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Sensor sensitivity (ISO) in digital cameras

The ISO value indicates a camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the sensor is to light. High ISO values, on the other hand, mean that quality images can be created even in low light conditions. In analogue photography, the ISO specification denotes the photosensitivity of photographic plates and films, which undergo a chemical reaction when they come into contact with light. Photographers working in analogue should select the photosensitivity of their film in advance, before starting a project, since it is tricky to change films while working. With digital cameras, there are no chemical changes to the sensor and the ISO sensitivity can be set differently for each picture. When light hits the sensor (semiconductor chip), an electrical charge proportional to the amount of light is released and stored. This is called the photoelectric effect (electrons are emitted by a semiconductor exposed to light). At the end of the exposure process this voltage (electrical charge) is read by the sensor and processed

ISO settings have a direct influence on the amplifier before the analogue-to-digital converter (ADC): high ISO numbers give more amplification, while low ISO numbers give less amplification. The camera sensor itself always maintains the same degree of sensitivity; only the level of amplification changes. Depending on lighting conditions, the ISO setting will either be selected automatically by the camera or can be changed manually.

The drawback of increased light sensitivity is an increase in noise – the image loses contrast and appears blurry. Noise levels are strongly influenced by the quality of the camera used. High ISO settings are therefore only advisable with high-quality sensors, in order to avoid excessive image noise. In recent years, semiconductor manufacturing has become more advanced, and this has improved signal-to-noise ratios.
A large pixel area (large sensor) can capture light quanta more effectively. In recent years, however, camera manufacturers have tended more and more frequently to reduce the size of the pixel area. This is detrimental to the signal-to-noise ratio. For each camera model, depending on the production technology involved, there is an optimal relationship between the number of pixels and the signal-to-noise ratio: this is determined by the camera’s sensor size. Camera manufacturers have started to notice this and turned their attention to achieving a better signal-to-noise ratio and better colour rendition (e.g. Canon EOS 1DX, Canon C300, etc.). In some models, tiny micro-lenses are positioned above each pixel site in order to capture the light more effectively. 
The resolution capability (colour depth) of the analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) is a key factor in determining image quality. Colour depth describes the maximum number of colours available to represent a single pixel in an image. For the three basic colour channels (RGB, red/green/blue), an analogue-to-digital conversion is carried out separately per channel. At present, resolutions between 12 and 16 bits per channel are used. In 14-bit mode, the total colour depth is 42 bits for all three channels.
Table listing the current top cameras:
Sensitivity [ISO] Colour depht (Bit)
Nikon D3x 100   -   1.600
Nikon D3s 200   - 12.800
Nikon D4 100 - 12.800 42
Nikon D800 100 - 6.400 42
Canon EOS 600D 100   -   6.400
Canon  EOS 60D 100   -   3.200
Canon EOS 1D X 100  -  51.200 
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV 100   - 12.800
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 100 - 12.800 42
Canon EOS 650D 100 - 6.400 42
Olympus E5 100   -   6.400
After the signal has been converted in the ADC, the image processer further reduces noise. If digital noise reduction is applied to aggressively, image information may be lost.

The ISO value indicates a camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the sensor is to light. High ISO settings allow quality images to be taken even when light conditions are poor. However, the drawback of increased light sensitivity is an increase in noise: the image becomes grainy and lacks detail. Therefore, it is only advisable to select high ISO numbers when using high-quality camera sensors, with high colour depth and a large signal-to-noise ratio.

Update: 06.07.2012

New LM Digital Adapter for:

Canon EOS 1D X / Nikon D4s / Nikon D750 / Nikon D4 / Canon EOS 6D / Canon EOS 70D / Nikon Df / Nikon D810 / Nikon DS-Qi2 (Microscope Camera) / Canon EOS 60D / Nikon D800 / Nikon D800E / Nikon D600 / Nikon D610 / Nikon DS-Ri2 (Microscope Camera) / Canon EOS 5D Mark III / Nikon D5300 (with automatic exposure chip ) / Canon EOS 1D Mark IV / Canon EOS 600D / Rebel T3i / Canon EOS 60Da for astrophotography / Canon EOS 650D / Rebel T4i / Canon EOS 700D / Rebel T5i / Canon EOS 7D Mark II / Canon EOS 750D / Rebel T6i / Canon EOS 750D / Rebel T6s / Canon EOS 5DS / Canon EOS 5DR ( without low-pass filter) / Nikon D3S / Canon EOS 5D Mark II / Canon EOS 7D / Canon EOS 550D / Rebel T2i / Kiss X4 Digital / Canon EOS 100D / Olympus OM-D E-M1 / Canon EOS 50D / Canon EOS 1200D / EOS Rebel T5 / EOS Kiss X70 / Nikon D3x / Canon EOS 1100D / Rebel T3 / Nikon D7000 / Nikon D7100 / Sony Alpha 7 / Sony Alpha 7R /


High-end intermediate optics for connecting microscopes to:
  • digital SLR cameras
  • digital mirrorless system cameras with an interchangeable lens mount
  • c-mount-, USB- and firewire cameras
  • digital compact cameras and camcorders
[Further information amd prices]
Which digital camera functions best on a microscope?
LM Makroskop 16x Convert your digital SLR camera into a professional microscope
Special mounting media  for microscopy

Tips and tricks to connect your digital camera and to process digital images

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