November 30, 2010

Elphel as a line-scan camera (for river panoramas)

by Michael Aschauer

In my search for an affordable and reasonable solution of creating high-res panoramic river views I came along the Elphel camera and it’s photo-finish mode. As part of my ongoing projects Danube Panorama Project, Nile Studies and the new umbrella project River Studies, I am capturing virtually endless panoramic river views from a moving vessels with a slit- or line-scan method. I was using webcams or DV-cameras before, and all possible ways to upgrade to higher resolutions either seemed clumsy (I don’t want to be loaded with much more than a tiny laptop or tablet and the camera itself), very processing intense and/or expensive and far out of reach of my (very limited) budget.

The “all-purpose camera” Elphel stepped in as a good, reasonable and flexible solution for that task. The first season using an Elphel353 is over, so time to share some of my experiences with Elphel and it’s not so well know photo-finish mode for line-scanning.

what is line-scan?

Line-scan is an image acquisition method that continuously samples (sensor) lines into a composite image. A Flatbed or hand held scanner is essentially also kind of a line-scanner. For some historic reasons (I guess due to the various application and realms they derived from) there a many terms: line scan, slit scan, strip photography, streak photography, scanography, photo-finish,.. Basically they all describe the same principle, a principle that is rather old and was already used in traditional analogue photography (for instance rotating panorama cameras), where you have a slit as an aperture, exposing the film as it moves by. In the digital realm one would cut out slices of existing image footage or – as in case of dedicated line-scan cameras – it is really just a one line sensor (to be correct: that’s true for monochrome cameras, color line-scan cameras normally have either 3 lines – in case of CCD sensor: one for each color – or 2, if the sensor is CMOS using Bayer pattern).

Applications of these line-scan method include industrial surface scanning, photo-finish, rotating panorama cameras, aerial imaginary, the arts (an interesting overview of art and research related slit-scan approaches can be found here) and certainly many more.

line-scan with Elphel

Since 2005 and the older 333 model, Elphel cameras have a “photo-finish” mode. With its 3Mpix Aptina CMOS sensor Elphel 333 was able so sample around 3072 lines per second. The photo-finsh mode was revived for the current Elphel 353 model with firmware release by end of April 2010. The current 5Mpix Aptina CMOS sensor (width: 2536px) is a bit slower and allows a sample rate of approx. 2300 lines per second – or a line rate of 2.3 kHz (as it seems to be measured in dedicated line-scan cameras).

In photo-finish mode the camera then samples just lines and delivers composite images as video frames via RTSP network stream or directly to a hard-disc. Programming the camera into line-scan mode is as simple as setting PH_HEIGHT to the desired line height (in pixel):


Due to the Bayer pattern of the sensor the minimal sample height is 2 lines.

ignore not functional - it is (as of firmware

Photo-finish mode per “default” then samples line-pairs as fast as (exposure) settings allow with a maximum rate of approx. 2300 line-pairs per second and a maximum width of the composite frame of 16384px (defined by WOI_HEIGHT). The sensor location that is used as source for these lines is defined by WOI_TOP, WOI_LEFT and WOI_WIDTH.

For variable control of the line sampling speed you can either:

  • change exposure settings.
  • slow down that process by defining a virtual size with VIRT_KEEP and VIRT_HEIGHT (which still samples as fast as it can for given virtual size and exposure settings)
  • use the camera’s internal trigger mode with TRIG=4 and TRIG_PERIOD settings to generate a regular trigger impulse. (but due to camera’s internal delays in that mode the line rate is a bit less )

(A common pitfall – in my opinion – in trying out photo-finish mode is that one needs to take care of appropriate exposure setting before going into photo-finish mode. If you just start that mode in low light conditions you will end up waiting for frames endlessly – and get the impression the camera does not work anymore)

Elphel on the river

For use on rivers I use very narrow composite images (48-96px) which allows me to have a small “real-time preview” over the resulting imaginary. I need that to be able to adapt (manual) exposure settings and line-scan rate on the fly according to the situation, the speed of the ship and the distance to the river embankments. I wrote a custom application, that uses gstreamer as a backend to read in the RTSP stream (or potentially every other gstreamer pipeline source), display a small real-time preview, save the stream as video file and log GPS data (and possibly other sensor data in the future) as well.

I started to write this software before the photo-finish mode was resurrected for the current NCL353 model so it is able to do both: the line-scanning by itself or read in “pre-scanned” sources. The software is still pretty rough but if interested you can find it in my git repo.

hardware overview

In addition I hacked together a proof-of-concept knob-based controller with arduino and an older dismantled midi-controller, to have a more haptic and easier control for handling line-scan rate and exposure settings on future tours. But now for some images.

