Whenever a ray of light moves from one medium to another (for example, when light enters a sheet of glass after travelling through air), some portion of the light is reflected from the surface (known as the interface) between the two media. This can be observed when looking through a window, for instance, where a (weak) reflection from the front and back surfaces of the window glass can be seen. The strength of the reflection depends on the refractive indices of the two media as well as the angle of the surface to the beam of light. The exact value can be calculated using the Fresnel equations.

When the light meets the interface at normal incidence (perpendicularly to the surface), the intensity of light reflected is given by the reflection coefficient or reflectance, R: where n0 and nS are the refractive indices of the first and second media, respectively. The value of R varies from 0 (no reflection) to 1 (all light reflected) and is usually quoted as a percentage. Complementary to R is the transmission coefficient or transmittance, T. If absorption and scattering are neglected, then the value T is always 1–R. Thus if a beam of light with intensity I is incident on the surface, a beam of intensity RI is reflected, and a beam with intensity TI is transmitted into the medium. For the simplified scenario of visible light travelling from air (n0≈1.0) into common glass (nS ≈ 1.5), value of R is 0.04, or 4% on a single reflection. So at most 96% of the light (T = 1 − R = 0.96) actually enters the glass, and the rest is reflected from the surface. The amount of light reflected is known as the reflection loss.

In the more complicated scenario of multiple reflections, say with light travelling through a window, light is reflected both when going from air to glass and at the other side of the window when going from glass back to air. The size of the loss is the same in both cases. Light also may bounce from one surface to another multiple times, being partially reflected and partially transmitted each time it does so. In all, the combined reflection coefficient is given by 2R/(1 + R). For glass in air, this is about 7.7%.