Visible spectrum

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White light is dispersed by a prism into the colors of the visible spectrum. Light dispersion of a mercury-vapor lamp with a flint glass prism IPNrdeg0125.jpg
White light is dispersed by a prism into the colors of the visible spectrum.

The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called visible light or simply light. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 380 to 740 nanometers. [1] In terms of frequency, this corresponds to a band in the vicinity of 430–770 THz.

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies.

Visual perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in the environment. This is different from visual acuity which refers to how clearly a person sees. A person can have problem with visual perceptual processing even if he/she has 20/20 vision.

Human eye mammalian eye; part of the visual organ of the human body, and move using a system of six muscles

The human eye is an organ which reacts to light and pressure. As a sense organ, the mammalian eye allows vision. Human eyes help to provide a three dimensional, moving image, normally coloured in daylight. Rod and cone cells in the retina allow conscious light perception and vision including color differentiation and the perception of depth. The human eye can differentiate between about 10 million colors and is possibly capable of detecting a single photon.


The spectrum does not contain all the colors that the human eyes and brain can distinguish. Unsaturated colors such as pink, or purple variations like magenta, for example, are absent because they can only be made from a mix of multiple wavelengths. Colors containing only one wavelength are also called pure colors or spectral colors.

Color Characteristic of human visual perception

Color, or colour, is the characteristic of human visual perception described through color categories, with names such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. This perception of color derives from the stimulation of cone cells in the human eye by electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum. Color categories and physical specifications of color are associated with objects through the wavelength of the light that is reflected from them. This reflection is governed by the object's physical properties such as light absorption, emission spectra, etc.

Pink any of the colors between bluish red (purple) and red, of medium to high brightness and of low to moderate saturation

Pink is a pale red color that is named after a flower of the same name. It was first used as a color name in the late 17th century. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, pink is the color most often associated with charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, sweetness, childhood, femininity and the romantic. A combination of pink and white is associated with chastity and innocence, whereas a combination of pink and black links to eroticism and seduction.

Purple Range of colors with the hues between blue and red

Purple is a color intermediate between blue and red. It is similar to violet, but unlike violet, which is a spectral color with its own wavelength on the visible spectrum of light, purple is a secondary color made by combining red and blue. The complementary color of purple is yellow.

Visible wavelengths pass largely unattenuated through the Earth's atmosphere via the "optical window" region of the electromagnetic spectrum. An example of this phenomenon is when clean air scatters blue light more than red light, and so the midday sky appears blue. The optical window is also referred to as the "visible window" because it overlaps the human visible response spectrum. The near infrared (NIR) window lies just out of the human vision, as well as the medium wavelength infrared (MWIR) window, and the long wavelength or far infrared (LWIR or FIR) window, although other animals may experience them.

Optical window

The meaning of this term depends on the context:

Scattering general physical process where some forms of radiation, such as light, sound, or moving particles, are forced to deviate from a straight trajectory by one or more paths due to localized non-uniformities in the medium through which they pass

Scattering is a general physical process where some forms of radiation, such as light, sound, or moving particles, are forced to deviate from a straight trajectory by one or more paths due to localized non-uniformities in the medium through which they pass. In conventional use, this also includes deviation of reflected radiation from the angle predicted by the law of reflection. Reflections that undergo scattering are often called diffuse reflections and unscattered reflections are called specular (mirror-like) reflections.


Newton's color circle, from Opticks of 1704, showing the colors he associated with musical notes. The spectral colors from red to violet are divided by the notes of the musical scale, starting at D. The circle completes a full octave, from D to D. Newton's circle places red, at one end of the spectrum, next to violet, at the other. This reflects the fact that non-spectral purple colors are observed when red and violet light are mixed. Newton's color circle.png
Newton's color circle, from Opticks of 1704, showing the colors he associated with musical notes. The spectral colors from red to violet are divided by the notes of the musical scale, starting at D. The circle completes a full octave, from D to D. Newton's circle places red, at one end of the spectrum, next to violet, at the other. This reflects the fact that non-spectral purple colors are observed when red and violet light are mixed.

