High speed photography

High speed photography

Eadweard Muybridge, first published in 1887.] High Speed Photography is the science of taking pictures of very fast phenomena. In 1948, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) defined high-speed photography as any set of photographs captured by a camera capable of 128 frames per second or greater, and of at least three consecutive frames. High speed photography can be considered to be the opposite of time-lapse photography.

In common usage, high speed photography may refer to either or both of the following meanings. The first is that the photograph itself may be taken in a way as to appear to freeze the motion, especially to reduce motion blur. The second is that a series of photographs may be taken at a high sampling frequency or frame rate. The first requires a sensor with good sensitivity and either a very good shuttering system or a very fast strobe light. The second requires some means of capturing successive frames, either with a mechanical device or by moving data off electronic sensors very quickly.

Other considerations for high-speed photographers are record length, reciprocity breakdown, and spatial resolution.

Early applications and development

The first practical application of high-speed photography was Eadward Muybridge's 1878 investigation into whether horses' feet were actually all off the ground at once during a gallop.

Bell Telephone Laboratories was one of the first customers for a camera developed by Eastman Kodak in the early 1930s. Bell used the system, which ran 16 mm film at 1000 frame/s and had a convert|100|ft|m|sing=on load capacity, to study relay bounce. When Kodak declined to develop a higher-speed version, Bell Labs developed it themselves, calling it the Fastax. The Fastax was capable of 5,000 frame/s. Bell eventually sold the camera design to Western Electric, who in turn sold it to the Wollensak Optical Company. Wollensak further improved the design to achieve 10,000 frame/s. Redlake Laboratories introduced another 16 mm rotating prism camera, the Hycam, in the early 1960s. Photo-Sonics developed several models of rotating prism camera capable of running 35 mm and 70 mm film in the 1960s. Visible Solutions introduced the Photec IV 16 mm camera in the 1980s.

The D. B. Milliken company developed an intermittent, pin-registered, 16 mm camera for speeds of 400 frame/s in 1957. Mitchell, Redlake Laboratories, and Photo-Sonics eventually followed in the 1960s with a variety of 16, 35, and 70 mm intermittent cameras.

Stroboscopy and laser applications

Doc Edgerton is generally credited with pioneering the use of the stroboscope to freeze fast motion. He eventually helped found EG&G, which used some of Edgerton's methods to capture the physics of explosions required to detonate nuclear weapons. See, for example, the photograph of an explosion using a Rapatronic camera.

Advancing the idea of the stroboscope, researchers began using lasers to stop high speed motion.

High speed film cameras

As film and mechanical transports improved, the high-speed film camera became available for scientific research. Kodak eventually shifted its film from acetate base to Estar (Kodak's name for a Mylar-equivalent plastic), which enhanced the strength and allowed it to be pulled faster. The Estar was also more stable than acetate allowing more accurate measurement, and it was not as prone to fire.

Each film type is available in many load sizes. These may be cut down and placed in magazines for easier loading. A convert|1200|ft|m|sing=on magazine is typically the longest available for the 35 mm and 70 mm cameras. A convert|400|ft|m|sing=on magazine is typical for 16 mm cameras, though convert|1000|ft|m|sing=on magazines are available. The images on 35 mm high-speed film are typically rectangular with the long side between the sprocket holes instead of parallel to the edges as in standard photography. 16 mm and 70 mm images are typically square rather than rectangular. A list of ANSI formats and sizes is available.

Intermittent pin register

The intermittent pin register camera actually stops the film in the film gate while the photograph is being taken. In high-speed photography, this requires a complex mechanism for keeping the film moving quickly through the camera from the supply reel, but then stopping it for imaging, and then starting it again to move it onto the takeup reel. In many cases, a loop is formed before and after the gate to create and then take up the slack. "Pull-down claws" grab the film and move it into place and then move it back out of the film gate after the exposure. "Register pins" secure the film while it is being exposed. In some cases, vacuum suction is used to keep the film, especially 35 mm and 70 mm film, flat so that the images are in focus across the entire frame.

* 16 mm pin register: D. B. Milliken Locam, capable of 500 frame/s; the design was eventually sold to Redlake. Photo-Sonics built a 16 mm pin-registered camera that was capable of 1000 frame/s, but they eventually removed it from the market.

