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4.7: Holography

A hologram, such as the one in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), is a true three-dimensional image recorded on film by lasers. Holograms are used for amusement; decoration on novelty items and magazine covers; security on credit cards and driver’s licenses (a laser and other equipment are needed to reproduce them); and for serious three-dimensional information storage. You can see that a hologram is a true three-dimensional image because objects change relative position in the image when viewed from different angles.

Photograph of a hologram on a credit card. It is in the shape of a bird and reflects many colours.

Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Credit cards commonly have holograms for logos, making them difficult to reproduce. (credit: Dominic Alves)

The name hologram means “entire picture” (from the Greek holo, as in holistic) because the image is three-dimensional. Holography is the process of producing holograms and, although they are recorded on photographic film, the process is quite different from normal photography. Holography uses light interference or wave optics, whereas normal photography uses geometric optics. Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) shows one method of producing a hologram. Coherent light from a laser is split by a mirror, with part of the light illuminating the object. The remainder, called the reference beam, shines directly on a piece of film. Light scattered from the object interferes with the reference beam, producing constructive and destructive interference. As a result, the exposed film looks foggy, but close examination reveals a complicated interference pattern stored on it. Where the interference was constructive, the film (a negative actually) is darkened. Holography is sometimes called lens-less photography, because it uses the wave characteristics of light, as contrasted to normal photography, which uses geometric optics and requires lenses.

A mirror at the top faces left and a photo plate at the bottom faces right. A dinosaur labeled object is below the mirror, to the right. Parallel rays labeled reference wave enter from the left. Some fall on the mirror and are reflected to the photo plate. Some fall on the object are are reflected to the photo plate. The latter are labeled object wave.

Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Production of a hologram. Single-wavelength coherent light from a laser produces a well-defined interference pattern on a piece of film. The laser beam is split by a partially silvered mirror, with part of the light illuminating the object and the remainder shining directly on the film. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Light falling on a hologram can form a three-dimensional image of the original object. The process is complicated in detail, but the basics can be understood, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\), in which a laser of the same type that exposed the film is now used to illuminate it. The myriad tiny exposed regions of the film are dark and block the light, whereas less exposed regions allow light to pass. The film thus acts much like a collection of diffraction gratings with various spacing patterns. Light passing through the hologram is diffracted in various directions, producing both real and virtual images of the object used to expose the film. The interference pattern is the same as that produced by the object. Moving your eye to various places in the interference pattern gives you different perspectives, just as looking directly at the object would. The image thus looks like the object and is three dimensional like the object.

A screen in the center is labeled hologram, reconstruction. Rays labeled reference wave pass through it from left to right. A dinosaur to the right is labeled real image. The dinosaur is facing left. Rays from the screen fall on it. A faded image of a dinosaur facing right is shown to the left of the screen. This is labeled virtual image. Rays from here pass through the screen and reach the eye of the observer.

Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A transmission hologram is one that produces real and virtual images when a laser of the same type as that which exposed the hologram is passed through it. Diffraction from various parts of the film produces the same interference pattern that was produced by the object that was used to expose it. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

The hologram illustrated in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) is a transmission hologram. Holograms that are viewed with reflected light, such as the white light holograms on credit cards, are reflection holograms and are more common. White light holograms often appear a little blurry with rainbow edges, because the diffraction patterns of various colors of light are at slightly different locations due to their different wavelengths. Further uses of holography include all types of three-dimensional information storage, such as of statues in museums, engineering studies of structures, and images of human organs.

Invented in the late 1940s by Dennis Gabor (1900–1970), who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, holography became far more practical with the development of the laser. Since lasers produce coherent single-wavelength light, their interference patterns are more pronounced. The precision is so great that it is even possible to record numerous holograms on a single piece of film by just changing the angle of the film for each successive image. This is how the holograms that move as you walk by them are produced—a kind of lens-less movie.

In a similar way, in the medical field, holograms have allowed complete three-dimensional holographic displays of objects from a stack of images. Storing these images for future use is relatively easy. With the use of an endoscope, high-resolution, three-dimensional holographic images of internal organs and tissues can be made.


  • Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).