Full Frame and Beyond – Large Sensor Digital Cinema


Of all the current trends in digital cinema camera design, one of the most interesting is a shift towards large sensor digital cinema.

I’ve written some thoughts about this previously over on my personal blog: More Resolution, Higher Dynamic Range, Larger Sensors. The quest for higher resolution, higher dynamic range and better low light performance often bring about inevitable trade-offs in sensor design. High dynamic range and sensitivity require larger photosites, and simple mathematics dictate that this places limits on overall resolution for a given size sensor.

Pixel Pitch

To give a simple example we can all relate to, the Sony A7S has fewer, larger photosites than the A7R. This gives the A7S the edge on low light sensitivity compared to the A7R’s edge in overall resolution. The A7S has a pixel pitch of 8.3 microns vs the A7R at 4.9 microns, that’s a large difference in favor of the A7S when it comes to the area covered by each photosite.

It seems that you can’t have it all, and this is generally true with current sensor technologies… unless of course you increase the size of the sensor.

To take the Sony example further, if we wanted to create a sensor with the same size photosites (and low light performance) as the A7S but with the same resolution as the A7R, the sensor would have to be approximately 61.4mm x 41mm in size, which is well into medium format territory.


This is a trend that we have started to see with the 54.12 x 25.59mm sensor in Arri’s Alexa65 and the full frame VistaVision sensor of the RED Weapon 8K FF.

The Arri Alexa 65 sensor is effectively 3x ALEV III sensors combined, resulting in the very same photosites and much loved imaging characteristics of the Alexa only at a higher overall resolution and much larger imaging area.

Full Frame and Beyond

When it comes to full frame, we are talking about any sensor measuring approximately 36mm x 24mm, so in fact we’ve been shooting full frame video in our DSLR’s ever since the Canon 5D Mk2. Sony, of course as I have already mentioned have taken on a large and growing market share with the A7S, so more and more of us are getting used to the aesthetic and optical characteristics of composing and framing a larger than super35mm format.

red-617-sensorWhile DSLR’s have offered full frame video for years, it’s only fairly recently that high end cinema camera manufacturers have actually brought larger sensor cameras to market.

RED have been talking for years about the future development path of their sensors, as far back as 2009 even specifying a “Monstro” 617 sensor up to 168mm x 56mm. Part of this “Monstro” line-up back then was a FF35 sensor which we are seeing come to fruition now six years later.

Still, none of this is new, large format visuals have a long and interesting history in both the art and technology of motion pictures.

Here is a quick look at the history of large format cinema, the first full frame video capable cameras and the largest sensors currently employed.

A Brief History of 70mm Film

formats_all_1080Films formatted with a width of 70 mm have existed since the early days of the motion picture industry. The first 70 mm format film was most likely footage of the Henley Regatta, which was projected in 1896 and 1897, but may have been filmed as early as 1894. – 70mm Film – Wikipedia

1928-1930 – Fox developed a 70mm format called “Grandeur” which met resistance from theatre owners who were already investing in new equipment for sound. Ultimately Fox had to drop the format.

1950’s – Todd-AO – Film producer Mike Todd originally developed the Todd-AO 70mm format to compete with “Cinerama” which used three synchronised 35mm projectors and was complex and unreliable. The Todd-AO system made use of 65mm photography for 70mm prints incorporating a six channel magnetic strip sound track. The Todd-AO system set the mechanical standard in perforation pitch for the Panavision variants Super Panavision 70 and Ultra Panavision 70, as well as IMAX.

1954 – VistaVision – Paramount Pictures created the VistaVision format to increase the effective resolution of 35mm film by running it horizontally and exposing a much larger area. Each frame in the VistaVision format was 8 perfs in width had a camera aperture of 37.72mm x 24.92mm. VistaVision is also referred to as 8/35.

1970 – IMAX – Where the Todd-AO system exposed and projected film vertically, each frame being 5 perforations tall, IMAX employed a horizontal transport, each frame being 15 perforations in length. This increased camera aperture to 70.41mm x 52.63mm. IMAX is also referred to as 15/70.


These large cinematic formats were all about giving the audience a bigger, wider and more immersive experience, something that could only be enjoyed by watching a movie at a cinema. To this day cinema projection and sound technology is running a head to head battle with television, home cinema and now even mobile devices.

The push for ever higher resolving power, better optics and wider aspect ratios may have culminated for celluloid in IMAX, but the same race is now pushing digital cinema technology ever forward.

