Differences Between CCD and CMOS Camera Image Sensors
A CMOS camera in the wild. [Image by Mike Baird via Flickr]
CCD and CMOS are two camera imaging technologies found in modern cameras and camcorders. Each of these technologies has its own set of pros and cons that are important to consider before throwing down your hard-earned cash on either one. So what are the differences between CMOS camera sensors and their CCD counterparts?

CCD (Charge Coupled Device) sensors have been around longer than CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) technology. Does this mean that CCD camera sensors are inherently inferior to CMOS camera sensors? Actually, not at all.

CMOS camera sensor technology, such as you’ll find in the Canon EOS 60D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera, is a lot cheaper to produce than CCD. This is due to the fact that CCD camera sensors need to be manufactured in a certain way, and that process is much more expensive and time-consuming than that of a CMOS camera sensors. CMOS equipment is often mass produced and made available cheaply to consumers. Most consumer cameras and camcorders are made with CMOS camera sensors. This doesn’t mean that they’re not any good, just that they’re a lot cheaper to make.

The CCD camera sensor was available sooner, and has had more time to mature and develop into a richer and more pixel-dense product than it was when it first hit the market. Unfortunately, the price of manufacturing CCD hasn’t really gone down much, so it’s quickly falling out of favor with many of the primary equipment manufacturers.

If you’ve ever wondered why a $300 camcorder produces images with the quality you would find in a $3,000 product from just a few years ago, this is why. CMOS camera sensors have largely caught up with CCD technology in terms of pixel density and light sensitivity. That said, they still have some catching up to do, and you’ll typically still find CCD camera sensors in some of the more high-end products on the market.

What Are the Real Differences Between CCD and CMOS Camera Image Sensors?

Each of these technologies presents a variety of different pros and cons against the other. For example, CMOS camera price (which we discussed earlier) is a huge plus to consumers looking for better equipment at lower prices. This type of inexpensive technology has paved the way for better smart phone cameras and DSLRs that produce stunning video at a fraction of the price you would have expected just a few years ago.

CCD camera sensors are very good at capturing light. Because of the way pixels are arranged when compared to CMOS, they tend to perform a lot better in low-light situations. CMOS camera sensors, which are less light-sensitive, often have to be compensated for with the introduction of ISO, which introduces noise (grain) to the image.

CCD camera sensors also have an advantage when it comes to rolling shutter wobble (also known as jellification) when an image is moved or twisted. This wobble is present on CMOS camera sensors due to the rolling shutter, while CCD camera sensors are practically immune to this issue. Newer CMOS camera sensors are becoming less sensitive to the movement of a camera as they capture images faster, though they can still present the problem in certain circumstances.

CMOS camera sensors have an advantage when facing a white background as CCD camera sensors can present a smearing in brightly lit objects. CMOS camera sensors also consume a lot less energy than CCD camera sensors. In fact, this energy consumption is cut down in some cases by a factor of 10. Yes, they’re that efficient.

Chances are, CMOS camera sensors are here to stay. CCD camera sensors are quite good right now, but CMOS technology is still improving. It’s less mature and quickly becoming the favorite among camera makers. It would be safe to say that they’ll eventually meet or surpass the quality found in CCD camera sensors inside of a handful of years.

So there it is: CMOS camera sensors are cheaper and more energy efficient. CCD camera sensors are more light sensitive and less prone to rolling shutter wobble. Determining which is better for you comes down to budget, portability, and of course the evolution of these technologies as time goes on.