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Definition: devices used for the detection of light

Alternative term: light detectors

German: Photodetektoren, Lichtdetektoren

Category: photonic devices

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Photodetectors are devices used for the detection of light – in most cases of optical powers. More specifically, photodetectors are usually understood as photon detectors, which in some way utilize the photo excitation of electric carriers; thermal detectors are then not included by the term (and are also not treated in this article).

As the requirements for applications vary considerably, there are many types of photodetectors which may be appropriate in a particular case:

Various kinds of photodetectors can be integrated into devices like powermeters and optical power monitors.

Important Properties of Photodetectors

Depending on the application, a photodetector has to fulfill various requirements:

  • It must be sensitive in some given spectral region (range of optical wavelengths). In some cases, the responsivity should be constant or at least well defined within some wavelength range. It can also be important to have zero response in some other wavelength range; an example are solar-blind detectors, being sensitive only to short-wavelength ultraviolet light but not to sun light.
  • The detector must be suitable for some range of optical powers. The maximum detected power can be limited e.g. by damage issues or by a nonlinear response, whereas the minimum power is normally determined by noise. The magnitude of the dynamic range (typically specified as the ratio of maximum and minimum detectable power, e.g. in decibels) is often most important. Some detectors (e.g. photodiodes) can exhibit high linearity over a dynamic range of more than 70 dB.
  • In some cases, not only a high responsivity, but also a high quantum efficiency is important, as otherwise additional quantum noise is introduced. This applies e.g. to the detection of squeezed states of light, and also affects the photon detection probability of single-photon detectors.
  • The active area of a detector can be important e.g. when working with strongly divergent beams from laser diodes. For light sources with very high and/or non-constant beam divergence, it is hardly possible to get all the light onto the active area. An integrating sphere may then be used (with appropriate calibration) for measuring the total power.
  • The detection bandwidth may begin at 0 Hz or some finite frequency (for AC-coupled detectors), and ends at some maximum frequency which may be limited by internal processes (e.g. the speed of electric carriers in a semiconductor material) or by the involved electronics (e.g. introducing some RC time constants). Some resonant detectors operate only in a narrow frequency range, and can be suitable e.g. for lock-in detection.
  • Some detectors (such as pyroelectric detectors) are suitable only for detecting pulses, not for continuous-wave light.
  • For detecting pulses (possibly on a few-photon level), the timing precision may be of interest. Some detectors have a certain “dead time” after the detection of a pulse, where they are not sensitive.
  • Different types of detectors require more or less complex electronics. Penalties in terms of size and cost may result e.g. from the requirement of applying a high voltage or detecting extremely small voltages.
  • Particularly some mid-infrared detectors need to be cooled to fairly low temperatures. This makes their use under various circumstances impractical.
  • For some applications, one-dimensional or two-dimensional photodetector arrays are needed – most often in the form of photodiode arrays. For detector arrays, some different aspects come into play, such as cross-pixel interference and read-out techniques.
  • Finally, the size, robustness and cost are essential for many applications.

Different detector types, as listed above, differ very much in many of these properties. In typical application scenarios, some requirements totally rule out the use of certain detector types, and quickly lead to a fairly limited choice. Note also that there are some typical trade-offs. For example, it is frequently difficult to combine a high detection bandwidth with a high sensitivity.


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 51 suppliers for photodetectors. Among them:

See also: photoelectric effect, photocurrent, photodiodes, p–i–n photodiodes, avalanche photodiodes, phototransistors, metal–semiconductor–metal photodetectors, velocity-matched photodetectors, phototubes, photomultipliers, photodiode arrays, powermeters, optical power monitors, single photon counting, noise specifications, noise-equivalent power, responsivity, thermal detectors
and other articles in the category photonic devices

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