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The Cycles Shader Encyclopedia

Greg Zaal

2015

www. blendernerd.com

www.blenderguru.com
Contents

Diffuse BSDF ......................................................................................................................................... 1


Glossy BSDF.......................................................................................................................................... 3
Anisotropic BSDF ................................................................................................................................. 6
Glass BSDF ......................................................................................................................................... 10
Refraction BSDF ................................................................................................................................ 14
Transparent BSDF .............................................................................................................................. 15
Translucent BSDF ............................................................................................................................... 16
Velvet BSDF ....................................................................................................................................... 19
Toon BSDF .......................................................................................................................................... 21
Subsurface Scattering ..................................................................................................................... 24
Emission .............................................................................................................................................. 29
Hair BSDF ............................................................................................................................................ 31
Ambient Occlusion .......................................................................................................................... 34
Holdout .............................................................................................................................................. 37
Volume Absorption .......................................................................................................................... 38
Volume Scatter ................................................................................................................................. 39
Mix Shader ......................................................................................................................................... 42
Add Shader ....................................................................................................................................... 47
Diffuse BSDF

What it does: Receives light and diffuses it with zero visible reflections.
Use it for: Non-reflective surfaces like paper or walls. Or for mixing with other shaders.

Properties

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Roughness
You may have played with this obscure little slider and stared at your screen in confusion
wondering why nothing is changing. Something IS actually changing, but it‟s very subtle:

Roughness adds very subtle, microscopic levels of roughness to the surface.

Where would you use this? Anywhere where you need a very fine level of roughness that‟s
barely visible to eye, like fabric, rough wood and sand:

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Glossy BSDF

What it does: Reflects lights and the environment


Use it for: Adding reflections to any object

This very common shader is commonly in combination with the diffuse shader (using the
Mix Shader, discussed later) to create some very common materials like plastic, metals,
ceramics and wood:

Table model by 1DInc, dragon by Stanford University

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Properties

Distribution Function
Simply put, this is the math behind how the “blurriness” is calculated.

Which one should you use? Well it depends on the situation as well as your own
preference.

I think Beckmann works well for metals and GGX is good for everything else. Ashikhmin-
Shirley was added fairly recently, and seems to be a sort of middle-ground between the
two. It‟s worth noting though that you‟ll see no change in their appearance from a
Roughness: 0 value.

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Roughness
This simply controls how blurry the reflections are by simulating microscopic bumps in the
surface:

5
Anisotropic BSDF

What it does: Behaves exactly the same as the Glossy shader, but skews the reflection in
one direction.

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Use it for: Brushed metal or materials where the light shouldn‟t reflect evenly, like the back
of a fry pan.

Watch the Anisotropic Shader tutorial

Properties

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Distribution Function
These are the same as the Distribution Functions for the Glossy shader, although the
difference between them is slightly more noticeable:

Anisotropy
A value from -1.0 to 1.0 that controls the amount of stretching. Negative values stretch the
reflections horizontally, and positive ones stretch them vertically. On 0.0, it is exactly the
same as if you‟d just used a Glossy shader.

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Rotation
Used to rotate the direction of the skewed reflections. Goes from 0.0 to 1.0 and rotates
from 0 to 360 degrees. Usually you‟ll want to keep this between 0.0 and 0.5 (180 degree
rotation, looks the same).

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Tangent
Basically, the Tangent controls what axis is used to skew the reflections. Use the Tangent
node to choose which direction to use.

Anisotropy with tangents: radial Z, radial Y, UV

Watch the tutorial: Introduction to Anisotropic Shading

Glass BSDF

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What it does: Behaves like real glass, bending and reflecting light as it hits the surface
according to the IOR (Index of Refraction).
Use it for: Glass, water or any other reflective, light bending materials like gemstones.

How To Make A Beer tutorial & Crystal Turtle by Jeepster

Properties

Distribution Function
Again, these functions just control which algorithm is used to calculate the appearance
of rough reflections and refractions, although this time the Ashikhmin-Shirley option is not
available.

