This question came up on the DAZ 3D forums ( link ). Since there is considerable text to write, I figured I would post it here as well. Note that this discussion is about how light interacts with a surface that has subsurface scattering (SSS), not about how to get the best effects from an SSS enabled surface shader.
First, briefly what subsurface scattering is all about.
One thing that is sometimes difficult to remember is that a surface in 3D graphics has no actual depth. It is a set of polygons which have length and width, but the depth is effectively zero. So our surface shaders that define the characteristics of the surface often have to fake the fact that in the real world, not everything that happens with light and surfaces happens on the very top layer of the material. This is especially true for surfaces like your skin.
When light strikes the surface of your skin, it does one of three things.
- It reflects – Most of the light just bounces off the outer layer of your skin and reflects into the rest of the world. This is exactly like every other surface.
- It is absorbed – Some of the light passes through that outer layer of skin and is absorbed into the layers beneath never to be seen again.
- It scatters and comes back out – Some of the light bounces around in the layers of your skin and eventually exits the skin again. This light can be seen. The easiest way to see this is when you press a small flashlight or laser pointer on your skin surface and the surrounding area “glows” with a reddish light.
Technically, unless they are a perfect mirror, all surfaces reflect and absorb light. That is the simple effect that we simulate by having the diffuse layer in our shader. Those settings are basically saying “When white light hits this part of the surface, this is the part of the spectrum which is reflected back into the rest of the environment.” The rest (by extrapolation) must have been absorbed by the surface.
So then what the SSS enabled shader needs to account for that isn’t already in the calculation is the scattering of the light within the surface and (eventually) the re-transmission of that light back into the rest of the world. While it could be possible to actually simulate the bouncing of the light within your skin, calculating the point where that light exits the skin again, and casting new rays of light, most shaders take a more simplistic view.
The biggest assumption that they make is that the point where they are calculating the surface values is very similar to the points that are close by. So, rather than calculating the effect of the light bouncing, one can make the assumption that the light which is hitting the point where you are sampling the effect is the same as the light that is nearby; so we can assume that some light from somewhere else is going to have been scattered and will be exiting the surface at our sampling point.
The perfectionists in us might cringe at this broad assumption, but when you consider the very tiny distances that are usually involved in this calculation, it isn’t as bad as you might think. We can also help out sometimes by fine tuning parameters in the rendering engine like pixel sampling or shader sampling levels.
Some of you are probably visual learners; so I’ve created a couple of simple diagrams to show what I mean.
First, a diagram of light reflecting from a normal 3D surface. Note that in this case I’m assuming a white light source with a white diffuse surface setting; so all light that hits the surface is reflected back from it.
When we add subsurface scattering, we need to account for at least the scattering aspect, and if we’re doing it well, the absorption factor is figured in too.
Notice that I included the second light ray that is assumed to exist that is adding the scattered light to the reflected light, giving us a result that is somewhat “warmer” than the pure white light that was provided.
Some SSS enabled shaders can be further tweaked with additional settings. For instance, there is typically a setting for the strength of the scattering effect. Ideally this setting should allow you to provide a grayscale map which adjusts the strength of the scattering at various locations on the surface. Others will allow you to control which parts of the spectrum are absorbed and/or scattered by providing color controls for those settings.
Note: I have scene articles in both artistic and scientific oriented 3D journals which go so far as to simulate multiple portions of both the epidermis and dermis layers of the skin. That is hardcore!
SSScatter Pre or Post?
One challenge that can sometimes arise for SSS enabled shaders is how to combine it with the diffuse color values which define the color of the top layer of the surface. The decision typically comes down to whether the light that enters the surface to be scattered should be filtered by the diffuse color of the surface, or should that part be considered to be white and the controls on the scattering part of the shader control how the light exiting the skin should look?
In the subsurface shader included in DAZ Studio, you can choose whether to apply the diffuse layer to the surface prior (Pre) to the subsurface scattering or after (Post) the scattering process. Will (aka Age of Armour), the author of that shader, has an excellent video tutorial ( Subsurface Shader Basics ) available which describes in much greater detail how to get better results from using that shader.
I hope this helped a little with understanding what the subsurface scattering effect is all about and what the shaders that support it are trying to simulate for you. And I hope you don’t hate me for starting all my sections sounding like a sssilly sssnake. :)