Laser Illumination

To achieve good quality images equal consideration should be given to the illumination source as to the camera resolution and sensitivity. If you have an incorrectly lit subject the resulting image will always be of a poor standard irrespective of the quality of the camera system. There are a wide range of light sources suitable for the majority of high-speed imaging applications; however, some applications may require something utilising a laser.


  • Welding
  • High voltage switching circuits
  • Flow visualisation
  • Ballistics
  • Impact visualisation
  • Shock wave analysis
  • Spray visualisation

Example 1: Excessive motion blur

High-speed visualisation of projectile. Motion blur eliminated with pulsed laser illumination.

Most high-speed cameras have an electronic global shutter offering exposure durations down to a few microseconds; however, where a given subject is moving at extreme velocities relative to the field of view, motion blur becomes more of an issue. A high-repetition rate pulsed laser can provide effective shutter durations typically in the range of 30ns – 250ns at frequencies up to around 50kHz without the need for an image intensifier (you will need to match the laser frequency to that of your camera frame rate). Typical applications requiring this level of shuttering could be ballistics, where velocities in excess of 700m/s are common, or working at high magnification where the effect of any movement is amplified. As an example, consider these two cases in turn.

High velocity High magnification
Camera: Photron APX-RS Photron APX-RS
Subject size: 10mm 10mm
Velocity: 700m/s 5m/s
Frame rate: 30kHz 100kHz
Image resolution: 1024 x 96 pixels 384 x 48 pixels
Image size: 250mm 200mm
Without laser Electronic shutter length: 1µs 1µs
Blur: 0.7mm 5mm
Blur in pixels: 3 10
Blur as a percentage of object size: 7% 50%
With laser Laser illumination pulse length: 30ns 30ns
Blur: 0.021mm 0.15mm
Blur in pixels: 0 0
Blur as a percentage of object size: 0.2% 1%

Example 2: Cold light source

High-speed visualisation of yarn production process – conventional lighting melted fibres

Subjects imaged using high-speed cameras require large amounts of light to illuminate them. With light also comes heat. Should your test subject be exposed to these high light levels for extended periods of time, the subject will get hot and its properties change. For example if imaging the production of various types of fibre, it is likely that the heat from the lights will melt the fibres as they are being produced, or, if impact testing a plastic part, the light will warm this part and it will become more elastic, the validity of the test is then put into question.

To avoid this scenario, a pulsed laser could be used as a light source. Because the equivalent amount of light can be condensed into a very short period the heating effect is minimised.

NOTE: For small areas of interest there are now commercially available pulsed LED light sources that may also be suitable. These will be less expensive than a laser and safe to use in any environment.

Example 3: High-speed imaging of extremely bright subjects

Events such as welding, combustion or explosions are all clearly subjects that would normally saturate or “white-out” a camera image. To be able to image these subjects you need to remove all – or most of this unwanted light. There are two different ways to do this and dependant upon the brightness of the subject you may need to use a combination of both.

The easiest way to understand the principles involved is to consider this scenario – you are studying a rapid burning process such as a domestic firework.

If there were not an issue with the bright light you could use conventional illumination. However as the subject does emit this bright light additional components are required.

Spectral filtering

The light emitted from a combustion process will cover a broad spectrum of light. By placing filters on the camera to block the majority of light at particular wavelengths such as toward UV and IR this intensity will be reduced; however it may also reduce the intensity of the light source you are using for illumination so a more powerful source will be required. The solution to this problem is to use a laser to illuminate the subject and place a filter on your camera that will only pass a very narrow band of wavelengths (typically +/-5nm) about the single wavelength of the laser. Of course there may be a small amount of light emitted by the subject that falls within the band pass of the filter but the laser should dominate this.

In this example a burning domestic firework is being imaged. On the left no filter is used and the bright flame is saturating the camera. On the right a narrow band pass filter is being used in conjunction with an Oxford Lasers Diode laser – all of the flame is removed and the surface detail can be resolved.

No spectral filter.
Spectral filter + laser.


Temporal filtering

Each image taken by the camera will have a given exposure length. A long exposure will result in a brighter image. By reducing the length of the exposure you can reduce the brightness of the image. It may be that even with spectral filtering a long exposure allows sufficient light through the filter to still saturate the image. If this is the case, reducing the exposure by using the electronic global shutter will reduce the light level. If the pulse width of the illumination laser is only 1µs, reducing the exposure time to 2µs will significantly reduce the intensity of the light but will have zero effect on the brightness of the laser. In extreme cases where the shutter time of the camera is still too long, an image intensifier may be fitted to the camera to permit the exposure to be reduced to a length only a fraction longer than that of the laser pulse. Image intensifiers are high cost items and require very careful operation so are used in only a few cases.

Example 4: Light sheets

Only lasers have the ability to be focused to a thin ‘sheet’ of light that can be projected over a ‘useful’ distance.

Why use a light sheet?

Light sheets permit you to visualise a cross section of a flow or spray.

How does it work?

Particles entrained in the flow scatter light from the laser that permits them to be imaged by the camera. If the particles only move a short distance before the next image is taken you can visualise the movement of this flow. Higher flow velocities will require higher frame rates to maintain a small particle displacement – typically no more than 50 pixels – larger than this will result in a less fluid view of the motion. By having a thin ‘sheet’ of laser light you can define precisely the plane within your flow you are imaging.

High-speed visualisation of aerosol spray plume Images courtey of Oxford Lasers Ltd., UK.

You can build on this technique to map the instantaneous velocity of the entire flow field being imaged by using a technique known as PIV or Particle Image Velocimetry. Software is used to calculate the distance the particles travel and by including a linear calibration such as mm/pixel and the time interval between images you can obtain the velocity in m/s. Some flows such as sprays are ‘self-seeded’ i.e. they already have particles present that can be imaged, other flows such as air or water flows may require ‘seeding’ or ‘tracer’ particles to be introduced. These particles are carefully selected based on their physical size, mass and light scattering properties so that they have no negative influence on the flow they are tracing whilst providing a bright reflection that the camera can image.

Who is using it?

Anyone wishing to study properties of sprays, liquid or air flows around objects, within rooms or through ducting/ pipes.

Further Information on Lasers and imaging

High Speed Photography and Photonics
Author: Sidney F. Ray (Editor)
Format: Book (Reprint)
Publication Date: April 2002
Publisher: Society of Photo Optical
ISBN: 0819445274