Reflection is the change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated. Common examples include the reflection of light, sound and water waves. The law of reflection says that for specular reflection (for example at a mirror) the angle at which the wave is incident on the surface equals the angle at which it is reflected.
In acoustics, reflection causes echoes and is used in sonar. In geology, it is important in the study of seismic waves. Reflection is observed with surface waves in bodies of water. Reflection is observed with many types of electromagnetic wave, besides visible light. Reflection of VHF and higher frequencies is important for radio transmission and for radar. Even hard X-rays and gamma rays can be reflected at shallow angles with special "grazing" mirrors.
Reflection of light is either specular (mirror-like) or diffuse (retaining the energy, but losing the image) depending on the nature of the interface. In specular reflection the phase of the reflected waves depends on the choice of the origin of coordinates, but the relative phase between s and p (TE and TM) polarizations is fixed by the properties of the media and of the interface between them.
A mirror provides the most common model for specular light reflection, and typically consists of a glass sheet with a metallic coating where the significant reflection occurs. Reflection is enhanced in metals by suppression of wave propagation beyond their skin depths. Reflection also occurs at the surface of transparent media, such as water or glass.
In the diagram, a light ray PO strikes a vertical mirror at point O, and the reflected ray is OQ. By projecting an imaginary line through point O perpendicular to the mirror, known as the normal , we can measure the angle of incidence , θi and the angle of reflection, θr. The law of reflection states that θi = θr, or in other words, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.
In fact, reflection of light may occur whenever light travels from a medium of a given refractive index into a medium with a different refractive index. In the most general case, a certain fraction of the light is reflected from the interface, and the remainder is refracted. Solving Maxwell's equations for a light ray striking a boundary allows the derivation of the Fresnel equations, which can be used to predict how much of the light is reflected, and how much is refracted in a given situation. This is analogous to the way impedance mismatch in an electric circuit causes reflection of signals. Total internal reflection of light from a denser medium occurs if the angle of incidence is greater than the critical angle.
Total internal reflection is used as a means of focusing waves that cannot effectively be reflected by common means. X-ray telescopes are constructed by creating a converging "tunnel" for the waves. As the waves interact at low angle with the surface of this tunnel they are reflected toward the focus point (or toward another interaction with the tunnel surface, eventually being directed to the detector at the focus). A conventional reflector would be useless as the X-rays would simply pass through the intended reflector.
When light reflects off of a material with higher refractive index than the medium in which is traveling, it undergoes a 180° phase shift. In contrast, when light reflects off of a material with lower refractive index the reflected light is in phase with the incident light. This is an important principle in the field of thin-film optics.
Specular reflection forms images. Reflection from a flat surface forms a mirror image, which appears to be reversed from left to right because we compare the image we see to what we would see if we were rotated into the position of the image. Specular reflection at a curved surface forms an image which may be magnified or demagnified; curved mirrors have optical power. Such mirrors may have surfaces that are spherical or parabolic.
If the reflecting surface is very smooth, the reflection of light that occurs is called specular or regular reflection. The laws of reflection are as follows:
These three laws can all be derived from the Fresnel equations.
In classical electrodynamics, light is considered as an electromagnetic wave, which is described by Maxwell's equations. Light waves incident on a material induce small oscillations of polarisation in the individual atoms (or oscillation of electrons, in metals), causing each particle to radiate a small secondary wave in all directions, like a dipole antenna. All these waves add up to give specular reflection and refraction, according to the Huygens–Fresnel principle.
In the case of dielectrics such as glass, the electric field of the light acts on the electrons in the material, and the moving electrons generate fields and become new radiators. The refracted light in the glass is the combination of the forward radiation of the electrons and the incident light. The reflected light is the combination of the backward radiation of all of the electrons.
In metals, electrons with no binding energy are called free electrons. When these electrons oscillate with the incident light, the phase difference between their radiation field and the incident field is π (180°), so the forward radiation cancels the incident light, and backward radiation is just the reflected light.
Light–matter interaction in terms of photons is a topic of quantum electrodynamics, and is described in detail by Richard Feynman in his popular book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter .
When light strikes the surface of a (non-metallic) material it bounces off in all directions due to multiple reflections by the microscopic irregularities inside the material (e.g. the grain boundaries of a polycrystalline material, or the cell or fiber boundaries of an organic material) and by its surface, if it is rough. Thus, an 'image' is not formed. This is called diffuse reflection . The exact form of the reflection depends on the structure of the material. One common model for diffuse reflection is Lambertian reflectance, in which the light is reflected with equal luminance (in photometry) or radiance (in radiometry) in all directions, as defined by Lambert's cosine law.
The light sent to our eyes by most of the objects we see is due to diffuse reflection from their surface, so that this is our primary mechanism of physical observation.
Some surfaces exhibit retroreflection. The structure of these surfaces is such that light is returned in the direction from which it came.
