Structure of the electromagnetic fieldThe electromagnetic field may be viewed in two distinct ways: a continuous structure or a discrete structure.
Continuous structureClassically, electric and magnetic fields are thought of as being produced by smooth motions of charged objects. For example, oscillating charges produce electric and magnetic fields that may be viewed in a 'smooth', continuous, wavelike fashion. In this case, energy is viewed as being transferred continuously through the electromagnetic field between any two locations. For instance, the metal atoms in a radio transmitter appear to transfer energy continuously. This view is useful to a certain extent (radiation of low frequency), but problems are found at high frequencies (see ultraviolet catastrophe).
Discrete structureThe electromagnetic field may be thought of in a more 'coarse' way. Experiments reveal that in some circumstances electromagnetic energy transfer is better described as being carried in the form of packets called quanta (in this case, photons) with a fixed frequency. Planck's relation links the energy E of a photon to its frequency ν through the equation:
This quantum picture of the electromagnetic field (which treats it as analogous to harmonic oscillators) has proved very successful, giving rise to quantum electrodynamics, a quantum field theory describing the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with charged matter. It also gives rise to Quantum optics, which is different from quantum electrodynamics in that the matter itself is modelled using quantum mechanics rather than Quantum field theory