Photosites – Quantum efficiency

Not every photo that makes it through the lens ends up in a photosite. The efficiency with which photosites gather incoming light photons is called its quantum efficiency (QE). The ability to gather light is determined by many factors including the micro lenses, sensor structure, and photosite size. The QE value of a sensor is a fixed value that depends largely on the chip technology of the sensor manufacturer. The QE is averaged out over the entire sensor, and is expressed as the chance that a photon will be captured and converted to an electron.

Quantum efficiency (P = Photons per μm2, e = electrons)

The QE is a fixed value and is dependent on a sensor manufacturers design choices. The QE is averaged out over the entire sensor. A sensor with an 85% QE would produce 85 electrons of signal if it were exposed to 100 photons. There is no way to effect the QE of a sensor, i.e. you can’t change things by changing the ISO.

The QE is typically 30-55% meaning 30-55% of the photons that fall on any given photosite are converted to electrons. (front illuminated sensors). In back illuminated sensors, like those typically found on smartphones, the QE is approximately 85%. The website Photons to Photos has a list of sensor characteristics for a good number of cameras. For example the sensor in my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II has a supposed QE of 60%. Trying to calculate the QE of a sensor in non-trivial.


From photosites to pixels (iii) – DIP

DIP is the Digital Image Processing system. Once the ADC has performed its conversion, each of the values from the photosite has been converted from a voltage to a binary number representing some value in its bit depth. So basically you have a matrix of integers representing each of the original photosites. The problem is that this is essentially a matrix of grayscale values, with each element of the matrix representing with a Red, Green of Blue pixel (basically a RAW image). If a RAW image is required, then no further processing is performed, the RAW image and its associated metadata are saved in a RAW image file format. However to obtain a colour RGB image and store it as a JPEG, further processing must be performed.

First it is necessary to perform a task called demosaicing (or demosaiking, or debayering). Demosaicing separates the red, green, and blue elements of the Bayer image into three distinct R, G, and B components. Note a colouring filtering mechanism other than Bayer may be used. The problem is that each of these layers is sparse – the green layer contains 50% green pixels, and the remainder are empty. The red and blue layers only contain 25% of red and blue pixels respectively. Values for the empty pixels are then determined using some form of interpolation algorithm. The result is an RGB image containing three layers representing red, green and blue components for each pixel in the image.

The DIP process

Next any processing related to settings in the camera are performed. For example, the Ricoh GR III has two options for noise reduction: Slow Shutter Speed NR, and High-ISO Noise Reduction. In a typical digital camera there are image processing settings such as grain effect, sharpness, noise reduction, white balance etc. (which don’t affect RAW photos). Some manufacturers also add additional effects such as art effect filters, and film simulations, which are all done within the DIP processor. Finally the RGB image image is processed to allow it to be stored as a JPEG. Some level of compression is applied, and metadata is associated with the image. The JPEG is then stored on the memory card.

From photosites to pixels (ii) – ADC

The inner workings of a camera are much more complex than most people care to know about, but everyone should have a basic understanding of how digital photographs are created.

The ADC is the Analog-to-Digital Converter. After the exposure of a picture ends, the electrons captured in each photosite are converted to a voltage. The ADC takes this analog signal as input, and classifies it into a brightness level represented by a binary number. The output from the ADC is sometimes called an ADU, or Analog-to-Digital Unit, which is a dimensionless unit of measure. The darker regions of a photographed scene will correspond to a low count of electrons, and consequently a low ADU value, while brighter regions correspond to higher ADU values.

Fig. 1: The ADC process

The value output by the ADC is limited by its resolution (or bit-depth). This is defined as the smallest incremental voltage that can be recognized by the ADC. It is usually expressed as the number of bits output by the ADC. For example a full-frame sensor with a resolution of 14 bits can convert a given analog signal to one of 214 distinct values. This means it has a tonal range of 16384 values, from 0 to 16,383 (214-1). An output value is computed based on the following formula:

ADU = (AVM / SV) × 2R

where AVM is the measured analog voltage from the photosite, SV is the system voltage, and R is the resolution of the ADC in bits. For example, for an ADC with a resolution of 8 bits, if AVM=2.7, SV=5.0, and 28, then ADU=138.

Resolution (bits)Digitizing stepsDigital values
Dynamic ranges of ADC resolution

The process is roughly illustrated in Figure 1. using a simple 3-bit, system with 23 values, 0 to 7. Note that because discrete numbers are being used to count and sample the analog signal, a stepped function is used instead of a continuous one. The deviations the stepped line makes from the linear line at each measurement is the quantization error. The process of converting from analog to digital is of course subject to some errors.

Now it’s starting to get more complicated. There are other things involved, like gain, which is the ratio applied while converting the analog voltage signal to bits. Then there is the least significant bit, which is the smallest change in signal that can be detected.