In the 13th century, Roger Bacon theorized that rainbows were produced by a similar process to the passage of light through glass or crystal. [2]

Roger Bacon medieval philosopher and theologian

Roger Bacon, also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis, was a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism. In the early modern era, he was regarded as a wizard and particularly famed for the story of his mechanical or necromantic brazen head. He is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method inspired by Aristotle and by the Arab scientist Alhazen.

Rainbow meteorological phenomenon

A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicoloured circular arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton discovered that prisms could disassemble and reassemble white light, and described the phenomenon in his book Opticks . He was the first to use the word spectrum (Latin for "appearance" or "apparition") in this sense in print in 1671 in describing his experiments in optics. Newton observed that, when a narrow beam of sunlight strikes the face of a glass prism at an angle, some is reflected and some of the beam passes into and through the glass, emerging as different-colored bands. Newton hypothesized light to be made up of "corpuscles" (particles) of different colors, with the different colors of light moving at different speeds in transparent matter, red light moving more quickly than violet in glass. The result is that red light is bent (refracted) less sharply than violet as it passes through the prism, creating a spectrum of colors.

Isaac Newton Influential British physicist and mathematician

Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687, laid the foundations of classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.

<i>Opticks</i> book by Isaac Newton

Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light is a book by English natural philosopher Isaac Newton that was published in English in 1704. The book analyzes the fundamental nature of light by means of the refraction of light with prisms and lenses, the diffraction of light by closely spaced sheets of glass, and the behaviour of color mixtures with spectral lights or pigment powders. It is considered one of the great works of science in history. Opticks was Newton's second major book on physical science. Newton's name did not appear on the title page of the first edition of Opticks.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets, and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Newton's observation of prismatic colors (David Brewster 1855) Newton prismatic colours.JPG
Newton's observation of prismatic colors (David Brewster 1855)

Newton originally divided the spectrum into six named colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. He later added indigo as the seventh color since he believed that seven was a perfect number as derived from the ancient Greek sophists, of there being a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the known objects in the solar system, and the days of the week. [3] The human eye is relatively insensitive to indigo's frequencies, and some people who have otherwise-good vision cannot distinguish indigo from blue and violet. For this reason, some later commentators, including Isaac Asimov, [4] have suggested that indigo should not be regarded as a color in its own right but merely as a shade of blue or violet. However, the evidence indicates that what Newton meant by "indigo" and "blue" does not correspond to the modern meanings of those color words. Comparing Newton's observation of prismatic colors to a color image of the visible light spectrum shows that "indigo" corresponds to what is today called blue, whereas "blue" corresponds to cyan. [5] [6] [7]

Red color

Red is the color at the end of the visible spectrum of light, next to orange and opposite violet. It has a dominant wavelength of approximately 625–740 nanometres. It is a primary color in the RGB color model and the CMYK color model, and is the complementary color of cyan. Reds range from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet and vermillion to bluish-red crimson, and vary in shade from the pale red pink to the dark red burgundy. The red sky at sunset results from Rayleigh scattering, while the red color of the Grand Canyon and other geological features is caused by hematite or red ochre, both forms of iron oxide. Iron oxide also gives the red color to the planet Mars. The red colour of blood comes from protein hemoglobin, while ripe strawberries, red apples and reddish autumn leaves are colored by anthocyanins.

Yellow color

Yellow is the color between orange and green on the spectrum of visible light. It is evoked by light with a dominant wavelength of roughly 570–590 nm. It is a primary color in subtractive color systems, used in painting or color printing. In the RGB color model, used to create colors on television and computer screens, yellow is a secondary color made by combining red and green at equal intensity. Carotenoids give the characteristic yellow color to autumn leaves, corn, canaries, daffodils, and lemons, as well as egg yolks, buttercups, and bananas. They absorb light energy and protect plants from photodamage. Sunlight has a slight yellowish hue, due to the surface temperature of the sun.

