General sky models for illuminating terrains

Patrick J. Kennelly, A. James Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Sky models are quantitative representations of natural luminance of the sky under various atmospheric conditions. They have been used extensively in studies of architectural design for nearly a century, and more recently for rendering objects in the field of computer graphics. The objectives of this paper are to (1) describe sky models, (2) demonstrate how map designers can render terrain under various sky models in a typical geographic information system (GIS), (3) illustrate potential enhancements to terrain renderings using sky models, and (4) discuss how sky models, with their well-established standards from a different discipline, might contribute to a virtual geographic environment (VGE).Current GIS hill-shading tools use the Lambertian assumption which can be related to a simple point light source at an infinite distance to render terrain. General sky models allow the map designer to choose from a gamut of sky models standardized by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE). We present a computer application that allows the map designer to select a general sky model and to use existing GIS tools to illuminate any terrain under that model. The application determines the orientations and weights of many discrete point light sources that, in the aggregate, approximate the illumination provided by the chosen sky model. We discuss specific enhancements to terrains that are shaded and shadowed with these general sky models, including additional detail of secondary landforms with soft shadows and more realistic shading contrasts. We also illustrate how non-directional illumination models result in renderings that lack the perceptual relief effect. Additionally, we argue that this process of creating hill-shaded visualizations of terrain with sky models shows parallels to other geo-simulations, and that basing such work on standards from the computer graphics industry shows potential for its use in VGE.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)383-406
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Geographical Information Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Information Systems
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Library and Information Sciences


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