First principles exploration ๐Ÿ‘‹

The goal of this article is to explore the topic of the camera response function experimentally. We’ll build up from first principles and the main focus will be on building intuition with code examples. The only pre-requisite is base familiarity with Python + NumPy and, of course, curiosity about the topic. ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐Ÿš€

If you’re looking for a quick way to find out the response function of your camera, you can check out the implementation of CalibrateDebevec in OpenCV, or stick around to get a deeper intuition.

I’ve made an effort to link to interesting resources that provide a good starting point to dig deeper into specific directions that could not be covered in this article. You’re encouraged to follow them and come back to this at your own pace.

You can follow along and play with the code examples. The Jupyter notebook is available on Github. ๐Ÿ“”
Subscribe to the RoboAlgorithms YT channel to be notified about the complementary video on the camera response function (coming out soon). ๐ŸŽฅ

What the CRF? ๐Ÿค”

A camera measures the light intensity hitting the imaging sensor and outputs an image with pixel values that in some way correspond to that light intensity. This correspondence is modeled by the camera response function (CRF).

Camera Response Function Animation

For a computer vision engineer, the pixel values are the only observation of the real-world. Thus, it is helpful to understand how they relate to actual light intensities to correctly model that world.

Most cameras have some non-linearity in their response to light intensities. Images taken by consumer-grade cameras are particularly affected by this because they are optimized for viewing experience and not for measurement accuracy.

If we know the response function, we can resolve that ambiguity and turn any camera into a scientific measurement device! ๐Ÿ”ฌ

Applications of the CRF ๐Ÿ”จ

Many computer vision algorithms that rely on the brightness constancy assumption require accurate estimation of the CRF. For example, optical flow or any direct method for visual SLAM that works with pixel intensities such as DSO.

Direct methods for visual SLAM are currently one of the most robust approaches for accurate robot localization in challenging environments where GNSS coverage is unreliable. An autonomous last-mile robot delivery service is an example that’s increasingly gaining commercial traction in recent years and may use such technology.

Delivery Robot

One could argue that due to the shift towards deep learning approaches and more readily available cameras that are optimized for machine vision, it will be unnecessary to manually calibrate for the camera response function in the future. Nevertheless, I still see value in exploring the fundamentals for learning purposes.

In this article, we’ll look at the application of generating HDR images which also relies on knowledge about the camera response function because we need to “fuse” multiple images taken at different exposure times.

How cameras measure light โ˜€๏ธ

A camera is an array of photodiodes that converts incoming photons into electrical current or voltage. This phenomenon is known as the photoelectric effect and is the same phenomenon utilized in solar panels.

We measure the voltage to determine the amount of incident light.

For each pixel, there’s a corresponding photodiode in the camera sensor. We take an image by exposing the sensor to light for a given period (exposure time). Since the photodiodes produce an electrical current proportional to the amount of light they receive, we can use that measurement to reconstruct the image.

Photodiode to Image

Converting voltages to pixel values ๐Ÿ“บ

When we measure the voltage generated by the photodiode we get an analog quantity. But we need a digital value that fits into our pixel representation of 8 bits. A device that can perform this conversion is called an Analog-Digital (A/D) converter. Most A/D converters used in cameras today will output an 8, 12, or 16-bit digital value.

Analog-to-Digital Converter ๐Ÿ“ˆ

We will start with an 8-bit A/D converter. Note that regardless of the bit depth, the range of possible values will be limited in the digital domain. Meaning that with 8-bit we only have \(2^{8} = 256\) , unique values to assign to all possible voltage measurements.

Let’s simulate a naive A/D converter:

def max_value(bit_depth: int) -> int:
    """Return max integer value for the specified bit depth"""
    return 2**bit_depth - 1

def adc(milivolts: np.ndarray, bit_depth: int = 8) -> int:
    """Naive A/D converter
    milivolts  -- accumulated voltage from a photodiode
    bit_depth  -- target bit depth of the digitized output
    return np.clip(np.around(milivolts), 0, max_value(bit_depth))

def plot_adc_examples():
    """Plot a few interesting examples"""
    f, axes = plt.subplots(1, 3, figsize=(20, 5))
    x_label = 'Input voltage (mV)'
    y_label = 'Output pixel value'

    voltages = np.arange(0, 10, 0.1)
    util.plot(axes[0], voltages, adc(voltages), 
              "In supported range", x_label, y_label)

    voltages = np.arange(0, 0.5, 0.01)
    util.plot(axes[1], voltages, adc(voltages), 
              "Below supported range", x_label, y_label)

    voltages = np.arange(255, 500, 1)
    util.plot(axes[2], voltages, adc(voltages), 
              "Above supported range", x_label, y_label)

A/D Converter Output

Quantization noise

From the staircase-like plot above we can see the discrete jumps caused by the quantization effects. Because we’re losing some precision at this step, this effect also becomes a component of the total image noise known as the quantization noise.

Under- and overexposure

The plot also demonstrates that any values below or above the supported range are irreversibly lost. This phenomenon is known as under- or overexposure. Our goal will always be to choose the exposure time such that this effect is minimized.

Dynamic Range

The range of light intensities that the camera can capture without under- or overexposure is called the camera dynamic range. It is a very important metric for outdoor robot operation due to the large variations in light intensities.

Curiously, extending the dynamic range of the camera isn’t as simple as increasing the bit-depth of the A/D converter. The primary limiting factor is usually linked to the physical full-well capacity and noise level of the photodiodes. The bit-depth of the A/D converter is then selected to maximize that.

So our goal is to maximize the information we can get from every image. We have two ways to optimize for that:

  1. Choose a camera with a higher dynamic range
  2. Adjust the exposure time to minimize over- and underexposure
For very dimly lit scenarios, it is not always an option to adjust the exposure time because a very long exposure time can cause motion blur.

