The Recursive
Ray Tracing

by Jamis Buck

Number of Visitors since 16 Dec 1999

Table of Contents

List of Figures


What is Ray Tracing?

Ray tracing is a method of generating realistic images by computer, in which the paths of individual rays of light are followed from the viewer to their points of origin. A ray tracer is any program that implements this method. Since ray tracing makes use of the actual physics and mathematics behind light, the images it produces can be strikingly life-like, or "photo-realistic."

An Overview of this Paper

This paper is intended to inform the reader of how the basic ray tracing algorithm works. It will take a very simplistic approach to the explanation, avoiding the mathematical perspective traditionally used by many books and papers on the subject. It is intended primarily to inform the curious, rather than to teach the ambitious.

This paper will discuss the basic ray-tracing algorithm. It will also describe the concept behind anti-aliasing, a method for improving the realism of an image by smoothing the jagged edges caused by the digital nature of computer displays. This paper will not involve any discussions of the more advanced features of today’s ray-tracers, such as motion blur, depth of field, penumbras (soft shadows), texture mapping, or radiosity. Readers interested in these more advanced topics are encouraged to refer to the books listed in the bibliography section at the end of this paper.

This paper will begin by defining a "scene" and describing its basic elements. With this as a foundation, it will then introduce ray casting, and then ray tracing as an extension of ray casting. Finally, the paper will discuss the basic concepts behind anti-aliasing as a means of improving the realism of an image, and will then conclude with a basic overview of how and where ray tracing is used, as well as where to look for more information.



In the context of ray tracing, a scene is a collection of objects and light sources that will be viewed via a camera. Each of these items are arranged in what is called the world, or world space--an imaginary place with height, width and depth (much like reality). For instance, let's suppose that you wish to create an image of the earth and the moon. Your scene, then, will consist of the earth, the moon, a light source that will act as the sun, and your camera, which is where you are viewing this scene from.


In general, an object is any thing, either solid, liquid, or gas, that you will display in your scene. A lamp, a glass of water, a planet, a cloud—any of these things can be objects. Although ray tracers can only support objects that may be described mathematically (such as spheres, cylinders, planes, cones, and so on), these objects may be combined in a variety of ways to create more complex objects. For instance, a snowman is composed of three spheres, plus a long cone for his nose, two more spheres for his eyes, and some arbitrarily situated cylinders for his arms. Even very complex objects, such as computers, cars and spaceships may be created this way!

Although beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to note that all objects have some kind of texture--a description of the way that the object looks. This includes the color of the object, as well as any bumpiness, shininess, or design that the author of the image may wish to use. For the purpose of this paper, however, and to simplify the discussion of how ray tracing works, we will consider color to be the only texture present on the objects that will be described.

Light Sources

Light sources, like objects, may be placed at arbitrary locations in the scene. However, unlike objects, light sources emit light. They are thus key elements in any ray traced scene, since without a light source to emit rays of light, there would be no rays to trace!

When a light source is defined, it is typically assigned, in addition to its location, an intensity. This describes the brightness and color of the light. You might have a dimmer, red light in your scene to give the effect of a dark room or a spooky atmosphere, whereas a bright, white light might be used to give an outdoors-ish flavor to the scene. At any rate, lighting is considered by many to be one of the most important factors in a ray traced image (Mosen). A picture flooded with too much light might lose any sense of mystery you desired it to have, whereas an image that is too dark will not show enough detail to keep its viewers interested.


The camera (also referred to as the "eye" or "viewpoint") would be best introduced by describing how a "pin-hole camera" works.

A pin-hole camera is created by putting some film at the back of a light-proof box. A small hole is subsequently poked in the front of the box with a pin, and the hole is covered with tape. To take a picture, the camera is held steady and the tape is removed. Unlike a modern, high-tech camera, however, the pin-hole camera must be left with the hole uncovered for a while, in order for enough light to enter the box and strike the film (Glassner, 1-2).

pin-hole camera
Figure 1: Pin-hole Camera
The reason the hole (or "aperture") must be so small is that it must prevent light from saturating (and thus overexposing) the film. It allows only a little bit of light into the box at a time (
Glassner, 2). This kind of camera, though simple, is quite effective. It works because, as shown in Figure 1, light from a given position on the object may come from only one direction and strike only one position on the film. If the hole were any larger, the image would become blurrier as a result of the increased amount of light hitting each spot on the film (Glassner, 1).

