The Human Eye's Response to Light

The cones and rods in the eye dictate human's photopic response.

The three curves in the figure above shows the normalized response of an average human eye to various amounts of ambient light. The shift in sensitivity occurs because two types of photoreceptors called cones and rods are responsible for the eye's response to light. The curve on the right shows the eye's response under normal lighting conditions and this is called the photopic response. The cones respond to light under these conditions.

As mentioned previously, cones are composed of three different photo pigments that enable color perception. This curve peaks at 555 nanometers, which means that under normal lighting conditions, the eye is most sensitive to a yellowish-green color. When the light levels drop to near total darkness, the response of the eye changes significantly as shown by the scotopic response curve on the left.  At this level of light, the rods are most active and the human eye is more sensitive to the light present, and less sensitive to the range of color.  Rods are highly sensitive to light but are comprised of a single photo pigment, which accounts for the loss in ability to discriminate color. At this very low light level, sensitivity to blue, violet, and ultraviolet is increased, but sensitivity to yellow and red is reduced. The heavier curve in the middle represents the eye's response at the ambient light level found in a typical inspection booth. This curve peaks at 550 nanometers, which means the eye is most sensitive to yellowish-green color at this light level. Fluorescent penetrant inspection materials are designed to fluoresce at around 550 nanometers to produce optimal sensitivity under dim lighting conditions.

References: Robinson, S. J. and Schmidt, J. T., Fluorescent Penetrant Sensitivity and Removability - What the Eye Can See, a Fluorometer Can Measure, Materials Evaluation, Vol. 42, No. 8, July 1984, pp. 1029-1034