Programmable Gain Amplifier โฌ›

Underexposure happens for dimly lit scenes or shorter exposure times when the photodiodes don’t have a chance to convert a sufficient amount of photons into electrical current. This is how a fully underexposed image looks:

photodiode_array_milivolts = np.array([0.028, 0.213, 0.234, 0.459])

pixel_values = adc(photodiode_array_milivolts)
util.display_images([pixel_values], titles=["Underexposed image"])

Underexposed Image

Cameras have a programmable-gain amplifier (PGA) that can amplify the voltages from the photodiodes and bring them in the range supported by the A/D converter. The level of amplification can be configured on most cameras through the ISO setting.

We can capture images in the dark without increasing the exposure time as much.
def pga(milivolts: np.ndarray, gain: float = 1.0) -> float:
    """Naive programmable-gain amplifier
    milivolts  -- input voltage from photodiode
    gain       -- ratio output / input
    return gain * milivolts

# Add an amplifier to the same example values from above
pixel_values = adc(pga(photodiode_array_milivolts, gain=300.0))
util.display_images([pixel_values], titles=["Amplified image"])

Amplified Image

There’s a caveat: we did not model image noise. The weaker signal in dimply lit scenes results in a lower signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). In other words, amplifying the signal will also amplify the noise and that’s why using a higher gain usually results in grainier and lower quality images. In extreme cases when the strength of the signal is below the noise floor it can be difficult to extract any useful information.

Reducing the image noise can be performed in the digital image processing pipeline which is the final step before saving the image. This part significantly differs between camera models and may include white balance, tone mapping, gamma encoding, image compression and more.

Image Acquisition Pipeline ๐Ÿ“ธ

The figure below provides an overview of the discussed components.

Overview Camera Components

The camera response function is a single function that approximates the response of the whole system with all components inside. More on this later.

I’m aware that I’ve touched upon a lot of topics very quickly. If you don’t have a good intuition already, I highly recommend reading this amazing interactive introduction on Cameras and Lenses. Seriously, please go check this article out.

The Science of Camera Sensors is another great resource in video form that provides an excellent introduction to the physics of how photodiodes and camera sensors work.

Advanced: For a more in-depth look into the theory and physics behind CMOS photodiodes, chapter 3 from this dissertation provides a good overview.

Simulating a simple camera ๐Ÿ“ท

Disclaimer โ„น๏ธ

For the sake of brevity, many of the physical aspects of cameras are oversimplified in the presented examples. They are only meant to aid the intuition and shouldn’t be relied upon for accuracy or completeness. However, if you spot any mistakes, I would love to hear about them at ๐Ÿ“จ or on ๐Ÿฆ twitter.

Assumptions ๐Ÿ“

The following assumptions provide the framework for the rest of the article. Feel free to skip this section and refer back to it later if you want to jump to the fun part already. Some parts may only become clear after completing the entire article.


Despite these simplifying assumptions, the concepts learned here are applicable to real-world RGB cameras with any kind of optical lens. Try to understand why.


  • receives constant light intensity from the light source (brightness constancy)
  • static โ€” no moving objects in the scene during or between image acquisitions

In a practical sense, it means that we cannot accurately determine the camera response function on a partly cloudy day while relying on sunlight as our light source because the clouds may result in significant changes in the radiant flux received by the scene.

Beware that some artificial light sources might also flicker.
Given the above assumptions, if we take multiple images with the same exposure time t we must always get the same pixel values (not accounting for image noise).

Simulating a 2x2 pixel sensor ๐Ÿงฑ

We will use the term pixel irradiance to refer to the number of photons hitting the physical area of a pixel per second ( \(m^{โˆ’2}โ‹…s^{โˆ’1}\) ). You can also refer to SI photon units definition on the wiki page of photon counting.

import numpy as np

def get_sensor_irradiance():
    """Get a sample sensor irradiance
    We have an imaging sensor of 2x2 pixels (stored as 1D array)
    The sensor irradiance encodes how many photons
    are hitting the image sensor every second.
    The values are arbitrarily chosen.
    pix11_irradiance = 1122 # photons / second
    pix12_irradiance = 3242 # photons / second
    pix21_irradiance = 1452 # photons / second
    pix22_irradiance = 25031 # photons / second

    return np.array([
        pix11_irradiance, pix12_irradiance,
        pix21_irradiance, pix22_irradiance])

Camera Response Function Animation

Let’s start with the simple case of a linear camera response function. This intuitively means that doubling the amount of light (pixel irradiance) would result in doubling the observed pixel value. We define the CRF as:

$$CRF = G(x) = a\cdot x + b$$

We’re going to set \(a = 1\) and \(b = 0\) and assume that each photon increases the voltage by 1mV. This is easy to simulate but unfortunately, 100% detached from reality. Accurate simulation of that process is not in the scope of the article but feel free to enter that rabbit hole starting from quantum efficiency ;-). We also assume white Gaussian noise which approximates thermal noise. All other sources of noise will be ignored.

$$CRF = G(x) = x$$

To get an estimate of the voltage accumulated in each pixel, we need to integrate the irradiance over the period of the exposure time t. We define taking an image as:

$$I(k) = G(adc(pga(t\cdot E(k))))$$

where E is the sensor irradiance (i.e. an array of all pixel irradiances), G is the camera response function as already defined above, t is the exposure time in seconds, I is the image intensity or observed pixel value and k is the index of the pixel.


In the literature, you may find the equation defined in its simpler form:

$$I(k) = G^{*}(t\cdot E(k))$$

where the camera response function is:

$$G^{*}(x) = G(adc(pga(x))$$

I’ve chosen to keep the functions separate here so that the logic for amplification and quantization is not intermingled with the CRF in the Python code.

Let’s code this:

from typing import Callable

ResponseFunction = Callable[[np.ndarray, int], np.ndarray]

def capture_image(E: np.ndarray, t: float, G: ResponseFunction, 
                 bit_depth: int = 8, std_noise: float = 1.0) -> np.ndarray:
    """Simulate capturing an image with exposure time t.
    You can specify higher bit_depth for internal processing prior to
    finally converting the image to 8-bit depth before output.

