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Legacy Deferred Lighting Rendering Path

This page details the Legacy Deferred Lighting (light prepass) rendering pathThe technique Unity uses to render graphics. Choosing a different path affects the performance of your game, and how lighting and shading are calculated. Some paths are more suited to different platforms and hardware than others. More info
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. See this article for a technical overview of deferred lighting.

Note: Deferred Lighting is considered a legacy feature starting with Unity 5.0, as it does not support some of the renderingThe process of drawing graphics to the screen (or to a render texture). By default, the main camera in Unity renders its view to the screen. More info
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features (e.g. Standard shader, reflection probes). New projects should consider using Deferred ShadingA rendering path that places no limit on the number of lights that can affect a GameObject. All lights are evaluated per-pixel, which means that they all interact correctly with normal maps and so on. Additionally, all lights can have cookies and shadows. More info
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rendering path instead.

NOTE: Deferred rendering is not supported when using Orthographic projection. If the cameraA component which creates an image of a particular viewpoint in your scene. The output is either drawn to the screen or captured as a texture. More info
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’s projection mode is set to Orthographic, the camera will always use Forward rendering.


When using Deferred Lighting, there is no limit on the number of lights that can affect an object. All lights are evaluated per-pixel, which means that they all interact correctly with normal maps, etc. Additionally, all lights can have cookies and shadows.

Deferred lighting has the advantage that the processing overhead of lighting is proportional to the number of pixelsThe smallest unit in a computer image. Pixel size depends on your screen resolution. Pixel lighting is calculated at every screen pixel. More info
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the light shines on. This is determined by the size of the light volume in the sceneA Scene contains the environments and menus of your game. Think of each unique Scene file as a unique level. In each Scene, you place your environments, obstacles, and decorations, essentially designing and building your game in pieces. More info
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regardless of how many objects it illuminates. Therefore, performance can be improved by keeping lights small. Deferred lighting also has highly consistent and predictable behaviour. The effect of each light is computed per-pixel, so there are no lighting computations that break down on large triangles.

On the downside, deferred lighting has no real support for anti-aliasing and can’t handle semi-transparent objects (these will be rendered using forward rendering). There is also no support for the MeshThe main graphics primitive of Unity. Meshes make up a large part of your 3D worlds. Unity supports triangulated or Quadrangulated polygon meshes. Nurbs, Nurms, Subdiv surfaces must be converted to polygons. More info
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Renderer’s Receive Shadows flag and culling masksAllows you to includes or omit objects to be rendered by a Camera, by Layer.
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are only supported in a limited way. You can only use up to four culling masks. That is, your culling layer maskA value defining which layers to include or exclude from an operation, such as rendering, collision or your own code. More info
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must at least contain all layers minus four arbitrary layers, so 28 of the 32 layers must be set. Otherwise you will get graphical artefacts.


It requires a graphics card with ShaderA small script that contains the mathematical calculations and algorithms for calculating the Color of each pixel rendered, based on the lighting input and the Material configuration. More info
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Model 3.0 (or later), support for Depth render textures and two-sided stencil buffersA memory store that holds an 8-bit per-pixel value. In Unity, you can use a stencil buffer to flag pixels, and then only render to pixels that pass the stencil operation. More info
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. Most PC graphics cards made after 2004 support deferred lighting, including GeForce FX and later, Radeon X1300 and later, Intel 965 / GMA X3100 and later. On mobile, all OpenGL ES 3.0 capable GPUs support deferred lighting, and some of OpenGL ES 2.0 capable ones support it too (the ones that do support depth textures).

Performance Considerations

The rendering overhead of realtime lights in deferred lighting is proportional to the number of pixels illuminated by the light and is not dependent on scene complexity. So small point or spot lights are very cheap to render and if they are fully or partially occluded by scene objects then they are even cheaper.

Of course, lights with shadows are much more expensive than lights without shadows. In deferred lighting, shadow-casting objects still need to be rendered once or more for each shadow-casting light. Furthermore, the lighting shader that applies shadows has a higher rendering overhead than the one used when shadows are disabled.

Implementation Details

When Deferred Lighting is used, the rendering process in Unity happens in three passes:

  1. Base Pass: objects are rendered to produce screen-space buffers with depth, normals, and specular power.
  2. Lighting pass: the previously generated buffers are used to compute lighting into another screen-space buffer.
  3. Final pass: objects are rendered again. They fetch the computed lighting, combine it with color textures and add any ambient/emissive lighting.

Objects with shaders that can’t handle deferred lighting are rendered after this process is complete, using the forward renderingA rendering path that renders each object in one or more passes, depending on lights that affect the object. Lights themselves are also treated differently by Forward Rendering, depending on their settings and intensity. More info
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Base Pass

The base pass renders each object once. View space normals and specular power are rendered into a single ARGB32 Render TextureA special type of Texture that is created and updated at runtime. To use them, first create a new Render Texture and designate one of your Cameras to render into it. Then you can use the Render Texture in a Material just like a regular Texture. More info
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(with normals in RGB channels and specular power in A). If the platform and hardware allow the Z buffer to be read as a texture then depth is not explicitly rendered. If the Z buffer can’t be accessed as a texture then depth is rendered in an additional rendering pass using shader replacement.

The result of the base pass is a Z buffer filled with the scene contents and a Render Texture with normals and specular power.

Lighting Pass

The lighting pass computes lighting based on depth, normals and specular power. Lighting is computed in screen space, so the time it takes to process is independent of scene complexity. The lighting buffer is a single ARGB32 Render Texture, with diffuse lighting in the RGB channels and monochrome specular lighting in the A channel. Lighting values are logarithmically encoded to provide greater dynamic range than is usually possible with an ARGB32 texture. When a camera has HDRhigh dymanic range
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rendering enabled, then lighting buffer is of ARGBHalf format, and logarithmic encoding is not performed.

Point and spot lights that do not cross the camera’s near plane are rendered as (front faces of) 3D shapes, with the depth test against the scene enabled. Lights crossing the near plane are also rendered using 3D shapes, but as back faces with inverted depth test instead. This makes partially or fully occluded lights very cheap to render. If a light intersects both far and near camera planes at the same time, the above optimizations cannot be used, and the light is drawn as a tight quadA primitive object that resembles a plane but its edges are only one unit long, it uses only 4 vertices, and the surface is oriented in the XY plane of the local coordinate space. More info
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with no depth testing.

The above doesn’t apply to directional lights, which are always rendered as fullscreen quads.

If a light has shadows enabled then they are also rendered and applied in this pass. Note that shadows do not come for “free”; shadow casters need to be rendered and a more complex light shader must be applied.

The only lighting model available is Blinn-Phong. If a different model is wanted you can modify the lighting pass shader, by placing the modified version of the Internal-PrePassLighting.shader file from the Built-in shaders into a folder named “Resources” in your “Assets” folder. Then go to the Edit->Project Settings->Graphics window. Changed the “Legacy Deferred” dropdown to “Custom Shader”. Then change the Shader option which appears to the lighting shader you are using.

Final Pass

The final pass produces the final rendered image. Here all objects are rendered again with shaders that fetch the lighting, combine it with textures and add any emissive lighting. LightmapsA pre-rendered texture that contains the effects of light sources on static objects in the scene. Lightmaps are overlaid on top of scene geometry to create the effect of lighting. More info
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are also applied in the final pass. Close to the camera, realtime lighting is used, and only baked indirect lighting is added. This crossfades into fully baked lighting further away from the camera.

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