Wednesday Wonderment – Ep. 28

A light subject

As a photographer, even beyond the wonderful things that we can see in the world around us, there is one aspect, without which we cannot work.  The amazing part of photography, which never ceases to fill me with wonderment: Light!

Light is a very interesting and rather complex entity.  As visible light is made up of light of many frequencies, the exact blend of these frequencies, or colors, determines the quality of light; in photography, the quality of light is important in helping set the tone of an image.  You may have heard about the ‘golden hour’, which is a period of the day when light has a warm quality (i.e. more reddish hues), which can lend beautiful tonality to a landscape or portrait.

An example of warm light is this image from about 12 years ago, where the combination of color and light provide for a richly colored image.

Geese on the Quinapoxet

Light quality to a photographer is a blend of color (temperature), diffused vs directional (soft vs hard) and direction; these factors help determine the overall look of an image.  As a physicist, what we have learned about light over the centuries is an interesting story.

History of Theories about Light

In the fifth century BC, Empedocles postulated that everything was composed of four elements; fire, air, earth and water. He believed that Aphrodite made the human eye out of the four elements and that she lit the fire in the eye which shone out from the eye making sight possible. If this were true, then one could see during the night just as well as during the day, so Empedocles postulated an interaction between rays from the eyes and rays from a source such as the sun.

In about 300 BC, Euclid wrote Optica, in which he studied the properties of light. Euclid postulated that light travelled in straight lines and he described the laws of reflection and studied them mathematically. He questioned that sight is the result of a beam from the eye, for he asks how one sees the stars immediately, if one closes one’s eyes, then opens them at night. Of course if the beam from the eye travels infinitely fast this is not a problem.

In 55 BC, Lucretius, a Roman who carried on the ideas of earlier Greek atomists, wrote:

The light & heat of the sun; these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove.” – On the nature of the Universe

Despite being similar to later particle theories, Lucretius’s views were not generally accepted.

Ptolemy (c. 2nd century) wrote about the refraction of light in his book Optics.

Classical India

In ancient India, the Hindu schools of Samkhya and Vaisheshika, from around the early centuries AD developed theories on light. According to the Samkhya school, light is one of the five fundamental “subtle” elements (tanmatra) out of which emerge the gross elements. The atomicity of these elements is not specifically mentioned and it appears that they were actually taken to be continuous. On the other hand, the Vaisheshika school gives an atomic theory of the physical world on the non-atomic ground of ether, space and time. (See Indian atomism.) The basic atoms are those of earth (prthivi), water (pani), fire (agni), and air (vayu) Light rays are taken to be a stream of high velocity of tejas (fire) atoms. The particles of light can exhibit different characteristics depending on the speed and the arrangements of the tejas atoms. The Vishnu Purana refers to sunlight as “the seven rays of the sun”.

The Indian Buddhists, such as Dignāga in the 5th century and Dharmakirti in the 7th century, developed a type of atomism that is a philosophy about reality being composed of atomic entities that are momentary flashes of light or energy. They viewed light as being an atomic entity equivalent to energy.


René Descartes (1596–1650) held that light was a mechanical property of the luminous body, rejecting the “forms” of Ibn al-Haytham and Witelo as well as the “species” of Bacon, Grosseteste, and Kepler. In 1637 he published a theory of the refraction of light that assumed, incorrectly, that light travelled faster in a denser medium than in a less dense medium. Descartes arrived at this conclusion by analogy with the behaviour of sound waves. Although Descartes was incorrect about the relative speeds, he was correct in assuming that light behaved like a wave and in concluding that refraction could be explained by the speed of light in different media.

Descartes is not the first to use the mechanical analogies but because he clearly asserts that light is only a mechanical property of the luminous body and the transmitting medium, Descartes’ theory of light is regarded as the start of modern physical optics.

Particle theory

Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), an atomist, proposed a particle theory of light which was published posthumously in the 1660s. Isaac Newton studied Gassendi’s work at an early age, and preferred his view to Descartes’ theory of the plenum. He stated in his Hypothesis of Light of 1675 that light was composed of corpuscles (particles of matter) which were emitted in all directions from a source. One of Newton’s arguments against the wave nature of light was that waves were known to bend around obstacles, while light travelled only in straight lines. He did, however, explain the phenomenon of the diffraction of light (which had been observed by Francesco Grimaldi) by allowing that a light particle could create a localised wave in the aether.

