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(Traditionally, a holograph is a document written entirely in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears. That is not what this article is about; this is about the more modern concept, not introduced until the 20th century.)

Holography (from the Greek, holos whole + graphe writing) is the science of producing holograms, an advanced form of photography that allows an image to be recorded in three dimensions.


Holography was invented in 1947 by Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor (1900-1979), for which he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1971. The discovery was a chance result of research into improving electron microscopes at the British Thomson-Houston Company, but the field did not really advance until the invention of the laser in 1960.

Various different types of hologram can be made. One of the more common types is the white-light hologram, which does not require a laser to reconstruct the image and can be viewed in normal daylight. These types of holograms are often used on credit cards as security features.

One of the most dramatic advances in the short history of the technology has been the mass production of laser diodes. These compact, solid state lasers are beginning to replace the large gas lasers previously required to make holograms. Best of all they are much cheaper than their counterpart gas lasers. Due to the decrease in costs, more people are making holograms in their homes as a hobby.

Technical Description

The difference between holography and photography is best understood by considering what a photograph actually is: it is a point-to-point recording of the intensity of light rays that make up an image. Each point on the photograph records just one thing, the intensity (i.e. the square of the amplitude of the electric field) of the light wave that illuminates that particular point. In the case of a colour photograph, slightly more information is recorded (in effect the image is recorded three times viewed through three different colour filters), which allows a limited reconstruction of the wavelength of the light, and thus its colour.

However, the light which makes up a real scene is not only specified by its amplitude and wavelength, but also by its phase. In a photograph, the phase of the light from the original scene is lost. In a hologram, both the amplitude and the phase of the light (usually at one particular wavelength) are recorded. When reconstructed, the resulting light field is identical to that which emanated from the original scene, giving a perfect three-dimensional image (albeit, in most cases, a monochromatic one, though colour holograms are possible).

Hologram recording process

To produce a recording of the phase of the light wave at each point in an image, holography uses a reference beam which is combined with the light from the scene or object (the object beam). Optical interference between the reference beam and the object beam, due to the superposition of the light waves, produces a series of intensity fringes that can be recorded on standard photographic film. These fringes form a type of diffraction grating on the film.

Hologram reconstuction process

Once the film is processed, if illuminated once again with the reference beam, diffraction from the fringe pattern on the film reconstructs the original object beam in both intensity and phase. Because both the phase and intensity are reproduced, the image appears three-dimensional; the viewer can move their viewpoint and see the image rotate exactly as the original object would.

Because of the need for interference between the reference and object beams, holography typically uses a laser to produce them. The light from the laser is split into two beams, one forming the reference beam, and one illuminating the object to form the object beam. A laser is used because the coherence of the beams allows interference to take place, although early holograms were made before the invention of the laser, and used other (much less convenient) coherent light sources such as mercury-arc lamps.

Other applications of holograms include metrology, data storage and optical computing.

See also: optics

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