The role of the nonvisual photoreception is to synchronise periodic functions of living organisms to the environmental light periods in order to help survival of various species in different biotopes. In vertebrates, the so-called deep brain (septal and hypothalamic) photoreceptors, the pineal organs (pineal- and parapineal organs, frontal- and parietal eye) and the retina (of the "lateral" eye) are involved in the light-based entrain of endogenous circadian clocks present in various organs. In humans, photoperiodicity was studied in connection with sleep disturbances in shift work, seasonal depression, and in jet-lag of transmeridional travellers. In the present review, experimental and molecular aspects are discussed, focusing on the histological and histochemical basis of the function of nonvisual photoreceptors. We also offer a view about functional changes of these photoreceptors during pre- and postnatal development as well as about its possible evolution. Our scope in some points is different from the generally accepted views on the nonvisual photoreceptive systems. The deep brain photoreceptors are hypothalamic and septal nuclei of the periventricular cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)-contacting neuronal system. Already present in the lancelet and representing the most ancient type of vertebrate nerve cells ("protoneurons"), CSF-contacting neurons are sensory-type cells sitting in the wall of the brain ventricles that send a ciliated dendritic process into the CSF. Various opsins and other members of the phototransduction cascade have been demonstrated in telencephalic and hypothalamic groups of these neurons. In all species examined so far, deep brain photoreceptors play a role in the circadian and circannual regulation of periodic functions. Mainly called pineal "glands" in the last decades, the pineal organs actually represent a differentiated form of encephalic photoreceptors. Supposed to be intra- and extracranially outgrown groups of deep brain photoreceptors, pineal organs also contain neurons and glial elements. Extracranial pineal organs of submammalians are cone-dominated photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light, while intracranial pineal organs predominantly contain rod-like photoreceptor cells and thus scotopic light receptors. Vitamin B-based light-sensitive cryptochromes localized immunocytochemically in some pineal cells may take part in both the photoreception and the pacemaker function of the pineal organ. In spite of expressing phototransduction cascade molecules and forming outer segment-like cilia in some species, the mammalian pineal is considered by most of the authors as a light-insensitive organ. Expression of phototransduction cascade molecules, predominantly in young animals, is a photoreceptor-like characteristic of pinealocytes in higher vertebrates that may contribute to a light-percepting task in the perinatal entrainment of rhythmic functions. In adult mammals, adrenergic nerves--mediating daily fluctuation of sympathetic activity rather than retinal light information as generally supposed--may sustain circadian periodicity already entrained by light perinatally. Altogether three phases were supposed to exist in pineal entrainment of internal pacemakers: an embryological synchronization by light and in viviparous vertebrates by maternal effects (1); a light-based, postnatal entrainment (2); and in adults, a maintenance of periodicity by daily sympathetic rhythm of the hypothalamus. In addition to its visual function, the lateral eye retina performs a nonvisual task. Nonvisual retinal light perception primarily entrains genetically-determined periodicity, such as rod-cone dominance, EEG rhythms or retinomotor movements. It also influences the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the primary pacemaker of the brain. As neither rods nor cones seem to represent the nonvisual retinal photoreceptors, the presence of additional photoreceptors has been supposed. Cryptochrome 1, a photosensitive molecule identified in retinal nerve cells and in a subpopulation of retinal photoreceptors, is a good candidate for the nonvisual photoreceptor molecule as well as for a member of pacemaker molecules in the retina. When comparing various visual and nonvisual photoreceptors, transitory, "semi visual" (directional) light-perceptive cells can be detected among them, such as those in the parietal eye of reptiles. Measuring diffuse light intensity of the environment, semivisual photoreceptors also possess some directional light perceptive capacity aided by complementary lens-like structures, and screening pigment cells. Semivisual photoreception in aquatic animals may serve for identifying environmental areas of suitable illumination, or in poikilotermic terrestrial species for measuring direct solar irradiation for thermoregulation. As directional photoreceptors were identified among nonvisual light perceptive cells in the lancelet, but eyes are lacking, an early appearance of semivisual function, prior to a visual one (nonvisual --> semivisual --> visual?) in the vertebrate evolution was supposed.