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Beckmann vs GGX

Roughness
Simulates tiny bumps and scratches on the surface, which can create the appearance of
frosted/sand-blasted glass.

Glass Roughness: 0 vs 0.2

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IOR
The Index of Refraction controls by how much the light is bent as it passes through this
surface, as well as how visible the reflections are.

You can find several lists of IOR values for different materials on the internet, and most of
them are slightly different because the IOR actually changes based on how hot the
material is, but to get you started:

 Water: 1.33
 Glass: 1.5
 Diamond: 2.4

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Refraction BSDF

What it does: Behaves exactly the same way as the Glass shader, except without the
reflection component.
Use it for: Special cases where you need to refract light, but not reflect. Like heat distortion
and black holes.

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Transparent BSDF

What it does: Completely transparent when white, tinted when colored.


Use it for: Combining with other materials to create transparent parts of the material.

By itself it‟s invisible and fairly useless – but when combined with an alpha masked image,
it can be used to give the appearance of complex objects like leaves or hair.

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Glass with no refraction, Sponza Atrium by Marko Dabrovic (download the blend)

Translucent BSDF

What it does: Let‟s light pass through it.


Use it for: Thin objects like grass or paper. Combine with other shaders like diffuse, for a
more realistic effect.

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This one confused me for a really long time, but that was until I realized it‟s not meant to
be used on its own, it‟s meant to be combined with other shaders to allow light to pass
through them.

Notice how the plane lights up only when the light is pointing at it from behind? That‟s
how the translucent shader behaves by itself.

What‟s really important here is the number of light bounces. Once the light gets inside the
mesh, and we allow it to bounce around inside, some of that light will then come back
out through the surface and light up the front faces:

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This isn‟t particularly helpful on its own, but if we combine it with say the diffuse shader,
we can create some really interesting materials.

Diffuse only, diffuse and translucent mixed, translucent only

This isn‟t to be confused with the Sub-Surface Scatting shader (discussed later). Use the
translucent shader only when the material is thin (paper, grass, leaves etc.).

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Velvet BSDF

What it does: Bends light around it like real velvet fabric. Use for clothing and fabric.
Use it for: Clothing and Fabric.

You can think of it like a Diffuse shader, but with a big dark spot in the middle:

Diffuse vs Velvet

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Properties

Sigma
A sort of roughness value that controls the size of the dark spot, where higher values
means the dark spot is smaller

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Toon BSDF

What it does: Create cartoon-like shading.


Use for: Special circumstances where you need a non-photorealistic cartoony style look.

Properties

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Component
Choose between Diffuse and Glossy – the difference is simply that diffuse is a view-
independent component (the appearance of a particular point on the surface doesn‟t
change when the camera moves around), and the glossy is view-dependent.

Toon components (diffuse vs glossy)

Size
Choose the size of the circle shapes – usually a large size is used for Diffuse, and a smaller
one for Glossy.

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left: diffuse with small and large size; right: glossy with small and large size

Smooth
When using the Glossy component, this is like a roughness control and blurs reflections. For
the diffuse component, this softens/blurs the circle shapes.

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left: diffuse with small and large smooth; right: glossy with small and large smooth

Subsurface Scattering

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What it does: Simulates the scattering of light beneath the surface of an object.
Use it for: Skin, wax, milk and many kinds of food.

Head scan by Ten 24

Properties

Falloff
Similar to the glossy‟s distribution function, this simply controls which algorithm is used to
calculate the gradual falloff of light as it travels through the material. There is very little
difference between the two options (Cubic and Gaussian), however measured data is
usually fitted to the Gaussian function (see: NVidia, Arnold, Matt Heimlich), and Cubic
gives us an additional “Sharpness” option.
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Scale
Controls how far light can scatter through the surface.

