Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walking With Windlight Again - Windlight Is Not Avatar Friendly

This post is about avatar appearance when walking with windlight. It is not about taking photographs of avatars using windlight as an artistic tool. Windlight is a wonderful tool for Second Life photography. The Second Life photographer sets lighting, poses, and camera angles and fine tunes windlight settings  to achieve a desired effect. The creative use of windlight settings can result in highly stylized photos of avatars that are truly works of art. Whereas artistic photography is a staged set scene, walking is dynamic - scenes flow and are experienced, not staged. When we walk with windlight, a windlight setting is selected and fixed as we traverse through the virtual world. Windlight profoundly affects how we visually experience Second Life. Of course, we can also walk without windlight.

I like to experiment with windlight and experience a wonderfully creative build under different windlight settings. The atmospheric effects can be quite sumptuous, and windlight's light can brighten landscaping and structures. I like creating my own personal windlight settings. But for normal walking, I walk windlight free. As the title of this post asserts, windlight is not avatar friendly. Windlight's intense light is very harsh on skin. It effaces details and subtlety in the skin's colors. The result is that the appearance of avatars becomes plastic. They look like plastic dolls and waxy mannequins. I call it the flashlight-in-your-face plastic look. Given the problems associated with windlight and avatar appearance, we now have avatar optimizing windlight settings that deal with the problem of plasticity.  Indeed, the need for 'optimizing' windlight settings is an acknowledgement that avatars do not fare well under windlight. The best and most popular optimizing settings were developed by Caliah Lyon, a fantastic fashion photographer. 

For many, the most important dimension of the Second Life experience is social. And so we care about how our avatars look to ourselves and to our fellow residents. Appearance provides valuable social cues. Given the importance of avatar appearance, the question I want to pose is "Are we better off walking with windlight or without windlight?"  

Let's test this empirically. I flew over Opar, my homestead sim, set myself down on a pretty spot, and struck a pose. The positioning of the avatar is quite random. Now, let's see how this scene is experienced without windlight and experienced under different windlight settings. I must state that I have a preference for naturalism and realism over that which is plastic and synthetic. And keep in mind that this is not about taking pictures; its about walking. But, to get the proper comparisons, you definitely must enlarge the pictures. Enlarge the pictures by clicking on them.

Click on the pictures to enlarge them for better viewing.

On the picture above, I have my graphics set on high, and I  unchecked the atmospheric shaders (removing windlight). The sky settings in the environmental settings is set on default. I am wearing a soft facelight with a small radius. This is how I experience Second Life walking windlight free.

Now, let me become a windlight walker. I remove my facelight and check atmospheric shaders in my graphics preferences. The sky settings are still on default. So this is how I would be experiencing this scene walking with the default windlight. My avatar has become quite plastoid as in most windlight settings. Now, some people may like their avatars looking like plastic dolls; but I would prefer being windlight free to this.

For the above picture, I put the sky setting onto a popular optimizing windlight setting - AndaLu AvatarOpt Caliah. This setting is popular for fashion photography; but, I'm not too thrilled with how this looks here. And I don't think you are too. The avatar is still plastoid, and its colors are washed out. And I don't find the blue hue of this setting very appealing for general viewing when walking.

Now, let's look at the very best avatar optimizing windlight setting -  AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter.  This setting has become the standard for many. I was expecting a nicely rendered avatar. But, as you can see  in the above picture, Second Life's sun has flared up the avatar. This demonstrates the sensitivity of this optimizing setting to the time of day and the positioning of the avatar relative to the sun. Should windlight walkers who complain about facelights also complain about the sun as well?

We want consistency in visual performance from our graphic and environmental settings as we walk about and in all phases of the Second Life day. The performance of the windlight free default is fairly consistent. AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter seems better suited for photography, where positioning and lighting are controlled, rather than for walking. 

But, I really would like to compare is the best performance of  AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter with that of the windlight free default.  I moved to another location in Opar and kept changing the time and the position of my avatar until it looked its loveliest under AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter. Then I took a corresponding picture with the windfree default. Let's look at the comparisons below. 

