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Refraction vs. Reflection: Know the Difference

Shumaila Saeed
By Shumaila Saeed || Updated on December 25, 2023
Refraction is the bending of light as it passes through different mediums; reflection is the bouncing back of light from a surface.
Refraction vs. Reflection

Key Differences

Refraction occurs when light waves change direction as they pass from one medium to another, due to the change in speed. This bending of light can cause objects to appear shifted from their original position. An example of refraction is the apparent bending of a straw in a glass of water.
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Reflection is quite different; it's when light waves bounce off a surface and change direction back toward the source or another direction. This is what allows us to see objects in a mirror or a still body of water. Reflection can be specular, as with a mirror, or diffuse, as with a matte surface.
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In refraction, the wavelength of light changes as it enters a different medium, which results in the change of speed and direction. The refractive index of the materials determines how much the light bends. This property is crucial in lenses used for eyeglasses, cameras, and telescopes.
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Reflection involves the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection being equal with respect to the normal to the reflecting surface. This principle of equal angles is known as the law of reflection and is constant, regardless of the surface's curvature, as long as it is smooth enough to prevent diffusion.
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Both phenomena are foundational principles of physics and optics. Refraction is responsible for the focusing ability of various optical devices, while reflection is utilized in anything that requires the redirection of light like periscopes, solar cookers, and the simple act of viewing oneself in the mirror.
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Comparison Chart

Definition

Bending of light through different mediums.
Bouncing of light off a surface.
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Result of

Change in light speed due to medium change.
Light hitting and returning from a surface.
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Laws Governing

Snell's Law.
Law of Reflection.
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Effect on Light's Path

Causes a change in direction and speed of light.
Changes the direction but not the speed of light.
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Application

Lenses, microscopes, prisms.
Mirrors, shiny surfaces, optical devices relying on image capturing.
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Nov 08, 2023
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Refraction and Reflection Definitions

Refraction

Change of direction when light enters a new medium.
A prism creates a rainbow by refraction of sunlight.
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Reflection

Light rays returning from a surface.
The reflection from the mirror was crystal clear.
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Refraction

The principle used by lenses to focus light.
Glasses correct vision through the refraction of light.
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Reflection

The rule that the incident angle equals the reflected angle.
Reflection off a smooth lake follows the law of reflection.
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Refraction

Variation of light's speed due to different mediums.
Refraction is why pools appear shallower than they are.
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Reflection

The act of reflecting or the state of being reflected.
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Nov 07, 2023

Refraction

An effect that alters the perceived position of an object.
Refraction made the spoon look broken in the water.
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Nov 08, 2023

Reflection

Something, such as light, radiant heat, sound, or an image, that is reflected.
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Nov 07, 2023

Refraction

The adjustment of light's wavelength when refracted.
Refraction can separate wavelengths, creating a spectrum.
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Reflection

Serious thinking or careful consideration
Engaged in reflection on the problem.
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Refraction

The deflection of a wave, such as a light or sound wave, when it passes obliquely from one medium into another having a different index of refraction.
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Reflection

A thought or an opinion resulting from such thinking or consideration
Wrote down her reflections.
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Refraction

(Astronomy) The apparent change in position of a celestial object caused by the bending of light rays as they enter Earth's atmosphere.
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Reflection

An indirect expression of censure or discredit
A reflection on his integrity.
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Refraction

The ability of the eye to bend light so that an image is focused on the retina.
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Reflection

A manifestation or result
Her achievements are a reflection of her courage.
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Refraction

Determination of this ability in an eye.
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Reflection

The folding of a membrane from the wall of a cavity over an organ and back to the wall.
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Refraction

(physics) The turning or bending of any wave, such as a light or sound wave, when it passes from one medium into another of different optical density.
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Reflection

The folds so made.
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Refraction

(metallurgy) The degree to which a metal or compound can withstand heat
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Reflection

The act of reflecting or the state of being reflected.
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Refraction

The act of refracting, or the state of being refracted.
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Reflection

The property of a propagated wave being thrown back from a surface (such as a mirror).
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Refraction

The change in the direction of ray of light, heat, or the like, when it enters obliquely a medium of a different density from that through which it has previously moved.
Refraction out of the rarer medium into the denser, is made towards the perpendicular.
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Reflection

Something, such as an image, that is reflected.
The dog barked at his own reflection in the mirror.
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Refraction

The change in the direction of a ray of light, and, consequently, in the apparent position of a heavenly body from which it emanates, arising from its passage through the earth's atmosphere; - hence distinguished as atmospheric refraction, or astronomical refraction.
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Reflection

Careful thought or consideration.
After careful reflection, I have decided not to vote for that proposition.
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Refraction

The change in direction of a propagating wave (light or sound) when passing from one medium to another
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Reflection