In ray tracing, the camera is much like this in that it determines where on the "film" (or, in the case of ray tracing, the computer screen) the light rays hit. The next section, "Ray Casting," will explain in more detail how this is.

Ray Casting

Definition and Overview

Ray casting is a method in which the visible surfaces of objects (those parts of the scene that are immediately visible to the camera) are found by throwing (or casting) rays of light from the viewer into the scene. Although ray tracing is similar to ray casting, it may be better thought of as an extension of ray casting. I will therefore begin the discussion of ray tracing with a description of ray casting.

Ray casting
Figure 2: Ray Casting
As mentioned above, the camera in ray tracing can be thought of in many respects to be a kind of pin-hole camera. As demonstrated in Figure 2, however, the film of a ray tracing camera is moved out in front of the camera itself and is renamed "the screen." The pin-hole of the camera becomes the eye (
Glassner, 3).

Light is represented on the screen in small, box-shaped units called "pixels." A typical computer monitor can support up to 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically, and sometimes even more. Each pixel may be assigned only one color at a time. In ray tracing, the color of a given pixel is the color of the light that passes from the object, though that pixel, into the eye (Hearn, 528). Each beam of light is called a "ray."


A ray is a thin, straight line used in ray tracing to model a beam of light. Although many people like to think of a ray as the path of a particle of light, or "photon" (Glassner, 7), it is perhaps more accurate to think of a ray as a single, long thread that starts in one place and extends in one direction. For instance, in Figure 2 (above), the light rays are not individual particles, but are rather straight lines extending from the eye into the scene. In many ways, it may help to think of rays as little "feelers" or "tentacles" that reach into the scene to find out which objects are visible at a given point. As such, rays become the foundation of any ray tracer, as will be apparent from the description of the ray casting algorithm.


Ray casting
Figure 3: Ray Casting
The basic ray casting algorithm involves throwing a lot of rays into the scene. For each pixel on the screen, a ray is cast from the eye, through that pixel, and into the image’s world-space. Then, every object in the scene is tested to see if the given ray intersects any of them. If there are multiple objects in a scene, it is possible that any given ray may intersect more than one object (if, for instance, one object is behind another). For each ray, the intersection that is nearest to the eye is the one that is visible to the eye. The intensity (that is, color) at that point is the color that is given to the pixel through which the ray passed (
Hearn, 357).

This is done for every pixel on the screen. You can begin to see here that this could take a long time for complex scenes. For example, let’s say we are rendering (that is, ray tracing) a scene at a resolution of 320 pixels wide by 240 pixels high, for a total of 76,800 pixels. Let it be of low complexity, with only 20 objects. That means, over the course of creating this picture, the ray tracer will have done 20 intersection tests for each of those 76,800 pixels, for a total of 1,536,000 intersection tests! In fact, most ray tracers spend the majority of their time calculating these intersections of rays with objects. James Foley quotes Whitted on page 705 as estimating that anywhere from 75 percent to over 95 percent of a ray tracer’s time is spent with such calculations! The good news is, there are ways to decrease the number of intersection tests per ray, as well as increase the speed of each intersection test. The bad news is, ray tracing complicates things much more than simply ray casting does.

Ray Tracing


Whereas ray casting only concerns itself with finding the visible surfaces of objects, ray tracing takes that a few steps further and actually tries to determine what each visible surface looks like. Although it will cost your processor time spent in calculations, ray tracing allows you to create several kinds of effects that are very difficult or even impossible to do with other methods (
Foley, 782). These effects include three items common to every ray tracer: reflection, transparency, and shadows. In the following paragraphs, I will introduce the recursive nature of the ray tracing algorithm and will show how these effects fit naturally into it.


Often, the basic ray tracing algorithm is called a "recursive" algorithm. Recursion is a means of obtaining a result in which a given process repeats itself an arbitrary number of times. Infinite recursion is recursion that never ends, and this is almost never useful. Rather, you need recursion that will quit after a given number of loops.

