SSS – Why Should I Care?

Markus Ba (one of the members of our DAZ Studio Artists group on Facebook) raised a question following the posting of my SSS and Light tutorial. “This is interesting, but why should I care about this?” It’s valid question and one that I’ll try to address here. But, first several caveats!

You Might Not Care!

I can’t tell you for certain that you should care about subsurface scattering. Depending on the visual style you are shooting for, the content you are using, etc. adding SSS effects to your surface shaders may not help your final image at all.

However, for accurate representation of surfaces other than hard plastic or metal, subsurface scattering is an important part of how the material interacts with light. Standard surface shaders using only diffuse, specular and ambient surface values ignore an important part of how real world materials work.

As I mentioned in the above referenced article, the primary reason for using subsurface scattering is to acknowledge that some light which strikes a surface is transmitted through the surface and exits at some other point on the surface. This scattered transmission of light is most closely associated with human skin, however many other surfaces do this as well. Examples include cloth, soft plastics / rubber, milk, clay, etc.

Cue the Lights

Before I talk about how SSS affects your surfaces (and therefore your final images), I want to mention that much of SSS is highly dependent on the lighting in your scene. Your lights do not necessarily have to be complicated, but very simple lights (e.g. a single distant light) may not provide enough light at the proper angles to get the most out of your SSS enabled shaders.

Texture Dependencies

One of the struggles with figuring out whether or not your image will benefit from SSS or not is how dependent the results can be on the texture maps that you have to work with. For the most realistic skin rendering using SSS, you should have the following texture maps.

  • Diffuse Map – showing what we think of as the visible skin surface (see note below)
  • Specular Map – skin is not universally shiny, a good specular map which acknowledges the differences makes a big difference
  • Subsurface Map – your skin does not have a constant color for it’s subsurface, ideally the creator of the skin you’re using understands this and has prepared a map. VERY complicated skin shaders go to the level of mapping the veins and arteries in your skin.
  • Subsurface Strength – Even if the color is constant, the shader should understand that the strength of the scattering is also not constant across your entire body.

How Diffuse Is It?

One problem that I’ve seen with many skins that we use in Poser and DAZ Studio is that they are based off photos of actual skins. “Why is that a problem?” you ask. Because the camera is recording the final result of the light interacting with the model’s skin. This includes the effect of light scattering in the subsurface.

So, if you add SSS to a skin which has already captured the SSS effect in the real world, you’re going to end up with skin that looks too orange/red. This is why you often see shader presets for skins multiply the texture by a light blue color. This (roughly) removes the SSS from the captured texture, with the expectation that the remaining calculations will add it back in correctly for your purposes.

The best diffuse map would be one where the original texture was captured with a very flat light. It should also have been just enough light as required to get the image without adding a lot of strong subsurface scattering to the image that the camera recorded.

Given that the artist doesn’t really have a choice of how the original texture is captured, the second best would be that you modify the texture in an image editing tool (e.g. Photoshop, GIMP, etc.) and remove some of the red at that level. I can’t really recommend specific filters since so much is going to depend on the image you’re starting with, the tools available in your editor, etc.

You Haven’t Answered Me!

Ok, now that I’m a page and a half into this description, it is probably time to address the original question about why should you care.

Usually the first example of where you will see the SSS effect is in the translucence that you see in certain parts of the body. The most common area is around the ears, or the fingers; however it can be seen anywhere that light is shining at an angle where it would transmit through the surface toward the camera.

The effect that it has is typically a soft translucent glow on the surface. Below I show a couple of simple images showing how SSS adds to the surface of Victoria’s head.

{Images to be inserted}

While SSS is most often associated with skin, it also is an effect on many other soft surfaces where light is partially absorbed and partially scattered (transported) through the surface. Surfaces like cloth, clay, rubber, etc. also have an SSS quality to their surface. The question of whether using an SSS enabled shader for objects in your scene which have a material like this will improve the image will end up being a matter of taste.

And, even then, there may be some cases where you decide that the additional level of realism for the surface is not worth the added rendering time that it takes.

Oh, you say I forgot to mention that part? Well, when you consider the extra calculations required to determine light absorption, scattering, translucence, fresnel effects, etc. the rendering time for an image where SSS is used extensively can be significantly higher than without.

Shader Tuning

One thing that I can’t really address here is how tuning the values of your SSS enabled shader will affect your final results. As I mentioned at the beginning, the results of an SSS enabled shader rely so much on lighting, textures, even the distance that the camera is from the subject have a big effect on the end result.

For DS users, there are several tutorial resources about how to get the best out of shaders like UberSurface, the Subsurface Base Shader, etc. Take a look at the links on my Other Tutorials page for information on where to find these sorts of tutorials.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] I opened the discussion about subsurface scattering (SSS) with my Light and SSS and SSS – Why Should I Care? posts, I’ve received some good feedback / additional information. I wanted to capture those […]


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