Green color; additive primary color; visible between blue and yellow

Green is the color between blue and yellow on the visible spectrum. It is evoked by light which has a dominant wavelength of roughly 495–570 nm. In subtractive color systems, used in painting and color printing, it is created by a combination of yellow and blue, or yellow and cyan; in the RGB color model, used on television and computer screens, it is one of the additive primary colors, along with red and blue, which are mixed in different combinations to create all other colors. By far the largest contributor to green in nature is chlorophyll, the chemical by which plants photosynthesize and convert sunlight into chemical energy. Many creatures have adapted to their green environments by taking on a green hue themselves as camouflage. Several minerals have a green color, including the emerald, which is colored green by its chromium content.

In the 18th century, Goethe wrote about optical spectra in his Theory of Colours . Goethe used the word spectrum (Spektrum) to designate a ghostly optical afterimage, as did Schopenhauer in On Vision and Colors . Goethe argued that the continuous spectrum was a compound phenomenon. Where Newton narrowed the beam of light to isolate the phenomenon, Goethe observed that a wider aperture produces not a spectrum but rather reddish-yellow and blue-cyan edges with white between them. The spectrum appears only when these edges are close enough to overlap.

In the early 19th century, the concept of the visible spectrum became more definite, as light outside the visible range was discovered and characterized by William Herschel (infrared) and Johann Wilhelm Ritter (ultraviolet), Thomas Young, Thomas Johann Seebeck, and others. [8] Young was the first to measure the wavelengths of different colors of light, in 1802. [9]

The connection between the visible spectrum and color vision was explored by Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmholtz in the early 19th century. Their theory of color vision correctly proposed that the eye uses three distinct receptors to perceive color.

Animal color vision

Many species can see light within frequencies outside the human "visible spectrum". Bees and many other insects can detect ultraviolet light, which helps them find nectar in flowers. Plant species that depend on insect pollination may owe reproductive success to their appearance in ultraviolet light rather than how colorful they appear to humans. Birds, too, can see into the ultraviolet (300–400 nm), and some have sex-dependent markings on their plumage that are visible only in the ultraviolet range. [10] [11] Many animals that can see into the ultraviolet range, however, cannot see red light or any other reddish wavelengths. Bees' visible spectrum ends at about 590 nm, just before the orange wavelengths start. [12] Birds, however, can see some red wavelengths, although not as far into the light spectrum as humans. [13] The popular belief that the common goldfish is the only animal that can see both infrared and ultraviolet light [14] is incorrect, because goldfish cannot see infrared light. [15] Similarly, dogs are often thought to be color blind but they have been shown to be sensitive to colors, though not as many as humans. [16] Some snakes can "see" [17] radiant heat at wavelengths between 5 and 30  μm to a degree of accuracy such that a blind rattlesnake can target vulnerable body parts of the prey at which it strikes, [18] and other snakes with the organ may detect warm bodies from a meter away. [19] It may also be used in thermoregulation and predator detection. [20] [21] (See Infrared sensing in snakes)

Spectral colors

sRGB rendering of the spectrum of visible light Linear visible spectrum.svg
sRGB rendering of the spectrum of visible light
Color Wavelength Frequency Photon energy
Violet 380–450 nm680–790 THz2.95–3.10  eV
Blue 450–485 nm620–680 THz2.64–2.75 eV
Cyan 485–500 nm600–620 THz2.48–2.52 eV
Green 500–565 nm530–600 THz2.25–2.34 eV
Yellow 565–590 nm510–530 THz2.10–2.17 eV
Orange 590–625 nm480–510 THz2.00–2.10 eV
Red 625–740 nm405–480 THz1.65–2.00 eV

Colors that can be produced by visible light of a narrow band of wavelengths (monochromatic light) are called pure spectral colors. The various color ranges indicated in the illustration are an approximation: The spectrum is continuous, with no clear boundaries between one color and the next. [22]

Color display spectrum

Approximation of spectral colors on a display results in somewhat distorted chromaticity Spectrum.svg
Approximation of spectral colors on a display results in somewhat distorted chromaticity
A rendering of the visible spectrum on a gray background produces non-spectral mixtures of pure spectrum with gray, which fit into the sRGB color space. Rendered Spectrum.png
A rendering of the visible spectrum on a gray background produces non-spectral mixtures of pure spectrum with gray, which fit into the sRGB color space.

