There are two basic types of multi–wavelength detector, the dispersion detector and the diode array detector, the latter being the more popular. In fact, very few dispersion instruments are sold today but many are still used in the field and so their characteristics will be discussed. All multi–wavelength detectors require a broad emission light source such as deuterium or the xenon lamp, the deuterium lamp being the most popular.

The two types of multi-wavelength detectors have important differences. In the dispersive instrument, the light is dispersed before it enters the sensor cell and thus virtually monochromatic light passes through the cell. However, if the incident light is of a wavelength that can excite the solute and cause fluorescence at another wavelength, then the light falling on the photo cell will contain the incident light together with any fluorescent light that may have been generated. It follows, that the light monitored by the photo cell may not be monochromatic and light of another wavelength, if present, would impair the linear nature of the response. This effect would be negligible in most cases but with certain fluorescent materials the effect could be significant. The diode array detector operates quite a differently. Light of all wavelengths generated by the deuterium lamp is passed through the cell and then dispersed over an array of diodes. Thus, the absorption at discrete groups of wavelengths is continuously monitored at each diode. However, light falling on a discrete diode may not be derived solely from the incident light but may contain light generated by fluorescence excited by light of a shorter wavelength. Unfortunately, this effect is exacerbated by the fact that the cell contents are exposed to light of all wavelengths emitted by the source and so fluorescence is more likely. Thus, under some circumstances, measurement of transmitted light may involve fluorescent light and the absorption spectrum obtained for a substance may be a degraded form of the true absorption curve.