Capturing the speed of light on camera: 1 trillion frames per second

By using optical equipment in a new and totally unexpected way, MIT researchers have created an imaging system that makes light appear slow. The system acquires visual data at the rate of one trillion exposures per second, or about 40 billion times faster than a typical video camera. That’s fast enough to produce a slow-motion film of a light beam passing through a one-litre bottle, bouncing off the cap and reflecting back to the bottle’s bottom.

Direct recording of light is impossible at that speed, so the camera takes millions of repeated scans to recreate each image. Because the imaging system requires multiple passes to produce its videos, this means it can only record events that are precisely repeatable.

Despite this drawback, the team hopes the technique could be used to understand a range of ultra-fast processes, to analyse faults and material properties, or in medical imaging, e.g. ultrasound with light. In addition, the photon path analysis will allow new forms of computational photography, such as rendering and re-lighting photos using computer graphics techniques.

One of the system’s developers, Andreas Velten, calls it the “ultimate” in slow motion: “There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera,” he says.

For more info about this process – known as “femto photography” – see the MIT website.

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