An implied criticism.
It is a reflection on his character that he never came back to see them.
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Refraction

The amount by which a propagating wave is bent
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Reflection

(computing) The process or mechanism of determining the capabilities of an object at run-time.
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Reflection

(anatomy) The folding of a part; a fold.
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Reflection

The act of reflecting, or turning or sending back, or the state of being reflected.
The eye sees not itself,But by reflection, by some other things.
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Nov 07, 2023

Reflection

The reverting of the mind to that which has already occupied it; continued consideration; meditation; contemplation; hence, also, that operation or power of the mind by which it is conscious of its own acts or states; the capacity for judging rationally, especially in view of a moral rule or standard.
By reflection, . . . I would be understood to mean, that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding.
This delight grows and improves under thought and reflection.
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Reflection

Shining; brightness, as of the sun.
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Reflection

That which is produced by reflection.
As the sun water we can bear,Yet not the sun, but his reflection, there.
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Reflection

A part reflected, or turned back, at an angle; as, the reflection of a membrane.
Job's reflections on his once flourishing estate did at the same time afflict and encourage him.
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Reflection

Censure; reproach cast.
He died; and oh! may no reflection shedIts poisonous venom on the royal dead.
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Reflection

The transference of an excitement from one nerve fiber to another by means of the nerve cells, as in reflex action. See Reflex action, under Reflex.
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Reflection

A calm lengthy intent consideration
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Reflection

The phenomenon of a propagating wave (light or sound) being thrown back from a surface
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Reflection

Expression without words;
Tears are an expression of grief
The pulse is a reflection of the heart's condition
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Nov 07, 2023

Reflection

The image of something as reflected by a mirror (or other reflective material);
He studied his reflection in the mirror
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Reflection

A likeness in which left and right are reversed
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Reflection

(mathematics) a transformation in which the direction of one axis is reversed
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Reflection

A remark expressing careful consideration
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Reflection

The ability to reflect beams or rays
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Reflection

An identical but reversed image from a reflective surface.
He saw his reflection in the shop window.
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Nov 08, 2023

Reflection

Rebound of light rays, similar to sound echoing.
The reflection of sunlight off the snow was blinding.
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Reflection

Light rays moving back toward the source.
The moon’s brightness is due to the reflection of sunlight.
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Repeatedly Asked Queries

What causes refraction?

Refraction is caused by light changing speed when it passes through different mediums.
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Nov 08, 2023

Does reflection occur with all types of waves?

Yes, sound and water waves, for example, also experience reflection.
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Nov 08, 2023

What is an example of reflection?

Seeing your face in a mirror is an example of reflection.
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Do all surfaces reflect light?

Most surfaces reflect light to some extent, but the quality of reflection varies.
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Nov 08, 2023

Is refraction responsible for rainbows?

Yes, rainbows are caused by the refraction and dispersion of sunlight by raindrops.
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Nov 08, 2023

How is refraction used in lenses?

Lenses use refraction to focus or spread out light rays.
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Can refraction and reflection occur simultaneously?

Yes, light can be both refracted and reflected at the same interface.
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Nov 08, 2023

What is Snell's Law?

Snell's Law relates the angle of incidence and refraction to the indices of refraction of two mediums.
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Nov 08, 2023

Is reflection responsible for echoes?

No, echoes are a result of sound reflection, not light.
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Is the sky's blueness due to reflection or refraction?

The sky's color is primarily due to Rayleigh scattering, which is a different phenomenon.
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How do prisms create a spectrum of colors?

Prisms refract different wavelengths of light at different angles, separating them into colors.
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What materials reflect light the best?

Smooth, shiny surfaces like mirrors provide the best reflection of light.
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Nov 08, 2023

What are refractive errors in the eye?

Refractive errors occur when the eye doesn't bend light correctly, affecting vision.
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Do mirrors reflect 100% of light?

No mirror is perfectly efficient; some light is always absorbed.
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How does refraction affect astronomical observations?

Atmospheric refraction can cause stars to twinkle and appear slightly displaced from their true positions.
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What is total internal reflection?

Total internal reflection is when light reflects completely within a medium rather than refracting out.
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Can reflection be used to concentrate solar energy?

Yes, reflective surfaces can focus solar rays to generate heat or electricity in solar power systems.
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Can refraction correct vision problems?

Yes, eyeglasses and contact lenses use refraction to correct vision.
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Nov 08, 2023

Why do we see our reflection in water?

Water acts as a reflective surface, creating an image by reflecting light.
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Are mirages caused by refraction or reflection?

Mirages are caused by refraction due to temperature gradients in the air.
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Nov 08, 2023

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About Author
Shumaila Saeed
Written by
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed, an expert content creator with 6 years of experience, specializes in distilling complex topics into easily digestible comparisons, shining a light on the nuances that both inform and educate readers with clarity and accuracy.

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