LED Tutorial – Learn the basics

LED Tutorial

Nearly every consumer device makes use of the Light Emitting Diode (LED). This highly versatile device offers an easy way to add an indicator to any project while drawing a relatively small amount of current. Once their operation is understood, adding them to any project is a simple task. This tutorial is a simplified explanation of how a LED works and how to select a current limiting resistor. The LED tutorial here is enough to use LEDs in a project but is not intended to be a thorough explanation.

LED Anode and Cathode

LED Basics

A Diode is an electronic component that only conducts electricity in one direction. The “Forward Voltage” rating of a diode will determine the minimum voltage difference between the anode and cathode to allow current to flow. For example, let’s consider a diode with a forward voltage of 0.7 volts. If you apply +1 votls to the anode and 0 volts to the cathode, then current will flow. However, reversing the voltages to apply 0 volts to the anode and +1V to the cathode, prevents current from flowing!

A “Light Emitting Diode” (LED) is a variant of the standard diode with the same characteristics. The obvious difference is that when current flows through an LED it generates visible (non-visible) light.

When looking at the specifications for a LED, there are two key ratings to note: the “Forward Voltage” and the “Forward Current.”

Forward Voltage

The forward voltage defines the amount of voltage required for the current to flow through the diode junction. Any voltages below this level cause the LED to remain “open” or non-conductive. This open state also means any components in series with the LED will not have current flowing through them either!

Current is allowed to flow through the LED once the voltage drop across it reaches the forward voltage. Not only that, but the LED only drop its forward voltage at any given time. This point is what makes a diode or LED different from a resistor.

A resistor is called a linear device because the current that runs through it is directly propertional to the voltage applied and its resistance. (You might know this as Ohm’s Law.) A diode or LED is different. Voltage and current has a non-linear relationship.

Now let’s look at a pratical example. Consider a LED with a forward voltage rated at 3.0 volts. What happens if you attach the anode to the positive (+) terminal of a AA (LR-6) battery and the cathode to the negative (-) terminal? Will the LED do anything? No! The AA (LR-6) battery only has a nominal voltage of 1.5 volts. Until you add a second battery, the LED will not light up.

Basic (Bad) LED Circuit

So if you use two nominal AA (LR-6) batteries in series and connect them to this diode, it will light up, and all is good, right? Well, No. Inside the LED, that the diode junction turns into a (near) short-circuit when the a forward voltage is applied. This behavior means the LED could draw ALL the current it can from the battery. This situation is not good because you are short-circuiting the battery! Not only will this damage the battery, but will overheat or destroy the LED!

Forward Current (If)

As mentioned before, applying the forward voltage turns an LED into a short cirucit. As a short, the LED will draw all the current the supply allows AND will damage itself. So you must limit the amount of forward current allowed to flow through the LED. There is where the name “current limiting resistor” comes in. A resistor placed in series with the LED limits the current that flows through it.

Diodes, and LEDs, drop a constant voltage regardless of the current that runs through them. So the Resistor and LED work together. The resistor holds the amount of current constant and the LED holds the voltage dropped across each constant. The next question to address is, what value resistor is needed?

Yellow LED Example

To calculate the required current limiting resistor, two properties of the LED must be known: Its Forward Current (If) and Forward Voltage (Vf). Mentioned in the last section is that a LED will hold the voltage dropped across it constant. Regardless of the voltage applied, it will only drop the Forward Voltage (Vf) across itself. Using the datasheet for a Yellow LED (available at Sparkfun), we see these two values:




The goal is to set the Forward Current for the LED at 20mA which means the LED will drop 1.8-2.2V. In this case, make the assumption THIS LED is going to drop 2V.

A common misunderstanding is how the forward current is specified. The LED’s datasheet provides the maximum forward current the LED can handle. In most cases, that current is 20 mA. Operating the LED at this maximum will give a shorter opertional lifetime. Also, it operates the LED at its brightest. If you just need an indicator light, consider a much smaller value like 5 mA or even 1 mA.

Ohm’s law determines the value of R_LIMIT. The R_LIMIT and LED are in series. This connection means their voltages add-up and the amount of current going through them is the same. The LED drops 2 volts across itself, leaving 3 volts for the drop across R_LIMIT. Since these two components are in series, 20mA of current will flow through both.

Ohm’s Law says that Resistance = Voltage / Current. This means R_LIMIT = 3.0V / 20mA = 150Ω.

The resistor value used depends on which LED is picked. Generally it will be in the range 150-470 Ω. When in doubt, select a slightly large resistance value.


Diodes are simple, yet versatile components. LEDs extend these properties to include lights. LEDs have plenty of cool Matrix-based projects as well as more practical uses like status indicators. The information shown here shows how to find the Forward Voltage and Forward Current of an LED from its datasheet. Then Ohm’s Law is shown to calculate the correct limiting resistor.