Color displays (e.g. computer monitors and televisions) cannot reproduce all colors discernible by a human eye. Colors outside the color gamut of the device, such as most spectral colors, can only be approximated. For color-accurate reproduction, a spectrum can be projected onto a uniform gray field. The resulting mixed colors can have all their R, G, B coordinates non-negative, and so can be reproduced without distortion. This accurately simulates looking at a spectrum on a gray background. [23]


Rough plot of Earth's atmospheric opacity to various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light Atmospheric electromagnetic opacity.svg
Rough plot of Earth's atmospheric opacity to various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light

Spectroscopy is the study of objects based on the spectrum of color they emit, absorb or reflect. Spectroscopy is an important investigative tool in astronomy, where scientists use it to analyze the properties of distant objects. Typically, astronomical spectroscopy uses high-dispersion diffraction gratings to observe spectra at very high spectral resolutions. Helium was first detected by analysis of the spectrum of the sun. Chemical elements can be detected in astronomical objects by emission lines and absorption lines.

The shifting of spectral lines can be used to measure the Doppler shift (red shift or blue shift) of distant objects.

See also

Related Research Articles

Indigo deep and bright shade of blue

Indigo is a deep and rich color close to the color wheel blue, as well as to some variants of ultramarine. It is traditionally regarded as a color in the visible spectrum, as well as one of the seven colors of the rainbow: the color between violet and blue; however, sources differ as to its actual position in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light electromagnetic radiation in or near visible spectrum

Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).

Spectroscopy study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation

Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. Historically, spectroscopy originated through the study of visible light dispersed according to its wavelength, by a prism. Later the concept was expanded greatly to include any interaction with radiative energy as a function of its wavelength or frequency, predominantly in the electromagnetic spectrum, though matter waves and acoustic waves can also be considered forms of radiative energy; recently, with tremendous difficulty, even gravitational waves have been associated with a spectral signature in the context of LIGO and laser interferometry. Spectroscopic data are often represented by an emission spectrum, a plot of the response of interest as a function of wavelength or frequency.

Spectrum Continuous range of values, such as wavelengths in physics

A spectrum is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without steps, across a continuum. The word was first used scientifically in optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light after passing through a prism. As scientific understanding of light advanced, it came to apply to the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Primary color Sets of colors that can be combined to make a useful range of colors

A set of primary colors is, most tangibly, a set of real colorants or colored lights that can be combined in varying amounts to produce a gamut of colors. This is the essential method used in applications that are intended to elicit the perception of diverse sets of color, e.g. electronic displays, color printing, and paintings. Perceptions associated with a given combination of primary colors are predicted by applying the appropriate mixing model that embodies the underlying physics of how light interacts with the media and ultimately the retina.

Ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy Range of spectroscopic analysis

Ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy or ultraviolet–visible spectrophotometry refers to absorption spectroscopy or reflectance spectroscopy in part of the ultraviolet and the full, adjacent visible spectral regions. This means it uses light in the visible and adjacent ranges. The absorption or reflectance in the visible range directly affects the perceived color of the chemicals involved. In this region of the electromagnetic spectrum, atoms and molecules undergo electronic transitions. Absorption spectroscopy is complementary to fluorescence spectroscopy, in that fluorescence deals with transitions from the excited state to the ground state, while absorption measures transitions from the ground state to the excited state.