Here is an example of an old host-based line-scan from a vessel, using Elphel NCL353 to deliver a WOI-stream of 2536×48 px (which allowed a maximum framerate of 424 fps)

host-based line-scan, Elphel NCL353 with WOI 2536x48 px, lens: Computar H0514-MP, 5mm

host-based line-scan, Elphel NCL353 with WOI 2536x48 px, lens: Computar H0514-MP, 5mm

see more ..

The internal photo-finish mode makes things a bit simpler. But note there are small gaps/erroneous lines at the end of each composite image, also if cropped they unfortunately leave some visible traces . This might not be a big issue if you use large composite images. However if they are very small they leave annoying artefacts (even if cropped out as it is the case here)

internal linescan, Elphel NCL353 , lens: Computar H0514-MP, 5mm

internal linescan, Elphel NCL353 , lens: Computar H0514-MP, 5mm

see more…

These gaps do not appear anymore if capturing in Elphel’s raw JP46 mode (better quality anyway) having reasonable WOI_HEIGHTs that are multiple of 2 and 3. An example scanning in JP46 mode (unfortunately from a very shaky – also very fast – hydrofoil and shot against the sun)

internal linescan and JP46, Elphel NCL353, lens: Som Berthiot Cinor 10mm/1,9

internal linescan and JP46, Elphel NCL353, lens: Som Berthiot Cinor 10mm/1,9

see more …

Finally these river view should be viewable with a decent web-based player. An early and rough example of how this might look like can be seen here (based on OpenLayers):

prototype webplayer

black/white sample of Budapest

Conclusio and open issues

Elphel’s line-scan mode works very reliable and well (if you don’t screw its settings with your own software bugs). There are a few things to optimize like the annoying gaps in normal color mode. Also I still have not found a reasonable solution to getting rid of the fixed pattern noise in photo-finish mode.

example of fixed pattern noise in line-scan

Certainly there are still plenty of other things to do for me as well as this is still in heavy progress (bugs and issues, optimize post processing tasks, avoid too many (lossy) image conversions, adapt the hardware for outdoor field-recordings, create a proper webplayer and underlying postgis-database and so on)

Yet you can expect more to come as soon as season allows and spring comes back to Europe again.

6 Responses to “Elphel as a line-scan camera (for river panoramas)”

  1. Thank you very much for sharing all the interesting details! I would be interested in extenting your idea to two streams for stereoscopic river panoramas. One set of colums/lines is captured from the left half and the ofther from the right. This way both perspectives could be reconstructed later to achive stereoscopic viewing. There is probably still a severe problem with lens distortion. And how about web based riverside viewer with continious scrolling and jumping to a specific meter/kilometer location ?
    Again – thanks for shaing

  2. M@sh says:

    I have to say my interest in stereo setups is very low. But I would be interested in captureing both river sides at once – It would just need mounting an additonal camera.

    Jumping to specific locations and river kilometers is a clear to do and will come up sooner or later.. (srcolling it already does)

  3. Olga says:

    Michael, thank you for such a detailed article about line-scan application of Elphel camera.

  4. Hi Michael
    I’ve admired your river scans since the beginning. I used to build my own linescan cameras, and have some advice about fixed pattern noise: it is part ‘dark current’ but mainly ‘gain variations’. To fix them properly: take some black frames with the lens covered, and some white frames with a good diffuser over the lens. The plastic diffuser used in desktop scanners is quite good; or white paper, so close as to be totally out of focus, at a 45 deg angle to both optic axis and light direction. Average a lot of these frames. Subtract the average black frame from each working frame, and divide the result by the average white frame.
    I also found the following method of killing pattern lines works pretty well in many cases: select a nearly uniform image area (with lines crossing it) as wide as you can; average along rows giving a vertical profile; divide the corresponding strip of the whole image by that.
    Best, Tom

  5. PS 1) Elphel might have firmware for the dark subtract/gain correct method. 2) Of course you have to normalize the bright profile in both methods to its own average brightness, so that the average gain correction factor becomes 1.
    – Tom

  6. wbk says:

    What a wonderful panorama’s! It works relaxing to just watch and see the panorama pass by motionless as a single frame.

    Have you thought of using a prisma and three sensor-rods from flatbed scanners? It might be a lot cheaper than the (nice) Elphel camera’s; bulier though ;-)

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