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Kodak and High-Speed Imaging

NeXT

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Almost ten years ago now I was talking with a friend about how fun it would be to get a high speed camera just to mess around with. The problem was that like today, the high-speed camera (from here on I refer to 1000fps and faster as "high speed") is not a low-cost device. It is a very specialty imaging tool used in scientific and engineering fields where for the most part, cost is no matter. Current products from Phantom for example can sell for upwards of $100 000usd new. Used cameras even a decade old can still sell for tens of thousands of dollars. It has only been very, very recently that the Chronos has emerged as the first truly "low cost" high-speed camera, costing under $10000 and with early units shipping for as low as $5000. That is still a lot of money but remember that to get 1000 color images of *any* resolution off the CCD and into high capacity memory in one second isn't something you can affordably do, even today.
There are quite a few higher end SLR and mirrorless cameras that tout high-speed recording that is ultimately something a lot less impressive like 240 or even 480fps. Some can do 1000 but again, because they can't write full-frame image data to the card fast enough you can only burst the capture. Action cameras like the GoPro are even worse. The term "high speed" and "slow motion" get heavily confused or mixed when advertising the features. The Hero 10 touts 8x slow-motion....which is still under 1000fps.
I have neither the money for a Chronos and going back to the start it was still a prototype in a workshop when I first wanted a camera. In its place however was an unexpected technology hole.

Enter Tesla500.


While searching for information on the optional IR remote for the Kodak Ektapro slide projector I noticed ebay was constantly suggesting me what looked like lab equipment and "high gain" imaging systems. I already own a prototype Photometrics high-ISO imaging head which uses a peltier cooler to allow you to take insanely high gain images so I assumed it was just that. Tesla500 however demonstrated to me I was wrong. It's a high-speed camera. Kodak was not unheard of to sell high speed cameras but their previous products used film, videotape and eventually DRAM for short-term buffering before being written to magneto optical or a SCSI disk. By the 90's however DRAM was cheap* enough that they could do it entirely solid-state.
At the time of his video in 2013 the components were still quite cheap. There was full lots where a seller wanted $1000 or more but also lots of individual parts, often below $30. With patience one could either find a complete system for a basement price or piece a system together and still be miles away from the next affordable option. Remember, the Chronos didn't exist yet.
I kept an eye on it for a number of years and then finally earlier this year the planets aligned. Not one but TWO Kodak imaging systems surfaced and I could clean house with only $300usd.

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On the left is the Kodak Ektapro EM 1000. This is the cost-reduced model to Tesla500's machine. It supports one imaging head, has no external controls beyond the trigger and sync and can only hold three 18mb ram boards, delivering 192x239 pixels and 1.2 seconds record time at 1000fps, greyscale. Even the external VCR control had been removed.

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This package deal included almost everything except the viewfinder and carrying handle for the imager, but like I said, in 2022 that is still a $30 + shipping solution.
These units entered the market in the early 1990's. Probably around 1992. As for a price I can only find a document from the National Science Foundation, approving a grant for one EM 1200 system to the University of Chicago for $106 000usd.
( https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=9318129 ).

The imaging head is a large device with no active cooling and a C mount lens thread on the front. On the back are three remote control buttons. Interestingly you cannot operate the system without the main LCD remote control. The buttons remain locked out until you arm the recording.

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The remote is an impressive and well thought piece of tech. In your hand (or in the cradle on the front of the processor) is a complete microcontroller system with its own communications protocol back to the processor over four wires. The back is hard plastic and the front is soft rubber. A narrow LCD screen displays the various settings and menu options available.

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Underneath are an RCA connection for a video monitor, the gain control switch, yet another port for a remote control (it's hardwired to the buttons on the rear) and a headset, even though the processing unit has no audio connections. There are also two identical connections at the front and in the back for the viewfinder. Of all these ports only the gain switch is indicated in the manual's illustration. The rest are either labeled "not used" or are not even indicated. Not sure what is going on there.
Documentation for this unit is quite good. A complete manual is available online. What I could not find was a sales brochure advertising the various features. This imaging system will max out supposedly at 12000fps for 4.9 seconds, with the exception that to get a capture speed that fast the actual capture area is increasingly cropped until finally at 12000fps 12 separate images in sequence are stored in the same memory space and requires post-processing to separate them back into a thin line of high speed video. This is the biggest drawback to these imaging units. Their initial resolutions are low and the higher the capture speed the more the image is cropped to make the most efficient use of the available memory. If you want to be like the Mythbusters or The Slow Mo Guys, this is not what you want. Once a sequence is captured your options to get it off the machine are very slowly over GPIB (which this does not have), automatically through VCR control (which I also do not have) or with a composite output. This sounds like the most painful way to do it, but remember what the imager's maximum resolution is. For frame grabbing, sending to a video printer, or manually capturing with a VCR this is absolutely fine.

