Illumination techniques
Illumination techniques comprise back lighting, diffuse (also known as full bright field) lighting, bright field (actually partial bright field or directional) lighting, and dark field lighting. The application of some techniques requires a specific light and geometry, or relative placement of the camera, sample, and light—others do not. For example, a standard bright field bar light may also be used in dark-field mode; whereas a diffuse light is used exclusively as such. Most manufacturers of vision lighting products also offer lights with various combinations of techniques available in the same light, and at least in the case of LED-based varieties, each of the techniques may be individually addressable. This circumstance allows for greater flexibility and also reduces potential costs when many different inspections can be accomplished in a single station rather than two. If the application conditions and limitations of each of these lighting techniques, as well as the intricacies of the inspection environment and sample/light interactions are well understood, it is possible to develop an effective lighting solution that meets the three acceptance criteria.


Back Lighting
Back lighting generates instant contrast as it creates dark silhouettes against a bright background (Figure 16). The most common uses are for detecting the presence/absence of holes and gaps, part placing or orientating, or measuring objects. Often it is useful to use a monochrome light, such as red, green, or blue, with light control polarization if precise (subpixel) edge detection becomes necessary.

Figure 16

Figure 16. Back Lighting


Diffuse (Full Bright Field) Lighting
Diffuse, or full bright field lighting, is most commonly used on shiny specular or mixed reflectivity samples where even but multidirectional light is needed. Several implementations of diffuse lighting are generally available, but there are three primary types (Figures 17a–c), with hemispherical dome/cylinder or on-axis being the most common. Diffuse dome lights are effective at lighting curved, specular surfaces, commonly found in the automotive industry, for example. On-axis lights work in a similar fashion for flat samples and are particularly effective at enhancing differentially angled, textured, or topographic features on relatively flat objects. To be effective, diffuse lights, particularly dome varieties, require close proximity to the sample. A useful property of axial diffuse lighting is that in this case, rather than rejecting or avoiding specular glare, you may actually take advantage of the glare if it can be isolated specifically to uniquely define the feature(s) of interest required for a consistent and robust inspection.

Figure 17a Dome Diffuse

Figure 17b On-axis Diffuse

Figure 17c Flat Diffuse

Partial Bright Field or Directional Lighting
Partial bright field lighting is the most commonly used vision lighting technique, and is the most familiar lighting used every day, including sunlight. This type of lighting is distinguished from full bright field in that it is directional, typically from a point source and, because of its directional nature, it is a good choice for generating contrast and enhancing topographic detail. It is much less effective, however when used on-axis with specular surfaces, generating the familiar “hotspot” reflection.

Figure 18

Figure 18. Directional Bright Field 


Dark Field Lighting
Dark field lighting is perhaps the least well understood of all the techniques, although you do use these techniques in everyday life. For example, the use of automobile headlights relies on light incident at low angles on the road surface, reflecting back from the small surface imperfections, and also nearby objects. Dark field lighting can be subdivided into circular and linear, or directional types, the former requiring a specific light head geometry design. This type of lighting is characterized by low or medium angle of light incidence, typically requiring close proximity, particularly for the circular light head varieties (Figure 19).

Figure 19

Figure 19. Dark Field Lighting

Bright Field Versus Dark Field

The following figures illustrate the differences in implementation and result of circular directional (partial bright field) and circular dark field lights on a mirrored surface.

Figure 20a Bright Field Image of a Mirror

Figure 20b Dark Field Image of a Mirror (note scratch)

Effective application of dark field lighting relies on the fact that much of the light incident on a mirrored surface that would otherwise flood the scene as a hotspot glare, is reflected away from rather than toward the camera. The relatively small amount of light that is reflected back into the camera is what happened to catch an edge of a small feature on the surface, satisfying the “angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence” equation (see Figure 21 for another example).

Figure 21

Figure 21. The peanut brittle bag on the left is under a bright field ring light. On the right, it is under a dark field ring light—note the seam is very visible. 

Application Fields
Figure 22 illustrates potential application fields for the different lighting techniques based on the two most prevalent gross surface characteristics: (1) surface flatness and texture and (2) surface reflectivity. This diagram plots surface reflectivity, divided into three categories—matte, mirror, and mixed—versus surface flatness and texture or topography. As you move right and downward on the diagram, more specialized lighting geometries and structured lighting types are necessary. As might be expected, the Geometry Independent Area implies that relatively flat and diffuse surfaces do not require specific lighting, but rather any light technique may be effective, provided it meets all the other criteria necessary, such as working distance, access, brightness, and projected pattern.

Figure 22

Figure 22. Lighting Technique Application Fields: Surface Shape Versus Surface Reflectivity Detail (Although not shown, any light technique is generally effective in the Geometry Independent Area of the diagram.)


This level of in-depth analysis can and often does result in seemingly contradictory directions, and a compromise is necessary. For example, detailed sample/light interaction analysis might point to the use of the dark field lighting technique, but the inspection environment analysis indicates that the light must be remote from the part. In this instance, a more intense linear bar light(s) oriented in dark field configuration may create the contrast you want, but perhaps require more image post-processing. No matter the level of analysis, and understanding, there is quite often no substitute for actually testing the two or three light types and techniques first on the bench, then in actual floor implementation whenever possible. And when designing the vision inspection and parts handling/presentation from scratch, it is best to get the lighting solution in place first, then build the remainder of the inspection around the lighting requirements. The objective of this detailed analysis and application of what might be termed a “tool box” of lighting types, techniques, tips, and tricks is to help you arrive at an optimal lighting solution that takes into account and balances issues of ergonomics, cost, efficiency, and consistent application. This helps you to better direct your time, effort, and resources—items better used in other critical aspects of vision system design, testing, and implementation.

SOURCES -- Practical Guide to Machine Vision Lighting.-- A Practical Guide to Machine Vision Lighting - National Instruments, 24 May 2019,