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What determines the color of light -- is it the wavelength of the light or the frequency?

(i.e. If you put light through a medium other than air, in order to keep its color the same, which one would you need to keep constant: the wavelength or the frequency?)

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Thanks for making me think about something I never considered before. – quant Jul 28 '14 at 0:43
Wavelength: The length of a signal defined by the speed of light (~300.000 km/h) divided by the frequency. – Mast Oct 30 '14 at 12:33
Color is a qualitative human perception that is not simply a function of wavelength or frequency (intensity matters too). If you look at an object while your eye is exposed to other medium than air, the perception we call color may change due to different absorption of the light in the medium. – Ján Lalinský Apr 13 '15 at 21:42

10 Answers 10

up vote 23 down vote accepted

For almost all detectors, it is actually the energy of the photon that is the attribute that is detected and the energy is not changed by a refractive medium. So the "color" is unchanged by the medium...

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+1 makes sense, thanks! – Mehrdad Feb 23 '12 at 0:20
Note: Energy= h*f where h is a Planck's constant and f is frequency. Thus, the color is determined by frequency. – Vlad is Glad Nov 17 '15 at 16:02

Colour is defined by the eye, and only indirectly from physical properties like wavelength and frequency. Since this interaction happens in a medium of fixed index of refraction (the vitreous humour of your eye), the frequency/wavelength relation inside your eye is fixed.

Outside your eye, the frequency stays constant, and the wavelength changes according to the medium, so I would say the frequency is what counts more. This explains why objects' colour don't change when we look at them under (transparent) water ($n=1.33$) or in air ($n=1$).

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Objects appear the same colour underwater because we are still using our eyes to see them! It is the refractive index of the fluid in your eyeball that determines the wavelength of the detected light, irrespective of whether it passed through air or water to get there. Your first paragraph is right, the second (or rather the last sentence) is wrong. – Rob Jeffries Oct 2 '14 at 16:54
The frequency is independent of the external n, and stays the same inside the eyeball. I have no idea whether the relevant quantity is the frequency or the wavelength inside the eyeball (or inside the cone cells). I don’t think the last sentence is wrong, but it is probably not clear. How would you formulate this idea ? – Frédéric Grosshans Oct 8 '14 at 13:25
What I am saying is surely it does not matter what medium the light has passed through prior to reaching your eye. The frequency is fixed and therefore the wavelength is the same inside you eyeball whatever. So your statement that the unchanging colour of an object underwater identifies the frequency as the critical parameter is incorrect in my view. – Rob Jeffries Oct 8 '14 at 14:29
What I want to say seems very close : the frequency is fixed during the life of the photon, and determines the wavelength in the eyeball. The wavelength in the original medium is relevant only in so far that it is linked to the constant frequency of the photon. Anyway, it seems we agree on what happens physically and we only disagree on the best way to describe it, which is secondary. – Frédéric Grosshans Oct 9 '14 at 9:58
But what if you consider a camera rather than your eyeball? If you enclose the CCD of a camera in transparent plastic or diamond (with very different IOR) won't the colour recorded by the camera still be the same? In other words, the wavelength that reaches the camera's CCD is different, but the colour=frequency is not? – Supernormal Nov 29 '15 at 22:37

As FrankH said, it's actually energy that determines color. The reason, in summary, is that color is a psychological phenomenon that the brain constructs based on the signals it receives from cone cells on the eye's retina. Those signals, in turn, are generated when photons interact with proteins called photopsins. The proteins have different energy levels corresponding to different configurations, and when a photon interacts with a photopsin, it is the photon's energy that determines what transition between energy levels takes place, and thus the strength of the electrical signal gets sent to the brain.

Side note: I posted a pretty detailed but underappreciated (at least, I thought so) answer to a very similar question on reddit a few days ago. I could edit it in here if you find it useful.

