Anisotropic Reflections
By Neil Blevins
Created On: June 19th 2002
Updated On: May 17th 2009

What are Anisotropic Reflections? We've all heard the word, but may not have a solid understanding of what they are in the real world, how they get produced, and what our options are in 3d to replicate them. This tutorial is meant to hopefully answer some of those questions.

First, as a basic definition. Anisotropic is defined as follows:

anisotropic (adj.) an·i·so·trop·ic 1. Physics. of unequal physical properties along different axes. Cf. isotropic

As a more everyday practical definition, Anisotropic Reflections are just like regular reflections, except stretched or blurred based on the orientation of small grooves (bumps, fibers or scratches) that exist on a reflective surface. For example, take a look at this Brazil image (rendered with an alpha anisotropic shader, this shader is not currently available to the public)...

Figure 1

The floor has an anisotropic reflection, and as you can see, the teapot is blurred in the y direction, but not very blurred in the x direction.

What kinds of objects have anisotropic reflections?

Anything that has a fine grain that goes all in predominantly one direction. Good everyday examples would be hair, brushed metals, pots and pans, or reflections in water that's being perturbed (for example, by falling rain). Also, CDs are anisotropic, the reflection is distorted by the tiny grooves that go in a circular fashion around the CD.

What causes an Anisotropic Reflection?

Fine bumps in a surface cause reflections to be blurred uniformly if the bumps are reasonably random (Isotropic Reflection). If these fine bumps create a pattern, then the pattern can affect the way the reflection looks (Anisotropic Reflection).

Here are two spheres, the first is a straight reflection, the second is a blurred isotropic reflection.

 Figure 2 Figure 3

If this were a real world photo, the blurry reflection would be caused by tiny random bumps in the surface of the floor (Figure 4), bumps possibly so small that you may not notice the bumps, but you will notice their affect on the reflection.

Figure 4

So now, what happens if these tiny bumps are in a regular pattern that has direction to it? For example, brushed metals are metals that have small grooves that all head in the same direction (Figure 5). This causes reflections to blur in a specific direction, which is called an Anisotropic reflection.

Figure 5

Take these two examples of real world brushed metals.

Figure 6

Figure 7

The first (Figure 6) is a close-up of a railing where you can actually see some of the fine grain which is going in one direction. The next (Figure 7) is a further away photo of a fridge door whose surface is made from a similar material. Now notice how the reflections of the light switches and wires are blurred in a particular direction instead of being blurred uniformly in all directions. In this case, the reflection is blurred side to side while the grain goes up and down. The reflection is always stretched in the opposite direction to the grain.

The Physics Behind It

Without getting overly technical, what's happening here is that instead of seeing one reflection on a surface, you're seeing the reflection repeated again and again on the bumps on the surface, and the reflections combine to form a distorted reflection. For example, here's a reflection of the light source on a doorstop.

Figure 8

Figure 9

If we look at the doorstop close, we could think of the doorstop as a collection of rounded surfaces, each that contains a reflection of the light overhead. If you had only a single coil, you'd see a single reflection, but now place a second coil beside the first coil, you now have two reflections side by side. But it's not the exact same reflection, since the surfaces are at slightly different angles to the thing it's reflecting. Put a whole bunch of them together, and then move back until you can't see the bumps anymore, you'll see now a reflection of a perfectly round light that looks like a long, thin light.

Here's a cg example of the same phenomenon, here's a single coil reflecting an overhead light source.

Figure 10

And then several coils lined up.

Figure 11

And here's that view but from further back.

Figure 12

Notice how the series of smaller reflections now form one big long stretched reflection. Here's the max file in r4 format to create these 3 images, if you're interested.

Another example to consider is reflections on water at night.

Figure 13

A simple round light source reflects as a long stretched highlight because the water has ripples, ripples that serve a similar function as the grooves on the doorstop, or the grooves on brushed metal, just at a much larger scale.

Figure 14

Here's another example, a set of traffic cones in front of several puddles. If this were one puddle, the height of the cones in the reflection would be the same as the height of the cones. But notice the reflection of the cones is much taller than the original cones, which is the stretching caused by the "grooves", in this case, our grooves are actually multiple distinct puddles stacked side by side.

Rainy Reflections

California has had a very rainy month, which has allowed me to take some good photos of anisotropic effects in water on the street. This first image is a set of cars turning at a traffic light, notice their headlights blurred in the water surface that's being perturbed by the rain drops, as well as being disturbed by the uneven surface of the road.

Figure 15

Also notice how each reflection does eventually stop. As mentioned above when talking about the doorstop, the reflection on each bump is from a slightly different angle, so eventually the angle from which a bump sees a reflection is so shallow that it no longer picks up any reflection, which causes the overall reflection to stop. The amount of perturbance in the surface, as well as your viewing angle, and the brightness of the object being reflected all affect how the reflection looks.

Figure 16

And just so you don't think this effect only happens to lights, here's a blurry reflection of some trees.

 Figure 17 Figure 18

Consider these two pictures. If you observe carefully, the further you are from a reflection, the more blurred it is. Here's a car's headlight.

Figure 19

And then a photo taken from very close to the reflection.

Figure 20

Notice how it is still blurred by the bumpy surface of the road, but the anisotropic effect is gone. The anisotropic effect varies based on distance as well as angle, for example, consider this noise assigned to a plane.

Figure 21

This is the same noise uniformly over the surface of a plane. But notice the closer noise looks larger, and as it goes into the distance the noise gets smaller and the pattern gets more packed. So your reflection will be distorted differently the further back your reflection goes into the bump pattern.

Here's a similar phenomenon, dealing with distance instead of viewing angle. Notice the pen and my hand reflected in the fridge is very blurred at a distance of over a foot, and not very blurred at all as the pen gets really close.

 Figure 22 Figure 23

Figure 24

Figure 24 is the direction of the grooves on the fridge.

Flat Spun Anisotropy

Figure 25

Figure 26

Here's a couple of photos of a pot I have at home, notice the grooves are going around in a circle on the bottom of the pot, and how it affects the highlight.

Figure 27

Here's the direction of the grooves.

Figure 28

In Figure 28, the bottom of the pot is reflecting two highlights, an orange tinted lamp from the right, and an open window from the left. Notice how the position, intensity and color of the two light sources creates very different shaped reflections.

Figures 29 - 33

Here's the same pot moving past a point light source right to left (A lamp who's body you can see in Figures 30, 31, and 32). Notice how the reflection changes on the pot as the angle to the light source changes.

Figure 34

Here's a photo of a Compact Disc. Notice a similar pattern to the bottom of the pot. That's because the grooves are identical, just like Figure 27. (The rainbow colors come from Diffraction, which will be discussed in another tutorial).

Here's a lesson discussing how to make Spun Patterns like these.

Misc Shapes

Two more photos, these are two christmas ornaments that my grandmother had at her house. Both are made up of fine synthetic hairs that all travel in one direction.

Figure 35

Figure 36

Here's the direction of the grooves.

And a christmas tree ornament with a conical shape.

Figure 37

Figure 38

Here's the direction of the grooves for the conical ornament. Notice the regular reflection of the light source on the ball at the bottom of the cone, on a smooth surface like the ball, you get a simple reflection, but on an anisotropic surface such as the cone you get a much different style of reflection of the light.

Go to the Anisotropic Highlights and Brushed Metal Materials lessons for info on replicating anisotropic effects in 3d.

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