sCMOS camera technology is gaining in popularity - Why?

In recent years, cell biology has emphasized live cell dynamics, mechanisms and electrochemical signaling. As this research probes deeper into investigating rapidly changing phenomenon, the need for measuring high speed events at low light is constantly increasing. Scientific CMOS with its unique sensor architecture is able to provide both frame rates fast enough to capture high speed cell events and lower noise for better signal-to-noise measurements at the short exposure times required to achieve high frame rates.

CCD and sCMOS comparisons, better or just different?

Since the inception of digital microscopy, scientific grade CCD cameras have been the gold standard for imaging due to their sensitivity, linear response to light and low noise characteristics. However, many cell mechanisms occur on short time scales and emit low luminescence signals, making imaging with sufficient signal-to-noise and temporal and spatial resolution difficult for slower CCD cameras. Scientific CMOS is becoming the sensor technology of choice for these live cell fluorescence applications due to the ability of sCMOS to combine very low electronic noise with high frame rates and a large Field of View (FOV).

As with anything, deciding whether a CCD or a sCMOS based camera is a better choice depends on the application. The prevailing factor to consider when deciding between a CCD or sCMOS camera is exposure time. Applications that require long exposure times ranging from a few minutes to a few hours are still best served by CCD cameras due to their lower dark current. These applications include bioluminescence and chemiluminescence from Western blot gels or in vivo animal imaging or electroluminescence from semiconducting materials.

Fluorescence applications that can afford longer exposure times, including immunofluorescence of fixed cells, are well served by both sCMOS and CCD cameras. Considering these samples are not particularly sensitive to the effects of photobleaching, most researchers can afford to increase exposure times to several hundred milliseconds with an inexpensive CCD camera. That stated, the lower noise of sCMOS combined with its higher frame rates do provide higher quality images with shorter exposure times and a frame rate that makes it much easier to scan and focus on the sample.

Fluorescence imaging of living cells on the other hand is extremely sensitive to light exposure. This is required to both minimize the photobleaching and phototoxicity effects as well as capture as much temporal information as possible. The objective is to capture images with sufficient signal-to-noise ratios while turning down the excitation intensity and using the shortest exposure time possible.

sCMOS sensors offer a unique combination of low electronic noise that's nearly one third of most high end interline CCD cameras with nearly 10x the frame rate potential. These two factors alone offer considerable advantages to traditional CCD cameras for most live cell fluorescence microscopy applications.

How advances in sCMOS benefit bio research – What is optiMOS?

optiMOS is a Scientific CMOS camera and CCD replacement, advanced to benefit bio research because it's optimized specifically for fluorescence microscopy.

optiMOS Bio Research comparison

Figure 1 Image and line profile comparison of the QImaging optiMOS sCMOS camera and a scientific grade cooled CCD camera. The image quality, signal-to-noise levels, field of view and frame rates of the optiMOS are all superior to the scientific CCD camera. While CMOS sensors have been available for many years, it wasn't until recently that a high performance sensor was developed benefiting the life science researcher. The new Scientific CMOS offers a unique pixel architecture that is able to provide one third the electronic noise with 10x the frame rates of typical scientific CCD cameras. This translates to shorter exposure times and faster frame rates, minimizing the photo damage to cell samples and increasing the temporal detail captured in a given experiment.

When switching to a sCMOS camera from a CCD for fluorescence imaging, the most obvious and immediate benefit is improved low light image quality. Low electronic noise nearly triples the signal to noise ratio and image contrast, making it possible to collect high quality images with shorter exposure times. Cleaner frames combined with a 45% larger FOV and "faster than video" frame rates, make it far easier to search across the sample and capture high quality images.  

Low image noise and high frame rates are extremely important for research specifically focused on high speed dynamics of living cells, including electro-chemical signaling and protein transport. To capture these events while avoiding image artifacts, frame rates must be high enough to accurately sample the cellular phenomenon. Depending on the event, these rates can range from twenty to several thousand frames per second with exposure times well below 100ms.

Insufficient time resolution can result in two types of image artifacts: motion blur and temporal aliasing. Motion blur or streaking occurs when a selected exposure time is too long for a given velocity of a moving object. For example, imaging axonal transport of secretory granules involves tracking multiple particles as they move along a cell's neurite with rapidly changing direction and velocity. If an exposure is long enough for a granule to either move a distance greater than a fraction of its diameter or change direction, then that single frame will depict a blurred streak outlining the path of the granule. This blurring artifact makes it impossible to determine the direction, location and consequently the velocity of that granule. When imaging moving objects and assuming a spatial distortion of no more than 10% is acceptable, the exposure time required to avoid motion blur can be calculated as:

Equation 1


  • T = exposure time
  • = the object's length
  • = the object's velocity

Temporal aliasing occurs when the time interval between exposures is too long to capture all event occurrences or accurately measure object movements. For example, if a neuron is firing 100 times per second, the camera frame rate must be high enough to acquire an image for each firing and between every firing. Otherwise, some firings will be missed or imaged back to back, making it impossible to distinguish between one firing versus multiple firings. When imaging cyclic or oscillatory events such as neuron firings, to avoid temporal aliasing the acquisition rate must be at least two times the frequency of the event:

Equation 2


  • R = acquisition rate
  • = the highest frequency to be imaged

Temporal aliasing can also occur for non-cyclic cellular behaviors. For example, particle trafficking including in vivo blood flow imaging, requires a frame rate that is fast enough to distinguish individual movements. If the interval between exposures is too large so that the distance traveled by two blood cells is more than half the distance between the two cells, it then becomes impossible to distinguish the true movement of the blood cells and accurately determine the direction and velocity of flow. This interval can be defined as:

Equation 3


  • I = exposure time interval
  • D = the distance separating two moving objects
  • v = the object's velocity


In order to avoid any risk of aliasing, assume D is also equal to the length of the object.
Given these three equations, it is possible to calculate the required frame rate for a given application to avoid motion blur and temporal aliasing. Below are a few examples:

Cellular Event

Object Size

Object Velocity

Required Frame Rates

In-vivo red blood cell tracking


1 mm/sec

1ms exposures with  >1000 frames per second (fps) to avoid motion blur and temporal aliasing

Fast axonal transport of vesicles


3 um/sec

3.3ms exposures with >60fps to avoid motion blur and temporal aliasing

Calcium waves during heart development


50 – 100 Hz

>100fps to avoid temporal aliasing

Brain tissue neuron firings


100Hz - 1000Hz

>200fps to avoid temporal aliasing


Because of the high frame rates that are inherent with sCMOS cameras, it is possible to properly sample high speed cellular events and avoid speed related image artifacts. The table below provides an example of typical frame rates acquired with the optiMOS camera from QImaging:

Region of Interest

Frame Rates

1920 x 1080


1920 x 512


1920 x 128


1920 x 64



Lower cost of ownership, not compromised performance

optiMOS is offered at a price associated with scientific interline CCD cameras but its low cost of ownership does not mean compromised performance. optiMOS offers cell biologists a high-speed, sensitive imaging solution that's user-friendly, affordable, and bypasses the sometimes crippling data pains of rival sCMOS cameras. optiMOS does not however compromise on sensitivity nor frame rate as compared to alternative sCMOS options. Offering equivalent read noise levels of 1.9e- rms (1.5e- median) and 100fps at full resolution, the optiMOS provides the same sensitivity and temporal resolution but at a much more budget friendly price.

The pixel architecture between the optiMOS and competitive 5 megapixel sCMOS cameras are identical. The only difference is the physical number of pixels (2.1 megapixels with the optiMOS versus 5 megapixels with competitive products) and each has its own advantages/disadvantages and different price points.

optiMOS pixel comparison

Figure 2 Image and region profile comparison of the QImaging optiMOS sCMOS camera, a cooled CCD camera and a competitive 5 megapixel sCMOS. Both sensor use the exact same pixel architecture from the same manufacturer and therefore the image quality and signal-to-noise levels are equivalent between the optiMOS and the 5 megapixel sCMOS. The 5 five megapixel sCMOS has the advantage of a larger FOV but is subjected to optical limitations including uneven illumination and edge aberrations as well as increased data throughput demands on the PC.

While the larger 5 megapixel sCMOS cameras do offer an advantage of larger FOV, it's not without compromise. First, the 5 megapixel array comes with a several thousand dollar premium. This extra cost may be worth the investment for some applications, but only if the microscope can accommodate this larger sensor. Many existing microscopes are optically design to support up to an 18mm sensor diagonal to the digital camera. The larger sCMOS sensors however, use a sensor diagonal of 22mm which is well outside of this range. The result is uneven illumination across the sensor and significant spatial distortions on the edges.

optiMOS distortion comparison

Focus loss comparison

Unless a microscope is specifically designed to support large sensors, typically only the central region is used. Consequently, the benefit of the 5 megapixels cannot be exploited on many existing microscope configurations.

Additionally, the 5 megapixel sCMOS cameras running at 100fps generate approximately 1.1GB/s of data. In order to support this data stream, multiple SSD drives are required with a RAID 0 configuration adding complexity and costing upwards of $1,000 USD to the price of the PC.

Alternatively, optiMOS produces approximately 420MB/s at the full frame rate. With this data rate, a single PCIe SSD drive is all that's required to support continuous streaming at 100fps to the max capacity of the drive. This offers significant advantages in cost as well as simplicity.


Learn more about how your research will benefit from advanced sCMOS technology

Contact a QImaging Consultant


*Based on equations presented in:

Vermont, J, Fraser, S and Liebling M (2008). "Fast fluorescence microscopy for imaging the dynamics of embryonic development" HFSP Journal . 143-155.



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