An example of infinite recursion appears in computer jargon. The acronym "GNU" stands for "GNU’s Not UNIX" (Raymond). Since the acronym "GNU" refers to itself in the definition, it will expand indefinitely if you were to repeatedly replace "GNU" with "GNU’s Not UNIX." For example, "GNU" would become "GNU’s Not UNIX," which would expand to "GNU’s Not UNIX’s Not UNIX," which would again expand, ad infinitum.

The ray tracing algorithm, too, is recursive, but it is finitely recursive. This is important, because otherwise you would start an image rendering and it would never finish!

The algorithm begins, as in ray casting, by shooting a ray from the eye and through the screen, determining all the objects that intersect the ray, and finding the nearest of those intersections. It then recurses (or repeats itself) by shooting more rays from the point of intersection to see what objects are reflected at that point, what objects may be seen through the object at that point, which light sources are directly visible from that point, and so on. These additional rays are often called secondary rays to differentiate them from the original, primary ray (Hearn, 529).

Often, in the literature about ray tracing you might come across the terms "backward ray tracing" and "forward ray tracing." Unfortunately, both terms can be used to describe the same thing. Because the standard ray tracing algorithm actually follows the path of light from the eye of the viewer backward to the light source, it is, in that sense, often referred to as backward ray tracing. By the same token, attempts to follow the paths of light from the light sources to the viewer are referred to as forward ray tracing (Foley, 792). However, many authors assume that the practice of following light from the viewer to the light source is the "normal" way, and may thus be considered moving in a "forward" direction. They therefore refer to the practice of tracing from the light source to the viewer as "backward" ray tracing (Watt, "Techniques", 221)! It is unfortunate that this serious ambiguity exists in even the most scholarly literature about ray tracing. In this paper I will only refer to it as "ray tracing" and will use it to describe the method of following the light from the eye to the light source.

In the following sections, I will describe the three major effects that may be achieved by ray tracing. Each takes affect as soon as the ray is fired and the nearest surface that intersects that ray is found.


If the surface that the ray intersected was reflective, like a mirror, the ray tracer must determine the color at that point by finding, not only the color of the surface, but also the color of the reflection of any objects at that point. For instance, imagine a shiny wooden table. From where you look at it, you will be able to see the reflections of objects on the table. This is because the light from those objects travels to the table, bounces off it, and travels to your eye (Glassner, 13).

Ray tracing
Figure 4: Ray Tracing
Figure 4 demonstrates how reflection works. Spheres A, B, and C are all reflective. As the ray travels from the eye, it intersects A, is subsequently reflected to B, then reflected to C, and so on.

To model this with a ray tracer, all the program needs to do is calculate the angle at which the ray should bounce off, and then create another ray that will travel from the point of intersection in the calculated direction. Once that ray figures what color it needs to be (by calculating all the intersecting objects, finding the nearest one, and determining the surface color at the point, possibly even reflecting again), the first ray is then given that color. This is then propagated (or carried) back to the pixel through which the original ray was fired (Hearn, 529).


Transparency is modeled similarly to reflection, but instead of bouncing the new (or "spawned") ray off of the surface, the ray is bent into and through the surface to model refraction. Refraction is an optical phenomenon caused when light bends as it travels through a given substance. For instance, fill a glass with water, and put a pencil in it. Looking from a bit above the glass, the pencil will appear to be bent where it enters the water. This is refraction (Glassner, 134).

Some objects will bend light more strongly than others. This is determined by an object’s index of refraction, which is a number that describes how fast light travels through an object as compared to how fast light travels through a vacuum (Glassner, 134). Glass has a higher index than water, and will this cause light to be bent more strongly than water. Similarly, lead crystal has a higher index than glass, diamond has a higher index than crystal, and so forth.

Referring again to Figure 4, you will note the odd path that the ray takes through sphere D. In this case, D is transparent, and the light is bent both on entering the sphere, and again on exiting it, just as it would in real life.


Shadows are the third standard feature in ray tracing. Glassner gives a wonderful explanation of how shadows are calculated in a ray tracer. Says he,
Imagine yourself on the surface of an object.... Is any light coming to you from the light sources? One way to answer that question is simply to look at each light. If you can see the light source, then there’s a clear path between you and the light, and at least some photons will certainly travel along this path. If any opaque objects are in your way, then no light is coming directly from the light into your eye, and you are in shadow with respect to that light. (Glassner, 10)

Figure 5: Shadow Rays
As Glassner intimates in the above quote, once you have determined an intersection, the shadows may be calculated by firing more rays--one at each of the light sources. If any opaque (that is, non-transparent) objects intersect a ray, then no light can arrive at the first object via that ray, and the surface is in shadow. These shadow rays are sometimes referred to as shadow feelers, since they are used to "feel around" for the light sources (
Glassner, 11).

