Click here to learn
about this Sponsor:
Home  |  News  |  Articles  |  Polls  |  Forum

Keywords: Match:
How many bits are really needed in the image pixels?
by Andrey Filippov (Jan 23., 2009)

How many bits are really needed in the image pixels?

Modern CMOS image sensors provide high resolution digital output of 10 to 12 bits. When CCD sensors are used, the same (or higher) resolution is provided by separate ADC or integrated CCD signal processors. This resolution is significantly higher than that used in popular image and video formats. Most are limited to only 8 bits per pixel, or 8 bits per color channel depending on the image format. To catch up with the sensor and provide higher dynamic range, many cameras switch to formats that support higher number of bits per pixels, and some of them use uncompressed, full (sensor) dynamic range raw data. Such formats use significantly more storage space, and consume more bandwidth for transmission.

Do these formats always preserve more of the information registered by the sensors? If the sensor has 12-bit digital output, does that mean that when using 8-bit JPEG, the four least significant bits are just wasted, and therefore a raw format is required to preserve them?

In most cases the answer is "no". With sensor technology advances, sensor pixels get smaller and smaller, approaching the natural limit of the light wavelength. It is now common to have pixels of less than 2x2 microns, as in the sensors used in mobile phone cameras. One consequence is reduced Full Well Capacity (FWC) -- the maximal number of electrons that each pixel can accommodate without spilling them out. This is important because of the Shot Noise -- variations of the number of electrons. (There is always an integer number of them, as there can be no ½ electron). Shot noise is caused by the quantum nature of electric charge itself. There is no way to eliminate or reduce it for the particular pixel measurement. This noise is proportional to the square root of the total number of electrons in a pixel, so it is highest when the pixel is almost full.

Pixel output uncertainty caused by the shot noise

If we try to keep track of the pixel value in ideal conditions, with the same illumination, the same camera settings that measured pixel value will change from frame to frame. The image above shows what happens with a hypothetical sensor with an FWC of just 100. In real sensors, the uncertainty is smaller, but it can still significantly reduce the amount of received information. Our measurements show that a typical Micron/Aptina 5 Megapixel sensor MT9P031 with 2.2x2.2 micron pixels have FWC of ≈8500 electrons. As a result, when the sensor is almost full, the pixel value would fluctuate as 8500±92 or more than±1%. Such fluctuation corresponds to 44 counts of the 12 bit sensor ADC.

So is there any real need for such high resolution ADC when some 5-6 LSBs don't carry any real information? Yes, because modern sensors have a very low readout noise, and in the dark, a single ADC count is meaningful. The square root of zero is zero. (Actually, even in the pitch black, there are some thermal electrons that reach the pixels, even with no light at all.) With ADC counts having different information payload for small and large signals. it is possible to recode the pixel output equalizing the information values of the output counts.

Non-linear conversion of the sensor output

This non-linear conversion assigns incremental numbers to each pixel level that can be distinguished from the previous one in a single measurement, so for small signals in the dark. each next ADC output value receives the next value, increasing to more than 40 ADC counts per number for large signals. Such conversion significantly reduces the number of output values, and therefore the number of bits required to encode them, without sacrificing much of the pixel values. The form below calculates the effective number of bits for different sensor parameters and ratio of the encoder step to the noise value for that output level.

ADC resolution bits
Sensor Full Well Capacity e-
Sensor readout noise e-
Step-to-noise ratio
Number of distinct levels
Effective number of bits

Optimal encoding and gamma correction

Luckily nothing has to be done to utilize the non-linear encoding described above, the encoding optimal for maintaining constant noise to output count ratio. All cameras incorporate some kind of a gamma correction in the signal path. Historically it was needed to compensate for the non-linear transfer function of the electron guns used in CRT monitors. Cameras had to apply a non-linear function so the two functions applied in series (camera and display) were providing an image that was perceived to have contrast close to that of the original. With LCD displays, this is no longer required, but gamma correction (or gamma compression) also does a nice job of transferring higher dynamic range signal, even when the signal itself is converted into digital format. Different standards use slightly different values for gamma, usually in the range of 0.45-0.55 on the camera side. Compression with gamma=0.5 is exactly the same as the square root function shown above, optimal for encoding in the presence of the shot noise. With this kind of gamma encoding, a full well capacity of several hundred thousands electrons is needed to have 12 bits of meaningful data per pixel in the image file. Such high FWC values are available only in the CCD image sensors with very large pixels.