Emission spectrum Frequencies of light emitted by atoms or chemical compounds

The emission spectrum of a chemical element or chemical compound is the spectrum of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation emitted due to an atom or molecule making a transition from a high energy state to a lower energy state. The photon energy of the emitted photon is equal to the energy difference between the two states. There are many possible electron transitions for each atom, and each transition has a specific energy difference. This collection of different transitions, leading to different radiated wavelengths, make up an emission spectrum. Each element's emission spectrum is unique. Therefore, spectroscopy can be used to identify the elements in matter of unknown composition. Similarly, the emission spectra of molecules can be used in chemical analysis of substances.

Color vision ability of an organism or machine to distinguish objects based on wavelengths of light

Color vision is the ability of an organism or machine to distinguish objects based on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, emit, or transmit. Colors can be measured and quantified in various ways; indeed, a person's perception of colors is a subjective process whereby the brain responds to the stimuli that are produced when incoming light reacts with the several types of cone cells in the eye. In essence, different people see the same illuminated object or light source in different ways.

Absorption spectroscopy spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation

Absorption spectroscopy refers to spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation, as a function of frequency or wavelength, due to its interaction with a sample. The sample absorbs energy, i.e., photons, from the radiating field. The intensity of the absorption varies as a function of frequency, and this variation is the absorption spectrum. Absorption spectroscopy is performed across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Tetrachromacy condition of possessing four independent channels for conveying color information, or possessing four types of cone cells in the eye

Tetrachromacy is the condition of possessing four independent channels for conveying color information, or possessing four types of cone cell in the eye. Organisms with tetrachromacy are called tetrachromats.

Pentachromacy describes the capability and capacity for capturing, transmitting, processing, and perceiving five independent channels of color information through the primary visual system. Organisms with pentachromacy are termed pentachromats. For these organisms, it would take at least five differing ranges of wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum to reproduce their full visual spectrum. In comparison, a combination of red, green, and blue wavelengths of light are all that is necessary to simulate most of the common human trichromat visual spectrum.

Dominant wavelength

In color science, the dominant wavelength are ways of characterizing any light mixture in terms of the monochromatic spectral light that evokes an identical perception of hue. For a given physical light mixture, the dominant and complementary wavelengths are not entirely fixed, but vary according to the illuminating light's precise color, called the white point, due to the color constancy of vision.

Color wheel abstract illustrative organization of color hues

A color wheel or color circle is an abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle, which shows the relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors etc.

Spectral color color evoked by a single wavelength of light in the visible spectrum

A spectral color is a color that is evoked in a normal human by a single wavelength of light in the visible spectrum, or by a relatively narrow band of wavelengths, also known as monochromatic light. Every wavelength of visible light is perceived as a spectral color, in a continuous spectrum; the colors of sufficiently close wavelengths are indistinguishable for the human eye.

Spectral imaging branch of spectroscopy and of photography

Spectral imaging is imaging that uses multiple bands across the electromagnetic spectrum. While an ordinary camera captures light across three wavelength bands in the visible spectrum, red, green, and blue (RGB), spectral imaging encompasses a wide variety of techniques that go beyond RGB. Spectral imaging may use the infrared, the visible spectrum, the ultraviolet, x-rays, or some combination of the above. It may include the acquisition of image data in visible and non-visible bands simultaneously, illumination from outside the visible range, or the use of optical filters to capture a specific spectral range. It is also possible to capture hundreds of wavelength bands for each pixel in an image.

In astronomy, a green star is a white or blue star that appears green due to an optical illusion. There are no truly green stars, because the color of a star is more or less given by a black-body spectrum and this never looks green. However, there are a few stars that appear green to some observers. This is usually because of the optical illusion that a red object can make nearby objects look greenish. There are some multiple star systems, such as Antares, with a bright red star where this illusion makes other stars in the system look green.

Though the violet color is normally composed of blue and red light, violet color can also be monochromatic, composed only by violet light. Combinations of red and blue lights and monochromatic light of wavelength smaller than blue produce a similar effect for the human eye due to a second resonancy of the red-sensitive cone cells.


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