Figure 5 demonstrates how these shadow rays work. The figure shows two spheres (A and B) and two light sources (1 and 2). The ray travels from the eye to where it intersects with sphere A. In order to determine whether there is a shadow at that point, one shadow ray is fired at each light source. The shadow ray from A to the second light source travels uninterrupted, so light reaches the point from that light source. However, sphere B lies between sphere A and light source #1, so the point is in shadow with respect to that light source. The intensity of color at that point on sphere A would represent the fact that only one of the two light sources is shining directly on that point.


As you can see, then, you pay for the increased features of ray tracing by a dramatic increase in time spent with calculations. Not only must the program find all the intersections with the primary rays (as in ray casting), but it must also find all the intersections for each secondary and shadow ray (Watt, "Fundamentals", 162-63). Quality, in this case, is not cheap, and it only gets more expensive, as you will see in the following section.


Anti-aliasing is a method for improving the realism of an image by removing the jagged edges from it. These jagged edges, or "jaggies" as they are called colloquially, appear because a computer monitor has square pixels, and these square pixels are inadequate for displaying lines or curves that are not parallel to the pixels. For example, take the following image:

Figure 6: Circle

If you put a grid over the image and only color those squares that are entirely within the circle, you will get something like the following:

Aliased Circle
Figure 7: Strongly Aliased Circle

This blockiness is called "aliasing," and is exactly what happens when you try to display a circle on a computer screen. The problem may be assuaged somewhat by using a finer grid, like so:

Aliased Circle
Figure 8: Aliased Circle at Higher Resolution

Still, the problem does not go away, and most people cannot afford to by the new hardware necessary to increase the resolution of their monitor (Glassner, 20).

Because of the digital nature of computers, it is not possible to completely eliminate aliasing. However, it is possible to minimize its effects, but not without a price. The solutions used by ray tracers today involve treating each pixel as a finite square area (which, in fact, they are), rather than as a mere point on the screen. Rays are fired into the scene through the centers of the pixels, and the intensities of adjacent rays are compared. If they differ by some pre-determined amount, more rays are fired into the surfaces of the pixels. The intensities of all the rays shot into a given pixel are then averaged to find a color that better fits what would be expected at that point (Hearn, 539).

[Note that the above description of anti-aliasing is conceptually accurate, but for completeness' sake, Andrew Bromage had this to add to the above paragraph: "... High-end renderers do not treat a pixel as a square area, as this does not produce correct filtering behaviour. A pixel is not a point, but it is a sample. Ideally, if the geometry of a scene is changed even in a small part, EVERY pixel of the resulting image should be affected. This is fairly counter-intuitive behaviour, but to see why, have a read of Alvy Ray Smith's technical memo on the topic:"]

Continuing the above example, the anti-aliased circle might, then, be represented thus:

Anti-Aliased Circle
Figure 9: Anti-Aliased Circle

Anti-aliasing, then, helps eliminate jagged edges and to make an image seem more realistic.


Ray Tracing in Industry

So, you might ask, just what practical uses does ray tracing have? David Rogers lists several, including such things as "simulation of real-world phenomena for vision research, medical (radiation treatment planning), seismic (density calculations along a ray), mechanical engineering (interference checking), plant design (pipeline interference checking), hit-testing in geometric applications, and impact and penetration studies" (
Rogers, 174). However, ray tracing (and computer imaging in general) has been especially widely used in entertainment.

[The following paragraph is not entirely accurate: Pixar did not use raytracing in any significant amount to create the scenes listed below, but rather used a sister technology known as "scanline rendering"--which does not use the techniques described in this paper. However, one film which did use raytracing extensively was "the Oscar-winning short film 'Bunny' by Blue Sky Studios" ( Thanks to Andrew Bromage for the tip...]