The other system is in fact not part of the EktaPro EM line. It was available later in the 90's and is called the Motion Corder. Its pricetag was somewhere around $40 000 to $75 000usd.

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This looks like Kodak has substantially improved on their imaging technology and the processor is now a device small enough to be carried with a handle. The remote control is no longer needed as the buttons are on the front (or back?) of the unit. There is still a variety of triggering inputs and a strobe output but now you have the added option (along with composite out still) of downloading frames or sequences of frames from the memory over a SCSI port. There is also a serial port for remote control either by key commands or external automatic control with the protocol listed in the owners manual. Built into the base is a 12v 150W DC supply for one or two halogen lamps as at higher speeds you still require very intense lighting to see anything. There are three versions of the unit. A Motion Corder with a green stripe is an SR-500 which maxes out at 500fps. A blue stripe is an SR-1000 which maxes out at 1000fps (258x240 pixels). The top model unit has a red stripe and is called the SR-Ultra which maxes out at 10000fps. It seems like a disappointment that I did not get an Ultra but there is a drawback. Capture speeds over 3000fps after prolonged periods can overheat the imaging unit.

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This is 75% smaller than the previous imaging unit and now has the video cable hardwired to the back. It has no connections beyond the main cable and no remote buttons. You can mount it from any four sides and it too uses a C mount for a lens. Because of its small size and lack of cooling this is why it can so easily overheat. When run at the higher speeds the imager will "time out" the unit and force a cooldown.
Another drawback, well, I guess it isn't as much of a drawback is that this isn't from Kodak. It's made by Photron. Kodak phoned-in when they marketed this (by the way there is both a brochure and the owners manual available for it) and it is actually designed and built by a company in Japan. Perhaps this was a sign by the late 90's that Kodak was losing their grip on the photography market? Was this a sign the digital imaging department was about to shift? No idea.

While Tesla500 does not own one of these imagers, MikesElectricStuff did a video on one a year earlier that I never knew about. If you are wondering why unlike previous blogs I'm not doing a teardown, it's because they have already done so (and I hit the blog character limit). These machines are complicated and a mess of wiring so beyond paying attention to the battery in the Motion Corder I will save myself a few hours and provide you with their videos.

Here's his video on the Motion Corder:

..and Tesla500's video for the Ektapro EM
 
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NeXT

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Now that we have discussed the hardware of the EM 1000 and the SR-1000, lets talk about the quality of the material they can capture.

As mentioned, both imagers use composite video as their lowest common denominator when it comes to output. Typically this would not be ideal however since the resolution of both imagers is already lower than that of the NTSC we are really not going to be running into a lot of quality degradation. Whatever we capture is the best it's going to be. Using composite also eliminates trying to use the alternate interfaces by means of drivers and software that are no longer available or supported.
In the last 30 years we have made amazing strides in the capture of composite video, without audio. What at one point required an incredible amount of hardware to capture at 30fps and 640x480 can now be performed by a device the size of your thumb, powered over the USB port and not requiring any specialty drivers. For this purpose I purchased a $5 Composite to HDMI converter that also upscaled the image to 1920x1080 and one of said $15-$25 USB 2.0 HDMI to USB capture dongles. Because both are so low power you can run them over the same USB port. To make the mess of wiring a little bit easier I combined everything into a vented enclosure so that one side has a single BNC connector for composite in and a B-type USB connector on the other to permit being plugged into anything. My capture software of choice is OBS.

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As you can see the captured video feed is excellently upscaled. The OSD text is sharp and the video signal does not suffer too badly from horizontal line banding.
Please note that for both videos below the blurryness is me having issues getting the focus correct and not an overall issue with either camera.

Here is a test video from the EM 1000. The test subject is the mechanical stop mechanism on a slot reel. The scenario is observing how the catch absorbs the momentum of the reel and how the entire assembly rattles once stopped.



Here is a test video from the SR-1000. The test subject is a bird taking flight from the top of a fence.


The biggest overall observation is that while the SR-1000 has the higher resolution image sensor, it crops the picture down at 1000fps. The EM 1000 does not begin to crop the image until you exceed 1000fps, which I can't do as the 1000 model can't go above that, so it's a fair comparison and safe to say that both imagers have their pros and cons.

The Ektapro EM 1000 while physically larger and harder to transport is able to take a physically larger capture and capture slightly more detail.
The Motion Corder SR-1000 while physically smaller and easier to carry around (it even has a handle) records video roughly 50% smaller.
 
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