* 35 mm pin register: Early cameras included the Mitchell 35 mm. Photo-Sonics won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement for the 4ER in 1988. The 4E is capable of 360 frame/s.

* 70 mm pin register: Cameras include a model made by Hulcher, and Photo-Sonics 10A and 10R cameras, capable of 125 frame/s.

Rotary prism

The rotary prism camera allowed higher frame rates without placing as much stress on the film or transport mechanism. The film moves smoothly past a rotating prism which is synchronized to the main film sprocket. Each revolution of the prism "paints" the same number of frames onto the film as there are faces on the prism. A shutter also improves the results by only opening as the prism faces are nearly parallel, and then closing again.

* 16 mm rotary prism - Redlake Hycam and Fastax cameras are capable of 10,000 frame/s with a full frame prism (4 facets), 20,000 frame/s with a half-frame kit, and 40,000 frame/s with a quarter-frame kit. Visible Solutions also makes the Photec IV.

* 35 mm rotary prism - Photo-Sonics 4C cameras are capable of 2,500 frame/s with a full frame prism (4 facets), 4,000 frame/s with a half-frame kit, and 8,000 frame/s with a half-frame kit.

* 70 mm rotary prism - Photo-Sonics 10B cameras are capable of 360 frame/s with a full frame prism (4 facets), and 720 frame/s with a half-frame kit..

Rotary mirror

The Cordin Dynafax held a strip of film still while a mirror rotated at high speeds. At the appropriate moment, the capping shutter was opened and the mirror steered images onto the film. This type of system was capable of 1,000,000 frame/s for a few hundred frames. More recent rotating mirror cameras have achieved speeds in excess of 3,000,000 frame/s and have taken advantage of CCDs (see below), providing the end user with immediate results from their photographed events.

Streak Photography. By removing the prism from the rotary prism cameras and using a very narrow slit in place of the shutter, it is possible to take images whose exposure is proportional to the film speed across the slit. The image that results has several useful properties. The film advance direction is essentially a measure of time. If the subject's motion is perpendicular to the slit, it may show growth or motion perpendicular to the slit.

Motion compensation photography (also known as Ballistic Syncro Photography or Smear Photography when used to image high speed projectiles). When the motion of the film is opposite to that of the subject with an inverting (positive) lens, and synchronized appropriately, the images show events as a function of time. Objects remaining motionless show up as streaks. This is the technique used for finish line photographs. At no time is it possible to take a still photograph that duplicates the results of a finish line photograph taken with this method. A still is a photograph "in" time, a streak/smear photograph is a photograph "of" time. When used to image high speed projectiles the use of a slit (as in Streak Photography) produce very short exposure times ensuring higher image resolution. The use for high speed projectiles means that one still image is normally produced on one roll of cine film. From this image information such as yaw or pitch can be determined. Because of its measurement of time variations in velocity will also be shown by lateral distortions of the image.

By combining this technique with a diffracted wavefront of light, as by a knife-edge, it is possible to take photographs of phase perturbations within a homogeneous medium. For example, it is possible to capture shockwaves of bullets and other high-speed objects. See, for example, Shadowgraph and Schlieren photography.


Early video cameras using tubes (such as the Vidicon) suffered from severe "ghosting" due to the fact that the latent image on the target remained even after the subject had moved. Furthermore, as the system scanned the target, the motion of the scanning relative to the subject resulted in artifacts that compromised the image. The target in Vidicon type camera tubes can be made of various photoconductive chemicals such as antimony sulfide (Sb2S3), lead(II) oxide (PbO), and others with various image "stick" properties. The Farnsworth "Image Dissector" did not suffer from image "stick" of the type Vidicons exhibit, and so related special image converter tubes might be used to capture short frame sequences at very high speed.

The mechanical shutter, invented by Pat Keller, et al., at China Lake in the 1980s, helped freeze the action and eliminate ghosting. This was a mechanical shutter similar to the one used in high-speed film cameras—a disk with a wedge removed. The opening was synchronized to the frame rate, and the size of the opening was proportional to the integration or shutter time. By making the opening very small, the motion could be stopped.

Despite the resulting improvements in image quality, these systems were still limited to 60 frame/s.

