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Why do you see a reflection in water (say, in a painting) of objects that sit very far back from the water?

Why do you see a reflection in water (say, in a painting) of objects that sit very far back from the water, like houses or a mountain?
Alison Cross from Argyll & Bute (Age: 35-44)


3 Responses

  1. Hi Alison,

    I am guessing by your question that you believe that far away objects seem to reflect more strongly than near objects. This is not strictly true (light doesn’t remember where it has come from). It is true that light will reflect more strongly from the water surface if the angle of incidence is a grazing angle i.e. the light travels almost parallel to the water surface and is them reflected to be seen by your eye.

    So if we are standing next the shore of a very placid lake and we look at the water close to our feet (or the shoreline) we will probably see through the surface and into the lake (and see fish etc). If we look further out towards the middle of the lake or the opposite shore then we will start to see light reflected from the surface and hence we will see more of the objects above the opposite shore. If some of these are white snow capped mountains or white clouds or blue sky then we see these better than dark objects such as woods or a dark cottage. That is because the darker objects may not have enough contrast above the body of the lake to be visible.

    In summary, light hitting the lake surface at a grazing angle is reflected more and also bright objects are more visible than dark objects.

  2. The reason that I ask is because I travel by ferry a lot and have always been bamboozled by why I can see the reflection of trees on the hilltop reflected in the water when they are so far back and high up! One would imagine that it would only reflect things that overhung the water…..

    Thank you for straightening out a matter for a bear of very little brain 🙂


  3. No worries Alison, noticing things, asking interesting questions and making people think are very important steps in understanding.

    Reflection as a process can sound simple but how we see things around us is quite complex.

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