To tell the difference between a good camera and a better camera you look at how many megapixels it has, right?

Traditionally, we have all shopped for digital cameras under this basic premise, but there is a growing trend spreading throughout the price bands of the compact camera market that has people buying, and manufacturers making, cameras packing fewer pixels because they are boasting backlit CMOS image sensor technology.

Within the camera, the image sensor is the capture device equivalent to a piece of film, and we have been taught since the creation of the digital camera that we want as many pixels as manufacturers can fit onto one.  The two sensor technologies most commonly found in today’s compact digital cameras are CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) and CMOS (Complementary Metal–Oxide–Semiconductor) sensors.  Within the last few years, a new variant of the latter format has emerged called a backlit CMOS image sensor, which delivers quality improvements, especially in low light capture.

The type of image sensor within the camera used to not matter to consumers, just so long as it contained more megapixels than the next.  While today’s consumer is a lot more educated regarding megapixels and their relation to maximum enlargement size not quality, this fundamental logic was heavily instilled upon us during the infancy of the digital camera when, yes, more megapixels were better.  If we remember when 1MP or 2MP were the standard, having a fabulous (now laughable) 4MP camera meant that you could actually view and print the pictures without unsightly pixelated distortion that we have all seen.

With today’s compact cameras featuring futuristic 14 and 16 megapixels, a slight difference in resolution beyond a certain point seems almost irrelevant.  While coveted by consumers, more megapixels didn’t seem to stop the flow of one certain complaint among compact camera shoppers… low light performance.  Backlit CMOS sensors tackle this problem head-on by featuring a back-illuminated layout that improves low light performance by as much as two times!  This technology offers something different over the tired megapixel race, and something that actually affects the “quality” of the shot.

Whereas traditional CMOS imagers feature necessary circuitry arrayed across the top of the assembly, backlit CMOS sensors excel in performance by placing their circuitry on the underside, thus yielding more usable surface area.  This has the effect of virtually doubling the incoming light and the camera’s brightness, thus making it able to suck in all of the ambiance and dim lighting in your favorite (and most complained about) places, while producing well-lit photos without so much as even a flash.  Not only does this make for more captivating photos but also addresses the age-old and redundant let down regarding the performance of our compact cameras in low light.

Pioneered largely by Sony in 2008, backlit CMOS sensors can be found within the manufacturer’s line as its Exmor R sensor, while called BSI CMOS technology within Samsung’s line, EXR-CMOS sensors for FujiFilm, and in Canon cameras as its HS System.  Sony has slapped the Exmor logo on its advanced camera models since the Cyber-shot WX1 and TX1 of 2009.  The technology is also incorporated into the company’s Handycam and Bloggie camcorders, and even the webcams fitted into Sony’s Vaio laptops.  Camera heavyweight Nikon utilizes the technology in several of its advanced CoolPix models, although not as heavily branded as direct combatant Canon, who has revamped its entire product naming structure to call attention to the technology (HS for High Sensitivity).  As backlit-sensor-equipped models cripple their competitors in the field, more companies have responded by producing cameras that offer backlit capabilities.  This year has seen the first backlit CMOS sensor placed into a Kodak camera with its flagship EasyShare Max Z990, and we also see CMOS sensors being promoted by industry underdogs like General Imaging in its latest advanced product launch.

While restructuring its product names centered around its backlit-powered HS system, perhaps more noteworthy is that Canon also brought the technology into the incremental replacements of its most widely available cameras, not just tech-flexing flagship models.  Sony this year expanded the variety of cameras that feature backside illumination within its own line by launching models that are positioned as step-up and step-downs from the company’s historically more limited offerings within the WX, TX, and HX lines.  The resulting expansion not only provides more models that feature this technology, but also offers more affordable price points than their direct predecessors bringing the technology’s availability to a wider audience.  Recognizing the potential benefits for all consumers, what used to be a somewhat top-shelf feature is now trickling down into the price bands of camera companies, offering a new craze for common consumers to be excited about, the backlit CMOS.

Just like megapixels, education is essential, and clever branding techniques by Sony and Canon easily draw attention to the cameras that feature back-illuminated technology with a message to achieve better quality pictures.  Better low light performance has been the largest obstacle in the compact camera market for years, and the improved sensitivity and noise reduction offered by the backlit CMOS format addresses these key factors to enhancing image quality.  As the technology becomes more available in the compact camera realm and as consumers see the benefits, the force behind the demand for these sensors will become just as engrained in consumers’ minds as the megapixel.  Additionally, people will take more notice of the sensor type that is in their camera rather than its exact megapixel count.  With companies replacing the megapixel race with the sensitivity talk, we will likely see a similar expansion of backlit CMOS-sporting products within other camera makers’ lines, and the continual trend of the premium technology integrated into lower-priced models.  With increased consumer education, sensor format may quickly replace megapixels as the top spec coveted by consumers, and “Does it have a backlit CMOS sensor?” will replace “How many megapixels does it have?” as a common question asked in the camera isle.