Photon Mapping
By: Jon Catanio

This project is an attempt to implement photon mapping as first described by Henrik W. Jensen.

What is Photon Mapping?

Photon mapping is a great way to model global illumination and some more intricate lighting phenomena like caustics. The concept is relatively straight forward and is done in a two pass process. The first pass is emitting photons and storing them in a "photon map". The second pass is a traditional render pass with ray tracing but now the photon map is utilized to adjust the color of point based on the photons around that point! If caustics were added there would be another pass after the photon map creation that creates a caustic map, this was not implemented for this project.

First Pass: Photon Map

There are a couple different types of ways to emit photons and it depends on the type of light source. There are numerous types including diffuse point lights, spherical lights, square lights, and complex lights. The light type I supported was the diffuse point light, so the emission of photons is from a point light. The emission uses a simple rejection sampling to get the direction of the emitted photon. To be more technical, to determine the (x, y, z) direction vector we simply select a random number between -1 and 1 for each dimension. If x^2 + y^2 + z^2 > 1 we will use the direction, if not we continue generating random numbers. The image below is taken from [2] and visualizes the different types of light sources.

Once we've found the direction that the photon should be fired from we trace the photon from the position of the light(s) in the direction of the photon (the direction we just calculated). Tracing the actual photon is almost exactly like ray tracing. When the photon makes contact with a surface the photon is either reflected, transmitted, or absorbed. I implemented a Russian roulette approach that can be read in more detail in [1]. For my simplistic approach the photons don't bounce therefore the computation at this point is to determine if a photon should survive or not (if it is absorbed it does not). Russian roulette is used to increase the radiance estimate while using a significantly reduced amount of photons which leads to gains in performance with little to no loss in quality.

Once the photon survival has been determined the photon is stored in a vector of all currently alive photons. My project only focused on diffuse materials but had there been specular materials the photons on specular surfaces would not have been stored as it wouldn't make sense to try to gather photons to color bleed on a specular surface. The Stanford course mentions that there is no useful information from these photons. The data structure is displayed below, the first figure is the struct described in the Stanford course, mine is displayed next to it. The course struct is a much more efficient one as it is intended to be an option for readers needing to render much more complex scenes than I am. Mine just made certain things much simpler for me as I wasn't as concerned about memory.
After the photons have been emitted we want to organize them in a way that is much more efficient for our render pass. This is done with a k-d tree. For this project I wasn't able to fully hook up the k-d tree but developed all of the infrastructure for it, due to time I couldn't finish utilizing it and opted to iterate through the list of photons which is extremely inefficient. Nonetheless, the k-d tree provides a simple way of organizing the photons based on their position in space. It is built by choosing the largest axis and splitting the axis at the medium. This is repeated until no more splitting can be done leading to a perfectly balanced k-d tree. Now there is a grouping of photons organized relative to the space they occupy. This is used in the render pass to quickly compute the nearest photons in order to estimate the incoming radiance.

Second Pass: Rendering

Before we do the actual rendering we want to know how to compute a radiance estimate which, as stated in [1], is estimated using the nearest photons in the photon map. This is also where the k-d tree would come into play had I successfully integrated that into the project. To put it simply, imagine taking a point and placing a sphere on that point, any photons within that sphere are used to estimate radiance, those that are outside of it are disregarded. We use the equation displayed below to compute the radiance at this point, for a more detailed explanation of the equation see [2]. Once all of the photons in the hemisphere/sphere have been gathered by either traversing the k-d tree or iterating over a list of photons we are able to get an estimate of the radiance at the point.

Now it's time to render the scene with ray tracing but adjusting our BRDF (Blinn-Phong in my case) to support the use of the photon map. Know with our BRDF we incorporate the aforementioned radiance estimate and our final result will be a nice scene with some global illumination. The screenshots below show the step by step processes I took to create my final image.


5,000 and 50,000 photons visualized and various levels of power.

100 photons emitted, ~50 survived.

100 photons emitted, ~50 survived but manually tweaked the photon power.

1000 photons emitted, ~500 survived.

10000 photons emitted, ~5000 survived. Roughly 20 minutes to render which is extremely slow and would have been much faster with a working k-d tree.


Lighting has been my weakest point in graphics thus far so I wanted to try to learn more about it. This was a great project in doing that because it challenged me and required some interesting software engineering decisions and mathematical computations. I am really bummed I didn't get the k-d tree integrated into the project, all of my unit tests work flawlessly but there seems to be a memory issue causing the balancing to fail when integrating into the final solution. The performance loss is very apparent when iterating through a vector, it was actually very surprising to see a relatively small number of photons cause the program to run for a very long time. It really emphasized how important some data structures are, especially when scenes get much more complex than this.

For more information


If needed feel free to contact me at joncatanio [at] gmail. Or check out my personal website for other methods.