Different Types of Light Sensors

Light falling on to the surface of a light sensor generates an electrical output proportional to the strength of the incident illumination. The sensor responds to a band of radiant energy existing within a narrow range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, which we characterize as light. These frequencies range from the infrared to the visible and continue to the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.

Most light sensors are passive devices for converting the light energy of the spectrum into electrical signal. Light sensors are also known as photo sensors or photoelectric devices, since they convert photons into electrons. We can group photoelectric devices into two main categories. One generates electricity when illuminated – such as photovoltaic or photo-emissive, etc. and the other changes their electrical properties in some way – such as photo-resistors or photo-conductors, etc. Accordingly, the following classification emerges.

Photo-emissive cells

These are formed from light sensitive material such as cesium. When struck by a photon of sufficient energy, the light sensitive material releases free electrons. As high frequency light contains photons of higher energy, they have a better chance of producing more electrical energy.

Photo-conductive cells

The electrical resistance of these cells varies when subjected to light. They are made of semiconductor material and the light hitting it causes photoconductivity, which controls the current flow through the material. Cadmium Sulphide is the most common material for making photo-conductive cells, such as the light dependent resistor or LDR.

Photo-voltaic cells

These generate an EMF or electromotive force proportional to the radiant light energy falling. Although similar in effect to the photo-emissive cells, these are made up of two semiconductor materials sandwiched together. Solar cells are the most common photovoltaic cells in existence.

Photo-junction devices

These photo-devices are made of true semiconductor devices such as PN-junctions that use light for controlling the flow of electrons and holes. Specifically designed for light penetration and detection applications, their spectral responses are tuned to the wavelength of light expected to be incident on the device.

Applications of light sensors

LDR photocell: The Cadmium Sulphide photo-resistive cell is the most common example of this device. The resistance of these cells when not illuminated is of the order of 10M ohms, which reduces to the level of 100 ohms when fully lit or illuminated. As the voltage drop across a resistor increases with its resistance value, an LDR photocell can generate different voltages in a potential divider circuit based on the amount of light falling on it.

Light activated switch: This is basically a dark sensing circuit, with a light sensor in series with a potentiometer forming one arm of a simple resistance bridge network and two fixed resistors forming the other side of the bridge. By changing the potentiometer, one can balance the bridge when the light sensor is illuminated, for example by sunlight. The absence of sunlight causes the bridge to unbalance and the resulting potential difference is amplified by an operational amplifier to operate a relay or a switch.

Today, it is common to find cameras that do not operate with a film, but with charge coupled devices that convert the light falling on them to an electronic image.