Sony has developed a new image sensor for digital cameras that promises to bring professional-quality images within reach of consumers.

The company has developed a 6.15 million-pixel CCD (charge coupled device) image sensor for use in digital still cameras. Sony says it will begin commercial production of the device in the next few days. The sensor is a generation above the 5 million-pixel products used in high-end consumer digital cameras, Sony said.

In addition to its higher pixel count the new sensor is also physically larger than previous models. At 1.8in across the diagonal, the active sensor panel is approximately the same size as APS (Advanced Photo System) film, so camera makers will be able to use their existing optics systems, said Yumi Matsui for Sony. That is expected to lead to shorter development times and lower costs for camera makers.

But raw costs must come down for consumer impact to happen — samples of the new sensor carry a cool £3,140 price tag, which is expected to drop to around £500 when the device enters commercial production shortly. But that is before the camera is built around it.

Cameras incorporating the sensor will offer some of the highest resolution digital photography yet available to consumers. Sony said the maximum resolution possible from the sensor is 3,040x2,024, which means it is capable of producing images roughly four times the size of those available from today's two million-pixel cameras.

Other companies already offer 6 million-pixel digital cameras, but Sony's new sensor is one of the first targeted at consumer applications.

Kodak already has several professional cameras with 6 million-pixel CCD sensors while FujiFilm sells a camera that, although it uses a 3.3 million pixel sensor, can produce an output 'equivalent' to 6 million pixels with software and an optical filter.