We report an experimental test of the photodetection mechanism in a nanowire superconducting single photon detector. Detector tomography allows us to explore the 0.8–8 eV energy range via multiphoton excitations. High accuracy results enable a detailed comparison of the experimental data with theories for the mechanism of photon detection. We show that the temperature dependence of the efficiency of the superconducting single photon detector is determined not by the critical current but by the current associated with vortex unbinding. We find that both quasiparticle diffusion and vortices play a role in the detection event.