Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Reflection and Absorption
Name:  George T.
Status:  student
Age:  12
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

How do different surfaces affect the amount of sunlight reflected and absorbed?


The amount of light reflected depends on the smoothness of the surface -- smooth reflects better than rough. The amount absorbed depends on the color of the surface -- dark colors absorb better than light; flat black absorbs best of all.

Also, the angle at which the light strikes the object has an effect on the amount absorbed and/or reflected. If the rays strike the surface straight down at a 90 degree angle, absorption is favored and reflection less favored. If the light strikes the surface at a low angle, reflection is favored over absorption.

However, the interplay of these factors and the composition of the surface can complicate things greatly. Consider also the difference between a black (or white) car and a black (or white) bath towel -- or the difference between a glass mirror and a piece of glass covered with a film of flat-black soot. Finally, large differences can occur if the light can penetrate into the surface. The greater the penetration, the less the reflection and the more the absorption.


Each atom has certain energy levels it can absorb. Photons of light at or near these levels can enter the atoms and be held for a little while. Such energy tends to be given to other atoms, and emitted in smaller parts as low energy wavelength. The material heats up.

Photons at energies that cannot be held are spit back out from the atom almost immediately. A little bit may find its way deeper into the material. Almost all is reflected back.

It just happens that energy of a photon of light is proportional to frequency. It is frequency that determines color. The lowest frequency a human eye responds to is red. The highest is violet. We can see all the frequencies in between as well. A material that can absorb all the visible frequencies except red will look red. A light that can absorb blue, violet and everything in between will look yellow.

Another effect on absorption vs. reflection is the smoothness of a surface. A very rough surface has many more molecules per unit area to be hit by light. On a rough surface, a reflected photon is more likely to hit a second atom. More light gets absorbed. Light that doesn't get absorbed will be dispersed: reflected back randomly rather than in a narrow beam.

The best absorber is a rough, black surface. The best reflector is a very smooth, light-colored, metal surface.

Ken Mellendorf

Your question is pretty general, and the answer is rather complicated because many factors come into play.

Black [surface absorbs all VISIBLE light], dull [ that is not reflective] surfaces absorb almost all the sunlight that strikes it; however, you have to remember that a surface that is black in the visible region [ about 400 to 700 nm ] of the electromagnetic spectrum may be reflective in the ultraviolet [shorter wavelengths]or in the infrared [longer wavelengths].

Colored surfaces absorb and/or reflect selective wavelengths of visible light.

Polished metallic surfaces reflect a large fraction of the light that strikes it. However, a dull metallic surface can absorb a sizeable amount of energy that strikes it. Remember, metallic things left in the sun get very hot. I'm not sure if this is due to absorption of visible or infrared radiation, however.

Snow, and other white but non-reflective surfaces, also reflect and/or scatter a large fraction of visible light that strikes it.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory