Perhaps the best example of specular reflection, which we encounter on a daily basis, is the mirror image produced by a household mirror that people might use many times a day to view their appearance. The mirror’s smooth reflective glass surface renders a virtual image of the observer from the light that is reflected directly back into the eyes. This image is referred to as “virtual” because it does not actually exist (no light is produced) and appears to be behind the plane of the mirror due to an assumption that the brain naturally makes. The way in which this occurs is easiest to visualize when looking at the reflection of an object placed on one side of the observer, so that the light from the object strikes the mirror
The type of reflection that is seen in a mirror depends upon the mirror’s shape and, in some cases, how far away from the mirror the object being reflected is positioned. Mirrors are not always flat and can be produced in a variety of configurations that provide interesting and useful reflection characteristics. Concave mirrors, commonly found in the largest optical telescopes, are used to collect the faint light emitted from very distant stars. The curved surface concentrates parallel rays from a great distance into a single point for enhanced intensity. This mirror design is also commonly found in shaving or cosmetic mirrors where the reflected light produces a magnified image of the face. The inside of a shiny spoon is a common example of a concave mirror surface, and can be used to demonstrate some properties of this mirror type. If the inside of the spoon is held close to the eye, a magnified upright view of the eye will be seen (in this case the eye is closer than the focal point of the mirror). If the spoon is moved farther away, a demagnified upside-down view of the whole face will be seen. Here the image is inverted because it is formed after the reflected rays have crossed the focal point of the mirror surface.
Another common mirror having a curved-surface, the convex mirror, is often used in automobile rear-view reflector applications where the outward mirror curvature produces a smaller, more panoramic view of events occurring behind the vehicle. When parallel rays strike the surface of a convex mirror, the light waves are reflected outward so that they diverge. When the brain retraces the rays, they appear to come from behind the mirror where they would converge, producing a smaller upright image (the image is upright since the virtual image is formed before the rays have crossed the focal point). Convex mirrors are also used as wide-angle mirrors in hallways and businesses for security and safety. The most amusing applications for curved mirrors are the novelty mirrors found at state fairs, carnivals, and fun houses. These mirrors often incorporate a mixture of concave and convex surfaces, or surfaces that gently change curvature, to produce bizarre, distorted reflections when people observe themselves.
Spoons can be employed to simulate convex and concave mirrors, as illustrated in Figure 4 for the reflection of a young woman standing beside a wooden fence. When the image of the woman and fence are reflected from the outside bowl surface (convex) of the spoon, the image is upright, but distorted at the edges where the spoon curvature varies. In contrast, when the reverse side of the spoon (the inside bowl, or concave, surface) is utilized to reflect the scene, the image of the woman and fence are inverted.
The reflection patterns obtained from both concave and convex mirrors are presented in Figure 5. The concave mirror has a reflection surface that curves inward, resembling a portion of the interior of a sphere. When light rays that are parallel to the principal or optical axis reflect from the surface of a concave mirror (in this case, light rays from the owl’s feet), they converge on the focal point (red dot) in front of the mirror. The distance from the reflecting surface to the focal point is known as the mirror’s focal length. The size of the image depends upon the distance of the object from the mirror and its position with respect to the mirror surface. In this case, the owl is placed away from the center of curvature and the reflected image is upside down and positioned between the mirror’s center of curvature and its focal point.
The convex mirror has a reflecting surface that curves outward, resembling a portion of the exterior of a sphere. Light rays parallel to the optical axis are reflected from the surface in a direction that diverges from the focal point, which is behind the mirror (Figure 5). Images formed with convex mirrors are always right side up and reduced in size. These images are also termed virtual images, because they occur where reflected rays appear to diverge from a focal point behind the mirror.