Photosites – Well capacity

When photons (light) enter a lens of a camera, some of them will pass through all the way to the sensor, and some of those photons will pass through various layers (e.g. filters) and end up in being gathered in the photosite. Each photosite on a sensor has a capacity associated with it. This is normally known as the photosite well capacity (sometimes called the well depth, or saturation capacity). It is a measure of the amount of light that can be recorded before the photosite becomes saturated (no long able to collect any more photons).

When photons hit the photo-receptive photosite, they are converted to electrons. The more photons that hit a photosite, the more the photosite cavity begins to fill up. After the exposure has ended, the amount of electrons in each photosite is read, and the photosite is cleared to prepare for the next frame. The number of electrons counted determines the intensity value of that pixel in the resulting image. The gathered electrons create a voltage which is an analog signal -the more photons that strike a photosite, the higher the voltage.

More light means a greater response from the photosite. At some point the photosite will not be able to register any more light because it is at capacity. Once a photosite is full, it cannot hold any more electrons, and any further incoming photons are discarded, and lost. This means the photosite has become saturated.

Fig.1: Well-depth illustrated with P representing photons, and e- representing electrons.

Different sensors can have photosites with different well-depths, which affects how many electrons the photosite can hold. For example consider two photosites from different sensors. One has a well-depth of 1000 electrons, and the other 500 electrons. If everything remains constant from the perspective of camera settings, noise etc., then over an exposure time the photosite with the smaller well-depth will fill to capacity sooner. If over the course of an exposure 750 photons are converted to electrons in each of the photosites, then the photosite with a well-depth of 1000 will be 75% capacity, and the photosite with a well-depth of 500 will become saturated, discarding 250 of the photons (see Figure 2).

Fig.2: Different well capacities exposed to 750 photons

Two photosite cavities with the same well-capacities, but differing size (in μm) will also affect how quickly the cavity fills up with electrons. The larger sized photosite will fill up quicker. Figure 3 shows four differing sensors, each with a different photosite pitch, and well capacity (the area of each box abstractly represents the well capacity of the photosite in relation to the photosite pitch).

Fig.3: Examples of well capacity in various sensors

Of course the reality is that electrons do not need a physical “bin” to be stored in, the photosites are just shown in this manner to illustrate a concept. In fact the concept of well-depth is somewhat ill-termed, as it does not take into account the surface area of the photosite.

From photosites to pixels (i) – the process

We have talked briefly about digital camera sensors work from the perspective of photosites, and digital ISO, but what happens after the light photons are absorbed by the photosites on the sensor? How are image pixels created? This series of posts will try and demystify some of the inner workings of a digital camera, in a way that is understandable.

A camera sensor is typically made up of millions of cavities called photosites (not pixels, they are not pixels until they are transformed from analog to digital values). A 24MP sensor has 24 million photosites, typically arranged in the form of a matrix, 6000 pixels wide by 4000 pixel high. Each photosite has a single photodiode which records a luminance value. Light photons enter the lens and pass through the lens aperture before a portion of light is allowed through to the camera sensor when the shutter is activated at the start of the exposure. Once the photons hit the sensor surface they pass through a micro-lens attached to the receiving surface of each of the photosites, which helps direct the photons into the photosite, and then through a colour filter (e.g. Bayer), used to help determine the colour of pixel in an image. A red filter allows red light to be captured, green allows green to be captured and blue allow blue light in.

Every photosite holds a specific number of photons (sometimes called the well depth). When the exposure is complete, the shutter closes, and the photodiode gathers the photons, converting them into an electrical charge, i.e. electrons. The strength of the electrical signal is based on how many photons were captured by the photosite. This signal then passes through the ISO amplifier, which makes adjustments to the signal based on ISO settings. The ISO uses a conversion factor, “M” (Multiplier) to multiply the tally of electrons based on the ISO setting of the camera. For higher ISO, M will be higher, requiring fewer electrons.

Photosite to pixel

The analog signal then passes on to the ADC, which is a chip that performs the role of analog-to-digital converter. The ADC converts the analog signals into discrete digital values (basically pixels). It takes the analog signals as input, and classifies them into a brightness level (basically a matrix of pixels). The darker regions of a photographed scene will correspond to a low count of electrons, and consequently a low ADU value, while brighter regions correspond to higher ADU values. At this point the image can follow one (or both) of two paths. If the camera is set to RAW, then information about the image, e.g. camera settings, etc. (the metadata) is added and the image is saved in RAW format to the memory card. If the setting is RAW+JPEG, or JPEG, then some further processing may be performed by way of the DIP system.

The “pixels” passes to the DIP system, short for Digital Image Processing. Here demosaicing is applied, which basically converts the pixels in the matrix into an RGB image. Other image processing techniques can also be applied based on particular camera settings, e.g. image sharpening, noise reduction, etc. is basically an image. The colour space specified in the camera is applied, before the image as well as its associated meta-data is converted to JPEG format and saved on the memory card.

Summary: A number of photons absorbed by a photosite during exposure time creates a number of electrons which form a charge that is converted by a capacitor to a voltage which is then amplified, and digitized resulting in a digital grayscale value. Three layers of these grayscale values form the Red, Green, and Blue components of a colour image.