Here’s a well-documented and rather enlightening project from Embedded Lab:
This project demonstrates a technique to measure the heart rate by sensing the change in blood volume in a finger artery while the heart is pumping the blood. It consists of an infrared LED that transmits an IR signal through the fingertip of the subject, a part of which is reflected by the blood cells. The reflected signal is detected by a photo diode sensor. The changing blood volume with heartbeat results in a train of pulses at the output of the photo diode.