Concepts of Computer Graphics/Photorealism/The Idea Of Raytracing

As we saw in the previous chapter, it is impossible, practically speaking, to model the photons coming from light sources directly. There are simply too many photons necessary to generate all of the visual information we see, and most of the photons that leave a given light source probably do not even reach our eyes. When you add in the complexities of multiple light sources necessary to create a scene true to our experience, tracing each individual photon from the light source until it (potentially) reaches our virtual camera is simply not possible.

Raytraced spheres.

The approach we use instead is called raytracing. Raytracing is actually very simple conceptually, and makes our problem tractable. Here is the basic idea.

A diagram of a ray traced scene.

Our digital image is made up of a finite number of pixels. Since the pixels are the atomic element of the image, we are only concerned with what color each pixel should be. The idea of raytracing is to work backwards from the pixels of our virtual camera, going through each individual pixel and tracing an imaginary "ray" straight away from that pixel until we encounter an object (specifically, a particular point on that object).

Once we find the intersection point in space that the ray hit, we reason that the light that would have hit this pixel contains all of the information about the light that was striking the object at this point, plus the interaction with that object. Thus, we can start a new ray on this location of the object, and trace it backwards until we hit another object, and so on. Eventually, the ray must strike a light source. Once we have found this light source, we then know the color of the light that left this light source, and struck one object, bounced off, struck another, and so on all the way back to our camera's pixel. Thus, we now know what color to put in that pixel.