What is High Speed Photography?

Today, businesses, engineers, and consumers all have access to more precise imaging technology than ever before. For most industrial and recreational applications, today’s cameras rise to the challenge. When you need ultra-fast image processing, however, things get more complex.

How can you successfully photograph or record a high-velocity object, like a bullet in mid-air?

High-velocity objects, such as a hummingbird’s wings in flight, would look like little more than a blur in a typical photograph. This is even true when using most modern digital cameras. Still, high-speed photography is in wide use in specialized applications. For example, the military uses high-speed photography to analyze the ballistic qualities of missiles and other weapons.

Manual Cameras Still Have a Place – in High-Speed Photography

Experts and hobbyists alike have flocked to the convenience and versatility of digital cameras. When it comes to high-speed photography, however, a manual camera retains many advantages.

To successfully photograph a high-speed object, two things are essential:

  • Extremely fast shutter speed, thus controlling the photograph’s exposure level precisely.
  • A flash that offers extremely brief lighting duration – 30 microseconds can be enough!

Take the example of the speeding bullet. If too much light is used, the entire trajectory of the bullet across the camera’s point of view will be visible. When conditions are right, however, the photographer can avoid exposing the film until the exact instant the shot is to be taken.

For this reason, many high-speed photographs are taken in low-light conditions. Of course, complete darkness is usually not possible – thus, the high shutter speed can often compensate.

High Speed Photography Goes to the Next Level: Light-Speed Cameras

Thanks to the fundamental properties of photography, even the most skilled photographer will be somewhat limited in the way he or she can stage and execute a high-speed shot. Once innovative technologies are added to the equation, however, great new things become possible.

At Washington University in Saint Louis, researchers are working on a new device that can capture images at unprecedented speeds. In a single exposure, without using an external light source, the “light-speed camera” can produce an astonishing 100 billion frames.

This gives it the potential to directly photograph natural phenomena that have been virtually impossible to capture up until this point, including neurons firing in the human brain.

An initial version of the camera was demonstrated two years ago. Recent upgrades provided the design with an additional charge-coupled device (CCD). Both the on-board CCDs are empowered by a sophisticated algorithm for reconstructing image data.

The end result? An imaging device three billion times faster than the camera on an iPhone.

The technology remains highly experimental today, but could someday revolutionize high-speed photography in countless contexts.