Other Image tube based systems emerged in the 1950s which incorporated a modified GenI image intensifier with additional deflector plates which allowed a photon image to be converted to a photoelectron beam. The image, while in this photoelectron state, could be shuttered on and off as short as a few nanoseconds, and deflected to different areas of the large 70 and 90 mm diameter phosphor screens to produce sequences of up to 20+ frames. In the early 1970s these camera attained speeds up to 600 Million fps, with 1 ns exposure times, with up to 15 frames per event. As they were analog devices there were no digital limitations on data rates and pixel transfer rates. Images were projected and held on the tube's phosphor screen for several milliseconds, long enought to be optically, and later fiber optically, coupled to film for image capture. This technology remained state of the art until the mid 1990s when user demand dictated instant results in digital format leading to the development of the Intensified CCD type cameras.

In addtion to framing tubes, these tubes could also be configured with one or two sets of deflector plates in one axis. As light was converted to photoelectrons, these photoelectrons could be swept across the phosphor screen at incredible sweep speeds limited only by the sweep electronics, to generate the first electronic streak cameras. With no moving parts, sweep speeds of up to 10 picoseconds per mm could be attained, thus giving technical time resolution of several picoseconds. As early as the 1973-74 there were commercial streak cameras capable of 3 picosecond time resolution derived from the need to evaluate the ultra short laser pulses which were being developed at that time. Electronic streak cameras are still used today with time resolution as short as sub picoseconds, and are the only true way to measure short optical events in the picosecond time scale.


The introduction of the CCD revolutionized high-speed photography in the 1980s. The "staring array" configuration of the sensor eliminated the scanning artifacts. Precise control of the integration time replaced the use of the mechanical shutter. However, the CCD architecture limited the rate at which images could be read off the sensor. Most of these systems still ran at NTSC rates (approximately 60 frame/s), but some, especially those built by the Kodak Spin Physics group, ran faster and recorded onto specially constructed video tape cassettes. Eventually, the Kodak group managed to develop the HG2000, a camera that could run at 1000 frame/s with a 512 x 384 pixel sensor for 2 seconds.

By adding an image intensifier to a CCD, it is possible to capture a single frame of a very fast event. Hadland uses this technique for a range of high-speed cameras capable of running at 1,000,000 frame/s, though record lengths are limited to 8 or 16 images. More recently, Specialised Imaging Limited [http://www.specialised-imaging.com] introduced a high speed camera that was capable of running at 200,000,000 frame/s with up to 32 images.


The introduction of CMOS sensor technology again revolutionized high-speed photography in the 1990s and serves as a classic example of a disruptive technology. Based on the same materials as computer memory, the CMOS process was cheaper to build than CCD and easier to integrate with on-chip memory and processing functions, though the image quality and quantum efficiency of CCD still compare favorably. The first patent of an Active Pixel Sensor (APS), submitted by JPL's Eric Fossum, led to the spin-off of Photobit, which was eventually bought by Micron Technology.

However, Photobit's first interest was in the standard video market; the first high-speed CMOS system was NAC Image Technology's HSV 1000, first produced in 1990. Vision Research uses a CMOS sensor in the Phantom v4 camera, with a sensor designed at the Belgian Interuniversity Microelectronics Center (IMEC). These systems quickly made inroads into the 16 mm high-speed film camera market despite resolution and record times (0.25 megapixel, 4 s at full frame and 1000 frame/s) that suffered in comparison to existing film systems. IMEC later spun the design group off as FillFactory, which was later purchased by Cypress Semiconductor. Photobit eventually introduced a 500 frame/s 1.3 megapixel [http://www.micron.com/products/imaging/applications/machinevision.html sensor] , a device found in many low-end high-speed systems.

Subsequently, several camera manufacturers compete in the high speed digital video market, including AOS Technologies, Fastec Imaging, NAC, Olympus, Photron, Redlake, Vision Research, and Weinberger, with sensors developed by Photobit, Cypress, and in-house designers.

As at January 2008, Vision Research's Phantom HD camera capable of 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution (Sony Hi-Def) has replaced a few 16 mm film cameras in some media applications and has replaced 35 mm film cameras in a few commercials in the UK. Most UK commercials are now show using the ARRI "Tornado", which is based on the Memrecam K5 from NAC Image Technology. This is the camera of choice for media application due to its unparalleled light sensitivity afforded to it by its large pixels.

