The detection of photons underpins imaging, spectroscopy, fibre-optic communications and time-gated distance measurements. Nanostructured materials are attractive for detection applications because they can be integrated with conventional silicon electronics and flexible, large-area substrates, and can be processed from the solution phase using established techniques such as spin casting, spray coating and layer-by-layer deposition. In addition, their performance has improved rapidly in recent years. Here we review progress in light sensing using nanostructured materials, focusing on solution-processed materials such as colloidal quantum dots and metal nanoparticles. These devices exhibit phenomena such as absorption of ultraviolet light, plasmonic enhancement of absorption, size-based spectral tuning, multiexciton generation, and charge carrier storage in surface and interface traps.