Blink and you'll miss it - or several thousands 'its'.

Scientists at the University of California have developed a new laser-pulsed camera that can capture up to six million frames per second, with a shutter speed of just 450 picoseconds.

The new imager - called serial time-encoded amplified microscopy (or STEAM) - captures each picture with an ultrashort laser pulse just a billionth of a second long.

Using a technique known as amplified dispersive Fourier transform, the laser pulses are simultaneously amplified and stretched in time until they're slow enough to be captured with an electronic digitiser.

High speed noise

A fundamental problem in high-speed imaging is that cameras become less sensitive at higher speeds. At high frame rates, there is less time to collect photons in each frame so the signal becomes weaker and more prone to noise.

The new imager overcomes this because it is the first to feature optical image amplification.

"Unlike other high-speed imaging methods, our approach does not require cooling of the camera or high-intensity illumination — problems that plague conventional CCD and CMOS cameras," said Kevin Tsia, a co-author of the research.

The STEAM camera will be used for studying rapid phenomena in physics, chemistry and biology, such as hunting for rare cancerous tumour cells among healthy cells.