In March 2008 Casio introduced the EX-F1, the first consumer market camera with creditable high speed video capability. Using the Sony IMX017CQE 6MP CMOS sensor the camera acquires 300fps at 512 x 384 and also 600 and 1200fps at lower resolutions. Although the resolutions and frame rates are low compared to current professional equipment, the EX-F1 costs $1000 where current professional cameras are priced $10,000 or more. Light sensitivity is quite good, showing only slight image deterioration at ISO 1600. The camera is already in use in commercial R&D applications (crash dummy testing equipment design) due to the low cost and adequate capabilities.

In addition to those science and engineering types of cameras, an entire industry has been built up around industrial machine vision systems and requirements. The major application has been for high-speed manufacturing. A system typically consists of a camera, a frame grabber, a processor, and communications and recording systems to document or control the manufacturing process.


High-speed infrared photography has become possible with the introduction of the Amber Radiance, and later the Indigo Phoenix. Amber was purchased by Raytheon, the Amber design team left and formed Indigo, and Indigo is now owned by FLIR Systems. Santa Barbara Focal Plane, CEDIP, and Electrophysics have also introduced high-speed infrared systems.


* cite book
author=Edgerton, Harold E., and Killian, James R.
title= Flash!: Seeing the Unseen By Ultra High-speed Photography
id= ASIN B00085INJ

* cite book
author=Edgerton, Harold E.
title=Electronic flash, strobe
edition= 3rd Ed
Publisher= MIT Press,
location= Cambridge, MA
year= 1987
id= ISBN 0-262-55014-8

* cite journal
author=Pendley, Gil
title=High-Speed Imaging Technology; Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
journal= Proceedings of SPIE; 25th International Congress on High-Speed Photography and Photonics
volume= 4948
pages = 110–113
editor=Claude Cavailler, Graham P. Haddleton, Manfred Hugenschmidt
month= July | year= 2003

* cite book
author=Ray, S. F.
title= High speed photography and photonics
publisher=Focal Press
location= Oxford, UK
year= 1997

* cite book
author= Settles, G. S.
title= Schlieren and shadowgraph techniques: Visualizing phenomena in transparent media
location= Berlin
publisher= Springer-Verlag
id= ISBN 3-540-66155-7
year= 2001

See also

* High speed camera
* slow motion (less advanced than high-speed photography)
* Harold Eugene Edgerton

External links

* [http://www.pirate.co.uk/en/node/266 Lighting for High Speed TV and Film Shoots] Useful tips on lighting by Pirate
* [http://www.autoliv.com.au/highspeedvideo.html High Speed Photography and Video]
* [http://www.engr.colostate.edu/~dga/high_speed_video/ David Alciatore's] collection of high speed video clips
* [http://www.rit.edu/~andpph/ Andrew Davidhazy] 's collection of streak photography applications, [http://www.rit.edu/~andpph/text-hs-overview.html overview] of high speed imaging, and [http://www.rit.edu/~andpph/text-ichspp_xx_paper.html High Speed 101]
* [http://www.rit.edu/~andpph/text-hs-history.html A history] of early (19th century) high speed photography by Lincoln Endelman
* [http://osa.org/ OSA] - The Optical Society of America
* [http://spie.org/ SPIE] - The Society of Photo-Instrumentation Engineers
* [http://www.imec.be/ IMEC] - a Belgian research consortium
* [http://www.mne.psu.edu/PSGDL The Penn State University Gas Dynamics Lab] , showing high-speed schlieren and shadowgraph imaging research
* [http://www.liquidartgallery.com/ Liquid Art] - High speed photography as art. A collection of droplet photos
* [http://www.idtvision.com/ IDT - Integrated Design Tools, Inc.] High-speed digital imaging.
* [http://www.lucidmovement.com/ Lucid Movement] - Daily high speed videos.
* [http://www.liquid.backdrops.co.uk Liquid in Motion] . High speed photography of water droplets
* [http://www.fen-net.de/walter.preiss/e/slomo.html WP's HP] A short introduction for users; including examples and links
* [http://www.mikrotron.de/index.php?en_hsv_kamerabegriffe High Speed Camera Terminology]

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