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Wouldn't energy $\implies$ frequency? $E=h\nu$, and $\nu$ is invariant on refraction. Which brings me to an interesting side-question: Materials exhibit colors due to their tendencies to absorb/reflect various wavelengths. What happens when the object is put in a medium? – Manishearth Feb 23 '12 at 3:14
Yeah, frequency determines color too. (There is a function mapping frequencies in the visible spectrum to an $\mathbb{R}^1$ subspace of the $\mathbb{R}^3$ RGB color space.) But I emphasized energy because the physical reason that colors are able to be distinguished is really based on the energy. AFAIK the origin of materials' colors is mostly the same mechanism, energy level transitions, so again the colors are unaffected when you put the material in a refractive medium. – David Z Feb 23 '12 at 5:03
I think this is right and is the only answer I've upvoted because it talks about the detection mechanism. Arguments based on what color things appear in swimming pools etc. are pointless because the light passes into the medium of our eyeball before detection. The correct experiment is to change the refractive index in your eyeball and see if the color changes. – Rob Jeffries Nov 17 '15 at 20:58
@Rob On the other hand, this perpetuates the misconception that the energy in light is purely a function of frequency, and not of the number of photons (a.k.a. "intensity"). There's very little, really, to be gained from the mention of energy; the frequency/wavelength correspondence is confusing enough without dragging even more related variables into the mix. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 17 '15 at 21:44

Refraction experiments show it is the frequency that determines color. When a beam of light crosses the boundary between two medium whose refraction index are $(n_1,n_2)$, its speed changes $(v_1=\frac{c}{n_1}; v_2=\frac{c}{n_2})$, its frequency does not change because it is fixed by the emitter, so its wavelength changes: $\lambda_1=\frac{v_1}{f};\lambda_2=\frac{v_2}{f}$. Now, it is an experimental fact that refraction does not affect color, so one can conclude that color is frequency dependant.

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How is the "experimental fact" that "refraction does not change color" found? – Rob Jeffries Nov 17 '15 at 16:49

Actually, there is something important all these answers are missing. Color is determined by the response of the human eye, not by energy or frequency. In order to get the full range ('gamut') of colors, I need a mix of red, green and blue light (hence the RGB displays) and the primaries can themselves all be different frequencies. That is, one RGB system can have one frequency for the red, while another has a somewhat different frequency for red, the only hard and fast requirement being that both of them choose that frequency from somewhere in the red range. But the choice affects the gamut.

Now I said "human eye", but of course, other animals see colors, too. Bees see colors into the ultraviolet. But of course, we have no idea what the ultraviolet colors look like to them, only that they do see them, and can distinguish shades of them.

Wikipedia has a lot of good further info on this, but it is scattered among several articles. Probably is the best starting point. For something much more thorough and technical, see Poynton's excellent Color FAQ at

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True and informative, but it remains the energy (i.e. frequency) that determines which photo-receptors are activated. – dmckee Jul 31 '12 at 13:39
And human eyes don't see in RGB at all, human eyes use a four-colour opponency system that is approximately R/G+Y/B, but is more complicated than that because the stimulus-response graphs are not linear nor are the peaks evenly distributed across the visible colour spectrum. – SevenSidedDie Oct 30 '14 at 0:00

Building on prior answers, the facts are: Color is determined by the energy of the EM Wave that reaches your eyeball. Energy is defined as $E = hf$, where $h$ is Planck's constant and $f$ is the light's frequency.

Thus, the color of an EM Wave is defined by its frequency. In other words, measuring the frequency of an EM Wave is sufficient to identifying the color of light or the type of EM Wave that it is. This is opposed to measuring the wavelength, which would knowledge of what the refractive index of the medium that the wavelength was measured in is to determine what color of light or type of EM wave the EM wave is.

Note: Although $f$ can be defined by $v/l$, where $v$ is the speed of an EM wave in a medium and $l$ is the the wavelength in a medium, upon changing mediums the only constant is the frequency of the wave.