In the above picture, I am once again walking without windlight. The time is set at 3:00 PM. Graphics are set on high, atmospheric shaders are unchecked, and sky settings are set on default. I have on a soft facelight with a small radius. Now, let's compare this windlight free default setting with AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter at its best.

The above picture is my avatar under AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter, and it's a very lovely rendering. But, the windlight free avatar is warmer and rounder. AnaLu is somewhat effacing especially with respect to shadowing which makes for a flatter avatar presentation. An important attribute of my skin is its tan. The tan is meant to convey my origins as a child of Hawaii. Under Analu, my the tan  is largely gone as my skin is lightened and given a pink hue. I would describe the windlight free avatar as more natural and the optimized windlight avatar as more synthetic. Those descriptions clearly come through when we look beyond the avatars to the sky and water.

The difference in the rendering of the avatars is the difference between 'Natural Lighting' versus 'Studio Lighting'.  AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter is studio lighting designed for fashion photography where the fashion photographer wants the light to brighten up both the model and the fashion and minimize shadows.  I might want to use AnaLu AvatarOpt Caliah Whiter in fashion photography. But, when walking in Second Life, I prefer the naturalism from natural light. When walking in Second Life, I walk windlight free.

 In term of naturalism, aesthetics, and consistency, walking windlight free is superior to walking with windlight. But a frequently stated benefit of optimized windlight settings is that you can look beautiful without using a facelight. As all women in Second Life know, a facelight is essential for looking your best. Of course, there are issues with facelights, and it would be great to look fabulous without resorting to a facelight. Proponents of optimized windlight settings purport that your appearance with the optimized settings will be at least as good as your appearance with a facelight and windlight free. I have shown that even the best optimized setting falls short of that standard. But the primary reason why optimized windlight settings won't supersede facelights is that windlight is view-side only, which means that only you see the results of your windlight setting. Unless we are totally self-absorbed, we care about how others see us. To those of you who walk with windlight, try turning it off to see yourselves as others see you. Now you know why you haven't been asked out on dates.

Most of us are very selective and creative with our avatars. We craft our appearances by our choice of shapes and skins, of hair styles and clothing, and of accessories. Our choices are reflections of ourselves that will be projected to others. And our crafted appearance provide visual cues in Second Life social interactions. My problem with walking with windlight is that it robs us of a common reference point. If we are walking with windlight, as windlight is view-side only and given our individualized settings, my view of you may be significantly different from the view of yourself that you intended, and the same for your view of me. And there is no common reference point at all between those who walk with windlight and those who do not.

Walking with windlight can also result in social conflict. The introduction of windlight gave rise to a phenomena called Facelight Derangement Syndrome also called FDS. Suffers of FDS go ballistic whenever a person wearing a facelight enters the area. They believe that facelights and their wearers are an evil that must be snuffed out as they are also deluded into believing that walking with windlight is superior to walking without. When a group of FDS suffers gather, they become a Facelight Gestapo. Admittedly, windlight can intensify the brightness of a facelight and light up the wearer so that, to the windlight walker, she looks like the second coming of the Sun Goddess. Facelights are a problem when they are high intensity and large radius. Of course, facelights must be worn responsibly. A low intensity soft facelight with a small radius should not be much of an issue. In particular, such facelights are much less likely to interfere with other lighted objects in a build.

By all means, express your artistry and creativity with windlight. Enhance your enjoyment of an amazing Second Life view by experiencing it under different windlight settings. But, are we better off walking with windlight? The answer is no. Given the current state of windlight development, with respect to avatar appearance, nothing is gained when you walk with windlight, and it is shown to be inferior to walking windlight free. Moreover, walking with windlight denies us a common visual reference point in social interactions and can be the source of conflict. So I would like windlight walkers to answer the question "Why are you walking with windlight?"


Walking Second Life Windlight Free


  1. Windlight can be a plus or a minus dependent on how you use it, of course. Many of us have found our own "everyday" Windlight settings that combat all of the negative elements. Mine is called "jewelery no shadows" as I used it when taking vendor photos. It is my default setting which for the most part gives a clear and bright day with a natural look.

    We each of course have to find what works best for us. I can't imagine a day without Windlight :D.