Pixar, the makers of Disney’s hit movie Toy Story, list on their site quite a number of movies in which they have used their software to create special effects. The list includes such hits as Apollo 13, Forest Gump, Jumanji, Terminator 2, and many more (Pixar). Clearly, entertainment has a great demand for computer graphics.

Further Information

This paper has only just scratched the surface of the topic of ray tracing. In addition to the primitive features of reflection, transparency, and shadows, most ray tracers today support different texture mapping options, focal blur, radiosity, motion blur, and a host of other advanced features.

There are many inexpensive ray tracers available, and some are even free. Appendix B at the end of this paper lists several sites on the Internet where the reader interested in experimenting with ray tracing might go to obtain a copy of any of several different shareware ray tracers. In addition to the books listed in the bibliography at the end of this paper, the interested reader is also encouraged to visit these sites to learn more about ray tracing and to find more in-depth explanations and tutorials.

Appendix A: Bibliography

Foley, James D. Computer Graphics : Principles and Practice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Glassner, Andrew S. An Introduction to Ray-Tracing. San Diego: Academic, 1989.

Hearn, Donald. Computer Graphics. EngleWood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Mosen, Fabien. "An Image that Tells a Story." Online posting. (23 Mar. 1998).

Pixar Animation Studios. "Pixar’s Renderman." Online posting. (23 Mar. 1998).

Raymond, Eric. "Recursive Acronym." The Jargon Dictionary. 24 Jul. 1996. Online posting. (23 Mar. 1998).

Rogers, David. Techniques for Computer Graphics. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987.

Watt, Alan. Advanced Animation and Rendering Techniques. New York, N.Y.: ACM Press, 1992.

Watt, Alan. Fundamentals of Three-Dimensional Computer Graphics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1989.

Appendix B: Web Sites of Interest

"Jamis’ Hall of Ray-Traces."
Examples of ray traced images from my own personal gallery.

"The Mother of All Ray Tracing Pages."
Provides information and links about other shareware and freeware ray tracers. Also has links to other pages about ray tracing. [Note: this link appears to be broken by 5/17/99, and I have not been able to locate it's new location]

Pixar Animation Studios.
One of the leading companies in computer graphics and animation.

The most commonly used hobby ray tracing program. It is completely free and available for most platforms.

Blue Moon Rendering Tools (BMRT)
A wonderful shareware rendering tool, available for most platforms. It is fully Renderman(R) compliant (which means that it supports the same protocols and features that the major commercial renderers do). What's more, it supports all kinds of cool, advanced features like radiosity, NURBS, and programmable shaders! Check it out!

Appendix C: Glossary of Terms

A term describing artifacts in an image caused by limitations in digital displays.
Any method or algorithm which tries to minimize or eliminate aliasing.
The hole or "window" of a camera through which light is allowed to pass.
In ray tracing, the camera is the position from where the scene will be viewed.
In ray tracing, a synonym for "camera."
The brightness or strength of a color or light.
Light source
In ray tracing, any point or object which will emit light when the scene is rendered.
Any component of a scene which could potentially be visible when the scene is rendered.
A term used in computer graphics to describe a scene or object which, when rendered, appears with clarity and vividness sufficient to cause it to be indistinguishable from a photograph.
Pin-hole camera
A simple camera in which light enters a small box via a pin-hole and strikes light-sensitive film at the opposite end of the box.
The smallest quantifiable unit of the display of a computer monitor. The resolution of a computer monitor is determined by how many pixels it is capable of displaying at any given time.
A theoretically infinite line drawn from the eye (or camera), though the current pixel being evaluated, and into the scene. The object nearest the eye which intersects this ray will be visible to the eye. A ray is a model of a ray of light.
Ray casting
A technique used to determine the visible surfaces of a scene by casting rays into a scene and finding the nearest intersecting object.
Ray tracing
An extension of ray casting in which ray intersections are used and starting points for new rays in order to determine reflections, refractions, and shadows.
A method in which a given algorithm or function refers to itself.
The sum of all the objects and light sources which will be viewed though a camera when rendered.
The sum of surface properties of an object that determine what the object will look like when rendered.
In ray tracing, a synonym for "camera."
An imaginary space in which objects, light sources, and cameras are placed to form a scene. Also referred to as the world-space.

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Last Updated on 25 Apr 2000.
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