When flying over clouds illuminated by sunlight the region seen around the aircraft's shadow will appear brighter, and a similar effect may be seen from dew on grass. This partial retro-reflection is created by the refractive properties of the curved droplet's surface and reflective properties at the backside of the droplet.
Some animals' retinas act as retroreflectors (see tapetum lucidum for more detail), as this effectively improves the animals' night vision. Since the lenses of their eyes modify reciprocally the paths of the incoming and outgoing light the effect is that the eyes act as a strong retroreflector, sometimes seen at night when walking in wildlands with a flashlight.
A simple retroreflector can be made by placing three ordinary mirrors mutually perpendicular to one another (a corner reflector). The image produced is the inverse of one produced by a single mirror. A surface can be made partially retroreflective by depositing a layer of tiny refractive spheres on it or by creating small pyramid like structures. In both cases internal reflection causes the light to be reflected back to where it originated. This is used to make traffic signs and automobile license plates reflect light mostly back in the direction from which it came. In this application perfect retroreflection is not desired, since the light would then be directed back into the headlights of an oncoming car rather than to the driver's eyes.
When light reflects off a mirror, one image appears. Two mirrors placed exactly face to face give the appearance of an infinite number of images along a straight line. The multiple images seen between two mirrors that sit at an angle to each other lie over a circle.The center of that circle is located at the imaginary intersection of the mirrors. A square of four mirrors placed face to face give the appearance of an infinite number of images arranged in a plane. The multiple images seen between four mirrors assembling a pyramid, in which each pair of mirrors sits an angle to each other, lie over a sphere. If the base of the pyramid is rectangle shaped, the images spread over a section of a torus.
Note that these are theoretical ideals, requiring perfect alignment of perfectly smooth, perfectly flat perfect reflectors that absorb none of the light. In practice, these situations can only be approached but not achieved because the effects of any surface imperfections in the reflectors propagate and magnify, absorption gradually extinguishes the image, and any observing equipment (biological or technological) will interfere.
In this process (which is also known as phase conjugation), light bounces exactly back in the direction from which it came due to a nonlinear optical process. Not only the direction of the light is reversed, but the actual wavefronts are reversed as well. A conjugate reflector can be used to remove aberrations from a beam by reflecting it and then passing the reflection through the aberrating optics a second time. If one were to look into a complex conjugating mirror, it would be black because only the photons which left the pupil would reach the pupil.
Materials that reflect neutrons, for example beryllium, are used in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. In the physical and biological sciences, the reflection of neutrons off of atoms within a material is commonly used to determine the material's internal structure.
When a longitudinal sound wave strikes a flat surface, sound is reflected in a coherent manner provided that the dimension of the reflective surface is large compared to the wavelength of the sound. Note that audible sound has a very wide frequency range (from 20 to about 17000 Hz), and thus a very wide range of wavelengths (from about 20 mm to 17 m). As a result, the overall nature of the reflection varies according to the texture and structure of the surface. For example, porous materials will absorb some energy, and rough materials (where rough is relative to the wavelength) tend to reflect in many directions—to scatter the energy, rather than to reflect it coherently. This leads into the field of architectural acoustics, because the nature of these reflections is critical to the auditory feel of a space. In the theory of exterior noise mitigation, reflective surface size mildly detracts from the concept of a noise barrier by reflecting some of the sound into the opposite direction. Sound reflection can affect the acoustic space.
Seismic waves produced by earthquakes or other sources (such as explosions) may be reflected by layers within the Earth. Study of the deep reflections of waves generated by earthquakes has allowed seismologists to determine the layered structure of the Earth. Shallower reflections are used in reflection seismology to study the Earth's crust generally, and in particular to prospect for petroleum and natural gas deposits.
The Fresnel equations describe the reflection and transmission of light when incident on an interface between different optical media. They were deduced by Augustin-Jean Fresnel who was the first to understand that light is a transverse wave, even though no one realized that the "vibrations" of the wave were electric and magnetic fields. For the first time, polarization could be understood quantitatively, as Fresnel's equations correctly predicted the differing behaviour of waves of the s and p polarizations incident upon a material interface.
Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.
In physics, refraction is the redirection of a wave as it passes from one medium to another. The redirection can be caused by the wave's change in speed or by a change in the medium. Refraction of light is the most commonly observed phenomenon, but other waves such as sound waves and water waves also experience refraction. How much a wave is refracted is determined by the change in wave speed and the initial direction of wave propagation relative to the direction of change in speed.
Total internal reflection (TIR) is the optical phenomenon in which waves arriving at the interface (boundary) from one medium to another are not refracted into the second ("external") medium, but completely reflected back into the first ("internal") medium. It occurs when the second medium has a higher wave speed than the first, and the waves are incident at a sufficiently oblique angle on the interface. For example, the water-to-air surface in a typical fish tank, when viewed obliquely from below, reflects the underwater scene like a mirror with no loss of brightness (Fig. 1).
Brewster's angle is an angle of incidence at which light with a particular polarization is perfectly transmitted through a transparent dielectric surface, with no reflection. When unpolarized light is incident at this angle, the light that is reflected from the surface is therefore perfectly polarized. This special angle of incidence is named after the Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster (1781–1868).
