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Physically-Based Rendering

Change List

A list of changes made to this document.

 Version  Date  Revision
 Initial document.
 1.1  23/11/2017  Added section for texture gamma handling.
 1.2 27/11/2017 Elaborated gamma handling section.
 1.3 28/11/2017 Added a PBR material reference table.
 1.4 07/12/2017 Updated info in Theory and Application sections.


It is typical for an artist to author a set of diffuse and specular texture maps to convey the aesthetic of real-world materials. Until recently, the artist would do so by applying colours that looked approximately correct by eye rather than using an approach driven by a standardised logic.

Because the old approach of using whatever colours looked right didn’t have a physically grounded basis, non-PBR materials could not deliver consistent results when lighting conditions changed. PBR materials, however, react to light correctly regardless of the lighting scenario.


A light ray striking a surface can result in three possible outcomes:

  • The ray is reflected by the material
  • The ray is transmitted through the material
  • The ray is absorbed by the material

The reflection of light can be further broken down into two sub-categories:

  • Specular reflection, which is light reflected from the top-most layers of a surface at definite angles
  • Diffuse reflection, which is light penetrating the surface to a deeper extent and reflecting in seemingly random directions

Materials normally exhibit a combination of these behaviours, with the proportion of light that goes to each depending on the properties of the material, the wavelength of the light, and the angle of incidence.

A PBR texture set describes the probability of a light ray taking each of these possible pathways.

Specular Reflection

Specular reflection occurs when a light ray strikes a surface and is immediately reflected by its top-most layer. The phenomenon can be intuitively understood by imagining the reflective behaviour of mirrors.

Figure 4: Angle of Reflection is equal to Angle of Incidence

Imagine a line perpendicular to a surface. This line is the surface normal. The Law of Reflection states that a light ray’s angle of reflection is equal to its angle of incidence. These two angles are measured against the surface normal as shown in the illustration above.

Diffuse Reflection

Diffuse reflection occurs when a light ray penetrates much deeper into the surface layers of a material, effectively being repeatedly absorbed and emitted between electrons. Eventually the light ray exits the material.

 Figure 5: Diffuse Reflection results from sub-surface scattering

The Law of Reflection still applies. However, because so many internal reflections have occurred, the sum of these interactions is seemingly random. Therefore diffuse reflection does not vary with viewing angle – unlike specular reflection. Diffuse reflection can cause reflected light to be colourised, due to the material absorbing light of different wavelengths in different quantities. 

Surface Perturbation

If you examine any real-world object, it is unlikely to be perfectly flat or perfectly smooth. On both a microscopic and macroscopic level, it will have variation and inconsistency in its form. A microscopic surface can be thought of as containing many little faces, called microfacets, that form its curvature. If the material is rough the angle between these faces will be greater than if the material is smooth. This has an impact on how uniformly light is reflected.


Imagine two parallel light rays a few nanometres apart. A smooth surface such as a mirror will reflect these rays such that they remain near parallel; whereas a rough surface may send them off in completely different directions. A pattern (such as a face) formed by the incoming light will be retained by the former case, and scrambled by the latter.

A polished marble floor is an example of a smooth surface with uniform angles of reflection, whereas cardboard is an example of a rough surface with inconsistent angles of reflection. Both materials reflect a similar amount of specular light, but you cannot see your own face in cardboard.

Conservation of Energy

The Law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant over time.

Within the context of light, this means all energy from a ray of light striking a surface will be accounted for in the interaction. Of the total energy, some will be reflected by the surface, some will be transmitted through the surface, and the remaining quotient will be absorbed (and perhaps emitted in another form such as heat).

PBR systems uphold the Law of Conservation of Energy by accounting for all light emitted by light sources. The game world can be thought of as an isolated system. This means that a PBR material cannot, for example, reflect more light than it receives.

Fresnel reflection

The extent to which a material reflects light in a specular manner (its specular reflectivity) varies according to the angle of incidence. At greater angles (known as grazing angles), specular reflectivity approaches 100%. We refer to this phenomenon as Fresnel reflection, due to it being governed by the Fresnel equation.

We can think of a material as possessing a base reflectivity value. This is the amount of specular reflectivity exhibited for a light ray with an angle of incidence of 0° (head-on). As the angle of incidence increases, so does the amount of specular reflectivity until it eventually reaches 100%. In order for energy to be conserved, this also means that diffuse reflections must reduce to 0%.