The effective resolving power of a typical super 35mm negative is between 3,000 and a maximum of about 6,000 lines of horizontal resolution depending on who you ask and how it is measured. IMAX pushed this to the equivalent of between 10,000 to 18,000 lines of horizontal resolution from film negative and digital cinema acquisition is headed in this direction.

Below are some large sensors compared. While I do not consider the DSLR or mirrorless compact cameras to be true high-end cinema class cameras, they have played an important role in the technological timeline, and in making full frame videography far more mainstream.

Sensor Size

Sensor Resolution

Video Resolution

Canon 5D Mk2

36mm x 24mm

5616 x 3744

1080p (line skipping)

Canon 5D Mk3

36mm x 24mm

5760 x 3840

1080p (line skipping)

Sony A7S

35.8mm x 23.9mm

4240 x 2832

4K (full read-out)

Sony A7R2

35.9mm x 24mm

7952 x 5304

4K (pixel binning)

Phantom 65

52.1mm x 30.5mm

4096 x 2440


Arri Alexa 65

54.12mm x 25.59mm

6560 x 3100

6.5K max open gate

RED Weapon 8K FF

40.96mm x 21.6mm

8192 x 4320



The promise of larger than full frame sensors can’t be discussed without mentioning optics. Large format lenses are needed to cover a large exposure area, and if this trend is really to come out of the highly specialized world of the rental-only Alexa65, and into the mainstream in the coming years then lens manufacturers are going to have to come to the party.

line_05-e1411327451426A super 35mm sensor requires lenses that cover an image circle of approximately 32mm, full frame (8-perf VistaVision) requires a 43mm image circle. To cover Arri’s Alexa65 sensor requires an image circle of around 60mm. Arri chose to work with IB/E Optics to create a set of custom housed lenses based around Hasselblad medium format optics.

It may begin with a run on used medium format photo lenses, clever conversions, adaptors and re-housing, but there will be a need for purpose designed optics to complement large sensors cameras.

While I think we are still as much as 10 years away from a mass produced, mainstream, affordable 65mm cinema camera platform, I also believe it’s the inevitable direction the technology is headed.

Sensors will get larger, and resolution will increase while individual photosites remain large enough to ensure ever higher dynamic range and sensitivity. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a cinematographer.

RED Weapon FF 8K featured image used with permission by Phil Holland www.phfx.com

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Roman France Reply
Roman France November 24, 2015

Still trying to figure out how in the world Super 35 is rated at 6K. Who came up with that figure?

Dan Hoene Reply
Dan Hoene November 24, 2015

In reference to scanning film, if you can scan super 16 at 1080 or 4k, pushing a celluloid area that is much larger than that to a 6k scan isn’t that far off.

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey November 24, 2015

Yes, it’s actually a tricky subject as a true technical comparison isn’t really possible. The slower the emulsion, the finer the grain, and higher the resolving power. Measuring the “resolving power” of film negative in lines per millimeter in terms of it’s ability to resolve alternating black and white lines doesn’t really match up to how we determine “resolution” of a bayer sensor. But I’d say anywhere between 4K and 6K is where super35 will max out. There have been studies, and various people make different claims.

It’s intended to be more of an illustration rather than a concrete claim on an exact figure in this case.

Derek Olson November 26, 2015

I get how it’s based on film scanning legacy, but doesn’t it sometimes feel purposefully obfuscated. Why not just say 18 Mega Pixels, why 6k? Is it to try to differentiate between stills and video consumers. Like, I think we would all get it if you just said 18 mega pixels right?
We have a frame of reference for how many pixels that is. But 6k sounds so much more exotic. And everyone’s excited about the 8k Dragon, like what’s it going to look like. Basically, it will look like stills from a 5D Mark III at 24 frames per second, which is actually pretty astounding if you think about it. But at the end of the day, it will probably be 15 years before we can truly view it properly onscreen, which makes it important if you plan to make an indelibly classic movie in the next few years.
I guess the point I’m truly trying to make is that 1080p resolution is probaly just an elaborate cover up for the fact that it really only means two, yes two megapixels, which sounds like 1998.

Joel Richards Reply
Joel Richards November 28, 2015

uh, close. 6K video is like watching still from a 5d Mk3 at 24FPS (although actually not quite since the 5D is sub 6K). The 8K Dragon is like watching still from a 5DSR at 24FPS. The horizontal resolution between the two is very close.

