Nitride semiconductors have wide applications in electronics and optoelectronics technologies. Understanding the nature of the optical recombination process and its effects on luminescence efficiency is important for the development of novel devices. This dissertation deals with the optical properties of nitride semiconductors, including GaN epitaxial layers and more complex heterostructures. The emission characteristics are examined by cathodoluminescence spectroscopy and imaging, and are correlated with the structural and electrical properties studied by transmission electron microscopy and electron holography. Four major areas are covered in this dissertation, which are described next. The effect of strain on the emission characteristics in wurtzite GaN has been studied. The values of the residual strain in GaN epilayers with different dislocation densities are determined by x-ray diffraction, and the relationship between exciton emission energy and the in-plane residual strain is demonstrated. It shows that the emission energy increases withthe magnitude of the in-plane compressive strain. The temperature dependence of the emission characteristics in cubic GaN has been studied. It is observed that the exciton emission and donor-acceptor pair recombination behave differently with temperature. The donor-bound exciton binding energy has been measured to be 13 meV from the temperature dependence of the emission spectrum. It is also found that the ionization energies for both acceptors and donors are smaller in cubic compared with hexagonal structures, which should contribute to higher doping efficiencies. A comprehensive study on the structural and optical properties is presented for InGaN/GaN quantum wells emitting in the blue, green, and yellow regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Transmission electron microscopy images indicate the presence of indium inhomogeneties which should be responsible for carrier localization. The temperature dependence of emission luminescence shows that the carrier localization effects become more significant with increasing emission wavelength. On the other hand, the effect of non-radiative recombination on luminescence efficiency also varies with the emission wavelength. The fast increase of the non-radiative recombination rate with temperature in the green emitting QWs contributes to the lower efficiency compared with the blue emitting QWs. The possible saturation of non-radiative recombination above 100 K may explain the unexpected high emission efficiency for the yellow emitting QWs Finally, the effects of InGaN underlayers on the electronic and optical properties of InGaN/GaN quantum wells emitting in visible spectral regions have been studied. A significant improvement of the emission efficiency is observed, which is associated with a blue shift in the emission energy, a reduced recombination lifetime, an increased spatial homogeneity in the luminescence, and a weaker internal field across the quantum wells. These are explained by a partial strain relaxation introduced by the InGaN underlayer, which is measured by reciprocal space mapping of the x-ray diffraction intensity.