    E         -- sensor irradiance
    t         -- exposure time (seconds)
    G         -- camera response function (CRF)
    bit_depth -- bit depth for A/D converter output and response function input
    std_noise -- standard deviation for the Gaussian noise distribution
    # Non-realistic but simple calculation
    accumulated_milivolts = E * t
    # Add the white Gaussian noise
    noise = np.random.normal(0, std_noise, size=len(accumulated_milivolts))
    accumulated_milivolts += noise
    image = G(
        adc(pga(accumulated_milivolts), bit_depth), bit_depth
    # Always convert to 8-bit depth prior to saving / outputting
    to_8bit_depth = max_value(8) / max_value(bit_depth)
    return np.around(image * to_8bit_depth)

def linear_crf(X: np.ndarray, bit_depth: int) -> np.ndarray:
    """Linear camera response function G(x) = x"""
    return X

Now take a couple of images with different exposures:

img1 = capture_image(E=get_sensor_irradiance(), t=1/10, G=linear_crf)
img2 = capture_image(E=get_sensor_irradiance(), t=1/100, G=linear_crf)
util.display_images([img1, img2], 
                    titles=["Exposure: t = 1/10 second", 
                            "Exposure: t = 1/100 second"])

Two Pictures Example

We can correctly expose all pixels with 1/100 second exposure time (none of the pixels are 0 or 255). It becomes more interesting if we have a scene with more extreme values which cannot be captured by the dynamic range of the camera sensor.

Think of an image from inside a cave looking out.

Cave Looking Out

We can simulate this by choosing more extreme values for the sensor irradiance:

def get_extreme_sensor_irradiance():
    # Note that the range spans multiple orders of magnitudeย 
    return np.array([182, 5432, 15329, 252531])

t1, t2 = 1/5, 1/500
img1 = capture_image(E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), t=t1, G=linear_crf)
img2 = capture_image(E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), t=t2, G=linear_crf)
util.display_images([img1, img2], 
                    titles=["Exposure: t1 = 1/5 second", 
                            "Exposure: t2 = 1/500 second"])

Lost Pixel Information

In this example, it is not possible to capture the scene without loss of information regardless of the chosen exposure time. Correctly exposing the brightest pixel(s) will result in underexposing the darkest pixel(s) and vice versa. Note that in the second image we have one underexposed and one overexposed pixel.

Feel free to download the notebook and try it for yourself.

HDR Images ๐Ÿช‚

The pixel values provide us only partial information due to the limited dynamic range of the camera. To reconstruct an HDR image, we need to recover the full sensor irradiance.

Remember that outside our simulation, we can only observe the pixel values from the image and not the actual sensor irradiance.
We can do that by combining information from multiple images at different exposure times that allow us to expose each pixel correctly.

Inverse CRF ๐Ÿ”™

The inverse camera response function allows us to do precisely that. It defines the mapping from pixel values back to sensor irradiance or light intensity.

Inverse CRF

We define \(U := G^{-1}\) as the inverse of the CRF. Here we assume that G is monotonically increasing and thus invertible. That’s a fair assumption because cameras are mapping brighter scene regions to brighter image intensities.

Remember that we defined taking an image as \(I(k) = G(t\cdot E(k))\) . To go the other direction, we can apply the inverse function \(U(I(k)) = t\cdot E(k)\) and we can get the sensor irradiance E from the image I if we know the exposure time t:

$$E(k) = \frac{U(I(k))}{t}$$

The inverse CRF is also identity function \(f(x) = x\) because:

$$U(G(x)) = x$$

Recover Image Irradiance ๐Ÿ–ผ๏ธ

I am using image irradiance to refer to the (partial) sensor irradiance recovered from a single image. This may differ from usage in the literature.
InverseResponseFunction = Callable[[np.ndarray], np.ndarray]

def recover_image_irradiance(I: np.ndarray, 
                             t: float, U: InverseResponseFunction) -> np.ndarray:
    """Recover the irradiance from an image that was
    taken with known exposure time t.

    We cannot recover any useful information from 
    oversaturated (255) or undersaturated (0) image 
    intensities. Return 0 in both cases as this helps
    eliminate the need for separate case handling.

    I  -- image (array of image intensities)
    t  -- exposure time (seconds)
    U  -- inverse of the response function
    I[I == 255] = 0 # oversaturated pixels
    return U(I) / t

def linear_inverse_crf(I: np.ndarray) -> np.ndarray:
    """Linear inverse camera response function U(x) = x"""
    return I
print(f"\nImage irradiance (t = {t1}):")
print(recover_image_irradiance(I=img1, t=t1, U=linear_inverse_crf))
print(f"\nImage irradiance (t = {t2}):")
print(recover_image_irradiance(I=img2, t=t2, U=linear_inverse_crf))

Image irradiance (t = 0.2): [185. 0. 0. 0.]

Image irradiance (t = 0.002): [ 0. 6000. 15000. 0.]

Notice that we can recover the irradiance only for pixels that are not under- or overexposed. To recover the full sensor irradiance, we need to capture a series of images with different exposure times such that each pixel was correctly exposed at least once.

Let’s take another image with a shorter exposure time:

t3 = 1/2000
img3 = capture_image(E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), t=t3, G=linear_crf)
print(f"\nImage irradiance (t = {t3:.4f}):")
print(recover_image_irradiance(I=img3, t=t3, U=linear_inverse_crf))

Image irradiance (t = 0.0005): [ 0. 6000. 16000. 254000.]