Newton’s theory could be used to predict the reflection of light, but could only explain refraction by incorrectly assuming that light accelerated upon entering a denser medium because the gravitational pull was greater. Newton published the final version of his theory in his Opticks of 1704. His reputation helped the particle theory of light to hold sway during the 18th century. The particle theory of light led Laplace to argue that a body could be so massive that light could not escape from it. In other words, it would become what is now called a black hole. Laplace withdrew his suggestion later, after a wave theory of light became firmly established as the model for light (as has been explained, neither a particle or wave theory is fully correct). A translation of Newton’s essay on light appears in The large scale structure of space-time, by Stephen Hawking and George F. R. Ellis.

The fact that light could be polarized was for the first time qualitatively explained by Newton using the particle theory. Étienne-Louis Malus in 1810 created a mathematical particle theory of polarization. Jean-Baptiste Biot in 1812 showed that this theory explained all known phenomena of light polarization. At that time the polarization was considered as the proof of the particle theory.

Wave theory

To explain the origin of colors, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) developed a “pulse theory” and compared the spreading of light to that of waves in water in his 1665 work Micrographia (“Observation IX”). In 1672 Hooke suggested that light’s vibrations could be perpendicular to the direction of propagation. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) worked out a mathematical wave theory of light in 1678, and published it in his Treatise on light in 1690. He proposed that light was emitted in all directions as a series of waves in a medium called the Luminiferous ether. As waves are not affected by gravity, it was assumed that they slowed down upon entering a denser medium.

The wave theory predicted that light waves could interfere with each other like sound waves (as noted around 1800 by Thomas Young). Young showed by means of a diffraction experiment that light behaved as waves. He also proposed that different colours were caused by different wavelengths of light, and explained colour vision in terms of three-coloured receptors in the eye.

Another supporter of the wave theory was Leonhard Euler. He argued in Nova theoria lucis et colorum (1746) that diffraction could more easily be explained by a wave theory.

In 1816 André-Marie Ampère gave Augustin-Jean Fresnel an idea that the polarization of light can be explained by the wave theory if light were a transverse wave.

Later, Fresnel independently worked out his own wave theory of light, and presented it to the Académie des Sciences in 1817. Siméon Denis Poisson added to Fresnel’s mathematical work to produce a convincing argument in favour of the wave theory, helping to overturn Newton’s corpuscular theory. By the year 1821, Fresnel was able to show via mathematical methods that polarisation could be explained by the wave theory of light and only if light was entirely transverse, with no longitudinal vibration whatsoever.

The weakness of the wave theory was that light waves, like sound waves, would need a medium for transmission. The existence of the hypothetical substance luminiferous aether proposed by Huygens in 1678 was cast into strong doubt in the late nineteenth century by the Michelson–Morley experiment.

Newton’s corpuscular theory implied that light would travel faster in a denser medium, while the wave theory of Huygens and others implied the opposite. At that time, the speed of light could not be measured accurately enough to decide which theory was correct. The first to make a sufficiently accurate measurement was Léon Foucault, in 1850. His result supported the wave theory, and the classical particle theory was finally abandoned, only to partly re-emerge in the 20th century.

Electromagnetic theory as explanation for all types of visible light and all EM radiation

In 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that the plane of polarisation of linearly polarised light is rotated when the light rays travel along the magnetic field direction in the presence of a transparent dielectric, an effect now known as Faraday rotation. This was the first evidence that light was related to electromagnetism. In 1846 he speculated that light might be some form of disturbance propagating along magnetic field lines. Faraday proposed in 1847 that light was a high-frequency electromagnetic vibration, which could propagate even in the absence of a medium such as the ether.

Faraday’s work inspired James Clerk Maxwell to study electromagnetic radiation and light. Maxwell discovered that self-propagating electromagnetic waves would travel through space at a constant speed, which happened to be equal to the previously measured speed of light. From this, Maxwell concluded that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation: he first stated this result in 1862 in On Physical Lines of Force. In 1873, he published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which contained a full mathematical description of the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields, still known as Maxwell’s equations. Soon after, Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theory experimentally by generating and detecting radio waves in the laboratory, and demonstrating that these waves behaved exactly like visible light, exhibiting properties such as reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference. Maxwell’s theory and Hertz’s experiments led directly to the development of modern radio, radar, television, electromagnetic imaging, and wireless communications.

