What is ABCD Law?

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- GoPhotonics

Mar 2, 2023

In optics, the ABCD law is a fundamental principle used to describe the behavior of light rays as they pass through optical systems. This law provides a simple and powerful way to analyze the propagation of light through complex optical systems, such as lenses, mirrors, and other optical components. The ABCD law is essential for designing and optimizing optical systems used in a variety of applications, including imaging, communication, and laser technology.

The ABCD Law is a matrix method that describes the propagation of both geometrical ray (light travels in straight lines and does not account for wave effects) and gaussian beam (laser beam that is characterized by its transverse intensity profile) through an optical system. It mathematically formulates the behavior of spherical wavefronts (i.e; a wavefront that expands uniformly in all directions from a point source) of light and determines the relationship between its input and output optical ray. This law assumes that the optical system is paraxial, meaning that the beam divergence angles are very small for simplified and accurate calculations.

The ABCD matrix is a 2x2 matrix that represents the transformation of a light ray as it passes through an optical system. The matrix contains four elements: A, B, C, and D, which correspond to the position and slope of the light ray at the input and output planes of the system. 

Ray transfer matrix, 


with AD-BC=1 is used to represent the effects of optical elements like lenses, mirrors, etc. The wavefront shape for the propagating wave can be predicted at any given plane using the ABCD Law.

ABCD Law for Geometrical Rays

Figure 1: Schematic of a light ray passing through an optical system

The optical ray can be represented using a set of two parameters. The transverse offset of the ray from the optical axis or its height ‘h’ and the optical direction cosine at that point given by α=cos θ, where ‘θ’ is the angle it makes with the axis. The input ray in figure 1 can be represented as (h11) and the output ray as (h22).

describes the input & output wavefront shapes respectively.

Applying ABCD law, the relation between the input and output ray can be expressed as:

Substituting this equation in the expression implies:

This equation describes how the wavefront of the input optical ray changes due to the interaction with the optical elements in its path as it propagates. ABCD matrices used can not only represent individual optical elements and optical beams but can also represent the optical system as a whole. If the optical system consists of multiple optical elements with their transfer matrix as M1, M2, M3, …, Mn. then, the multiplication rule from matrix optics implies that the transfer matrix for the entire optical system can be represented by a matrix M = M1M2M3...Mn.

ABCD Law for Gaussian beams

The matrix optics and ABCD Law can be modified to describe the propagation of Gaussian beams and to compute or analyze the effects of various optical elements on the same as well. The ABCD Law for the Gaussian beams can be expressed as

where q and q' represents the complex curvatures of the input and output Gaussian beams respectively with q = z + izo and q' = z' + iz'o. Here, zo is the Rayleigh range that characterizes the Gaussian beam and z is the beam position along the optic axis with respect to the beam focus known as beam waist. Since the real and imaginary parts of q represent the Rayleigh range and beam position respectively, it also describes the geometry of the entire Gaussian beam. Also, the real and imaginary parts of the inverse of the complex curvature (1/q) are related to the gaussian wavefront’s mean radius of curvature and to the second moment of the beam amplitude respectively.

This law can model the effects of various cases like free space propagation, a beam passing through a thin lens, etc.

Free space propagation of a Gaussian beam

The ABCD matrix for the free space propagation is represented by 

And applying the ABCD Law for Gaussian beams,

i.e, z' = z + d and z'o = zo 

So, for free space propagation, the beam position changes from z to z’ through a distance of ‘d’ while the Rayleigh range remains the same.

Gaussian beam passing through a thin lens

For a Gaussian beam at the focus, the Rayleigh length is given by

and hence the initial beam can be described as,

(z=0 as the beam position at beam focus = 0)

The ABCD matrix for a thin lens with a focal length f is given by 

Considering the ABCD Law for this system, taking its inverse and dividing the numerator and denominator of the right-hand side by q,

From the general form for a Gaussian beam passing through a thin lens,

On comparing these two results, the radius of curvature after a thin lens is R’ = -f for a focusing beam. And the beam size is unaffected as which implies that thin optics doesn’t cause beam size change.

Similarly, ABCD Law can be used to analyze wave propagation in any optical system involving Spherical wavefronts or Gaussian beams like lasers.


One of the primary applications of the ABCD law in optics is in the design of optical systems. Optical designers use the ABCD law to predict how a laser beam or light wave will propagate through an optical system. By analyzing the input and output beams of the system, designers can optimize the performance of the optical system to meet specific requirements.

The ABCD law can be used to design optical systems that reshape the beam into a specific profile. This is particularly useful in applications where the laser beam needs to be focused onto a small target, such as in laser surgery or micromachining.

It is used to analyze the performance of optical components such as lenses, mirrors, and beam splitters. By measuring the input and output beams of an optical component, the ABCD law can be used to calculate its transfer function. This information can be used to optimize the performance of the component or to identify any issues with its operation.

The ABCD law is used to analyze the propagation of light waves through the fiber optic cable. By understanding how the light propagates through the cable, engineers can optimize the design of the fiber optic system for high-speed data transmission or other applications.

This law is also used in astronomy to analyze the performance of telescopes and other optical instruments. By measuring the input and output beams of the instrument, the ABCD law can be used to calculate its transfer function. This information can be used to optimize the performance of the instrument or to identify any issues with its operation.