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What color of light do you use for spectrophotometry?

Spectrophotometry is an important analytical technique used to quantify the amount of light absorbed by a sample at different wavelengths. The choice of light color or wavelength is critical for obtaining meaningful results. This article will provide an overview of spectrophotometry, explain why wavelength selection is important, discuss common wavelength ranges used, and provide recommendations for determining the optimal wavelengths for specific applications.

Overview of Spectrophotometry

Spectrophotometry measures the intensity of light passing through a sample (I) compared to the initial intensity of light before it passes through the sample (Io). The ratio I/Io is called transmittance. The absorbance (A) is based on the transmittance using the relationship:

A = -log(I/Io)

The absorbance is directly proportional to the concentration of the substance absorbing light according to the Beer-Lambert law. Therefore, spectrophotometry can quantify the concentration of a solute in a solution if the absorptivity is known.

In spectrophotometry, a beam of light from a visible and/or UV light source passes through a monochromator to isolate a narrow band of wavelengths. The monochromatic light then passes through the sample and the intensity is measured by a detector. By repeating measurements at different wavelengths, an absorbance spectrum can be produced showing how much light is absorbed at each wavelength.

Importance of Wavelength Selection

Proper wavelength selection is crucial for obtaining meaningful spectrophotometric data. The key considerations are:

  • Analyte absorbance – Wavelengths are chosen where the analyte of interest absorbs light, while other sample components and the solvent do not absorb.
  • Detector response – The detector must have adequate sensitivity at the wavelengths monitored.
  • Spectral bandwidth – Bandwidth must be sufficiently narrow to resolve absorption peaks.
  • Stray light – Wavelengths prone to stray light interference should be avoided.

Additionally, the absorbance at the chosen wavelengths should follow the Beer-Lambert law. Selection of inappropriate wavelengths can lead to non-linear calibration curves and quantitation errors.

Common Wavelength Ranges

Certain wavelength ranges are commonly used for spectrophotometric analysis:

  • UV region (190-380 nm) – Many organic compounds absorb UV light due to presence of double bonds, heteroatoms, and aromatic rings. Nucleic acids like DNA and RNA have strong absorption at 260 nm.
  • Visible region (380-780 nm) – Compounds containing conjugated double bonds or aromatic rings absorb at visible wavelengths. Examples include hemoglobin (oxyhemoglobin peak at 415 nm) and colored dyes.
  • Near-infrared region (780-2500 nm) – Overtones of O-H, N-H, and C-H functional groups absorb NIR radiation. Used for analysis of moisture content.

Typical spectrophotometers operate from 190-1100 nm. UV-vis spectrophotometers (190-700 nm range) are most common.

Recommendations for Wavelength Selection

The optimal wavelengths will depend on the analyte, sample matrix, and instrumental capabilities. However, some general recommendations can guide wavelength selection:

  • Review literature sources for typical or recommended wavelengths used previously for the given analyte.
  • Examine the UV-vis spectrum of the pure analyte dissolved in the relevant solvent to identify peaks.
  • Select a wavelength at the peak maximum absorption for optimal sensitivity. Measure absorbance across the peak to ensure it follows Beer’s law.
  • For samples with interfering absorbers, select secondary wavelengths where only the analyte absorbs.
  • Ensure the detector has adequate response at the wavelengths selected.
  • Verify the spectral bandwidth is appropriate given the peak width.
  • Assess potential interference from stray light and adjust wavelengths accordingly.
  • Prepare calibration standards and check linearity to validate wavelength suitability.

Adhering to these recommendations will maximize method performance and analytical results.

UV-Visible Absorption Spectra

Below are some examples of UV-visible absorption spectra showing the characteristic peaks for different analytes:

Analyte Peak Wavelengths
DNA 260 nm
Protein (aromatic amino acids) 280 nm
Nitrate 205 nm, 275 nm
Aspirin 230 nm
Rhodamine 6G dye 530 nm
Cu2+ complex 810 nm

These spectra demonstrate the variety of peak positions and absorption band shapes encountered, underscoring the need for careful wavelength optimization.

Instrumentation Considerations

In addition to fundamental chemical effects, wavelength selection is also influenced by the spectral bandwidth, wavelength accuracy, stray light, and detector capabilities of the spectrophotometer used.

Spectral Bandwidth

Narrower spectral bandwidths improve the resolution of absorption peaks, but reduce light intensity reaching the detector. Bandwidths of 1-5 nm are typical. The bandwidth should match the width of absorption features.

Wavelength Accuracy

Wavelength uncertainty should be ±1 nm or better for dependable spectrophotometry. Monochromators need periodic calibration by the manufacturer.

Stray Light

Stray light reaches the detector without passing through the sample, causing interference. Silicon photodiode arrays have improved stray light performance. Avoid measuring close to zero absorbance.

Detector Linearity

Detector response should be linear across the absorbance range of interest. Photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) have limited linear range. Diode arrays are preferred if measuring higher absorbance samples.

Measurement Considerations

In addition to wavelength optimization, the measurement procedure must be carefully controlled for accurate results:

  • Blank solution – The blank should match the sample solvent composition and provide zero absorbance at the wavelength(s) measured.
  • Sample container – Transparent quartz or glass cuvettes are required, with light pathlength matched to the analyte concentration.
  • Temperature – Measurements should be at controlled room temperature or with a temperature-regulated cuvette holder.
  • Timing – Measurement timing should be consistent, especially for reactive samples.
  • Reference standard – A reference standard can be periodically measured to check instrument performance.

With robust wavelength selection and testing, plus meticulous attention to measurement details, high quality spectrophotometric analysis can be achieved.


The optimal wavelengths in spectrophotometry depend on the analyte properties, sample composition, and instrument capabilities. Analyzing the analyte’s absorption spectrum, evaluating detector response, avoiding stray light, and verifying linearity guides the selection process. Common wavelength regions include UV (190-380 nm), visible (380-780 nm), and NIR (780-2500 nm). Strict control of measurement parameters like blank, sample containers, timing, temperature, and calibration is also essential. By understanding these factors, researchers can intelligently choose wavelengths for reliable quantitative spectrophotometric analysis.