    It should also be noted that non Windlight and Windlight settings have a GREAT DEAL to do with which viewer you are using, so that needs to be taken into consideration. There is no "ONE" answer :D.

  2. For me personally, I don't trust that any of us share the exact same settings, monitor, video card, etc. So I'm going to always assume that no matter what combination of methods we use, or how pretty we think we look - we're going to look odd to everyone else. So I *do* aim to make my avatar and SL experience as pretty as it can be for *me*. :)

    That's why I do it.

  3. I have nice windlight settings I made for myself that provide flawless skin and prim clothing detail and it doesnt lag me, so when compared to using a facelight which annoys other people (the only differences for me IF i could find a facelight as subtle as that one) Simple :]

  4. To me the non-windlight pictures look dull and flat. I guess I am in the minority because I really don't care what others think of my appearance I am in SL for me and to have fun. I am not here to get a date or anything like that. Although the same could be said for all the facelight wearers out there not realizing how horrible it makes them look to all over viewers. Even before there was ever windlight I felt facelights were awful. Not only washing out the wearer, but ruining the view and look of all those around.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I have my own special settings that make me look good to me and make the majority of others and the world I walk in look good to me. After all that is what matters. That I enjoy myself and things are pretty to me.

  5. For those of us running lower end machines, I find the windlight settings invaluable. You mentioned that removing atmospheric shaders removes windlight, but that's not quite accurate, as your sky settings will work regardless of atmospheric shaders; you simply will not see sky detail (clouds etc) while the lighting on one's avatar remains beautiful. Facelights annoy the hell out of most people, so if your preference is to use one, enjoy your SL your way, but understand you'll be washed out to any of the rest of us who are rendering local lights. From a social perspective in SL, those who are still using facelights in 2011 are not often looked upon kindly.

    Personally I 'walk with windlight' by turning on CalWL or Nam's Optimal Skin and Prim and turning off atmospheric shaders. On my machine, atmospheric shaders cause enormous lag client side and the ugly glare you mentioned. I uncheck atmospheric shaders unless I am taking pictures. The rest of the time, I check/uncheck and modify graphical settings to work around the atmospheric shaders being off and trust to the high ambient lighting (sliders at 50-75) provided by windlight to remove the ugly shadows without washing out the avatar.

    For those with high end machines with atmospheric shaders enabled at all times, reducing glare is possible by adjusting the lighting tab of your custom windlight settings. Lowering the gamma or overall ambient lighting can help to alleviate the glare when moving in lieu of being forced to constantly adjust sun angle. As with any advanced graphical option, it is not as user friendly as some might hope, but it is very possible to master walking with windlight. It is certainly a bigger challenge than putting on a facelight, but it will also ensure that you do not distort the view others with good settings have of you or cause a washout in their vicinity. Add to this the limit on the number of local lights that will render at any one time, and you have to remember your facelight might interfere with the scene through which you're moving.

    Cael Bellecoeur

  6. I don't really care what others think I look like.. my avatar is for me.

    I understand comparing the differences between how SL looks with and without windlight but it's each to their own.

    Perhaps it would be better to emphasise the fact that these are your opinions.

  7. You can't possibly please all the different viewers, settings, graphics cards, etc., there will always be numerous people you do not look pretty for. So I suggest you please the one person you CAN, and that's yourself. Simple answer, no?

  8. Cael - thanks for the comment and useful information. Atmospheric shaders is windlight. You walking windlight free but not with the default sky setting. I find that avatar realism can be enhanced when adjusting the sky setting while windlight free (see my previous post). You can achieve a portrait of an avatar that approaches a fine oil painting. Unachievable under windlight's harsh light.

  9. You make a very convincing case with your pictures. There are three reasons though why I would never consider going back to pre-Windlight.

    First, I find that once I had seen water and sky in Windlight, I just couldn't stand the bland, flat, artificial look of them without Windlight anymore.

    Second, because of a point you make yourself when you say, "Unless we are totally self-absorbed, we care about how others see us." Precisely. that's why I think it's important to tweak my look to optimum with the default settings, which I expect will be used by the vast majority of residents. And default nowadays means Windlight is on. I'm not going to walk around asking people to turn their shaders off so they find me more handsome :-).

