A dichroic filter, thin-film filter, or interference filter is a very accurate color filter used to selectively pass light of a small range of colors while reflecting other colors. By comparison, dichroic mirrors and dichroic reflectors tend to be characterized by the color(s) of light that they reflect, rather than the color(s) they pass. (See dichroism for the etymology of the term.)
Used before a light source, a dichroic filter produces light that is perceived by humans to be highly saturated (intense) in color. Although costly, such filters are popular in architectural and theatrical applications.
Used behind a light source, dichroic reflectors commonly reflect visible light forward while allowing the invisible infrared light (radiated heat) to pass out of the rear of the fixture, resulting in a beam of light that is literally cooler (of lower thermal temperature).
Such an arrangement allows a given light to dramatically increase its forward intensity while allowing the heat generated by the backward-facing part of the fixture to escape. Many quartz halogen bulbs have an integrated dichroic reflector for this purpose, being originally designed for use in slide projectors to avoid melting the slides, but now widely used for interior home and commercial lighting. This improves whiteness by removing excess red; however, it poses a serious fire hazard if used in recessed or enclosed luminaires by allowing infrared radiation into those luminaires. For these applications non cool beam (ALU or Silverback) lamps must be used.
Dichroic filters use the principle of thin-film interference, and produce colors in the same way as oil films on water. When light strikes an oil film at an angle, some of the light is reflected from the top surface of the oil, and some is reflected from the bottom surface where it is in contact with the water. Because the light reflecting from the bottom travels a slightly longer path, some light wavelengths are reinforced by this delay, while others tend to be canceled, producing the colors seen.
In a dichroic mirror or filter, instead of using an oil film to produce the interference, alternating layers of optical coatings with different refractive indexes are built up upon a glass substrate. The interfaces between the layers of different refractive index produce phased reflections, selectively reinforcing certain wavelengths of light and interfering with other wavelengths. The layers are usually added by vacuum deposition.
By controlling the thickness and number of the layers, the frequency (wavelength) of the passband of the filter can be tuned and made as wide or narrow as desired. Because unwanted wavelengths are reflected rather than absorbed, dichroic filters do not absorb this unwanted energy during operation and so do not become nearly as hot as the equivalent conventional filter (which attempts to absorb all energy except for that in the passband). (See Fabry–Pérot interferometer for a mathematical description of the effect.)
Where white light is being deliberately separated into various color bands (for example, within a color video projector or color television camera), the similar dichroic prism is used instead. For cameras, however it is now more common to have an absorption filter array to filter individual pixels on a single CCD array.