Canon's new ultra-lowlight MS-500 camera can detect individual photons

Canon MS-500 and SPAD Image Snsor
(Image credit: Canon)

Canon has a new camera – a world's first, it says – based on the new 1-inch "SPAD" imaging sensor the company has been developing. The camera, the Canon MS-500, will go on sale in 2023, and features a broadcast-friendly B4 interchangeable lens mount.

Many might think of the term SPAD as a politician's special advisor, but there is another use for the acronym. In the imaging world, it stands for Single Photon Avalanche Diode. Rather than measuring the number of photons arriving in a pixel in a given period of time – collecting them, some say – the SPAD counts each individual entry.

The word 'Avalanche' sounds a bit dramatic but refers to the amplification of each photon into an electronic pulse big enough to record and count. The key advantage of this approach is that there are no stray photons so, in theory, no optical noise.

Canon's sample use-case of the camera is in monitoring a seaport in the dark. (Image credit: Canon)

Canon's SPAD sensor has a resolution of 3.2 megapixels, and an effective pixel count of 2.1 megapixels, so it won't be replacing your main camera straight away. It is designed, however, for more specialist purposes where super-telephoto broadcast lenses are used; think national security monitoring (or natural history shows).

It is capable of Full HD and it is no accident that the housing looks so like the existing Canon ME20F-SH, which already boasts 4 million ISO. It also has a LAN (Ethernet) connection for security monitoring.

The MS-500's B4 lens mount uses the BTA S-1005B standard so it will work with Canon's (and other manufacturers') lenses to capture subjects even several km from the camera.

Canon's comparison of a CMOS sensor and a SPAD shows how the SPAD increases the light signal. (Image credit: Canon)

Canon has been trailing the possibilities of SPAD for some time, and has noted the possibilities of achieving similar image quality to that we're used to in a sensor "requiring only 1/10 of the imaging area." That means it seems likely the specialist MS-500 won't be the last we'll see of the tech. As action enthusiasts will no doubt already be pondering, Canon is also looking at the implications for capturing frames of just a few picoseconds.

In the meantime, the main selling point of the tech is the ability to capture color images in ambient light as low as 0.007 lux (ambient starlight is around 0.02 lux).  

Canon has made clear it will continue to invest in the technology, but hasn't said anything about pricing yet, but we imagine the Canon ME20F-SH is a good ballpark guide - which retails for $20,000. If you want to find something a little cheaper now check our guide to the best low-light cameras.

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Adam Juniper
Managing Editor

With over 20 years of expertise as a tech journalist, Adam brings a wealth of knowledge across a vast number of product categories, including timelapse cameras, home security cameras, NVR cameras, photography books, webcams, 3D printers and 3D scanners, borescopes, radar detectors… and, above all, drones. 

Adam is our resident expert on all aspects of camera drones and drone photography, from buying guides on the best choices for aerial photographers of all ability levels to the latest rules and regulations on piloting drones. 

He is the author of a number of books including The Complete Guide to Drones, The Smart Smart Home Handbook, 101 Tips for DSLR Video and The Drone Pilot's Handbook