    And third, you say you prefer natural lighting. I do too. Well, one of the features of natural lighting is that you can see which direction the light is coming from. The reason why avatars look so good without Windlight under certain conditions is precisely that this lighting is NOT natural in this respect. The light in SL without Windlight is extremely diffuse, of a kind that takes a bag of tricks to create in the studio and almost never occurs in the open air.

    Finally, bad facelights happen to be a pet peeve of mine. :-) What particularly irks me is when designers who really should know better include over-dimensioned lights in things like hair, skirts, belly rings, wrist watches and the like. I always think it must be some sort of practical joke at the expense of people whose graphics settings are too low to see the effect properly.

    I tend to pass a notecard with some advice on facelights to people who obviously need it.

    Here's my own blog entry about facelights:

  10. I love facelights, because I want people who don't fiddle with windlight all the time to be able to see my avi at her best.

    So I'm behind Mariko 100%.

  11. While you're certainly entitled to play SL your way, I have two primary issues with the statements made in this post. First, you're showing us TWO out of a nearly unlimited number of possible Windlight settings and implying that qualifies as proof that SL looks better without Windlight than with it. All it really means is that those two don't work perfectly for YOU. Secondly, face lights are absolutely NOT necessary for an avatar to look its best and often wind up making the av look terribly washed out to other residents. Stating that as a fact is entirely misleading.

  12. I can't walk around SL without having my windlight settings turned on. Have you ever tried the 'CalWL' settings? After going through all the ones that come with viewers like Phoenix, I settled on this one and have found it to be much more natural than a lot of the others. It brightens everything up for me, and I find it enhances the colours even more..

    Give it a try sometime :D

    Shiva Draconia

  13. One point you seem to have skipped over is that in SL, a maximum of six user-created light-sources can be rendered at any one time. Going over this limit will lead to flickering lights as people move and cam around.

    By using a Facelight, you're making the statement that you deserve 1/6th of the lighting resources in the local area. Unless your sim has fewer than 6 people on it (assuming there's no lighting in the scene) then the lighting potential is being unfairly distributed among the users.

    Additionally, Facelights don't seem to (I've never noticed, anyway) adapt for SL 'night'. Which makes anyone using one look like they've spent a little too long around nuclear waste.

    Nice try, though.

  14. The 6 local lights limit was dropped when SL introduced dynamic shadows (aka. deferred rendering). And that is exactly why facelights look like nuclear meltdown now. Here's a snapshot taken at the infohub in Ahern:

    Mariko, once you get a graphics card that supports dynamic shadows, you'll see what's wrong with facelights. It will be literally in your face obvious. The problem right now is that you can't see what others are seeing. In your version of the world, facelights seem appropriate because your graphics card can't render it the way it is supposed to look.

  15. Once again, it seems the people with facelight phobia can't read. The article specifically mentions soft light with a small radius. Under NO circumstances will that "wash out" anything you're seeing in your WL settings, unless your setting is so whacked that half of everything you see is "washed out" already. It's the nuclear facelights that nobody likes, the ones who illuminate most of a sim with their noobness, not everyone who uses a facelight.

    The percentage of people who walk around with deferred rendering enabled is EXCEPTIONALLY low, and that fact doesn't matter anyway as the known 6 local light limitation is part of OpenGL itself (and has been for a decade). It's not been "overcome" with shadow rendering as some uneducated may want you to believe (because it hasn't been fixed in OpenGL yet .. fking duh), that's just a convenient lie they know some aren't adept enough to question. No, Mariko definitely IS seeing how SL looks to 95% of everyone in it. If people don't like those so-called "flickering" local lights, they're free to back off a few steps and shut up about it.

  16. Everyone has the right to play SL as they please. And it is my right to derender all facelights (yes, in 2.0-based viewers you can do that, it is in the develop menu/render). So I will see you without the facelight anyway. So much for the way other people see you. I use my own windlight settings for walking in SL, as you say, and a different setting for shadows when I take pics. And I hope that increasingly more people learn to go with the windlight setting that suits them. Because that would make them enjoy the visuals of SL more.