The optics of vertebrate photoreceptors have been investigated with specific reference to the effect of form birefringence. The complex dielectric tensor of the lamellar-like outer segment structure has been derived, allowing the transverse spectral absorbance to be calculated for different incident polarizations. These results were used to calculate the changes in the cellular dichroic ratio as a function of both the volume occupied by the bilayers and the real and complex parts of the intrinsic birefringence of the bilayers. Physiologically realistic values of these parameters show the cellular dichroic ratio to be greater than the bilayer dichroic ratio by a factor of approximate to 1.3. Furthermore, the calculations of spectral absorbance indicate that form birefringence may affect measurements of optical density in transversely orientated outer segments. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.