Luminance a measure (in candelas per square metre) of the brightness of a point on a surface that is radiating or reflecting light. It is the luminous intensity in a given direction of a small element of surface area divided by the orthogonal projection of this area onto a plane at right angles to the direction. Symbol L.

Luminance is a photometric measure of the luminous intensity per unit area of light travelling in a given direction. It describes the amount of light that passes through or is emitted from a particular area, and falls within a given solid angle. The SI unit for luminance is candela per square metre (cd/m2). A non-SI term for the same unit is the “nit”. The CGS unit of luminance is the stilb, which is equal to one candela per square centimetre or 10 kcd/m2.

Luminance is often used to characterize emission or reflection from flat, diffuse surfaces. The luminance indicates how much luminous power will be perceived by an eye looking at the surface from a particular angle of view. Luminance is thus an indicator of how bright the surface will appear. In this case, the solid angle of interest is the solid angle subtended by the eye’s pupil. Luminance is used in the video industry to characterize the brightness of displays. A typical computer display emits between 50 and 300 cd/m2. The sun has luminance of about 1.6×109 cd/m2 at noon.

Luminance is invariant in geometric optics. This means that for an ideal optical system, the luminance at the output is the same as the input luminance. For real, passive, optical systems, the output luminance is at most equal to the input. As an example, if you form a demagnified image with a lens, the luminous power is concentrated into a smaller area, meaning that the illuminance is higher at the image. The light at the image plane, however, fills a larger solid angle so the luminance comes out to be the same assuming there is no loss at the lens. The image can never be “brighter” than the source.

SI photometry units
 Quantity Symbol SI unit Abbr. Notes Luminous energy Qv lumen second lm·s units are sometimes called talbots Luminous flux F lumen (= cd·sr) lm also called luminous power Luminous intensity Iv candela (= lm/sr) cd an SI base unit Luminance Lv candela per square metre cd/m2 units are sometimes called “nits” Illuminance Ev lux (= lm/m2) lx Used for light incident on a surface Luminous emittance Mv lux (= lm/m2) lx Used for light emitted from a surface Luminous efficacy lumen per watt lm/W ratio of luminous flux to radiant flux