Reflections Using Render to Texture and Projective Texture Mapping

A common way to create reflections in OpenGL is to use the stencil buffer. Typically two rendering passes per frame are used: the first renders the scene normally; the second creates the reflection by re-rendering the scene flipped about the plane of the reflecting surface. Use of the stencil buffer ensures that the second pass reflection image is only blended over those parts of the first pass image that represent reflecting surfaces. NeHe has a tutorial showing how to do this here.

The approach used in the glBase demo is similar but involves rendering the reflection into a texture map. Again two rendering passes are used: the first pass renders the reflection into the reflection texture; the second pass renders the scene normally, blending the reflection texture onto the reflecting surfaces. The advantage of this is that when creating reflections on water it is easy to distort the texture coordinates making the reflection shimmer as the water ripples. The disadvantage is that pixelation effects can be seen if the reflection texture is significantly smaller than the frame buffer.

Creating the reflection texture

The diagram below shows how the reflection texture is created.

It should be clear from the diagram that the image of the figure seen by the view camera via reflection in the horizontal plane is the same as the image of the figure seen by the reflection camera looking through the horizontal plane. Hence, to calculate the position and orientation of the reflection camera we just flip the position and orientation of the view camera about the plane of the reflection. This holds for any reflection plane, but keeping the reflection plane axially aligned simplifies the calculation.

So, to create the reflection texture for the current view camera position and orientation we

  • position the reflection camera, as described above
  • resize the viewport to have the same dimensions as the reflection texture map
  • set up a clip plane so that we won't render anything behind the reflection plane
  • render the scene into the reflection texture map (more on this later).

In the glBase demo this is all done by the function updateReflectionTexture(cam c).

Projecting the reflection texture

Once the reflection texture has been created, the scene is rendered normally and the reflection texture is blended onto the reflecting surfaces. The question here is how to generate the texture coordinates for applying the reflection texture. Looking at the diagram again, we can see that the reflection texture is perspectively correct for a 'canvas' that is perpendicular to the view direction of the reflection camera (and of the view camera). This canvas is just the viewport that we set up when rendering the reflection scene. One way to map the reflection texture from this canvas onto the reflection plane is to think of the reflection camera as a slide projector that projects the reflection texture onto the reflection surface. This technique is called projective texture mapping.

Projective texture mapping is described in detail here with a demo here, but in a nutshell, you take advantage of the fact that OpenGL generalises the usual two component texture coordinate (s,t) to a four-component homogeneous texture coordinate (s,t,r,q) allowing us to load a modelview and projection transform into the texture matrix. In the glBase demo app the same modelview and projection transforms used create the reflection texture are loaded into the texture matrix when rendering the reflection texture onto the water surface. This is all done in the function loadProjectionMatrix(cam c). The texture coordinates are then specified as three dimensional texture coordinates and are just the same values as those passed to glVertex3f to specify the spatial coordinates of the triangle vertexes making up the water surface, but with small differences added in to distort the texture. This is done in the function drawReflection(cam c).

Render to texture

The only question remaining is how to render into a texture using OpenGL. As far as I know OpenGL doesn't actually support this operation directly, so you have to render the scene either into the frame buffer's back buffer or into an offscreen buffer and then use glCopyTexSubImage to copy the pixels into a texture object.

In the first version of the demo I used the backbuffer approach, but there was a problem in the way I implemented it: I didn't take account of the fact that the frame buffer will not always be big enough to match the dimensions of the texture map. For example, with the first version of the demo, if you resized the window to say half its default width, half the reflection disappears because I'm trying to read a 512 pixel wide image out of a frame buffer that is now only about 200 pixels wide. The new version fixes this problem in two ways:

  • If your OpenGL supports the pixel buffer extensions, they should be used to create an offscreen buffer for rendering the reflection. The offscreen buffer won't be resized when the frame buffer window is. The downside is that more memory is used on the graphics card.
  • If pixel buffers aren't supported, or if you use the P key to switch off use of pixel buffers, the back buffer will be used, but the code now adjusts the amount of the reflection texture map actually used to make sure that it never exceeds the frame buffer size.

Another point worth making is that you should make sure that the texture and frame buffer or pixel buffer have the same pixel format, otherwise there will be a performance hit converting from one format to the other. If you stick to GL_RGB or GL_RGBA the driver should do this automatically.


I asked anyone who downloaded the demo to send me performance results with reflection update enabled and disabled (the only difference is that with it disabled the call to glCopyTexSubImage is not made). Some typical results are shown below, note that these are for the first version of the demo, without pixel buffer support.

System FPS with reflection update ON FPS with reflection update off
Pentium III 500 / GeForce 2 MX 125 130
Dual Celeron 300 / TNT 2 59 60

What these results show is that, on some systems at least, glCopyTexSubImage can be used to implement a render to texture with very little performance hit. However, performance depends on how well glCopyTexSubImage has been implemented in the driver. For example, see the table below

System FPS with reflection update ON FPS with reflection update OFF
Athlon / GeForce 2 GTS 32 300
Celeron 466 / Radeon 64DDR 2 250

These figures show a big performance hit for glCopyTexSubImage. The difference on the GeForce 2 GTS system is that the drivers are not the latest version, presumably with the latest drivers performance should be about 290 FPS, judging from the earlier TNT and GeForce MX figures. The difference on the Radeon is that the drivers don't accelerate glCopyTexSubImage at all when copying from the frame buffer. However, it should be possible to hit the Radeon's optimised path when using pixel buffers, so I hope to have some revised performance figures soon.

'nuff said

Last update: 28th May 2001

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Copyright 2002 Adrian Welbourn. All Rights Reserved.