Measuring the sensor full well capacity

Earlier, I noted that our Aptina sensors have FWC≈8500e-. Such data was not provided by the manufacturer; we measured it ourselves. The FWC value is important because it influences the camera performance, so by measuring the camera performance it is possible to calculate the FWC. The same method may be applied to most other cameras, as well. First, one needs to control the ISO settings (gain) of the camera and acquire a long series of completely out of focus images. (Remove the lens if possible; if not, completely open the iris and use a uniform target.) ISO (gain) should be set to minimum, and exposure adjusted so that the area to be analyzed has a pixel level close to maximal. Use natural lighting or DC-powered lamps/LEDs to minimize flicker caused by AC power. If it is a color sensor, use green pixels only (or with incandescent lamps, red). This will provide the minimal gain. Then measure the differences between the same pairs of pixels in multiple frames. (We used 100 pairs in 100 frames.) Then find the root mean square for the differences in each pair, and divide by the square root of 2 to compensate for using differences in pairs, not the pixel values. (Pairs make this method more tolerant to fluctuation of the total light intensity and to some uncontrolled parameter changes in the camera). If it is possible to turn off gamma correction, the ratio of the pixel value to the measured root mean square of the variation will be equal to the square root of the number of electrons. If the gamma-correction cannot be controlled, one may assume it is around 0.5.

(Click here for further information)

FUEL Database on MontaVista Linux
Whether building a mobile handset, a car navigation system, a package tracking device, or a home entertainment console, developers need capable software systems, including an operating system, development tools, and supporting libraries, to gain maximum benefit from their hardware platform and to meet aggressive time-to-market goals.

Breaking New Ground: The Evolution of Linux Clustering
With a platform comprising a complete Linux distribution, enhanced for clustering, and tailored for HPC, Penguin Computing�s Scyld Software provides the building blocks for organizations from enterprises to workgroups to deploy, manage, and maintain Linux clusters, regardless of their size.

Data Monitoring with NightStar LX
Unlike ordinary debuggers, NightStar LX doesn�t leave you stranded in the dark. It�s more than just a debugger, it�s a whole suite of integrated diagnostic tools designed for time-critical Linux applications to reduce test time, increase productivity and lower costs. You can debug, monitor, analyze and tune with minimal intrusion, so you see real execution behavior. And that�s positively illuminating.

Virtualizing Service Provider Networks with Vyatta
This paper highlights Vyatta's unique ability to virtualize networking functions using Vyatta's secure routing software in service provider environments.

High Availability Messaging Solution Using AXIGEN, Heartbeat and DRBD
This white paper discusses a high-availability messaging solution relying on the AXIGEN Mail Server, Heartbeat and DRBD. Solution architecture and implementation, as well as benefits of using AXIGEN for this setup are all presented in detail.

Understanding the Financial Benefits of Open Source
Will open source pay off? Open source is becoming standard within enterprises, often because of cost savings. Find out how much of a financial impact it can have on your organization. Get this methodology and calculator now, compliments of JBoss.

Embedded Hardware and OS Technology Empower PC-Based Platforms
The modern embedded computer is the jack of all trades appearing in many forms.

Data Management for Real-Time Distributed Systems
This paper provides an overview of the network-centric computing model, data distribution services, and distributed data management. It then describes how the SkyBoard integration and synchronization service, coupled with an implementation of the OMG�s Data Distribution Service (DDS) standard, can be used to create an efficient data distribution, storage, and retrieval system.

