A uniform sky illumination model to enhance shading of terrain and urban areas

Patrick J. Kennelly, A. James Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Users of geographic information systems (GIS) usually render terrain using a point light source defined by an illumination vector. A terrain shaded from a single point provides good perceptual cues to surface orientation. This type of hill shading, however, does not include any visual cues to the relative height of surface elements. We propose shading the terrain under uniform diffuse illumination, where light arrives equally from all directions of a theoretical sky surrounding the terrain. Surface elements at lower elevations tend to have more of the sky obscured from view and are thus shaded darker. This tinting approach has the advantage that it provides more detailed renderings than point source illumination. We describe two techniques of computing terrain shading under uniform diffuse illumination. One technique uses a GIS-based hill-shading and shadowing tool to combine many point source renderings into one approximating the terrain under uniform diffuse illumination. The second technique uses a C+ + computer algorithm for computing the inclination to the horizon in all azimuth directions at all points of the terrain. These virtual horizons are used to map sky brightness to the rendering of the terrain. To evaluate our techniques, we use two Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) - of the Schell Creek Range of eastern Nevada and a portion of downtown Houston, Texas, developed from Light Detection and Ranging (lidar) data. Renderings based on the uniform diffuse illumination model show more detailed changes in shading than renderings based on a point source illumination model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-36
Number of pages16
JournalCartography and Geographic Information Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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