Related Video

This AddOhms video on LEDs and Current Limiting Resistors might be of interest.  You can see what happens when you don’t limit the current!

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45 thoughts on “LED Tutorial – Learn the basics

  1. If I have multiple LEDs on a PCB, as long as I provide enough watts, and I respect the diode with the lowest max drive current. I can determine the voltage Lastly? Is the wattage and amperage I use to drive the PCB more important than the voltage?

  2. Thanks mate. This critically helps me a lot.
    I just have a question. I’m using the 10W LED (forward voltage Vf=9-11V and the forward current If=1000mA) and the 9V battery for power supply. Do I need to add a resistor in series with my LED? And another strange question, if I connect that LED directly to the 9V battery, will it burn my LED? Because I don’t know how much current the 9V battery will pour into my LED without the resistor. Thanks for your help.

    • High power LED modules like that are meant to be driven by a constant current supply. 1 amp through a current limiting resistor would waste a ton of power. And yes, you need to do something to limit the current. When you say 9V battery, I really (really) hope you don’t mean a small rectangular style. They barely provide 25 mA.

  3. Hi! Thank you for the information! I do have a questoon.
    What do I need to do if I want to simultaneously light multiple diodes at once?

    • Put them in parallel. If they are on constantly, you could get away with a single resistor or constant current supply. A better approach is to limit each parallel string individually.

  4. current. it is confusing for a novice. my led is going to drain it ? or battery is going to push as much as it can?
    in case i have 2 adapters, same voltage but different A i have idea they push into the ‘system’ the declared A?
    in some explanation i found the system is draining the current it neads and from that depends battery longevity which does not make a lot of sense if the battery is pushing current.
    with one led seams ok but if you have more complex system?
    sorry if my question is confusing i am dyslexic which complicate the explaining myself.
    thnx, dan

    • You are mixing up terms which is what causes the confusion. In a circuit, current flows in a loop, or a chain. It is not the case that the battery or power supply is “providing” electrons. Instead, they push the chain of electrons around the circuit. The amount of pressure put on that chain to move is the voltage. The load, or devices in the circuit, determine both of those factors. Most power supplies are designed to be “constant voltage” which means they old a voltage at a certain value. The amount of current flow depends on the circuit.

      This is the basis of Ohm’s Law. A resistor with a certain voltage applied will cause a linear amount of current to flow through it, based on its resistance. So this means, the devices determine how much “current” flows out of the supply, up to the supply’s maximum. Now when you start getting into other devices like capacitors, diodes, and ICs, Ohm’s Law still applies but the analysis isn’t as simple.

      You want to read and watch my tutorials on current flow.

  5. Questions related to the structure of an LED light containing multiple LEDs in series (yes, I know that’s typical):

    #1) If I have a current-limiting ‘ballast’ that is rated at 530 mA, does it matter what the maximum forward current through LEDs in the circuit is?

    Can I use LEDs with a maximum forward current of say, 1200 mA without loss of performance of the array as compared to using LEDs with forward current limitations of say 540 or 650 mA? (It seems logical to me that this is not a problem, but I’m not expert enough to know… )

    #2) Also, if the circuit closing Voltage of the LEDs has a range of a few volts, which I assume is a tolerance not a range of operating voltages, can I reasonably expect that they will ALL light, if I do not exceed in total the nominal line voltage?

    For example if I use 3 LEDs with a forward voltage described as: 36.5 typical, 38.0 maximum, and I am using 110V house current, do I run the risk of aberrations, if I happen to receive 3 LEDs with a 38.0 V forward voltage requirement?

    #2 b) Can I assume that I have a full 110V available for use after the power is conditioned by: a 120-277V LED Electronic Driver (specifically: a Philips Xitanium, LED-INTA-0530C-280-DO), and a Driver Transient Immunity Device (Thomas Research, BSP3-277-LC).

    #3) If I wish to operate a fixture on the same 110V current, but that fixture is designed for use with 480V power, can I configure a circuit using passive components (such as resistors) to raise the voltage prior to entry to the fixture, or must I insert a transformer to accomplish this? (I realize this shows a serious limitation in my understanding, but there it is… 🙂 )

    Thanks in advance for any enlightenment.

    • This tutorial was not meant to take into account high-power LEDs used in mains/AC applications.

      #1) If I have a current-limiting ‘ballast’ that is rated at 530 mA, does it matter what the maximum forward current through LEDs in the circuit is?

      I’m not sure what “ballast” means in this context. The maximum forward current always matters.

      Can I use LEDs with a maximum forward current of say, 1200 mA without loss of performance of the array as compared to using LEDs with forward current limitations of say 540 or 650 mA?

      Maximum means maximum. Not minimum. It isn’t necessary to drive LEDs at their maximum forward current. Operating lower than max means longer lifetime, but less bright.