An example of why frequency is the defining factor: When you throw a red brick in a pool, the wavelength of the EM Wave carrying the color of the object varries. If you were to measure the wavelength carrying the color of the brick, that information would be useless or misleading in identifying the color of the brick unless you knew the refractive index of (speed of EM Waves in) the medium that you were measuring in. On the other hand - measuring the frequency of the EM Wave carrying the color of the brick anywhere would be sufficient in determining the color of the brick is Red, for it does not change regardless of what medium the EM Wave is found in.

From this, we can conclude that the color we see is dependent on the frequency of the EM Wave. (The Wave just happens to have an certain wavelength at that speed of EM wave determined by the medium the wave is in.)

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There is no "thus" about your last sentence, since you could equally have said "$E = hc/\lambda$, thus ... defined by its wavelength." – Rob Jeffries Nov 17 '15 at 16:48
The speed of the wave and wavelength both vary depending on what medium the em wave is in - what does not varry is the frequency of the wave (v/lambda) – Vlad is Glad Nov 17 '15 at 16:59
Exactly, so perhaps add that the the answer. – Rob Jeffries Nov 17 '15 at 18:52
The wavelength of the wave you "see" is the wavelength of the light in your eyeball, and does not depend on what (non-absorbing) media it has travelled through prior to that. So though I'm sure it is frequency that is the important factor, your argument does not lead to that conclusion. – Rob Jeffries Nov 17 '15 at 20:50
According to David Z's answer we do not see a wavelength; rather, it is the energy of photons that fall on sensors the in our eyes that we "see" - which is determined by the frequency. – Vlad is Glad Nov 17 '15 at 21:15

Here's my addition. Many of the answers above use the erroneous argument that frequency is the determining quantity, on the basis that the same object viewed in different media appears to be the same colour.

This is meaningless, since the light has to travel through the vitreous humor (with refractive index 1.33) immediately prior to reaching the retina. Thus light of a given frequency will also reach the retina with exactly the same wavelength whatever medium that light has travelled through to get there.

No: the answer must be based on the physiology of the receptors. However, I do offer one obvious experiment in favour of frequency rather than wavelength. During a vitrectomy, the vitreous humor is temporarily replaced with other substances, often air or other gases with a completely different refractive index. In none of the few articles I have read, often for the patient's benefit (e.g. here) does it mention drastic changes in colour perception as one of the temporary side effects.

Therefore I deduce that since the frequency of the light is invariant, but its wavelength as it reaches the retina could be changed by 30%, that it must be frequency that determines colour perception.

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I think it is wavelength. But then wavelength and frequency are related. Longer waves have smaller frequency and vice versa.

As suggested - color is a human (or animal) construct with no specific meaning to light wave (EM radiation)

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Frequency and wavelength are related, but one changes between media (wavelength) and one does not (frequency). Colour is a human experience, but is still rooted in EM, otherwise our perception of colour would be completely arbitrary (but we observe sources giving off similar radiation to have similar colours). – Kyle Oman Feb 4 '14 at 18:13
The energy of the photons is what determines what optical pigments are excited, and energy is coupled to frequency not wavelength. Wavelength is a function of medium. – dmckee Feb 4 '14 at 18:58

Light frequency and wavelength are inversely proportional with a constant that is the speed of light (constant in vacuum). Both describe basically the same color within the spectrum, when light traverses a medium with a refractive index, its speed changes and affects the ratio of frequency to wavelength. What really matters is the energy carried by light as it hits the eye retina and its light sensing nerve cells. These cells get stimulated with a certain strength and that creates a stimulus which propagate to the brain for interpretation of color scheme. Further interpretation of wavelength to frequency relation will have to incorporate the special relativity where an observer is with the light of outside and/or the quantum interpretation of wave as particle of wavelength. But truly all of these are only but interpretations while the true knowledge is defined in absolutism. The true statement can be stated as "there is only the Atom and everything else if opinion" or in a more precise form "there is only God and everything else if opinion"...

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In my opinion both because frequency determines the main category of EM radiation such as: Radio waves, Microwaves, Infrared etc... Inside each category you can access a precise range of wavelenght. So colors are all the combination of frequency in the range 428 THz – 749 THz and wavelenght in the range 700 nm – 400 nm.

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