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Reflection of Light

Section Overview:

Reflection of light (and other forms of electromagnetic radiation) occurs when the waves encounter a surface or other boundary that does not absorb the energy of the radiation and bounces the waves away from the surface. The simplest example of visible light reflection is the surface of a smooth pool of water, where the light is reflected in an orderly manner to produce a clear image of the scenery surrounding the pool. Throw a rock into the pool, and the water is perturbed to form waves, which disrupt the reflection by scattering the incident and reflected light.

The reflection of visible light is a property of the behavior of light that is fundamental in the function of all modern microscopes. Light is often reflected by one or more plane (or flat) mirrors within the microscope to direct the light path through lenses that form the virtual images we see in the oculars (eyepieces). Microscopes also make use of beamsplitters to allow some light to be reflected while simultaneously transmitting other light to different parts of the optical system. Other optical components in the microscope, such as specially designed prisms, filters, and lens coatings, also carry out their functions in forming the image with a crucial reliance on the phenomenon of light reflection.

Review Articles

Introduction to the Reflection of Light

Light can behave in some ways as a wave and in other ways as if it were composed of particles, several independent theories of light reflection have emerged. Regardless of whether light is acting as particles or waves, however, the result of reflection is the same. The reflected light produces a mirror image.

Interactive Tutorials

  • Reflection of Light

    Explore the incident and reflected angles of a single light wave impacting on a smooth surface by initializing with a red sinusoidal wave incident on a smooth, mirrored surface at an angle of 40 degrees in this interactive tutorial.

  • Specular and Diffuse Reflection

    Light reflects equally on smooth surfaces, whereas on convoluted surfaces, light reflects in all directions. This interactive tutorial explores how light waves are reflected by smooth and rough surfaces.

  • Antireflection Surface Coatings

    Antireflection technology controls reflected light used in an optical device from surfaces preventing deleterious effects on the image being observed. Examine various coatings and their reflectivities as a function of incident angle.

  • The Critical Angle of Reflection

    Learn as this tutorial explains critical angle of reflection by exploring the transition from refraction to total internal reflection as the angle of the incident wave is increased at constant refractive index.

  • Common Reflecting Prisms

    Most reflecting prisms are designed to be located in orientations where entrance and exit faces are parallel and perpendicular to the optical axis. Examine image deviation, rotation, and displacement exhibited by reflecting prisms.

  • Right-Angle Prisms

    Explore light reflection and image rotation, inversion, and reversion by a right-angle prism as a function of the prism orientation with respect to incident light in this interactive tutorial.

  • Transmission and Reflection by Beamsplitters

    A beamsplitter is an optical component that partially transmits and reflects an incident light beam, usually in unequal proportions. Explore transmission and reflection of a light beam by three common beamsplitter designs.

  • Reflection and Refraction with Huygens Wavelets

    Featured in this tutorial is designed to illustrate the reflection and refraction of light according to the multiple wavelet concept, now known as the Huygens' principle.

  • Concave Spherical Mirrors

    Explore how moving an object farther away from the center of curvature affects the size of the real image formed by the mirror as well as the effects of moving the object closer to the mirror at various points to form a virtual image.

  • Concave Spherical Mirrors (3-Dimensional Version)

    Discover how moving the object farther away from the center of curvature affects the size of the real image formed by the mirror in this interactive tutorial.

  • Convex Spherical Mirrors

    The image result of an object reflected by a convex mirror is typically virtual, upright, and smaller. Discover how moving the object farther away from the mirror's surface affects the size of the virtual image formed behind the mirror.

  • Convex Spherical Mirrors (3-Dimensional Version)

    Examine how moving an object farther away from the mirror's surface affects the size of the virtual image formed behind the mirror with three-dimensional graphics.

Selected Literature References

Reference Listing

The reference materials listed in this section are an excellent source of additional information on the diverse topic of reflection from both specular and diffuse surfaces. Included are references to books, book chapters, and review articles, which discuss the theory and applications of the reflection of electromagnetic radiation and how they relate to the physics of light and color.

Contributing Authors

Matthew J. Parry-Hill, Robert T. Sutter, and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.

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