      #2) Also, if the circuit closing Voltage of the LEDs

      I don’t know what this means.

      For example if I use 3 LEDs with a forward voltage described as: 36.5 typical, 38.0 maximum, and I am using 110V house current, do I run the risk of aberrations,

      Yes. LEDs are not intended to be connected directly to AC mains. You would need a driver/inverter.

      Can I assume that I have a full 110V available for use after the power is conditioned

      No. Almost all high power LED drivers are constant current supplies, not constant voltage. In other words, they change their output voltage to maintain a stable output current. Notice that the “output current with case temperature” graph in the datasheet hosted on future’s site. You don’t current limit these types of LEDs with a resistor. (Though some designs may use balancing resistors to help offset forward voltage differences.)

      If I wish to operate a fixture on the same 110V current, but that fixture is designed for use with 480V power

      I am not a licensed electrician, and so I am not qualified to comment on this kind of application…

      an I configure a circuit using passive components (such as resistors) to raise the voltage prior to entry to the fixture

      … I will at least say, no, you would NOT use just resistors in this situation. The power rating required and heat they generate would be absurd. Beyond that, I cannot comment. 480 volt is not something to play with.

      • Sorry if I have misused the tutorial, just trying to determine how to modify some commercially available LED Lighting fixtures to improve the effectiveness in terms of the parameters of my needs without sacrificing performance, reliability, or lifetime of the fixtures.

        When I reviewed the specs of the LED drivers, and LEDs themselves, I concluded that I was safe in using materials made by the same manufacturers as the equipment originally used, if I hope to achieve the same sort of 100,000+ hour lifetime as the original fixture.

        Also, the LED driver (sorry for the earlier use of the word ‘ballast’ – laziness on my part) has a footprint that the fixture seems to incorporate by design, and I am loathe to create adapters to accommodate other manufacturers’ Driver footprints unless that becomes necessary.

        As the original Driver maker seems to have no Drivers at greater that 530mA (at least under that product group name) I am initially persuaded to try to work within the 530mA constraint.
        I started out thinking that I would replace a series of 4000K light temperature LEDs, with 5000K LEDs because the 4000K units provide light that lacks sufficient unpleasantness to deter inebriated passersby. However the LED manufacturer (Nichia, I believe) seems not to now make LEDs of the same physical dimensions as those used originally.

        This led me to examine other possible solutions such as larger LED footprint (although I am constrained by the size of the opening in the parabolic focusing reflector), and higher light output levels.

        Enter the operating voltage: I have tried to assume that household current nominally 110-120V is best predicted at 110V, and thus that I can expect to have only 110 Volts to work with. Is this truly the amount of voltage that I have “at the first LED” or should I expect a lesser voltage due to the signal conditioning components (Xitanium LED Driver, Driver Transient Immunity Device).

        I wanted to understand what voltage I could expect at the first LED, because I presumed that if the 3 LEDs used, required a voltage which in total exceeded 110V (or whatever lower voltage should be expected) then I’m presuming that the system would either not light at all, or would exhibit some bizarre flickering pattern. In this case, I believe that I would need to modify the wiring of the LEDs to be in parallel. (That may raise some questions as to the sufficiency of the 530mA LED Driver limit, but I’m not skilled enough to recognize that…)

        As you have noted (Thank You!) a reduction in the driving current will diminish the brightness of the LEDs.

        Is there a way for me to estimate the reduction in light emission relative to driving Current? If there is either an equation or a plot online that can be applied in general, can you point me toward it?

        This would help me understand both the effect of the parallel wiring pattern I might choose to use, and the advisability of using LEDs of much higher current tolerance (up to 1800 mA).

        My goal is the generation of the high luminous flux, at 5000K or greater light temperature.
        My earlier comments about 480V fixtures were related to the idea of possibly buying a fixture built for 480V current, and modifying it for use on 110V house current. I’ve not seen inside such a fixture, and so was casting about for thoughts on how it might be made usable. Probably a pipe dream without looking inside…

        Thank you for your help, and I apologize for the inexactness of my earlier comments. I can see that my descriptions were the cause of any confusion in addressing them.

        Please understand that anything you say in response to my questions, is information for which I bear the full responsibility in its interpretation and/or application. At no time, and in no way does it create a potential liability for you, in my use of the information.

  6. Thanks for this good info. A related question, can the forward voltage value of an LED be measured? As in, if you have a pile of LEDs and don’t know the specs.


  7. So you have a section on Forward and Reverse voltage.. but…
    In that section you don’t address the Reverse voltage in the least.

  8. I really liked this presentation. It has a lot of the basic thinking about Ohm’s Law, plus the practical application in a circuit easy enough for a beginning student to “get.” BTW I also like your new website format. Keep it coming.