How is the frequency of a photon/light measured? How long does such a measurement take?

Asked by: Torbjorn


It is not actually possible to directly measure the frequency of a single photon of light. This is because a single photon is going to behave more like a particle than a wave, and the concept of frequency (cycles or alternations per second) only applies to waves.

A spectrometer is a device that disperses the path of impinging photons through an angle that is dependent on their wavelength. In this way it is possible to closely estimate the wavelength of the photons.

The wavelength measurement is then used in a simple equation relating speed of a wave, its wavelength and frequency: frequency = speed / wavelength.

The speed of light is defined exactly as 299,792,458 m/s. A photon of red-orange light from a HeNe laser has a wavelength of 632.8 nm. Using the equation gives a frequency of 4.738X1014 Hz or about 474 trillion cycle per second.

A much more accurate method directly measures the wavelength of a laser beam by counting the number of fringes in an interferometer as one of its mirrors is moved over a very precisely measured distance.

A third and most accurate method measures the frequency of a laser by measuring the difference-frequencies produced by mixing it with a series of lower and lower frequency signals. (When two waves of different frequency are mixed, two new waves are produced with frequencies equal to the sum and the difference of the original frequencies.) The lowest or reference frequency and each of the difference frequencies is directly measured by comparing them with a frequency standard such as one of the atomic clocks at NIST. Described at:

The time it takes to make a measurement depends on the method used and the accuracy desired. For the highest accuracy, measurements may take a second or more. A single photon wavelength measurement can be completed in a fraction of a microsecond, but the accuracy will be many orders of magnitude less.
Answered by: Scott Wilber, President, ComScire - Quantum World Corporation