Monday, June 13, 2011

Facelights: Arrgh or Ahhh?

Every photographer knows that the right lighting is important to making people look their best. It’s not so very different in the virtual world…but here we can carry our lighting around with us so we can always say, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”!

But it’s not quite as simple as buying the most expensive, full-featured facelight and wearing it. There are both technological and social aspects to the question of personal avatar lights.

Local lights in Second Life use the OpenGL graphics of your video card. The OpenGL specification allows for up to six local lights. If there are more lights than that in a scene, only the closest six will be rendered.

Avatars with facelights aren’t the only users of local lights. Very often, a builder will have lights as part of her creation. Street lamps, spotlights, accent lighting for buildings, mood lighting for interiors, candles, chandeliers… There is a lot of competition for those six OpenGL lights. As a result, you can often see lights going out as a facelight-wearing avatar approaches. Builders hate that, because it ruins the look they’ve worked so hard to create for people using their build.

Sometimes a single avatar can turn out the lights all by herself. Let’s say I’m wearing a facelight with three light emitters. I also put on a pretty hairstyle from Sirena. Sirena’s hair has its own built in lighting, and can include up to four light emitters. Wow! I glow in the dark like a nuclear explosion…and neither I nor anyone standing near me can see any other local lights.

A lot of facelights have multiple emitters. The classic portrait lighting setup for photography is known as “three point lighting”, and it includes a key light illuminating the subject from one side, a less-intense fill light softening the shadows cast by the key, and a back light or “hair light” creating a slight halo effect to pop the subject out from the background. Second Life facelights mimic this setup.

There’s only one catch: The rendering engine for SL does not simulate lighting with enough fidelity to the real world to make good use of three point lighting. You can get results that are nearly as good by using only a single light.
No Light

Single Light

Two Point Light
Three Point Light

Another thing to think about: Your audience may not be seeing the same thing that you are seeing on your monitor. In an earlier post, I discussed the ability to set the lighting of the environment. In addition, there are viewer options to disable local lights entirely, or to disable lights worn by other avatars (I can turn off YOUR facelight, at least on my own screen). Finally, other people may be using a monitor that is set differently than yours. What looks good to you may appear eye-searingly bright to them.

A lot of people think that Windlight has made facelights obsolete – indeed, with the proper settings, avatars look better under Windlight skies than they did in the old days. And the Windlight shaders make local lights look more intense than they used to, so a lot of old-style facelights have become really blinding. But I’m of the opinion that there is still a case to be made for a subtle facelight.

Here’s some practical lighting advice, and instructions on how to make your very own facelight, for free!

What facelight should I use? Use one that has only one or two emitters. Set the intensity low. If the radius (the distance the light travels from the emitter) is adustable, set it fairly short, just a meter or two at most. If you can postion the emitter, keep it fairly close to your face. Otherwise, if someone is standing near you, the emitter may be closer to them that it is to you, lighting them up brilliantly!

The MystiTool multipurpose gadget sold by Mystical Cookie comes with an accessory (the MystiTool Implant) that is a flight assist and a facelight. I use this, with the following settings: intensity 0.5, radius 1.0, falloff 0.5. This provides a very subtle light, invisible in the daytime and not glaringly obvious even at night.

For items like Sirena's hair that come with lights as a bonus, I not only disable the lights, I unlink the emitter prims and delete them. It saves on prims and on scripts that I don't need or use.

Tip: If you don't see your facelight's effect, or any local lights, go to Me/Preferences/Graphics/Custom and enable Local Lights.

Making Your Own Facelight.

  • Rez a sphere.
  • In the Object tab of the edit window, shrink it down to .03, .03, .03 in size. How much light a prim emits is unaffected by size, so we may as well make it inconspicuous.
  • Also check the Phantom box, so it doesn't bump into anyone.

  • Open the Features tab of the edit window. Check the “Light” box.
  • Use the following settings:
    • Intensity 0.5
    • Radius 1.0
    • Falloff 0.75
    • Color 249, 214, 209
(These color settings provide a warmer, more flattering glow than pure white)

  • Go to the Texture tab, and set Transparency to 100. The sphere turns invisible, but you can see it is still emitting light.

  • In the General tab, change the name of your sphere from Object to “MyFaceLight”.
  • Right click the sphere and Take it into your inventory.
  • Set your time of day to midnight
  • Stand on a pose stand
  • Right click your light object and select Attach To Mouth (you can attach it elsewhere if you like...the nose or shoulder attach points also work well).
  • Enable View Transparent Textures with CTRL+ALT+T, so you can see your object.
  • Edit it into position at about your eye level, and about a half meter from your face. Adjust this positioning to get the lighting effect you want.
  • Detach the light, then Wear it again. It should return to the position you set.
The Final Result


  1. Just a note: The OpenGL specification is for *eight* light sources, not six. SL limits the viewer to six at a time because, I believe, the SL sun and moon are also considered light sources (but don't quote me on that).

  2. Muwahahaha! You have been quoted! And you are correct. Eight total lights in the scene -- six of them can be "local lights".

  3. Just a general comment...I adore your blog. Though I've just recently returned from a lengthy SL vacation, I was one of the official SL Mentors back in the day, and still love helping people who are new to the virtual world. You're creating a comprehensive textbook that will catapult people through the agonizing SL learning curve. I hope that all the now-unofficial mentors out there recommend your blog as often as I do!

    And just one thought...have you ever considered expanding your coverage beyond how-to subject matter to the thornier but equally important issues of virtual living?

  4. Thank you, Moby! As for your kind thought...see today's post :)

  5. With the advent and wide use (sadly not so true still) of advanced light management , face lights are again a must.
    Just enable shadows and see how a subtle face light can make all the diff between seeing or not seeing the face details of an avatar,