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A photon kinetic formalism is employed to describe the propagation of short laser pulses in tenuous plasmas. The photon kinetic theory contains all of the ingredients necessary to describe the relativistic nonlinear optics of short laser pulses in plasmas, and the shortest time scale is determined by the local evolution of the index of refraction. We use this feature to implement a photon in cell code, in which the typical time step is much bigger than is the laser field time scale. Additional information provided by the photon kinetic framework is illustrated by one-dimensional (1-D) and two-dimensional (2-D) simulations.