RP Photonics

Encyclopedia … combined with a great Buyer's Guide!

Sponsorship opportunity: support this popular resource, which serves the whole photonics community, and get recognition!


Definition: the width of some frequency or wavelength range

German: Bandbreite

Categories: light detection and characterization, physical foundations

Formula symbol: Δν, Δλ

Units: Hz, nm

How to cite the article; suggest additional literature


In photonics, the term bandwidth occurs in many different cases. The following sections discuss some important cases.

Bandwidth in Terms of Optical Frequency

In the following cases, bandwidth means the width of a range of optical frequencies:

  • A light source can have some bandwidth (or linewidth), meaning the width of the optical spectrum of the output. The narrow-linewidth lasers, where the bandwidth can be extremely small – sometimes below 1 Hz, which is many orders of magnitude less than the mean optical frequency. On the other hand, ultrashort pulse is with few-femtosecond pulse durations can have very large bandwidth – easily tens of terahertz.
  • An optical bandwidth can be the width of a frequency range which can somehow be handled by an optical element or photonic device. For example, it can be the reflection bandwidth of a mirror, the optical transmission bandwidth of an optical fiber, the gain bandwidth of an optical amplifier, or the phase-matching bandwidth of a nonlinear optical device.

A common definition of spectral width is the full width at half maximum (FWHM), but other definitions are also used.

bandwidth of a pulse
Figure 1: The optical spectrum of an unchirped 80-fs ultrashort light pulse. Its full width at half maximum bandwidth is 8.9 nm, corresponding to 3.9 THz.

Optical bandwidth values may be specified in terms of frequency or wavelength. Due to the inverse relationship of frequency and wavelength, the conversion factor between gigahertz and nanometers depends on the center wavelength or frequency. For converting a (small) wavelength interval into a frequency interval, the equation

wavelength to frequency interval

can be used. This shows that 1 nm is worth more gigahertz if the center wavelength is shorter.

Conversion between Frequency and Wavelength Bandwidth

Center wavelength:
Wavelength bandwidth: calc
Frequency bandwidth: calc

Enter input values with units, where appropriate. After you have modified some values, click a "calc" button to recalculate the field left of it.

If you choose a longer center wavelength, you will see that one nm is worth fewer GHz!

The optical bandwidth of a light source is strongly related to the temporal coherence, characterized with the coherence time.

Both for passive resonators (e.g. optical cavities) and for the output of oscillators (e.g. lasers), the Q factor is the oscillation frequency divided by the bandwidth.

Bandwidth of Modulations

A bandwidth can also indicate the maximum frequency with which a light source can be modulated, or at which modulated light can be detected with a photodetector.

In the area of optical fiber communications, the term bandwidth is also often inaccurately used for the data rate (e.g. in units of Gbit/s) achieved in an optical communication system. A more appropriate term would be data rate or data transmission capacity, avoiding any confusion with optical bandwidth.

Note that the data transmission capacity has only a limited relation to the optical bandwidth, as it is a signal bandwidth. Although a large signal bandwidth is not possible without a large optical bandwidth, different communications devices can differ substantially in terms of spectral efficiency, i.e., concerning what data rate is achievable per megahertz of optical bandwidth.

See also: optical spectrum, time–bandwidth product, gain bandwidth, coherence time, transform limit, modal bandwidth, bandwidth–distance product, Q factor, phase-matching bandwidth, wavelength, optical frequency, telecom fibers, Spotlight article 2007-10-11
and other articles in the categories light detection and characterization, physical foundations

How do you rate this article?

Click here to send us your feedback!

Your general impression: don't know poor satisfactory good excellent
Technical quality: don't know poor satisfactory good excellent
Usefulness: don't know poor satisfactory good excellent
Readability: don't know poor satisfactory good excellent

Found any errors? Suggestions for improvements? Do you know a better web page on this topic?

Spam protection: (enter the value of 5 + 8 in this field!)

If you want a response, you may leave your e-mail address in the comments field, or directly send an e-mail.

If you enter any personal data, this implies that you agree with storing it; we will use it only for the purpose of improving our website and possibly giving you a response; see also our declaration of data privacy.

If you like our website, you may also want to get our newsletters!

If you like this article, share it with your friends and colleagues, e.g. via social media: