The Inverse Square Law

If you’ve ever read or been taught about lighting, you’ve probably heard of the Inverse Square Law. It states that light fades in proportion to the square of the distance from the source. But lately I started to wonder if this really applies in all situations. Join me as I attempt to get to the bottom of this…


Knowing the law

The seed of this post was sown almost a year ago, when I read Herbert McKay’s 1947 book The Tricks of Light and Colour, which described the Inverse Square Law in terms of light spreading out. (Check out my post about The Tricks of Light and Colour here.)

But before we go into that, let’s get the Law straight in our minds. What, precisely, does it say? Another excellent book, Gerald Millerson’s Lighting for Television and Film, defines it thusly:

With increased distance, the light emitted from a given point source will fall rapidly, as it spreads over a progressively larger area. This fall-off in light level is inversely proportional to the distance square, i.e. 1/d². Thus, doubling the lamp distance would reduce the light to ¼.

The operative word, for our purposes, is “spreads”.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago what causes the Inverse Square Law, I probably would have mumbled something about light naturally losing energy as it travels. But that is hogwash of the highest order. Assuming the light doesn’t strike any objects to absorb it, there is nothing to reduce its energy. (Air does scatter – and presumably absorb – a very small amount of light, hence atmospheric haze, but this amount will never be significant on the scale a cinematographer deals with.)

In fact, as the Millerson quote above makes clear, the Inverse Square Law is a result of how light spreads out from its source. It’s purely geometry. In this diagram you can see how fewer and fewer rays strike the ‘A’ square as it gets further and further away from the source ‘S’:

Illustration by Borb, CC BY-SA 3.0

Each light ray (dodgy term, I know, but sufficient for our purposes) retains the same level of energy, and there are the same number of them overall, it’s just that there are fewer of them passing through any given area.

So far, so good.


Taking the Law into my own hands

During season two of my YouTube series Lighting I Like, I discussed Dedo’s Panibeam 70 HMI. This fixture produces collimated light, light of which all the waves are travelling in parallel. It occurred to me that this must prevent them spreading out, and therefore render the Inverse Square Law void.

This in turn got me thinking about more common fixtures – par cans, for example.


Par lamps are so named for the Parabolic Aluminised Reflectors they contain. These collect the light radiated from the rear and sides of the filament and reflect it as parallel rays. So to my mind, although light radiated from the very front of the filament must still spread and obey the Inverse Square Law, that which bounces off the reflector should theoretically never diminish. You can imagine that the ‘A’ square in our first diagram would have the same number of light rays passing through it every time if they are travelling in parallel.

Similarly, fresnel lenses are designed to divert the spreading light waves into a parallel pattern:

Even simple open-face fixtures have a reflector which can be moved back and forth using the flood/spot control, affecting both the spread and the intensity of the light. Hopefully by now you can see why these two things are related. More spread = more divergence of light rays = more fall-off. Less spread = less divergence of light rays = more throw.

So, I wondered, am I right? Do these focused sources disobey the Inverse Square Law?


Breaking the law

To find the answer, I waded through a number of fora.

Firstly, and crucially, everyone agrees that the Law describes light radiated from a point source, so any source which isn’t infinitely small will technically not be governed by the Law. In practice, says the general consensus, the results predicted by the Law hold true for most sources, unless they are quite large or very close to the subject.

If you are using a softbox, a Kinoflo or a trace frame at short range though, the Inverse Square Law will not apply.

The above photometric data for a Filmgear LED Flo-box indeed shows a slower fall-off than the Law predicts. (Based on the 1m intensity, the Law predicts the 2m and 3m intensities as 970÷2²=243 lux and 970÷3²=108 lux respectively.)

A Flickr forum contributor called Severin Sadjina puts it like this:

In general, the light will fall off as 1/d² if the size of the light source is negligible compared to the distance d to the light source. If, on the other hand, the light source is significantly larger than the distance d to the light source, the light will fall off as 1/d – in other words: slower than the Inverse Square Law predicts.

Another contributor, Ftir, claims that a large source will start to follow the Law above distances equal to about five times the largest side of the source, so a 4ft Kinoflo would obey the Law very closely after about 20ft. This claim is confirmed by Wikipedia, citing A. Ryer’s The Light Measurement Handbook.

But what about those pesky parallel light beams from the pars and fresnels?

Every forum had a lot of disagreement on this. Most people agree that parallel light rays don’t really exist in real life. They will always diverge or converge, slightly, and therefore the Law applies. However, many claim that it doesn’t apply in quite the same way.

Diagram from a tutorial PDF on showing a virtual point source behind the bulb of a torch.

A fresnel, according to John E. Clark on, can still be treated as a point source, but that point source is actually located somewhere behind the lamp-head! It’s a virtual point source. (Light radiating from a distant point source has approximately parallel rays with consequently negligible fall-off, e.g. sunlight.) So if this virtual source is 10m behind the fixture, then moving the lamp from 1m from the subject to 2m is not doubling the distance (and therefore not quartering the intensity). In fact it is multiplying the distance by 1.09 (12÷11=1.09), so the light would only drop to 84% of its former intensity (1÷1.09²=0.84).

I tried to confirm this using the Arri Photometrics App, but the data it gives for Arri’s fresnel fixtures conforms perfectly with an ordinary point source under the Law, leaving me somewhat confused. However, I did find some data for LED fresnels that broke the Law, for example the Lumi Studio 300:

As you can see, at full flood (bottom graphic) the Law is obeyed as expected; the 8m intensity of 2,500 lux is a quarter of the 4m intensity of 10,000 lux. But when spotted (top graphic) it falls off more rapidly. Again, very confusing, as I was expecting it to fall off less rapidly if the rays are diverging but close to parallel.

A more rapid fall-off suggests a virtual point source somewhere in front of the lamp-head. This was mentioned in several places on the fora as well. The light is converging, so the intensity increases as you move further from the fixture, reaching a maximum at the focal point, then diverging again from that point as per the Inverse Square Law. In fact, reverse-engineering the above data using the Law tells me – if my maths is correct – that the focal point is 1.93m in front of the fixture. Or, to put it another way, spotting this fixture is equivalent to moving it almost 2m closer to the subject. However, this doesn’t seem to tally with the beam spread data in the above graphics. More confusion!

I decided to look up ETC’s Source Four photometrics, since these units contain an ellipsoidal reflector which should focus the light (and therefore create a virtual point source) in front of themselves. However, the data shows no deviation from the Law and no evidence of a virtual point source displaced from the actual source.


I fought the law and the law won

I fear this investigation has left me more confused than when I started! Clearly there are factors at work here beyond what I’ve considered.

However, I’ve learnt that the Inverse Square Law is a useful means of estimating light fall-off for most lighting fixtures – even those that really seem like they should act differently! If you double the distance from lamp to subject, you’re usually going to quarter the intensity, or near as damn it. And that rule of thumb is all we cinematographers need 99% of the time. If in doubt, refer to photometrics data like that linked above.

And if anyone out there can shed any light (haha) on the confusion, I’d be very happy to hear from you!





The Inverse Square Law