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Radius

An additional way to control how far light scatters though the surface, only this time with separate
values for the red, green and blue channels. This means we can tint the scattered light a certain
colour, like how skin scatters more red light. Note that you can actually plug a color into this socket.

On the right, the radius is larger for red

Sharpness
This option is only available when using the Cubic Falloff. It makes sure sharp edges aren‟t
softened too much, and can help reduce the appearance of dark edges.

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Texture Blur
Obviously this is used to blur the texture (whatever is plugged into the Colour input), but
it‟s probably not exactly what you‟re expecting. The radius of the blur stays constant, and
is the same as the Scale input. What the Texture Blur slider controls is how much of the blur
is mixed in with the original texture, so on 0.0 you have your ordinary crisp clean texture,
and on 0.5 you have half of your clean texture, and half of the blurred version fading in on
top. On 1.0, you can only see the blurred texture.

This means that it‟ll look like some of the texture‟s color is bleeding into the surface below.
You probably won‟t need to use this a lot though, since skin textures are usually made
from photos, and thus already include the blur effect.

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Emission

What it does: Literally emits light and casts it onto surrounding objects.
Use it for: Objects that need to cast light or appear bright, like light bulbs, sparks, fire or
even just as a light source out of shot.

Properties

Strength
The intensity/brightness of the light emitted.

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Background

The same scene lit only by various HDRs

This shader is only available in the World nodes, and is used to emit light from the
environment.

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You can use it to add a sky texture for those bright and clear sunny days, or an HDR
image for some instant fancy lighting.

Here‟s a tutorial on how to use HDRs for lighting in Cycles.

Hair BSDF

What it does: Absorbs and reflects light – but specifically for hair.
Use it for: Hair and fur.

This interesting shader is like a mix of the diffuse, translucent and anisotropic shader.

Generally hair is a headache in CG. Not only is it hard to create and groom in an
attractive way, but it‟s extremely taxing on rendering, both in simulation and rendering.
That‟s because hair is basically an enormous amount of tiny geometry which has to look
right as a whole.

So this shader takes advantage of the fact that we don‟t care what each strand looks
like, we only want our awesome fluffy character to look good. Yes, you could create a
pretty good material for hair using diffuse, glossy and translucency or SSS, but that would
take a really long time to render. So instead, this shader takes a shortcut and does some
very clever approximations of what each strand looks like from afar. The strands are pretty
terrible if you look at them up-close, and don‟t even think about using it on normal
geometry (ok, do, it‟s pretty cool), but when used on actual hair, it works really well.

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Properties

Component
The Reflection component is the light that bounces off the surface of the hair. Transmission
is the light that passes through the hair and comes out the other side. Most of the time
you‟ll want to use two nodes, one using Reflection and the other Transmission, and mix
them together.

Hair components (transmission vs reflection)

Offset
Remember the Rotation property of the Anisotropic Shader? This is exactly that, but with a
different name and it‟s measured in degrees. UI inconsistency bites :)

Hair, by nature, is a directional thing. And thus the reflection/transmission of light will be
skewed in one direction. The Offset property just allows us to control the rotation of that
skew direction.
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top: reflection with increasing offset; bottom: transmission with increasing offset

Roughness U/V
Another inconsistency with the Anisotropic Shader – these two properties control the
roughness in the direction light is skewed, and perpendicular to it. Swapping the values
around would have the same effect as setting the Offset to 90 degrees. But of course this
also allows us to make our hair more or less shiny, and control the strength of the
anisotropy effect.

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Ambient Occlusion

What it does: Calculates dark shading on corners and crevices.


Use it for: Emphasizing points of contact, or faking environment lighting.

AO stands for Ambient Occlusion, and is normally used for entire scenes using the AO
render pass. But if you ever want more control, or add it only one object then this shader
can come in handy.

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Using the method mentioned above to remove the AO on a particular object

This shader actually emits light by the way, so beware of using it outside of the custom
render pass use-case.

