Taking a Closer Look at Camera Specifications
Camera specifications can leave customers scratching their heads. Standardization of specifications and procedures will make the selection task easier by providing trustworthy performance data.
Purchasing a camera for high-performance
imaging applications can be confusing and time-consuming. Manufacturers lack clear
and consistently defined specifications, which makes it difficult to compare one
camera with another based on specs alone. For example, a camera specified as 12
bits by one manufacturer means that the root-mean-square background noise is less
than one analog-to-digital count and that the camera has a dynamic range of 72 dB.
But to another vendor, 12 bits may simply imply that a 12-bit analog-to-digital
converter is used, regardless of how many of those bits are consumed in noise.
The inability to perform a quantitative comparison
based on technical specifications alone can be solved in two ways. The first and,
unfortunately, most common approach is to do side-by-side comparisons of all cameras
that “look” similar. The system integrator must coordinate the delivery
of a camera, frame grabber, cables and power supply for each device to be evaluated,
and then must become familiar with new software display packages and determine a
suitable method for measuring performance.
Appropriate lighting sources and calibration
test targets are required to quantitatively compare camera performance. Although
this approach might be intriguing as a doctoral thesis topic, it is expensive and
time-consuming for the customer.
An alternative approach places the
burden of technical proof on the manufacturer. With this plan, a standardized test
procedure is used during camera manufacturing to provide consistent, quantitative
and verifiable performance data such as read noise, dark current, full-well capacity,
sensitivity, dynamic range, gain and linearity. Fortunately, a test method of this
type has existed for well over a decade. Known as the photon transfer curve, it
is used by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Labs and
leading camera manufacturers around the world to enable an apples-to-apples comparison
of key performance parameters. The fundamentals of photon-transfer-curve calibration,
along with a discussion about how each measured parameter affects imaging performance,
follow. The test methods work equally well for both CMOS and CCD cameras and are
applicable in area-scan, line-scan, time-delay and integration, or essentially any
How the curve works
From a basic measurement point of view, the photon transfer curve works as follows:
• The camera itself is a system block with light as an input and digital data as an output (Figure 1).
• Because of the character of photons, we know that the only noise introduced at the input is shot noise, and
we can predict exactly what that noise will be at any specified illumination level.
• Any difference between the noise at the input and output must have been caused by the camera (or sensor) electronics.
Figure 1. Output noise is compared with input noise to characterize a camera system.
The use of noise as a test stimulus is convenient because the natural input signal for an imager is light, and the noise
characteristics of light are well-known. The shot-noise characteristics of light
are plotted as a function of illumination level on a Log-Log graph (Figure 2). The
root-mean-square value of shot noise is equal to the square root of the mean number
of photons incident on a given pixel. Thus, the shot noise profile becomes a straight
line with a slope of one-half on the Log-Log curve (Log X1/2 = 1/2Log X). This noise is inherent in the nature of light itself and has nothing to do with the camera design.
Figure 2. In an ideal world, the camera would introduce no additional noise, and the output noise characteristics
would look like this.
In contrast to Figure 2, which shows only the noise associated with the input signal (light), Figure 3 shows the photon
transfer curve that contains the typical noise profile seen at the output of a digital
camera. Here you can see three distinct noise regions of the CCD camera system:
read noise, shot noise and fixed-pattern noise. The photon transfer curve compares
the differences in Figures 2 and 3 to determine the operational characteristics
of the camera. The input and output noise match only in the central region of the
graph. At both high and low illumination levels, the curves differ — and the
camera causes this difference.
Figure 3. This photon transfer curve compares the input noise (blue) with the camera output noise (black). Comparing the ideal to the actual camera noise accurately determines characteristics such as dynamic range, full-well capacity and noise floor.
It’s important to understand the characteristics
of each of the regions along with their significance in characterizing camera performance.
The characteristics are:
• Read noise: This is represented
by the first (flat) region of the graph in Figure 3 and is the random noise that
is associated with the CCD output amplifier and the camera’s signal-processing
electronics. In a properly designed camera, the read noise should be around one
analog-to-digital count root mean square or less. Any more than this, and an “8
bit” camera may be supplying, for example, only 6 bits.
• Shot noise: Shown in the second
region of the graph in Figure 2, it is inherent in the light itself. The noise does
not originate in the camera. As the input light level increases in amplitude, the
noise at the camera output rises out of the read-noise region and becomes dominated
by shot noise. Shot noise is directly related to the input illumination and is proportional
to the square root of that signal.
• Fixed-pattern noise: The right-most
region of the photon transfer curve represents the fixed-pattern noise, which becomes
dominant at relatively high levels of illumination. This noise results from differences
in sensitivity among individual pixels or from photo response nonuniformity. Because
it is directly proportional to input signal strength, the slope in this region of
the Log-Log graph is 1.
where S = optical input signal.
