What type of camera is this and why should I care?


Biologists that use, or are interested in using, microscope cameras and don’t speak engineering


Clarity on the relevance of camera specs to biological experimentation



Hamamatsu listing Synonyms used by other vendors
Imaging device Sensor options, Sensor type

There are three types of sensors behind most microscope cameras—CCD, EM-CCD, and CMOS. While EM-CCDs are a modification of the older CCD technology with the ability to amplify signal, CMOS sensors are a completely different technology with unique capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Because of these differences, care must be taken when comparing CMOS cameras to CCD/EM-CCD cameras.


For details on the differences in sensor architecture, read our Reality Check—A quick look at sCMOS vs. CCD vs. EM-CCD, and for a more technical discussion of scientific CMOS technology, read our Changing the Game white paper.


In addition to sensor technology, the way that the manufacturer implements the sensor in a camera also affects the camera’s capabilities. For example, a very commonly used CCD sensor is the Sony ICX 285. Many different cameras use the Sony ICX 285, but the speed, read noise, dark current, analog gain, binning, and even linear full well capacity can differ from camera-to-camera, depending on how the manufacturer engineered the camera. Thus, the sensor is a part of the picture in camera evaluation, but not the whole picture.


What do the different sensors mean for biologists? At the end of the day, what matters is performance and quality, for your experiment —will the camera be able to capture the resolution, speed, and sensitivity that your experiments need now and perhaps also give you advanced features beneficial in your next round of experiments? To really answer these questions, you’ll need to take a closer look at all the specification to see how the sensor performs in the context of the camera and your questions. We can’t know all the details of your experiments, but there are a few general observations we can make about sensor technology.


  • CCD cameras—the workhorse of scientific imaging—do well at frame rates of 20 fps or less, offer high quantum efficiency (QE), moderately low noise, and reasonable field-of-view. They have been repeatedly validated as quantitative, are easy to use, affordable and capable of capturing stunning images. For many experiments, a CCD is still the right choice.
  • EM-CCD cameras are often the best choice when photons are limited—conditions where <100 detected photons/emitter and negligible background noise. EM-CCD also offer great flexibility since they can typically be run in non-EM mode, with large dynamic range, offering excellent performance in high light, low contrast scenarios. The primary tradeoff with an EM-CCD is the introduction of excess noise by the EM function.
  • Second generation scientific CMOS (Gen II sCMOS) cameras offer many advantages with few tradeoffs—they excel at providing the best SNR within the emitted photon regime of the majority of biological experiments and concurrently offer large field of view and fast frame rates (100 fps). The low read noise of sCMOS is a major benefit while the variation of the read noise from pixel to pixel is a tradeoff.

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