Photron: cameras that can see the invisible


Some movements are so rapid that they are invisible to the naked eye. Photron cameras can nevertheless solve this problem, by capturing up to 800,000 images per second.

Welcome to the world of high-speed cameras, where a blink lasts an eternity.

For thousands of years the human eye was quite sufficient to see the movements that man wanted to observe: his environment, the arrival of danger, the flight of prey. However, the eye is incapable of capturing what researchers would like to see today: the details of an explosion, the impact of a bullet, a car crash, molten metal and the reaction of material to constraint… this is where Photron comes into the picture.

Founded in 1974, the Japanese company designs hi-tech imaging solu- tions (cameras, equipment, software) for use in manufacturing, scien- tific research or broadcasting. Photron and its staff of 233 has special- ized in high-speed cameras, becoming a global leader in the field.

High-speed imaging enables extraordinary scientific progress. For example filming and studying combustion phenomena in the cylinder of an engine, leading to the reduction of exhaust fume emission. R&D, design and quality control engineers, as well as medicine, biology and aerospace scientists, among others, can benefit from these drastically enhanced eyes.

Obviously, high-speed imaging progresses almost as fast as the sub- ject being filmed. Today, the general public can capture 250fps and a definition of 720dpi, with a high quality smartphone. Photron keeps pushing back the limits of frame rate, but that is not enough to meet customer requirements.

Solutions must provide ever higher resolutions as well as high reliability. Physical resistance is another prerequisite – explosions, combustion, crash tests are particularly hostile environments for any technology. Moreover, camera housing dimensions need to be reduced all the time.

Fastcam Multi, launched at the end of 2014, is the latest Photron product. It is a good example of the multiple specifications that Photron’s engi- neers manage to unite in the same system.

Fastcam Multi features one or two compact camera heads tethered to a remote processor. The camera heads provide for image capture at up to 6,000 frames per second (fps) at megapixel resolution. They are so small in size – 15cm long and 7cm wide – that they can slip into spaces that are inaccessible for standard high-speed stand-alone cameras. The camera heads being separated from the processor is also a safety factor: whatever happens to them during shooting, the images are safely stored. LEMO connectors are used to connect the camera heads to the processor.

The Fastcam Mini UX100, Photron’s most successful model, is another example. This camera system provides 1,280 by 1,024 pixel resolution to 4,800 frames per second and reduced resolution operation up to 800,000fps. Yes, 800,000fps, meaning you can film a one-second sequence and watch it stretching out over more than 9 days. Compared to the HD 720 resolution of a smartphone, it would be 6,000 instead of 250 images captured per second. These are ultra-sharp images: a global shutter provides blur-free imagery with a minimum shutter speed of 1µs. Small and lightweight, this camera is suited for applications as varied as fluidics, life sciences or ballistic testing.

Photron sales and profits have increased over the last few years, beat- ing new records in 2014. The Tokyo-based company with subsidiaries in China, England and the USA, is about to launch new camera systems. Namely, the Fastcam Mini WX, second model in the Mini series, capable of capturing 2000fps in “Full HD” (1920x1080).

It is not only speed that makes things invisible to the human eye. Photron is considering the development of further new technologies. UV high-speed cameras? Ultra high-sensitivity cameras? Anything that would help the company to reach its vision: to capture the images seemingly impossible to film.