• Full well: As illumination
levels are increased, the individual CCD pixels are unable to hold any additional
charge without spilling over into adjacent wells. At this point on the noise curve,
output noise abruptly drops because the signal value is clipped at the pixel’s
maximum saturation level. At the point where the photon transfer curve peaks, as
shown in Figure 3, the CCD is said to have reached full-well capacity.
Making the measurements
During the photon-transfer-curve measurement,
the CCD is exposed to a precisely controlled light source with a flat (uniform)
illumination field. This is done with an integrating sphere with a monochromatic
light source, such as LEDs or filtered white light. The use of monochromatic light
is important for removing the effects of color temperature and quantum efficiency
Prior to starting data collection,
the operator adjusts the light source so that the camera is at its specified full-well
illumination. The camera gain and offset are then adjusted such that the analog-to-digital
converter full scale corresponds to the CCD full-well condition, within about 100
analog-to-digital units. After this initial calibration has been completed, the
light source is stepped from complete darkness to full-well illumination in precisely
The noise is calculated at each measured light
level by subtracting two sequential frames (to remove photo response nonuniformity
and frame-to-frame offsets), taking the sum of the squares of all pixels in the
subtracted image and dividing the number of total pixels by two. The result is
the statistical variance of the time-varying random noise in the image, where the
factor of two in the divisor comes from the fact that the noise is initially doubled
in the subtraction process.
Mathematically, this becomes:
This really comprises two equations, where:
X1i = the individual pixel values of
the first frame, in analog-to-digital units.
X2i = the individual pixel values of
the second frame, in analog-to-digital units.
Np = the number of pixels in the image.
Once the noise at each illumination
level has been calculated, a photon transfer curve can be generated by plotting
the camera’s output root-mean-square noise vs. the average signal level on
a Log-Log curve.
Let’s take a look at each parameter
and its relevance to the photon transfer curve plot:
• Read noise is directly available
from the photon transfer curve by recording the noise level at zero illumination.
On the photon transfer curve, the read noise is shown in terms of the number of
analog-to-digital units of root-mean-square noise in darkness, which can be multiplied
by the gain of the system to yield the noise floor in electrons.
• The gain of the camera system,
or “G,” is typically expressed in electrons per analog-to-digital units;
that is, the number of photoelectrons that are required to change the analog-to-digital
output by one count. By definition, modifying the illumination level produces a
change of “N.” Photoelectrons result in a change in the average analog-to-digital
output level of N/G analog-to-digital units. The root-mean-square noise at the output
of the camera in the shot noise region in analog-to-digital units is given by:
Thus, if noise variance is plotted
vs. average signal on a linear graph, G is obtained by fitting a line to this variance
curve in the shot-noise-limited region and measuring the slope of that line. The
inverse of this slope is equal to G.
• The dynamic range is calculated
as full scale of the analog-to-digital range divided by the smallest detectable
signal. Because the read noise sets this lower limit, the dynamic range is given
The dynamic range, expressed in dB,
• Full well is derived from the
maximum analog-to-digital output counts and the gain. The formula is:
SMAX = maximum analog-to-digital output
before the photon transfer curve begins to slope downward.
G = gain
FW = full well (in electrons).
• Nonlinearity is based on the
error between the best-fit straight line to the original data of the camera input
vs. the camera mean response at each illumination level, in analog-to-digital units.
The formula is:
INL = integral nonlinearity.
EMAX = maximum (most positive) error
from best-fit straight line.
EMIN = minimum (most negative) error
from best-fit straight line.
ADFS = analog-to-digital converter
full-scale value (counts).
Note that (EMAX — EMIN) represents the
worst-case peak-to-peak amplitude of the error. The analog-to-digital converter
full-scale value is the value of the highest measurement taken that is still within
the linear performance range. Normally, this is set as close to the actual full-scale
capability of the converter as is practical during camera calibration.
• The effective number of bits
is a standard term that indicates the useful number of digital bits that a system
can deliver based on its signal-to-noise ratio. The calculation basically converts
the signal-to-noise ratio, normally expressed as a log10 number, to log2:
Specifications such as frame rate,
trigger modes and data interfacing requirements can be extracted easily from most
data sheets. In contrast, key parameters such as noise level, sensitivity and linearity
are often either less obvious or nonexistent. Fortunately, a simple characterization
technique is available that accurately measures these parameters and eliminates
the time and money wasted on side-by-side shoot-offs. The photon transfer curve
has been used by leading camera manufacturers for years because, without it, it
is nearly impossible to guarantee adherence to printed technical specifications.
Meet the author
David Gardner is president of Summit Imaging Inc.
in Colorado Springs, Colo., which specializes in the design of cooled cameras for
high-end imaging applications. Prior to starting Summit, he was president of Silicon
- A light-tight box that receives light from an object or scene and focuses it to form an image on a light-sensitive material or a detector. The camera generally contains a lens of variable aperture and a shutter of variable speed to precisely control the exposure. In an electronic imaging system, the camera does not use chemical means to store the image, but takes advantage of the sensitivity of various detectors to different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors are transducers...
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