The distance of the AO is controlled by the same setting for the World AO.

Properties

Color
This is the colour of the „bright‟ part of the AO, the darkness is always black.

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Holdout

What it does: Punches a transparent hole in your render!


Use it for: Compositing purposes. Like making an object from a video cast a shadow, but
block any CG objects behind it.

The object still casts shadows, but it‟ll make that part of your render transparent –
assuming you have “Transparent” enabled in the Film panel.

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Volume Absorption

What it does: Affects the volume of the material, by gradually absorbing lighting,
becoming darker the deeper the object is.
Use it for: Muddy water and coloured liquid or glass.

Unlike previous shaders, this doesn‟t affect the surface of a shader, it affects it‟s volume.
And in this particular case it slowly absorbs light, the deeper it goes into the object.

Properties

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Density
Controls how thick the volume is. The higher the density, the more light is absorbed, the
darker and richer the colour.

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Volume Scatter

What it does: Scatters light that pass through the object.


Use it for: Clouds, smoke and mist.

Just like the previous shader, this effects the volume of the object not the surface – and in
this case it scatters the light instead of absorbing it. Putting the Volumetric Scatter on your
object is like turning it into a cloud: light passes through and around the object.

Be warned though, it‟ll instantly increase your render times. :)

See it used: Make a Grassy Meadow Scene, How to Make Clouds with Cycles

Properties
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Density
This property controls how thick the volume appears. The higher this is, the less light will
travel through it.

At it‟s highest value you can see that it almost looks like a diffuse shader. This is because
the light is barely entering the volume due to how thick it is.

Anisotropy
This one can seem a little strange at first, but just remember that anisotropy is simply “the
property of being directionally dependent” (Wikipedia). That means this property controls
what the volume looks like based on the direction of the light and the camera.

Negative values give more of a bias to scattering light backwards, whilst positive values
scatter more light forwards.

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This means if the light and the camera are pointing in the same direction (like a camera
flash), the volume will be more visible with a negative anisotropy value. If the light and
camera are pointing in opposite directions (as if you were looking into the sun), the
volume will be more visible with a positive value. This is a little easier to understand visually:

See the Blender Wiki for more.

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Mix Shader

What it does: Combines two shaders together.


Use it for: Almost everything. It mixing the properties of two shaders together, which is
important in the real world.

In the real world, almost no material in existence possesses the qualities of just one shader.
It‟s a mix of different properties.

For example, a ceramic coffee mug has diffuse shading for sure, but it‟s also shiny, so
there‟s a glossy shader in there too.

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Your wooden desk could be broken down similarly – the wood itself is mostly diffuse, but
also contains a rough glossy reflection of it‟s own.

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Even a piece of thick glass isn‟t just reflective and transparent – it‟s also slightly foggy
inside (volume absorption).

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Add Shader

What it does: Combines shaders together + adds their lightness values together
(effectively breaking the laws of physics).
Use it for: Special materials that need to combine two light values and aren‟t meant to be
photorealistic.

In the real world, the amount of light that bounces off a surface cannot be greater than
the amount of light that hit it in the first place. But the Add Shader will allow you to do
that.

If we add a Diffuse and Glossy shader together, we would have double the amount of
energy that we started with, which is physically impossible, but useful for some materials.
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left: Add Shader combining Diffuse and Glossy (don’t do this, energy is not conserved); right: Mix Shader, physically
correct (do this)

So if this Add Shader is so evil, why does it even exist? Well, it‟s not that evil, it‟s just a
misunderstood villain. :)

It can be used in some places, but only where you know that you‟re supposed to (or if you
intentionally want to break the rules for artistic freedom).

Some places where you should use the Add Shader:

 To colour your Volume Scatter by adding a Volume Absorption of the same colour.

 For two shaders that are emitting light, like the Emission and Background Shaders.

 Where you know for sure that energy is being conserved – e.g. adding red, green
and blue glass shaders to create dispersion.

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