Arthur Ashkin, of the United States, was awarded half the nine million kronor (£770,000) prize, with the other half shared by Gerard Mourou of France and Canadian Donna Strickland.
Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences, which chose the winners, said Mr Ashkin, 96, developed “optical tweezers” that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them.
He is the oldest person ever named as a laureate for any of the prestigious awards.
Mr Mourou and Ms Strickland helped develop short and intense laser pulses that have broad industrial and medical applications.
Ms Strickland is the first female Nobel laureate to be named in three years and is only the third woman to have won the physics prize; the first was Marie Curie in 1903.
“Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there. And hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate, maybe,” Ms Strickland said in a phone call with the academy after the prize announcement.
Mr Mourou said he found it difficult to describe his emotions at winning.
“We invented a technique that made the laser extremely powerful,” he said.
“With the technology we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion.”
The head of the American Institute of Physics said the work of Mr Mourou and Ms Strickland enabled new studies of matter by allowing scientists to produce more powerful bursts of laser light.
“We needed a new way to create the peak power of laser pulses,” said Michael Moloney, chief executive officer of the group.
The breakthrough came with the work of prizewinners Mr Mourou and Ms Strickland, he said.
While laser eye surgery is the most familiar application of their work, it has also let scientists probe fundamental forces acting within matter at very high temperatures and pressures, Mr Moloney said.
Noting that Ms Strickland is the first woman in 55 years to win a physics Nobel, Mr Moloney said that gap is “way too long”.
On Monday, American James Allison and Japan’s Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel medicine prize for groundbreaking work in fighting cancer with the body’s own immune system.
The Nobel chemistry prize, economics prize and peace prize are still to be announced.