In the quantum theory, photons are seen as wave packets of the waves described in the classical theory of Maxwell. The quantum theory was needed to explain effects even with visual light that Maxwell’s classical theory could not (such as spectral lines).

Quantum theory

In 1900 Max Planck, attempting to explain black body radiation suggested that although light was a wave, these waves could gain or lose energy only in finite amounts related to their frequency. Planck called these “lumps” of light energy “quanta” (from a Latin word for “how much”). In 1905, Albert Einstein used the idea of light quanta to explain the photoelectric effect, and suggested that these light quanta had a “real” existence. In 1923 Arthur Holly Compton showed that the wavelength shift seen when low intensity X-rays scattered from electrons (so called Compton scattering) could be explained by a particle-theory of X-rays, but not a wave theory. In 1926 Gilbert N. Lewis named these light quanta particles photons.

Eventually the modern theory of quantum mechanics came to picture light as (in some sense) both a particle and a wave, and (in another sense), as a phenomenon which is neither a particle nor a wave (which actually are macroscopic phenomena, such as baseballs or ocean waves). Instead, modern physics sees light as something that can be described sometimes with mathematics appropriate to one type of macroscopic metaphor (particles), and sometimes another macroscopic metaphor (water waves), but is actually something that cannot be fully imagined. As in the case for radio waves and the X-rays involved in Compton scattering, physicists have noted that electromagnetic radiation tends to behave more like a classical wave at lower frequencies, but more like a classical particle at higher frequencies, but never completely loses all qualities of one or the other. Visible light, which occupies a middle ground in frequency, can easily be shown in experiments to be describable using either a wave or particle model, or sometimes both.


Light is a multi-faceted entity, the control of which makes for a variety of possibilities, whether setting the mood in a room with specific light temperatures or createing a scene with a particular feel in a movie or photo.  The study of light opens doors to unlocking some of the secrets of effective photography, and is a lot of fun in helping us learn a bit more about the universe, in which we live.

Hopefully, this shines a light on your day!

Author: jansenphoto

A Fresh Perspective Photography is more than just a vehicle for capturing the world around me; it provides me with a palette and a set of brushes, with which I paint not only what I see, but also look to express the emotions that are evoked by the scene in front of me in that moment. Growing up in the Netherlands exposed me to a wide cross-section of visual arts that laid the foundation of my photographic view of all that surrounds me. Early influences were the Dutch Masters of the 17th century, to whom I was introduced by my grandfather during museum explorations; favorites among them are the scenes of quotidian life depicted by Jan Steen and Frans Hals and the vivid landscapes of Jacob van Ruisdael. My classical high school education was supplemented by the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum, where I spent many a lunch hour exploring its great collection. Here I was introduced to surrealism with a particular love for the approach taken by Salvador Dali; Dali also rekindled my appreciation for the work of Hieronymus Bosch, who often showed the folly of us mortals. Universal Connections My approach to any photographic subject is to look for understanding first; in this I look to establish either a connection between the viewer and the subject or capture the connection of the subject with its surroundings. The captured image then aims to portray this connection from a perspective that is part of my personal interpretation. This interpretation is often a form of externalized introspection, which may alternately display the connection of isolated beings and items with their environment or highlight the whimsy of the profound world, in which we find ourselves. The universe is full of connections, many of which are waiting to be discovered; part of my journey as a photographer is to document these connections. Any assignment, be it an event, a product shoot or a portrait session is always approached through communication with the client; this is where the first connection is established. Ideas are exchanged and a collaborative plan of action forms, ultimately resulting in a set of images that aim to exceed the expectations of each client. And, lest we forget, it is important to have fun while practicing the serious business of photography!

7 thoughts on “Wednesday Wonderment – Ep. 28”

  1. Frank, your physics background shines through! What a gathering of information on the light. My spiritual teacher has said that one way to understand things is looking at them from multiple perspectives. ☺
    What you helped me do this morning is to pause and consider the depth of light. Thanks! PS – great photo

    1. Thank you, Debbie! From a physics perspective, it is very interesting how ancient buddhist principles line up with quantum mechanics, which was an incredible revelation for me a number of years ago. The universe flows through every single atom of our being!

      Be well,


  2. Pingback: GOOD LUCK

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