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I find the use of dB values to specify sensor properties confusing..

A rating of 20dB SNR at a given ISO setting could mean, assuming a reasonably linear system:

  • RMS noise voltage and thus luminance difference is 1% of possible full swing
  • RMS noise power is 1% of full swing, meaning 10% voltage/luminance difference
  • Something entirely different

What is the correct way to interpret such values?

2

The answer is "C", something entirely different.

The signal-to-noise ratio used in imaging is the ratio of the mean signal value divided by the standard deviation of the signal. This is used because photon counts, luminous intensity, etc., are always-positive values that are basically probability distributions.

Regarding dB (decibel) scale, imaging uses the field-quantity ratio (i.e., 20×log(ratio)) and not the power quantity ratio (10×log(ratio)).

So a 20 dB SNR means the signal-to-noise ratio is 10(20/20) = 10, which represents only log2(10) ≈ 3.3 bits of signal above noise floor. An 8-bit image with values equally distributed in the range 0 - 255 has an RMS value of about 147.4. Thus, the standard deviation among pixels values for a 20 dB sensor producing an 8-bit image is 147.4 / 10 = 14.74, or nearly 4 bits of noise. That is a very poor SNR for a sensor. A sensor with 20 dB sensitivity at a certain ISO sounds like either a very poor sensor, or a very high ISO, or a combination of both.

See also:

  • I chose the 20dB value because some lowlight comparisons (eg DXO sports) use it as a threshold... – rackandboneman Jan 28 at 23:47
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Decibel is a notation used to compare relative levels. As a quick reference, a relative +3dB means multiplied by 2 in absolute scale and -3dB means divided by 2. The decibel notation uses a (base 10) logarithmic.

For your example, +20dB SNR means the image signal is 10 times stronger than sensor noise.

See more about the Decibel notation in the dedicated Wikipedia page.

  • Of course. The thing is: as soon as you get anything that remotely involves anything electrical in the mix, you get voltage decibels and power decibels, which are vastly different scales.... 20db voltage gain is 40dB power gain.... – rackandboneman Jan 28 at 16:49
  • Getting into electronics, sensor ADC measures voltage at each photosite. So it is Voltage gain. – jihems Jan 28 at 17:45

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