Volumetric light shafts

On the last weekend, I was at the Revision demoparty (Easterparty). It’s a meeting of friends and great people doing graphics, music, code and that kind of fun and pretty stuff. I didn’t release anything, but I’ve been working on a release for a while now, and I was lacking something in my engine: light shafts.

I know a few ways to do that. They almost all fall in one of the two following classes:

  1. screen-space-based;
  2. raymarching-based.

Both the techniques produce interesting images. However, the screen-space-based method produces bad results when you don’t look directly to the light – it may even produce nothing if the light is out of screen – and the raymarching-based is a step process that might generate artifacts and can be slow.

The idea I had is very simple. I haven’t tested it yet, but it’s planned for very soon. I’ll post images with benchmarks as soon as I have something on screen. I’m not sure it’s an unknown way to do it. I just haven’t found anything describing that yet. If you have, please leave a link in the comments below! :)

Volume extraction

The idea is the following. You need a depthmap. If you’re used to shadow mapping you already have a depthmap for your light. In order to simplify this, we’ll use the depthmap used for shadow mapping, but I guess it’s totally okay to use another depthmap – we’ll see that it could be even handier.

For each point in that depthmap is the distance – in a specific space coordinates system – of the corresponding point in world space to the position of the light. If you have the projection and the view matrices of the light, it’s easy to deproject the depthmap. What would we get if we deproject all the depthmap texels into the world space? We’d get the exact lit surfaces.

For a spot light, you can imagine the deprojected version of the depthmap as a cone of light. The “disk” of the cone will deform and shape as the lit environment. That’s the first part of the algorithm.

We have a points cloud. What happens if, for each deprojected texel – i.e. point – we draw a line to the position of the light? We get an actual lines field representing… photons paths! How amazing is that?! Furthermore, because of the depthmap sampling, if you look at the light and that an object is between you and the light, the photons paths won’t go through the obstructing object! Like the following image:

Of course, because of using raw lines, the render might be a bit blocky at first. If you know the laser trick[^1] – i.e. quad-based lasers, you can apply it to our lines as well, in order to get better results. The first improvement is to disable depth test and enable additive blending.


In the first place, you need to generate the depthmap of the light. Then, you need to extract the volumetric shaft. You’ll need a vertex buffer for that. Allocate w*h elements, where w and h are the depthmap’s width and height. Yeah, a point per texel.

Create a shader and make a render with glDrawArrays(GL_POINTS, 0, w*h) with an attributeless vertex array object. Don’t forget to bind the depthmap for use in the shader.

In your vertex shader, use gl_VertexID to sample from the depthmap. Transform the resulting texel in world-space. You can use something like the following deprojection formula:

vec3 deproject() {
  float depth = 2. * texelFetch(depthmap, ivec2(gl_FragCoord.xy), 0).r - 1.;
  vec4 position = vec4(vv, depth, 1.);
  position = iProjView * position;
  position.xyz /= position.w;
  return position.xyz;

Pass that to the next stage, the geometry shader. There, build whatever kind of new primitive you want. In the first place, I’ll go for a simple line connected to the light’s position. In further implementation, I’ll go for lasers-like base shapes, like star-crossed quads.

In the fragment shader, put whatever color you want the shaft to have. You could use interpolation to reduce lighting wherever you want to create nice effects.

Don’t forget to use additive blending, as we do for lasers.


I see two major problems. The first one is the bright aspect the shaft will have if you don’t blend correctly. Play with alpha to reduce more if the fragment is near the light’s position and make the alpha bigger when you’re far away from the light’s position. Because you’ll blend way more photons paths near the light’s position than far from it.

The second issue is the resolution of the extracted volume. For a 512x512 depthmap, you’ll get around 262k points, then 524k lines. That’s a lot for such an object. And that’s only for a simple spot light. An omnidirectional light would require six times more lines. What happens if we don’t use lines, but star-crossed quads an that we want several shafts? You see the problem.

A solution could be to sample from high mipmap level, so that you don’t use the full resolution of the shadow map. That would result in less visual appealing shafts, but I’m pretty sure it’d be still good. You could also branch a blur shader to smooth out the whole thing.


I’ll try to implement that as soon as possible, because I think my idea is pretty interesting compared to raymarching, which is expensive, and way better than screen-space, because the shaft will still be visible if the light goes out of screen.

[^1]: I’ll write an article about it if you don’t – leave a comment for asking

↑ Volumetric light shafts
Wed Apr 8 00:00:00 2015 UTC