Recover Sensor Irradiance ๐Ÿ“ท

We can now estimate the full sensor irradiance by combining the individual image irradiances. Notice that the second and the third image have a conflicting estimate of the third pixel value (15000 vs 16000). We’re going to take the average.

from typing import List

def estimate_sensor_irradiance_average(images: List[np.ndarray], 
                                       exposures: List[float], 
                                       U: InverseResponseFunction) -> np.ndarray:
    """Recover the sensor irradiance
    images    -- list of images to use for recovery
    exposures -- corresponding list of exposures
    U         -- inverse response function
    assert len(images) == len(exposures), \
            "The number of images and exposures don't match"
    assert len(images) > 0, "Expected non-empty list of images"
    image_size = images[0].shape[0]
    irradiance_sum = np.zeros(image_size)
    irradiance_count = np.zeros(image_size)
    for I, t in zip(images, exposures):
        image_irradiance = recover_image_irradiance(I, t, U)
        irradiance_sum += image_irradiance
        # Only non-zero values are observed and contribute to average
        irradiance_count[image_irradiance != 0] += 1

    return np.divide(irradiance_sum, irradiance_count, 
                     where=irradiance_count != 0)

Let’s compare that to the known ground-truth.

estimated_sensor_irradiance = estimate_sensor_irradiance_average(
    [img1, img2, img3], [t1, t2, t3], U=linear_inverse_crf)

    estimated_sensor_irradiance, ground_truth=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance())

Ground-truth: [ 182 5432 15329 252531]

Estimated: [ 180. 6750. 13750. 248000.]

Error (diff): [ 2. -1318. 1579. 4531.]

It seems we’re close but have lost some precision due to quantization effects and image noise. Can we do better? Maybe average over more images?

Improving the sensor irradiance estimate

In this section, we run several experiments to better understand how the noise affects the accuracy. First, we need a more representative dataset with more images.

from typing import Tuple, List

ImagesExposuresTuple = Tuple[List[np.ndarray], List[float]]

def generate_sliding_exposure_dataset(
    E: np.ndarray, G: ResponseFunction, bit_depth: int = 8, 
    start_us: int = 40, step_perc: int = 5, number_exposures: int = 220, 
    images_per_exposure: int = 1) -> ImagesExposuresTuple:
    """Generate dataset with sliding exposure values
    E                    -- sensor irradiance
    G                    -- camera response function
    bit_depth            -- bit depth for the camera's internal processing
    start_us             -- microseconds for the starting value of the sequence
    step_perc            -- percentage step between subsequent exposure values
    number_exposures     -- number of unique exposure times to generate
    images_per_exposure  -- number of images per exposure time
    def get_exposure_seconds(idx: int) -> float:
        multiplier = (1 + (step_perc / 100)) ** idx
        return round(start_us * multiplier) * 1e-6
    images, exposures = [], []
    for exposure_idx in range(number_exposures):
        for _ in range(images_per_exposure):
            t = get_exposure_seconds(exposure_idx)
            images.append(capture_image(E=E, t=t, G=G))
    return images, exposures

Feel free to experiment with the parameters for the dataset generation and see what the impact on the final sensor irradiance estimates is.

We can verify that the dataset is statistically well distributed by plotting the number of well-exposed observations for each of the pixels in the image.
images, exposures = generate_sliding_exposure_dataset(
            E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), G=linear_crf)


Valid Observation Stats

Following, I define a helper function that will help us quickly run a few experiments.

EstimateSensorIrradianceFunction = Callable[[List[np.ndarray], List[float], 
                                             InverseResponseFunction], np.ndarray]

def get_irradiance_estimates(
    estimate_func: EstimateSensorIrradianceFunction, 
    images_per_exposure: int, 
    number_experiments: int) -> List[np.ndarray]:
    """Get sensor irradiance estimates from a number of experiments"""
    estimates = []

    for _ in range(number_experiments):
        images, exposures = generate_sliding_exposure_dataset(
            E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), G=linear_crf,
        irradiance_estimate = estimate_func(
            images, exposures, U=linear_inverse_crf)

    return estimates

Let’s run 10 experiments with a single image per exposure time.

irradiance_estimates = get_irradiance_estimates(
    images_per_exposure=1, number_experiments=10)
    irradiance_estimates, ground_truth=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance())

RMSE: 1425.4632661240885

Experiments Without Repeated Exposure

Now we have a baseline of root-mean-square error (RMSE) that we want to minimize. I’ve also plotted the per-pixel RMSE and the per-experiment absolute error for the estimate.

We can smoothen the noise variations between the experiments by averaging over multiple images with the same exposure.
rradiance_estimates = get_irradiance_estimates(
    irradiance_estimates, ground_truth=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance())

RMSE: 1215.9117041699783

Experiments With Repeated Exposure

The vertical oscillations have now subsided and the RMSE is slightly improved.

Notice that the errors for most pixels, except the fourth (red in the figure), are biased toward negative values. This is not caused by the image noise because we would otherwise expect a mean error of zero.

Let’s plot the distribution of the observations that we have for each pixel.


Distribution of per-pixel value observations

Now we see that the observations in our dataset are similarly skewed. The fourth pixel which had the smallest bias in the estimate also has the best observation distribution.

What you put in is what you get out

The skewed observations are the result of using a geometric sequence for the exposure times. In our case it looks like this:


Geometric exposure sequence

The geometric progression is convenient here due to the large range of values we need to cover. We are able to do so with just over 200 exposures. If we use an arithmetic progression, on the other hand, we would need significantly more pictures in the dataset which is not always practical or possible.

Instead, we can improve the algorithm by adding a weighting function that discounts the contribution from observations with lower and higher pixel values.

I’m going to use the weighting function proposed by Debevek & Malik:

\[w(z) = \begin{cases} z - Z_{min} & \text{for } z\leq \frac{1}{2}(Z_{min} + Z_{max})\\ Z_{max} - z & \text{for } z\gt \frac{1}{2}(Z_{min} + Z_{max}) \end{cases}\]

where \(Z_{min}\) and \(Z_{max}\) are the least and greatest pixel values โ€” 0 and 255 respectively.

\[w(z) = \begin{cases} z & \text{for } z\leq 127\\ 255 - z & \text{for } z\gt 127 \end{cases}\]

This function discounts both lower and higher pixel values. Besides the higher robustness towards different noise sources (see also CCD Saturation and Blooming), it also reflects the fact that values in the mid-range are most accurately encoded by non-linear camera response functions (more on this later).

def weighting_debevek_malik(pix_value: int) -> int:
    """Weighting function for recovering irradiance"""
    if pix_value <= 127:
        return pix_value
    if pix_value > 127:
        return 255 - pix_value

Weighting Function

Let’s rewrite the function for sensor irradiance estimation to use the weighting function:

def estimate_sensor_irradiance_weighted(
    images: List[np.ndarray], exposures: List[float], 
    U: Callable[[np.ndarray], np.ndarray], w: Callable[[int], int]) -> np.ndarray:
    """Estimate the sensor irradiance
    The recovered image irradiances are weighted according to the provided
    weighting function. This works best with higher number of images 
    and well-distributed exposure times.
    images    -- list of images to use for recovery
    exposures -- corresponding list of exposures
    U         -- inverse response function
    w         -- weighting function
    assert len(images) == len(exposures), \
            "The number of images and exposures don't match"
    assert len(images) > 0, "Expected non-empty list of images"
    image_size = images[0].shape[0]
    w_vec = np.vectorize(w)
    irradiance_sum = np.zeros(image_size)
    irradiance_count = np.zeros(image_size)
    for I, t in zip(images, exposures):
        weights = w_vec(I)
        image_irradiance = recover_image_irradiance(I, t, U)
        irradiance_sum += weights * image_irradiance
        # Only non-zero values are observed and contribute to average
        irradiance_count[image_irradiance != 0] += weights[image_irradiance != 0]

    return np.divide(irradiance_sum, irradiance_count, 
                     where=irradiance_count != 0)

RMSE: 165.4355269685378

Experiments with Weighting Function

This change alone provides an almost 10x improvement in the estimate errors. I found out that using the square of the weighting function provides even better results.

def weighting_squared(pix_value: int) -> int:
    return weighting_debevek_malik(pix_value) ** 2

Weighting Function Squared

RMSE: 72.49150623466912

Experiments with Weighting Function Squared

And here’s the final estimate:

images, exposures = generate_sliding_exposure_dataset(
            E=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance(), G=linear_crf)

recovered_sensor_irradiance = estimate_sensor_irradiance_weighted(
    images, exposures, U=linear_inverse_crf, w=weighting_squared)
    recovered_sensor_irradiance, ground_truth=get_extreme_sensor_irradiance())

Ground-truth: [ 182 5432 15329 252531]

Estimated: [ 184.362 5436.691 15341.962 252564.875]

Error (diff): [ -2.362 -4.691 -12.962 -33.875]

Absolute vs Relative Irradiance โš ๏ธ

So far we’ve successfully recovered the relative sensor irradiance values.

Recovering the absolute sensor irradiance isn’t quite as straightforward for real cameras. We’ve used a very simplified model of capturing images and haven’t taken the photodiode’s quantum efficiency and other physical aspects into consideration.

Although it may seem that we fully recovered the irradiance values, this method can only recover the relative irradiance values up to an unknown constant factor \(X\) .

$$ E_{absolute} = X \cdot E_{relative} $$

To determine \(X\) , an absolute radiometric calibration can be performed. The process involves taking an image of a surface with known reflectance values in a controlled light environment.

Conveniently, the relative irradiance values that we obtained are sufficient for most applications, including HDR images.

The irradiance values we recovered are our HDR image!

Displaying HDR Images ๐Ÿ–ฅ๏ธ

We could display the HDR image by normalizing the values within the 0-255 range.

def normalize_255(image: np.ndarray) -> np.ndarray:
    """Normalize values withing range [0, 255]"""
    min_i, max_i = min(image), max(image)
    assert min_i < max_i, "Range cannot be normalized (min == max)"
    return np.around((image - min_i) * (255 / (max_i - min_i)))

hdr_linear = normalize_255(recovered_sensor_irradiance)
util.display_images([hdr_linear], titles=["HDR (linear)"])

HDR Linear

After normalization, the darkest and brightest pixels are pinned to the values of 0 and 255 respectively. All other values are linearly adjusted. The problem with this method is that usually the scene will have very few but extremely bright spots and this would cause the majority of the rest of the scene to appear underexposed.

The image above is a good example of this effect.

This is a limitation of the display technology today. Most devices still have a non-HDR display which is only capable of displaying 24-bit color which is exactly 8-bit per RGB channel. This sets a hard limit on the range of values [0-255].

Gamma encoding ๐Ÿ“ˆ

To go around this problem cameras perform gamma encoding when saving images in 8-bit format. In doing so, the limited range can be utilized more efficiently.

def gamma(X: np.ndarray) -> np.ndarray:
    assert all(X >= 0) and all(X <= 1)
    return X**(1/2.2)

def plot_gamma_function():
    plt.title("Linear vs Gamma")

    x = np.arange(0, 1, 0.001)
    plt.plot(x, gamma(x))
    plt.plot(x, x)

Linear vs Gamma functions

The gamma function encodes lower values (darker tones) with significantly higher resolution. This mapping exploits the fact that our eyes perceive brightness proportionally to the logarithm of the light intensity. See Weber-Fechner law.

Think of a light bulb with adjustable brightness. If we increase the light intensity by N two consecutive times, the perceived brightness change will be larger the first time.

Linear light increase

The gamma encoding is reversed by a gamma decoding step which applies the inverse of the gamma function. Your monitor likely expects gamma encoded images and automatically does the decoding. All of this is formally defined in the sRGB color space.

Note that the gamma function is just one of many possible tone mapping techniques. We are not going to cover more, but I highly recommend this great article on color spaces.

For very high dynamic range images you can also take the logarithm and normalize the resulting values over the [0-255] range. Following is an example of both approaches.

def apply_gamma(E: np.ndarray, bit_depth: int = 8):
    return gamma(E / max_value(bit_depth)) * max_value(bit_depth)

hdr_gamma = apply_gamma(normalize_255(recovered_sensor_irradiance))
hdr_log = normalize_255(np.log(recovered_sensor_irradiance + 1))

util.display_images([hdr_linear, hdr_gamma, hdr_log], titles=["HDR (linear)", "HDR (gamma)", "HDR (log)"])

HDR Display alternatives

The darker values are now much better represented and we can easily identify the nuances.

