Click. Highlights just clipping. Down to between f8 and f11. Click. Spot on. Yes, there are compromises. You remain tethered to a computer, so weddings are out, and I had no opportunity to get the background really black, to see what the Dicomed dark 'noise' is like. (Only joking, Trevor.)

Right eye at 1-to1 (one image pixel to one screen pixel. Only his wife has seen Brian this close.

I then further disrupted Dicomed's Seybold booth by connecting my Macintosh PowerBook 5300c to their PowerPC to copy over the 16MB raw image file. Well I hope it was worth it, Dicomed. At least it made it to the front cover and a double 'first'. First BigShot cover and first BigShot image to be reproduced using Agfa's fabulous Crystal Raster screening technology.*

At the Seybold Editors' Awards, Trevor Haworth paid tribute to his bankers. Itochu Corporation of Japan have backed a $27M exclusive deal with Loral Fairchild to develop products based on the 6x6cm sensor.

When Dicomed say "Digital imaging without the compromise" they mean it. Prices? The monochrome version is $35,000, sequential colour (three exposures) $39,000, one-shot colour (now expected to ship in June 1996) $55,000. Time to dip into your defence budget.

* The image appeared on the front cover of The Photographer magazine, April 1996

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This review first appeared as "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" magazine, April 1996.
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