"World's Fastest Camera" Snaps 6 Million Pictures in a Single Second

By Eliza Strickland | April 29, 2009 6:09 pm

apple bulletOptics researchers have invented a camera that uses infrared lasers to bounce light off an object, and say the result should leave shutterbugs with a serious case of technology envy. Their device can take 6.1 million pictures in a single second, at a shutter speed of 440 trillionths of a second. Light itself moves just a fraction of a centimeter in that time…. “It’s the world’s fastest camera” [Wired], says study coauthor Keisuke Goda.

Conventional digital cameras use charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to take a picture. The devices contain semiconducting chips that … produce electrons in response to light. The electrons are read off the chip and their signals are then electronically amplified and encoded as a digital image [Nature News]. But that process has its limits. Top-notch conventional cameras top out at about 30 frames per second, while the fanciest scientific instruments can take about one million frames per second. For Goda and his colleagues, that just wasn’t fast enough.

To make the serial time-encoded amplified microscopy (STEAM) camera, described in an article in Nature, researchers fired an infrared laser beam and spread out the light pulse to form a spectral pattern. As demonstrated in a video explaining how STEAM works, the researchers then shine this light onto the object they want to photograph. This means that different parts of the object are illuminated by different wavelengths of light. The reflected light is fed through a special fibre-optic cable that makes different wavelengths travel at different speeds. Longer wavelengths move to the front of the line, while shorter ones fall to the rear. The stream of light is amplified and then read out by a single photodetector [Nature News]. The photodetector records when each wavelength arrives, and that simple data set is used to reconstructs an image of the object.

The camera could be used for studies of combustion, laser cutting and any system that changes quickly and unpredictably. “I would imagine that STEAM would be useful for any scientist,” Goda says [Nature News].

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Image: T. Sato

MORE ABOUT: cameras, lasers, light
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    The microscopes we have at school can manage a few frames a second. Wow.

  • Corey

    I just want to say that in the 2nd paragraph 3rd row the word that is used twice

  • http://esns.blogspot.com/ Karrasko

    I already handle a camera that snaps 1 million pictures per second. I can tell you that it’ s really amazing. I use it for impact phenomena.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Thanks for the catch, Corey. I’ll fix the typo in the quoted text.

  • http://digitalcameras.techfresh.net/ TechFresh

    Very interesting, but to capture anything more than a brief number of seconds would require huge amounts of fast RAM.

  • Josh

    Wait a minute… I declare shenanigans!
    Take a look at that photo: the bullet is still in the cartridge!
    (Though it looks like the photo is just a representation, why make a bad representation?)

  • http://omahazoo.wordpress.com Clark

    And I thought that taking nearly 6 Million pixels in a second was doing good! Now just how many pixels is 6 Million pictures times 6 Mega-pixels equal too?

    If I add right, it’s 36 to the 12th power, or 36,000,000,000,000 pixels!

  • bpierce

    Going off of your math, with 32-bit color, at 6 mega pixels X 6 million pictures i think that would work out to about 130 terabytes per second of raw data. Am I wrong?

  • Lee451

    I think I will wait until there is one on Overstock.com.

  • http://expertss.objectis.net Norman Costa

    I understand the motion camera that took pictures of the Trinity A-Bomb test ran at 10,000 frames per second. Not being an engineer or photographer, I would like to know such a device could manage a shutter speed of that magnitude. I am assuming it was using mechanical or electro-mechanical technology. Was a physical shutter actually cycling through open and close positions 10,000 times each second? And what about the film transport? How can photographic film be propelled at that speed and stay together? Assuming a square 35mm frame, the film would travel 350 meters in one second. If someone could explain I would appreciate it greatly.

    Otherwise, I can imagine the latest technology will shed enormous light (if there’s a pun there, so be it) on molecular structures and biological-neurological processes. Imagine a visualization of neural synaptic activities.

  • Nigh

    You should do your research before claiming speed records, this camera ‘http://www.itronx.com/DRS_LIGHTNING_ULTRA_8_high-speed_slow-motion_cameras.htm’ can run at 100 million frames/sec & even that is not the fastest. Frame rates at around 500 million/sec have been achieved.

  • MacCaskill

    Norman Costa asked about the Trinity camera… If I recall correctly, the cameras involved didn’t use conventional mechanical shutters that have to physically open and close that fast. I believe images from the lenses were passed through revolving prism that ‘tracked’ the film as it was swept past at a continuous (and darned high) speed. The film didn’t have to be stopped and restarted as each frame was exposed.
    I THINK that’s how they worked. Did this description make sense?
    I’m sure there are plenty of sources online that can describe the cameras and methods used at Los Alamos.

    Corey Says:
    April 29th, 2009 at 7:48 pm
    “I just want to say that in the 2nd paragraph 3rd row the word that is used twice”

    Corey, was there actually a complete thought you intended to convey? An article about an amazing bit of technology and the only thing you find to say (perhaps, you’re intent’s a bit fuzzy) that you thought you spotted a typo?

  • http://optical-technologies.info/?tag=photodiode optical-tech


    I sort of understand the idea of different wavelength travelling at different speeds, but there are two question there:
    – in the video and in the explanations, it looks as if the wavelength separation occurs _after_ the illumination of the sample, in which case it sorts of misses the point because every wavelength illuminate the sample at the same time.
    – How can a single element photodetector produce a 2D image? We’ve got a subject in 3D (two spatial dimensions and a temporal one), and the acquisition is made along only 1D (temporal)

  • kmag

    @optical-tech: If I understand correctly the phrase “spread out the light pulse to form a spectral pattern”, they use a material with a highly frequency-dependent EM propagation velocity to spread out the pulse over time. They then use the same technique to spread out the returned photons even further so they can take more snapshots of the motion for a given speed CCD.

    For the people asking about the amount of data required to store one second worth of video from this device: what’s your estimate for the frequency-dependence of the propagation velocity? Now work out how many km of waveguide would be required to operate the camera for an entire second… Now tell me how many photos they’re actually capable of taking in a single run. My guess is they’re taking tens or hundreds of images per photo run, not 6 million.

    The frame rate is just that… a rate. The frame rate isn’t actually a quantity of frames.

    Also, I’m sure the bullet (and unspent cartridge!) going through the apple is just some (hopefully cheap) stock footage, not meant to represent this device in any way. At 6 million frames per second, and judging from the scale of the apple, in 5 frames (4 time slices) the bullet goes more than 10 cm, which works out to over 150 km (15 million cm) per second… over 450 times the speed of sound. High-powered military sniper rifles generally fire rounds at a bit under 3 times the speed of sound, and the rifles used for stroboscopic photography generally have muzzle velocities in the neighborhood of the speed of sound. Really, the image is just some computer-generated stock photography, not even a poor CGI simulation of 6 mil. fps. Give the author a break. I imagine s/he doesn’t have more than 15 minutes to devote to finding an image for the sidebar of the story.

  • http://www.hadlandimaging.com Hadland Imaging

    Are you kidding me….
    Please do your self a favor and research.
    Intensified cameras capable of 100 million fps and now up to 2 billion fps
    are commonplace in the real market of ultra high speed imaging.
    Intensifiers coupled to ccds are then gated to sub microsecond exposures.
    for more information, please contact trumbaugh@hadlandimaging.com

  • http://www.hadlandimaging.com Hadland Imaging

    please call the 800 toll free number to understatnd abit more about ultra high speed imaging.
    thank you

  • JFay

    I seen an animated video of this device on youtube some time ago but there was no explanation included, just the animated process in a loop. if you could recognize the represented instruments it wasn’t long before u understood the content…u can appreciate a science that supports itself


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