In optics, a diffraction grating is an optical component with a periodic structure that diffracts light into several beams travelling in different directions. The emerging coloration is a form of structural coloration. The directions or diffraction angles of these beams depend on the wave (light) incident angle to the diffraction grating, the spacing or distance between adjacent diffracting elements on the grating, and the wavelength of the incident light. The grating acts as a dispersive element. Because of this, diffraction gratings are commonly used in monochromators and spectrometers, but other applications are also possible such as optical encoders for high precision motion control and wavefront measurement.
The reflectance of the surface of a material is its effectiveness in reflecting radiant energy. It is the fraction of incident electromagnetic power that is reflected at the boundary. Reflectance is a component of the response of the electronic structure of the material to the electromagnetic field of light, and is in general a function of the frequency, or wavelength, of the light, its polarization, and the angle of incidence. The dependence of reflectance on the wavelength is called a reflectance spectrum or spectral reflectance curve.
A retroreflector is a device or surface that reflects radiation back to its source with minimum scattering. This works at a wide range of angle of incidence, unlike a planar mirror, which does this only if the mirror is exactly perpendicular to the wave front, having a zero angle of incidence. Being directed, the retroflector's reflection is brighter than that of a diffuse reflector. Corner reflectors and cat's eye reflectors are the most used kinds.
An optical prism is a transparent optical element with flat, polished surfaces that are designed to refract light. At least one surface must be angled — elements with two parallel surfaces are not prisms. The traditional geometrical shape of an optical prism is that of a triangular prism with a triangular base and rectangular sides, and in colloquial use "prism" usually refers to this type. Some types of optical prism are not in fact in the shape of geometric prisms. Prisms can be made from any material that is transparent to the wavelengths for which they are designed. Typical materials include glass, acrylic and fluorite.
Optics is the branch of physics which involves the behavior and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behavior of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.
Specularity is the visual appearance of specular reflections.
Diffuse reflection is the reflection of light or other waves or particles from a surface such that a ray incident on the surface is scattered at many angles rather than at just one angle as in the case of specular reflection. An ideal diffuse reflecting surface is said to exhibit Lambertian reflection, meaning that there is equal luminance when viewed from all directions lying in the half-space adjacent to the surface.
Specular reflection, or regular reflection, is the mirror-like reflection of waves, such as light, from a surface.
An antireflective or anti-reflection (AR) coating is a type of optical coating applied to the surface of lenses and other optical elements to reduce reflection. In typical imaging systems, this improves the efficiency since less light is lost due to reflection. In complex systems such as cameras, binoculars, telescopes, and microscopes the reduction in reflections also improves the contrast of the image by elimination of stray light. This is especially important in planetary astronomy. In other applications, the primary benefit is the elimination of the reflection itself, such as a coating on eyeglass lenses that makes the eyes of the wearer more visible to others, or a coating to reduce the glint from a covert viewer's binoculars or telescopic sight.
Nonimaging optics is the branch of optics concerned with the optimal transfer of light radiation between a source and a target. Unlike traditional imaging optics, the techniques involved do not attempt to form an image of the source; instead an optimized optical system for optimal radiative transfer from a source to a target is desired.
Gloss is an optical property which indicates how well a surface reflects light in a specular (mirror-like) direction. It is one of the important parameters that are used to describe the visual appearance of an object. The factors that affect gloss are the refractive index of the material, the angle of incident light and the surface topography.
In optics a ray is an idealized geometrical model of light, obtained by choosing a curve that is perpendicular to the wavefronts of the actual light, and that points in the direction of energy flow. Rays are used to model the propagation of light through an optical system, by dividing the real light field up into discrete rays that can be computationally propagated through the system by the techniques of ray tracing. This allows even very complex optical systems to be analyzed mathematically or simulated by computer. Ray tracing uses approximate solutions to Maxwell's equations that are valid as long as the light waves propagate through and around objects whose dimensions are much greater than the light's wavelength. Ray optics or geometrical optics does not describe phenomena such as diffraction, which require wave optics theory. Some wave phenomena such as interference can be modeled in limited circumstances by adding phase to the ray model.
X-ray optics is the branch of optics that manipulates X-rays instead of visible light. It deals with focusing and other ways of manipulating the X-ray beams for research techniques such as X-ray crystallography, X-ray fluorescence, small-angle X-ray scattering, X-ray microscopy, X-ray phase-contrast imaging, X-ray astronomy etc.
Neutron reflectometry is a neutron diffraction technique for measuring the structure of thin films, similar to the often complementary techniques of X-ray reflectivity and ellipsometry. The technique provides valuable information over a wide variety of scientific and technological applications including chemical aggregation, polymer and surfactant adsorption, structure of thin film magnetic systems, biological membranes, etc.
In describing reflection and refraction in optics, the plane of incidence is the plane which contains the surface normal and the propagation vector of the incoming radiation.