Non-linear CRF ๐ŸŽ›๏ธ

Up to now, we’ve assumed that the CRF is linear \(G(x) = x\) . However, we’ve seen that it makes sense for cameras to encode images using a non-linear curve to optimize for dynamic range and appearance.

This can result in different pixel values for the same light intensity.

CRF Animation

Additional non-linearities might be introduced by other parts of the system โ€” e.g. the A/D converter or other digital image processing steps such as white balance correction. The goal of the CRF calibration is to find the overall response of the camera that combines all these factors into a single function.

CRF Function

CRF Calibration ๐Ÿ”ฌ

In this section, we’re going to implement a simple but effective algorithm for determining the camera response function from a set of monochrome images. The algorithm is inspired by the approach presented in the paper: A Photometrically Calibrated Benchmark For Monocular Visual Odometry.

Calibrate from a single pixel ๐Ÿ’ก

Let’s iteratively discover the approach by first considering an image consisting of 1 pixel.

Inverse CRF

Given our assumptions about the scene, we have full control over the amount of light that a pixel receives by controlling the exposure time. We don’t know the absolute value but we know that if we double the exposure time, we receive double the amount of light.

If we correlate that known light change with the resulting pixel value, we can determine the function that relates them.

The inverse CRF takes a pixel value as an argument and we know that pixel values are integers in the range [0-255]. So we can define it as a discrete function. In Python, this translates to an array where the index of the array is the input to the function.

U = np.array([0.] * 256)

We need to have observations for each possible pixel value to fully determine the inverse CRF. So our calibration dataset needs to start from a fully underexposed image and iteratively increase exposure time until the image is overexposed.

Here it makes more sense to use arithmetic progression for the exposures so that we have dense coverage over the entire range.

def generate_crf_calibration_dataset(
    E: np.ndarray, G: Callable[[np.ndarray, int], np.ndarray], 
    bit_depth: int = 8, start_ms: int = 1, end_ms: int = 201, 
    step_ms: int = 1, images_per_exposure: int = 1) -> ImagesExposuresTuple:
    """Generate dataset with sliding exposure values in the specified range
    E                    -- sensor irradiance
    G                    -- camera response function
    bit_depth            -- bit depth for the A/D converter of the camera
    start_ms             -- start value (ms) for the range of exposure values
    end_ms               -- end value (ms) for the range of exposure values
    step_ms              -- step size (ms) for the range of exposure values
    images_per_exposure  -- number of images per exposure time
    exposures = [x / 1e3 for x in range(start_ms, end_ms, step_ms)]
    exposures *= images_per_exposure

    images = []
    for t in exposures:
        images.append(capture_image(E=E, t=t, G=G, bit_depth=bit_depth))
    return images, exposures

Recovering linear response

As a first example, we’re going to generate a dataset using the linear response function and attempt to recover it. We use an arbitrarily chosen pixel irradiance:

single_pixel_irradiance = np.array([1381])

Generate the dataset and verify that it provides a good distribution of pixel values.

images, exposures = generate_crf_calibration_dataset(
    E=single_pixel_irradiance, G=linear_crf)
util.display_images(images[0::10], shape=(1,1), annot=False)

Single pixel dataset


Single pixel observation distribution

We don’t have sufficient images to cover every value from the range (200 images vs 256 values) but we have good enough coverage. Reality isn’t perfect either so let’s try to work around that and recover the reverse CRF function U.

$$U(I(x)) = t\cdot E(x)$$

def recover_U_single_pixel(exposures, images):
    # Define an arbitrary (relative) sensor irradiance 
    # Expected to be wrong by a constant factor X
    sensor_irradiance = np.array([100])
    # Initialize the inverse function U to 0s
    U = np.array([0.] * 256)

    for t, image in zip(exposures, images):
        pixel_value = int(image[0])
        if pixel_value == 255 or pixel_value == 0:
            # Skip under- or overexposed pixels
        accumulated_photons = t * sensor_irradiance[0]
        U[pixel_value] = accumulated_photons
    return U

util.plot_inverse_crf(recover_U_single_pixel(exposures, images))

Recovered inverse CRF

The zero values are caused by unobserved pixel values. One way we can resolve that is by taking more images with finer exposure steps to cover the entire range of values.

We’re going to interpolate the missing values from their nearest neighbors.

Then we get a very good approximation without stricter requirements on the dataset.

def interpolate_missing_values(U):
    observed_intensity = np.zeros(len(U), dtype=bool)
    observed_intensity[U != 0.0] = True
    U[~observed_intensity] = np.interp(
    return U

        recover_U_single_pixel(exposures, images)))

Interpolated inverse CRF

The recovered function looks a bit noisy. Debevek & Malik propose adding a smoothness term based on the sum of squared second derivatives.

We’re going to follow a simpler approach of averaging the values over multiple images from the same exposure.
# Create a dataset with multiple images for each exposure time
images, exposures = generate_crf_calibration_dataset(
    E=single_pixel_irradiance, G=linear_crf, images_per_exposure=20)

def recover_U_single_pixel_average(exposures, images):
    sensor_irradiance = np.array([100])
    U_sum = np.array([0.] * 256)
    U_count = np.array([0] * 256)

    for t, image in zip(exposures, images):
        pixel_value = int(image[0])
        if pixel_value == 255 or pixel_value == 0:
            # Skip under- or overexposed pixels
        accumulated_photons = t * sensor_irradiance[0]
        # Sum all observations for specific pixel value
        U_sum[pixel_value] += accumulated_photons
        U_count[pixel_value] += 1
    # Calculate the average 
    observed_intensity = np.zeros(len(U_sum), dtype=bool)
    observed_intensity[U_count != 0] = True
    return np.divide(U_sum, U_count, out=np.zeros_like(U_sum), 

recovered_inverse_crf_linear = interpolate_missing_values(
    recover_U_single_pixel_average(exposures, images))

Smoothened inverse CRF

Nice and smooth ๐Ÿ˜Š I call this a success. Let’s move onto more interesting examples!