7 Advantages of D2D Backup
For decades, tape has been the backup medium of choice. But, now, disk-to-disk (D2D) backup is gaining in favor. Learn why you should make the move in this whitepaper.


Got a HOT tip?   please tell us!
Free weekly newsletter
Enter your email...
Click here for a profile of each sponsor:
(Become a sponsor)
(Become a sponsor)

(Advertise here)

Check out the latest Linux powered...

Mobile phones!

& tablets

Mobile devices

Other cool

Resource Library

• Unix, Linux Uptime and Reliability Increase: Patch Management Woes Plague Windows Yankee Group survey finds IBM AIX Unix is highest in ...
• Scalable, Fault-Tolerant NAS for Oracle - The Next Generation For several years NAS has been evolving as a storage ...
• Managing Software Intellectual Property in an Open Source World This whitepaper draws on the experiences of the Black Duck ...
• Open Source Security Myths Dispelled Is it risky to trust mission-critical infrastructure to open source ...
• Bringing IT Operations Management to Open Source & Beyond Download this IDC analyst report to learn how open source ...


• 35 million netbooks to ship this year?
• Webinars explore UBIFS, flash FS choices
• 45nm Xeon blade runs Linux
• Mission computer runs Linux on Atom
• Verizon VoIP phone doubles as DPF
• Open source survey: Mobile most lucrative
• Combo media box runs Linux
• Linux's role in Microsoft's decline
• Linux Summit open for proposals
• Opening up in Barcelona
• Linux DVR catches collaborating clerks
• Ubuntu Mobile switching to Qt?
• Mojo check as embedded Linux turns 10
• Android "G2" emerges, as G1 preps for Europe
• ISV announces Palm Linux ports

Most popular stories -- past 90 days:
• Linux boots in 2.97 seconds
• Tiniest Linux system, yet?
• Linux powers "cloud" gaming console
• Report: T-Mobile sells out first 1.5 million G1s
• Open set-top box ships
• E17 adapted to Linux devices, demo'd on Treo650
• Android debuts
• First ALP Linux smartphone?
• Cortex-A8 gaming handheld runs Linux
• Ubuntu announces ARM port

DesktopLinux headlines:
• Beginner Linux articles posted
• Desktop distros inch closer
• Desktop Linux trashed
• Linux's role in Microsoft's decline
• Ubuntu patched
• Googling up Ubuntu
• Please vote in our Reader Survey!
• "I'm Linux" contest open for video entries
• Debian permits binary blobs
• Bluefish top Linux HTML editor

Also visit our sister site:

Sign up for's...

news feed

Home  |  News  |  Articles  |  Polls  |  Forum  |  About  |  Contact

Ziff Davis Enterprise Home | Contact Us | Advertise | Link to Us | Reprints | Magazine Subscriptions | Newsletters
Tech RSS Feeds | White Papers | ROI Calculators | Tech Podcasts | Tech Video | VARs | Channel News

Baseline | Careers | Channel Insider | CIO Insight | DesktopLinux | DeviceForge | DevSource | eSeminars |
eWEEK | Enterprise Network Security | LinuxDevices | Linux Watch | Microsoft Watch | Mid-market | Networking | PDF Zone |
Publish | Security IT Hub | Strategic Partner | Web Buyer's Guide | Windows for Devices

Developer Shed | Dev Shed | ASP Free | Dev Articles | Dev Hardware | SEO Chat | Tutorialized | Scripts |
Code Walkers | Web Hosters | Dev Mechanic | Dev Archives | igrep

Use of this site is governed by our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Except where otherwise specified, the contents of this site are copyright © 1999-2009 Ziff Davis Enterprise Holdings Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Enterprise is prohibited. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. All other marks are the property of their respective owners.