11 Volume Scattering

We have assumed so far that scenes are made up of collections of surfaces in a vacuum, which means that radiance is constant along rays between surfaces. However, there are many real-world situations where this assumption is inaccurate: fog and smoke attenuate and scatter light, and scattering from particles in the atmosphere makes the sky blue and sunsets red. This chapter introduces the mathematics that describe how light is affected as it passes through participating media—large numbers of very small particles distributed throughout a region of 3D space. These volume scattering models in computer graphics are based on the assumption that there are so many particles that scattering is best modeled as a probabilistic process rather than directly accounting for individual interactions with particles. Simulating the effect of participating media makes it possible to render images with atmospheric haze, beams of light through clouds, light passing through cloudy water, and subsurface scattering, where light exits a solid object at a different place than where it entered.

This chapter first describes the basic physical processes that affect the radiance along rays passing through participating media, including the phase function, which characterizes the distribution of light scattered at a point in space. (It is the volumetric analog to the BSDF.) It then introduces transmittance, which describes the attenuation of light in participating media. Computing unbiased estimates of transmittance can be tricky, so we then discuss null scattering, a mathematical formalism that makes it easier to sample scattering integrals like the one that describes transmittance. Next, the Medium interface is defined; it is used for representing the properties of participating media in a region of space. Medium implementations provide information about the scattering properties at points in their extent. This chapter does not cover techniques related to computing lighting and the effect of multiple scattering in volumetric media; the associated Monte Carlo integration algorithms and implementations of Integrators that handle volumetric effects will be the topic of Chapter 14.