Recovering gamma response

To have meaningful gamma encoding, we need to quantize the images with a 12-bit A/D converter which provides a higher dynamic range that we can then effectively compress down to 8-bit with the gamma encoding. Note that we use 12-bit depth for the camera internal processing but the result is still an 8-bit (gamma encoded) image.

images, exposures = generate_crf_calibration_dataset(
    E=single_pixel_irradiance, G=apply_gamma, images_per_exposure=20, bit_depth=12,
    start_ms=1, end_ms=3001, step_ms=15)

Note that I also had to increase the step size for the exposure sequence to cover the extended dynamic range of the 12-bit A/D converter while keeping the total number of exposures constant between the examples.

util.display_images(images[0:200:10], shape=(1,1), annot=False)

Single pixel gamma calibration dataset


The gamma dataset (bottom) appears to follow a more linear progression compared to the linear dataset (top). That’s because your monitor does gamma decoding and wrongly displays non-gamma encoded images.

Linear Gamma


Single pixel gamma distriubtion

recovered_inverse_crf_gamma = interpolate_missing_values(
    recover_U_single_pixel_average(exposures, images))

Recovered gamma inverse CRF

Direct comparison of the relative irradiance values on the Y-axis between the gamma and linear (inverse) response functions reveals the wider range of relative irradiances that the gamma function is capable of encoding (range 0-300 vs 0-18).

Linear vs gamma

Calibrate from multiple pixels ๐Ÿฃ

As demonstrated in the previous section, it is possible to calibrate the camera response function by using a single pixel. The downside of this approach is that it requires a lot of images to densely cover the entire range of values and average out the noise โ€” we took 20 images @ 200 unique exposures resulting in a total dataset size of 4000 images.

Let’s hypothetically consider the other extreme case:

What if we have a dataset consisting of a single image with dimensions 64x64?

The image would have 4096 pixels in total. That’s approximately the same number of pixels as in our dataset with single pixel images. Assuming there’s a good variation in the pixel irradiances, would this provide us with the same amount of information?

The answer is no because we wouldn’t know the relative irradiances between the pixels.

In the case of a single pixel, we had a single irradiance value and we could calculate the change in the accumulated light based on the exposure time alone. In order to relate pixel values in the same image, we need to recover the relative sensor irradiance. We already solved this problem in the HDR image section.

The catch is that we already need to know the CRF to recover the irradiance values, but the irradiance values are needed to recover the CRF. The chicken and the egg puzzle?

In the following equation, both \(U(x)\) and \(E(x)\) are unknown.

$$U(I(x)) = t\cdot E(x)$$

But we know they’re both constant so if fix one and solve for the other, we can iteratively converge to a solution. In other words, we’re going to attempt to evolve the chicken and the egg simultaneously! ๐Ÿฃ

def recover_U(E: np.ndarray, exposures: List[float], images: List[np.ndarray]):
    """Attempt to recover the inverse CRF (U)
    Calculation based on the formula U(I(x)) = t * E(x)
    where I(x), t and E(x) are given as arguments.
    All observations for a given I(x) are summed up and 
    the average is calculated. Non-observed values are interpolated.
    E          -- sensor irradiance
    exposures  -- list of exposure times t (seconds)
    images     -- images 
    U_sum = np.array([0.] * 256)
    U_count = np.array([0] * 256)

    for t, image in zip(exposures, images):
        for i in range(len(image)):
            pixel_value = int(image[i])
            if pixel_value == 255 or pixel_value == 0:
                continue # Skip under- or overexposed pixels
            accumulated_photons = t * E[i]

            # Sum all observations for specific pixel value
            U_sum[pixel_value] += accumulated_photons
            U_count[pixel_value] += 1
    # Calculate U as the average of all observations
    observed_intensity = np.zeros(len(U_sum), dtype=bool)
    observed_intensity[U_count != 0] = True
    U = np.divide(U_sum, U_count, out=np.zeros_like(U_sum), 
    return interpolate_missing_values(U)

def recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations=5):
    """Attempt to solve for both the inverse CRF and the sensor irradiance
    Given a dataset, perform a number of iterations by alternatingly solving 
    for U(x) and E(x) to check if they can converge to a solution.
    E = np.array([100] * len(images[0]))
    U = np.array([0.] * 256)

    response_function = lambda x: U[int(x)]

    U_list = []
    E_list = []
    for _ in range(iterations):
        U = recover_U(E, exposures, images)
        E = estimate_sensor_irradiance_weighted(
            images, exposures, 
    return U_list, E_list

Let’s generate the dataset:

images, exposures = generate_crf_calibration_dataset(

I’ve experimented with the parameters until I got good coverage of pixel values for each pixel in the image. Here are the first ten darkest images from the sequence:

util.display_images(images[0:10], annot=False)

First ten image from multipixel dataset

And here’s a representation of the full (subsampled) dataset:

util.display_images(images[0:200:10], annot=False)

Subsampled representation of the multipixel dataset

Now we optimize for both the irradiance image and the inverse response:

U_list, E_list = recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations = 5);

Here are the inverse response functions after each iteration of the optimization:


Inverse response after each iteration

And the irradiance images after each iteration:

util.display_images([normalize_255(np.log(E + 1)) for E in E_list])

Irradiance image after each iteration

print("Normalized Ground-truth: ", normalize_255(get_sensor_irradiance()))
print("Normalized Estimate: ", normalize_255(E_list[-1]))
print("Error: ", normalize_255(
    get_sensor_irradiance()) - normalize_255(E_list[-1]))

Normalized Ground-truth: [ 0. 23. 4. 255.]

Normalized Estimate: [ 0. 23. 4. 255.]

Error: [0. 0. 0. 0.]

This approach quickly converges to the correct solution for both U and E. It starts falling apart if we try it with the more extreme sensor irradiance values.

images, exposures = generate_crf_calibration_dataset(
    E=np.array(get_extreme_sensor_irradiance()), G=apply_gamma, 
    images_per_exposure=5, bit_depth=12,
    start_ms=1, end_ms=3001, step_ms=15)

util.display_images(images[0:10], annot=False)
util.display_images(images[0:200:10], annot=False)

First ten from dataset Subsampled dataset

U_list, E_list = recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations=5);
util.display_images([normalize_255(np.log(E + 1)) for E in E_list])

Inverse response after each iteration Irradiance image after each iteration

Nothing we can’t resolve by throwing 50 iterations at it ๐Ÿ˜‰

U_list, E_list = recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations=50);
util.display_images([normalize_255(np.log(E + 1)) for E in E_list[::10]])

Inverse response after each iteration Irradiance image after each iteration

print("Normalized Ground-truth: ", normalize_255(get_extreme_sensor_irradiance()))
print("Normalized Estimate: ", normalize_255(E_list[-1]))
print("Error: ", normalize_255(
    get_extreme_sensor_irradiance()) - normalize_255(E_list[-1]))

Normalized Ground-truth: [ 0. 5. 15. 255.]

Normalized Estimate: [ 0. 5. 15. 255.]

Error: [0. 0. 0. 0.]

As we’ll see in the next section, real datasets aren’t quite as extreme and converge within a reasonable number of iterations. In this example, we have only 2x2 images so any extreme values constitute a large percentage of the total pixels. Real-world images might have larger extremes but are constrained to a smaller percentage of the image.

Calibrate from a real dataset ๐ŸŽ‰

And finally, we get to test our algorithms on a non-simulated dataset acquired with an actual camera! Yay!

You can download the dataset that I’ve used from here: Monocular Visual Odometry Dataset. We’re going to be using only two sequences from the dataset: narrow_sweep3 and narrowGamma_sweep3.

If you want to create a calibration dataset for your camera, you need to be able to programmatically control the exposure time. The camera needs to be static and point towards a static scene with good variability in surface reflectances. Ideally, you want to have close to a flat histogram. The light source has to be constant โ€” beware that LED lights usually are not! You can use sunlight on a non-cloudy day.

Once you have that, you can fix the gain of your sensor to the lowest value to minimize noise and swipe the exposure time ( \(t\) ) in small \(\Delta t\) steps from the minimum value until the image becomes fully or mostly overexposed โ€” the same way we’ve done in our simulated datasets.

import os
from skimage import io
from skimage.measure import block_reduce

def load_dataset(path: str, with_downsample: bool = True,
                 block_size: Tuple[int, int] = (10, 10)):
    """Load dataset from the specified path
    Subsambling the image size in order reduce the execution time
    of the (unoptimized) example algorithms
    path              -- path to the dataset
    with_downsample   -- enable/disable downsampling
    block_size        -- block size that gets sampled down to 1 pixel
    image_folder = os.path.join(path, "images")
    exposure_file = os.path.join(path, "times.txt")
    gt_file = os.path.join(path, "pcalib.txt")

    exposures, images = [], []
    shape_original, shape_output = None, None
    def downsample(image):
        """Do max sampling in order to avoid bias from overexposed values"""
        return block_reduce(image, block_size=block_size, func=np.max, cval=0)
    with open(exposure_file, "r") as f:
        for line in f.readlines():
            # Parse meta information and append to output lists
            [idx, ts, exposure_ms] = line.strip().split(" ")
            exposures.append(float(exposure_ms) * 1e-3)
            # Load and downsamble image
            image_original = io.imread(os.path.join(
                image_folder, idx + ".jpg"), as_gray=True)
            image_output = downsample(image_original) \
                if with_downsample else image_original
            if shape_output is None:
                shape_original = image_original.shape
                shape_output = image_output.shape
    print("Original size: " + str(shape_original) + 
          " Output size: " + str(shape_output))
    ground_truth = None
    with open(gt_file, 'r') as f:
        ground_truth = [float(i) for i in f.readline().strip().split()]
    return exposures, images, shape_output, ground_truth

Let’s load the (downsampled) linear response dataset:

exposures, images, shape, ground_truth = load_dataset(

Original size: (1024, 1280) Output size: (103, 128)

util.display_images(images[::200], shape=shape, annot=False)

Real-world linear dataset

I’m going to use the calibration results provided with the Monocular Visual Odometry Dataset as a reference ground-truth.

Linear ground-truth

Let’s attempt to calibrate:

U_list, E_list = recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations=3);
util.display_images([normalize_255(np.log(E + 1)) for E in E_list], 
                    shape=shape, annot=False)

Inverse response after each iteration Irradiance image after each iteration

Great, in just 3 iterations our algorithm converges to the correct solution!

Let’s try it on the gamma encoded dataset as well.

exposures, images, shape, ground_truth = load_dataset(

Original size: (1024, 1280) Output size: (103, 128)

util.display_images(images[::200], shape=shape, annot=False)

Real-world gamma dataset Linear ground-truth

U_list, E_list = recover_U_and_E(exposures, images, iterations=3);
util.display_images([normalize_255(np.log(E + 1)) for E in E_list], 
                    shape=shape, annot=False)

Inverse response after each iteration Irradiance image after each iteration

It is amazing to see how well it works even with 1/10 of the available information after subsampling the images from their original size of (1024, 1280) to (103, 128).

Since we haven’t enforced any constraints on the resulting (inverse) response function, we can calibrate for any non-linearity.
An analogous approach can be used to calibrate RGB images. The process can be repeated for each of the R, G, B channels separately.

Final Words ๐Ÿ

Although simple in its concept, the camera response function lies at the intersection of sensor physics and digital image processing. This makes it a fascinating topic to explore in-depth as it can lead our curiosity to a variety of unexplored paths.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of camera sensor physics, simulation, noise models and applications of the CRF. This article should hopefully provide a convenient starting point for self-learning and further research.

Have a robotics topic in mind that is inadequately covered by existing learning resources? Feel free to reach out to me on ๐Ÿฆ twitter and it might be next. ;-)