The relationship between angle of incidence and specular reflection is a function that can be mapped-out onto a graph. The shape of the curve varies from material to material, but it always starts at the material’s base reflectivity value and ends up at 100%.

Dielectrics (i.e. non-metals) have distinct Fresnel curves to metals, with very low base reflectivities of around 4-10%, meaning they reflect only a very small proportion of incoming light via specular reflection at 0°, with a high proportion of diffuse reflections instead. Metals have a much higher base reflectivity, of around 50-100%, and can reflect only negligible diffuse reflections, meaning virtually any light reflected by a metal is as a result of specular reflections. Base reflectivity values for metals such as gold can vary greatly for different wavelengths of light, where most light of red and green wavelengths is reflected, and blue wavelengths mostly absorbed at  - this allows metals to have a colour despite lacking diffuse reflection.  

Fresnel reflection is an incredibly important aspect of a material’s aesthetic, but due to its subtle nature, it is rarely thought about outside of a physics laboratory.

Thankfully for the artist, Fresnel reflection is applied by a PBR shader without the artist needing to pay too much consideration to its presence. A specular reflectivity map can be thought of as describing the material’s base reflectivity.


In the theory section, we explored possible outcomes of light interacting with a material. As discussed, each of these outcomes has a probability specific to the material in question. A PBR texture set defines these probabilities.

Typically, a PBR texture set will contain the following maps:


Of the light entering inside the material, due to not being specularly reflected, describes the (RGB) probability of the light being re-emitted in a diffuse manner, rather than being absorbed by the material.

<127, 0, 0>

50% of red light entering the material will be re-emitted diffusely, with all green and blue light being absorbed.


Describes pixel normals in tangent-space. Normal maps are applied no differently within a PBR system.

<127, 127, 255>

Pixel normals perfectly aligned to corresponding vertex normals.


Describes the degree to which a surface's microfacets produce a jagged microsurface. Also referred to as the material’s glossiness or roughness value.


A 95% glossiness value would produce very clear reflections. A 95% roughness value would produce a very matte surface, with no clear specular reflections or highlights.


Describes total light emitted by a material (incandescence). 100% represents an arbitrary maximum value.

<255, 220, 180>

86% total light emittance with a bias toward ‘warm’ wavelengths, producing a soft orange colour.

Specularity (Specular workflow)

Describes the proportion of specular reflection (base reflectivity) produced by a material at 0 degrees.


At 0 degrees, 30% of light will be reflected specularly, with the remainder entering the material and potentially being diffusely-reflected.

Metalness (Metalness workflow)

Describes whether or not a material is metallic. While intermediate values (between 0% and 100%) can be used, they will not produce physically-accurate results in most situations.


0% metalness, indicating a non-metal (dielectric). In the Metalness workflow, a non-metal will receive a low specularity value of 4%, whereas a metal will have its specularity values defined separately.


Describes the proportion of light transmitted through the material.


16% opacity; most light is transmitted through the material.

Ambient Occlusion

Describes how much ambient light is occluded from a region due to the concavity of its macroscopic form.


5% occluded. This is typical for a mostly convex region.


FSW utilises all of these texture types, but expects them to be packed into four distinct image files:

Albedo Map

There is nothing particularly unusual about the conventions of this image. It is equivalent to the diffuse map in previous engine versions.

  • Channels:                            3 (or 4)
  • Filename suffix:                   _A
  • Gamma-space:                   sRGB

Specular Workflow

Metalness Workflow

R G B: describes diffuse reflection           

R G B: describes diffuse reflection if metalness is 0; describes specularity otherwise

  • A:                                         describes opacity (optional)

Combined Map

This image stores three maps unique to PBR materials.

  • Channels:                            3
  • Filename suffix:                 _C
  • Gamma-space:                   Linear

  • R:                                         describes microsurface roughness
  • G:                                         describes metalness or specularity
  • B:                                         describes ambient occlusion

Normal Map

This image stores a tangent-space normal map, but with unconventional swizzling. It is no different to the normal map in previous engine versions.

  • Channels:                            4 (R is unused)
  • Filename suffix:                  _N
  • Gamma-space:                   Linear

  • R:                                          not used; leave blank
  • G:                                          describes y-axis of tangent-space normal
  • B:                                          describes z-axis of tangent-space normal
  • A:                                          describes x-axis of tangent-space normal

Emissive Map

This image simply stores the emissive properties of a material.

  • Channels:                            3
  • Filename suffix:                  _E
  • Gamma-space:                   sRGB

  • R G B:                                   describes light emission

Calibrating PBR (Gamma-Space)

In FSW, it is important that all textures be in the correct colour/gamma space. Until now we have assumed a linear colour-space for our examples.

Gamma correction is a means to optimise the storage of data when encoding an image by exploiting the non-linear manner in which humans perceive light and colour. Humans perceive brightness on a curve. Greater sensitivity is accorded to the brightness steps between darker tones than between lighter ones. An image without gamma correction allocates too much data to highlights and too little data to shadow (where humans have the finest sensitivity). sRGB is a common implementation of gamma correction; sometimes  “sRGB” and “gamma correction” may be used interchangeably. 

As a PBR texture set describes physical material properties rather than serving to look pretty in  Photoshop®, using gamma correction is not particularly useful. In fact, it poses two problems:

  • Linear spectra (such as fractions of reflected light) have lower resolution as values increase.
  • It is confusing for the artist as middle-grey (<127, 127, 127> in RGB) does not represent 0.5.

























Figure 12: Comparison of a linear and gamma corrected RGB scale

Depending on type and the art workflow used, FSW requires that some textures be linear, and others gamma-corrected (in sRGB):

  • Albedo – sRGB
  • Combined texture
    • Gloss/Roughness (Red) channel – linear
    • Specular (Green) channel
      • Metalness (Metalness flow) – linear
      • Reflectivity (Specular flow) – linear
    • Ambient Occlusion (Blue) channel – linear
  • Emissive – sRGB

The artist must be mindful of this when looking up PBR values for materials online. There are various resources from which albedo, roughness, and specular values can be garnered, such as:

These resources will generally state whether the values are linear or gamma corrected. When a given material cannot be found online, its values can be intelligently guessed using a material with similar properties for reference.

In  Photoshop®/GIMP, this process can be performed over the whole image (to one or all colour channels), to convert values from sRGB into linear (gamma = 0.45) or linear into sRGB (gamma = 2.2).

  •  Photoshop®: Image > Adjustments > Levels > enter gamma value (middle box, with “1.00”) > OK
  • GIMP: Colours > Levels… > enter gamma value (middle box, with “1.00”) > OK

In both  Photoshop® and GIMP this process can be performed on a single channel only by selecting the channel in the “Channel:” drop-down box in the Levels window.

An image/colour channel converted from sRGB into linear space will typically appear darker, and vice-versa. These methods are also valid for converting other types of values/textures between sRGB and linear space where required.

Converting a value from sRGB to linear:

(Where 0.04 is the linear reflectivity value, and would represent a non-metal)

  • sRGB (integer) = 51 (out of 255)
  • sRGB (decimal) = 51/255 = 0.20
  • Linear (decimal) = 0.20^2.2 = 0.04

Converting back, from linear to sRGB:

  • Linear (decimal) = 0.04
  • sRGB (decimal) = 0.04^0.45 = 0.20
 Figure 13: 0.4545 converts from sRGB to linear
 Figure 14: 2.2 converts from linear to sRGB

PBR Material Reference Table

The following tables demonstrate true PBR values of common materials.

They can be used as a starting-point when portraying a given material. Note that non-metals tend to have reflectivity values below 0.1 (linear), whereas metals tend to have reflectivity values above 0.5 (linear). Further, non-metal reflections are almost never change the colour of light, whereas metallic reflections do.

When it’s not possible to find the real-world reflectivity value for a non-metal, 0.04 (linear) or 0.23 (sRGB) is often a suitable approximation to use.