Derek Olson November 28, 2015

I guess my thinking in the comparison is this, The MK III is 24 MP, 6k is actually 19 MP. 8k is 33 MP, so a little under the 5DSR which is more than 50 MP. My rationale is that motion blur will be enough to at least reduce the clarity of the 33 MP stills at 24 fps with a 180 degree shutter to the equivalent of a lower resolution, maybe 24 MP if lucky, so combined with other similarities such as sensor size, raw capture options and light sensitivity, the 8k Red Dragon will be the rough equivalent of stills from a 5D Mk III, but at the speed of video. If I am wrong, may I be corrected as this is pretty much just conjecture.

Vlad Box Rojas Reply
Vlad Box Rojas November 24, 2015

I liiikeee large sensors, they make me feel powerful, in command, like I can do it. Large sensors are sensitive and magnetic. Women are attracted to large sensors.

Thomas Müller November 24, 2015

Size matters ;)

Eno Popescu November 24, 2015

Sorry to disappoint buy super 35mm film scan has a maximum 3K resolution(Kodak vision 3), you can scan it as high as you like but you are not getting any more detail. I hadn’t have the pleasure of scanning a big IMAX film but friends who worked with it say it has about 10K of maximum resolution.

Eno Popescu November 24, 2015

Well, let’s say 3K-3,5K maximum but all the good digital 4K cameras I’ve used had better resolving power than any super 35mm film scanned.
Anyway, film still has its nice flavors: a great non linear DR (very similar to our own eyes) and very nice colors.

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey November 24, 2015

Well the references I’ve studied, one of which is “Digital Intermediates for Film and Video” by Jack James, as well as some calculations by Ken Rockwell, quote around 150 line pairs per millimeter as a max for a typical camera negative, after which MTF drops to zero. That’s 300 x 22mm horizontal = 6,600 but to be honest maybe you’re right, by the time you take into account the limits of the lens as well. So many people make different claims about this, even some studies vary.

Eno Popescu November 24, 2015

I didn’t recorded any resolution charts but I’ve shot side by side with both super 35mm film and 4K digital cameras and my previous statement is based on that fact.

 Tim Foster Reply
Tim Foster November 25, 2015

I’d strongly caution against using Ken Rockwell as a serious reference.

Eno Popescu November 25, 2015

A very good advice Tim. :)

Darren Streibig Reply
Darren Streibig November 24, 2015

Another great post and read! Thanks Nino !

 Tim Foster Reply
Tim Foster November 25, 2015

The effective sensor size for a “full-frame” (a term that has absolutely nothing to do with filmmaking) camera shooting video is about 36X20mm. That RED chart you’ve posted is very old and features four vaporware sensors that never made it to production. IMAX/70mm is cool and all, but I really don’t see any practical advantage to shooting with sensors bigger than Vistavision. Even digital medium format still sensors max out at about 54X40mm. I gave up on a 6X7 digital back a long time ago. It’s a matter of diminishing returns and the reason very few photographers shoot on large format anymore.

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey November 25, 2015

Well, “full frame” as you know is 36 x 24, and you’re right, technically (historically) has nothing at all to do with filmmaking except that people throw around the term all the time (ever since the Canon 5D Mk2). So, I would argue that the term does have to do with filmmaking because it has been adopted by filmmakers, right or wrong, many just don’t know what it means.

The effective frame height has to do with aspect ratio, so in terms of “full frame” video, in 16:9 at a 36mm width gives 20.25 as you said.

As far as photography is concerned, medium format, both celluloid and digital is alive and well, and I will stand by my prediction that we will see digital cinema cameras move in this direction in the next few years. Will it replace super 35mm? Not at all, will it be niche? Yes, probably, but maybe not. If it became more affordable, and there was a ready solution for optics, many would jump on it for creative reasons, not technical.

Those RED sensors are nothing but vaporware sure, I never claimed them to be anything else, and everyone knows that, that’s why I stated the date… they started floating around back in 2009. However, it’s a indication of a roadmap, of an intent, which I believe is still valid, and the “full frame” (40.96 x 21.6) is now a reality in the form of the Weapon 8K. Are RED likely to be the next after Arri to announce a 65mm sensor? I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

It’s not about resolution, it’s about the optical characteristics of large format imagery, that’s what would drive it forward.

In the end it’s just my opinion, which counts for nothing but I do think it’s interesting and I believe I backed it up with valid arguments.

Dino Schachten September 8, 2016

Yes, you’ve made an excellent point in my opinion, and I really enjoyed the article.

I should add that since 2012 I have been looking for the most low light capable tool to improve my filmmaking using available light. Canon’s 1D4 was great for city lights, the 6D allowed me to shoot some nice reflections of the moon on a lake using an f/5.6 tele (despite wasting most of it’s lines in video mode).

Now I own the a7s and can’t wait to get my hands on the Mitakon 50/0.95 and the SLR Magic Cine 35mm f/1.2 to shoot a music video using nothing but the light of a full moon.

Yes, many might say it’s only for creative purposes, not because it’s needed – yet it’s so much easier (and cheaper) to design lighting if you only need to add the light sources you want rather than bringing on thousands of watts to light a scene taking place at night (considering that day-for-night is not always an option).

I’m constantly looking for new 4K capable cameras that employ full frame sensors and might bring sensitivity to the next level, and I’m constantly disappointed to see great cameras equipped with s35 sensors. They are wasting light in my opinion. Other than old habits, I see no reason to employ a sensor that is not as capable as it could be. As far as I know, cinema lenses are usually capable of covering full frame?

BTW: In my opinion the term “full frame” became a part of filmmaking when a full frame camera (the 5D2) became the most practical tool available to a new generation of ascending filmmakers.

Santiago Rojas Reply
Santiago Rojas November 25, 2015

David Verdugo Rivera

Marcello Ercole Reply
Marcello Ercole November 25, 2015

Non ne capisco il senso, degli 8k.

Giorgio Bertuccelli Reply
Giorgio Bertuccelli November 25, 2015

Il otto k E soprattutto utile nell post produzione . Per usufruire l’uso dei colori e del chiaroscuro fotografato originalmente in un modo e cambiarlo come si vuole per la finitura

Joy Elaine Watkins Reply
Joy Elaine Watkins November 25, 2015

I get camera equipment in the UK http://www.aimimage.com/category/kit-hire/ all the time by hiring them, and I’ve always liked getting the Arri Alexa. The large sensors are absolutely the best.

Kwekwe Karu Reply
Kwekwe Karu November 25, 2015

Next week , 8*10 flatbed scanner turned into a camera sensor……
Now hold it, keep holding, hold, a little longer, keep it up, don’t even breathe, almost done…….m

 Tim Foster Reply
Tim Foster November 25, 2015

Large format scanning backs exist.

Luca Pirates Reply
Luca Pirates November 25, 2015

Davide Sace

Osman Tello Reply
Osman Tello November 25, 2015

My ohhhh, ohhh , ohhhh face, just had an accident

Marco Maraniello Reply
Marco Maraniello November 25, 2015

how much cost? like a yacht? ahahahah

Alex Sigh Reply
Alex Sigh November 26, 2015


Jairus Burks Reply
Jairus Burks November 26, 2015

They are Forgetting the KINEMAX6K???

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey November 27, 2015

Kinemax 6K has a super 35mm sensor. This article is about sensors larger than that.

Bashar Hritani Reply
Bashar Hritani November 26, 2015

Lagloug Lagalig

Joe Peffer Reply
Joe Peffer November 26, 2015

All im gonna say is 70mm sensors look best. Some medium format cameras are testing video and they look brilliant. Even 1080 visually stomps full frame 4k. The depth of field and 3d like pop is just perfect for film and tv.

Fred Lindgren Reply
Fred Lindgren November 26, 2015

I’d love to shoot medium someday

Joe Peffer Reply
Joe Peffer November 26, 2015

It changes everything you know about shooting photography or film

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey November 27, 2015

Absolutely, it does, I want to explore the optical characteristics in another article actually. I’m trying to dig up an article I discovered months ago about this but seem to have lost the link. I’ll post it if I can find it.

Dino Schachten September 8, 2016

That sounds really exciting. Do you think movies shot on 70mm film have that same quality you mention? Obviously, in terms of depth of field they ought to – but what about the “3D like pop”? Astonishingly, there are only very few recent 70mm films…


RobyDie Piras Reply
RobyDie Piras November 26, 2015

Davide Tognacca

Gene Nemetz Reply
Gene Nemetz November 26, 2015

I’m looking forward to a sensor +70mm in size, in 16K, with 20 stops, and 14bit color. Not impossible. I’m sure that, or something like it, is on the way. In the mean time, I can’t tell you how much I want to even just see a frame grab from the Red 8K, even though there’s no way I can afford one. 8K will filter down to everyone else some day soon.

Arnold Finkelstein Reply
Arnold Finkelstein November 29, 2015

What do you mean by “actually” brought to market? As opposed to virtually bringing a camera to market?