Dielectrics (Non-Metals)


Reflectivity (Linear)

Reflectivity (sRGB)














0.032 - 0.043

0.21 - 0.24


0.032 - 0.076

0.21 - 0.31


















Reflectivity (Linear)

Reflectivity (sRGB)


0.563,  0.579,  0.579

0.77,  0.78,  0.78


0.956,  0.646,  0.547

0.98,  0.82,  0.76


1.000,  0718,  0.290

1.00, 0.86,  0.57


0.914,  0.914,  0.935

0.96,  0.96,  0.97


0.957,  0.935,  0.893

0.98,  0.97,  0.95


0.554,  0.554,  0.554

0.76,  0.76,  0.76


0.542,  0.500,  0.448

0.76,  0.73,  0.69


0.660,  0.609,  0.526

0.83,  0.80,  0.75


1. Materials appear dark or have dark/grey/metallic patches on them

This can be caused when reflectivity values for a non-metal are far above suitable values, and the shader treats some or all of it as a metal. This would likely be caused by the reflectivity values not being physically correct to begin with, or the values being stored in sRGB space instead of linear space in the final texture (if using the specular workflow).

2. Specular reflections on glass/transparent materials are too dim when using the additive specular material flag

This could be because the alpha value for the material is set to 0. The flag does not affect areas of the material where the alpha value is exactly 0.

3. Some details are missing from metallic surfaces

Check that the details have correct reflectivity values in the combined map (i.e. a non-metal value where there is paint, etc).

4. Metals look different compared to other PBR engines (specular workflow)

Check that the albedo value for the metal is black in both engines (as metals should have no diffuse reflections).

Texture-Geometry Dichotomy

Let us start by exploring what shouldn’t be included in a texture.

Traditionally, it was standard practice for the artist to imply the existence of small geometric forms in a texture set. This was due to limitations of the time, and generally yielded unrealistic results. Development teams were forced to make visual compromises for performance.

As time progressed, this practice became less and less commonplace. During the N64/PS1 era, only the most obvious aspects of form were conveyed through 3D geometry; everything else (including a character's facial features) were packed into textures. Two generations later, developers began conveying facial features such as eyeballs through 3D geometry. Now we are at a stage where nearly all form can be conveyed through 3D geometry.

Within a PBR context, the practice of packing geometric form into textures makes even less sense. Each texture has a specific purpose in describing the physical properties of a material, and should not be stuffed full of fake visual information.

As a general rule of thumb, it is okay to put geometric form smaller than 2cm into textures provided the textures within a texture set are consistent with one another. This is only a loose rule, however, as other factors must be considered — such as how close the camera is likely to come to the geometric form in question.

See Colour Maps for clarification on how best to convey small geometric forms in textures.

UV Layout

For light aircraft, the fuselage, wings and interior geometry should all be given their own UV maps.

The fuselage is approximately spherocylindrical in shape and should be unwrapped into a rectangle’s net with the bottommost piece vertically centred in the UV map. The front and rear sections of the fuselage vary too much from aircraft-to-aircraft for a rule to apply.

The wings should be unwrapped in a similar manner such that a wing has one UV Island for its up-facing elements and one UV Island for its down-facing elements. 

Discretion should be applied as no two aircraft are identical and what generally applies may not be applicable in specific cases.

Figure 16: The fuselage is unwrapped to correspond with the faces of a rectangle (left). The wings are broken into top and bottom elements (right).

Texture Baking: AO & Normals

FSW aircraft typically have both ambient occlusion and normal information baked into their texture maps. There are a number of ways to go about this.

Both types of information can be captured in 3DS Max using a Projection modifier in conjunction with the Render to Texture dialogue. Many artists, however, prefer a freeware program called xNormal (available for download here: xNormal Installer).

xNormal is an excellent program and delivers industry-standard results. It is necessary for the aircraft to be exported from 3DS Max in FBX (or OBJ) format, and then imported into xNormal.

It may be useful to bake-out world-space and tangent-space normal maps, as many modern PBR texturing tools take world-space normal maps as input

Texture Baking: Colour Maps

Colour maps (known also as Material Maps) are a way to easily differentiate between different material types. They can aid the artist while texturing in  Photoshop® and are used as input by many modern PBR texturing tools.

Unlike ambient occlusion and normal information, it is far better to use 3DS Max for baking colour maps into textures.

A colour map can be created in 3DS Max by assigning a different 3DS Max ‘Standard’ material to different pieces of geometry. By assigning each material its own diffuse colour, and then using the Render to Texture dialogue to instigate a bake, a colour map will be produced. It is advisable to use a skylight as the only light source and disable any advanced lighting options to prevent shading from appearing in the colour map.