A brief shader overview in Unity

I have started playing Yakuza 0 again. It is worth picking up!

Anyway, as you may have guessed, I haven’t got a relevant image for this article so just whacked in what was playing.

Shaders are often this scary, black magic game dev word that a lot of people run away from.

Shaders are bits of code that run on the GPU. They can be code that affects visuals of the image but also in some cases, you can offload complex calculations to the GPU (compute shaders). As this is a graphics focused tutorial, we are going to focus on the visual side.

A visual shader is a shader that affects… well.. the visuals. In the most basic of terms, a visual shader is a program that runs on the GPU that takes 3D model vertices, textures, and other bits of info and returns pixel colours. They are used to draw triangles of 3d models on your screen.

Again, that is super oversimplifying it so I am going to dig into the types of shader Unity has

Surface Shaders

Let’s look at this from a light simulation perspective. If you look in the picture above (see it is not COMPLETELY irrelevant!) you can see there are a lot of lights and the materials on Kiryu’s clothes, skin etc are reacting to it. However, these materials all interact differently with the light. When light hits a material it can be absorbed, reflected, refracted and scattered.

The behaviour of the light rays hitting the surface creates the look of a specific material. For example, the jacket Kiryu is wearing has high light absorption making it look dark. The water on his face has an element of reflection making it look shiny.

This is where surface shaders come in.

Although you can write your own lighting behaviour in Unity, most of the time you don’t want to. That said, there are times you want to do custom lighting which we will look at in later articles, but again MOST of the time, you would use surface shaders. Why? Well, writing lighting equations in shaders can be “well hard”. There are different light types to factor in, different shadow options and different render paths (which we will cover later).

Surface Shaders kind of take the hard part away. As I said before, writing your own lighting behaviour can take a lot of work. Unity’s surface shaders essentially do that for you. The docs refer to this as an auto-generation approach, but essentially what they do is generate the repetitive lighting code under the hood. We will go into more detail about this later, but for now, all you need to know is that they are a way to deal with shaders that use lighting.

Vertex and Fragment Shaders

These are your more “traditional” shaders. The first step it where the shader takes in vertex data, i.e. the geometry, which can alter the data of each individual vertex in the model if you so chose. After this has been done, the result is passed to the second step where a function outputs the colour at each vertex. The first step is known as the vertex function and the second step is known as the fragment function. Hence the name.

In Unity, Vertex and Fragment shaders are often used for non-realistic materials, 2D graphics or fancy post-processing effects. Let’s say I didn’t want to use the real-life lighting behaviour or physically based rendering as it is also known. Let’s say I want to render Kiryu in that above picture as a Cartoon Network character. We would use a Vertex and Fragment shader.

Vertex and Fragment shaders are also used for post-processing. I briefly mentioned post-processing. Post Processing is like adding effects to an image in photoshop. Say I wanted to turn the image above black and white, I would write a vertex and fragment shader for that.

Also, say I have a 2D sprite and I want to take the shape of it and add a glow effect around it. I would probably use a vertex and fragment shader for that.

I also mentioned that surface shaders contain boilerplate lighting code. In fact, when you write a Surface Shader, it gets compiled down into a vertex and fragment one. Essentially, if you are thinking of implementing a different lighting model other than a realistic one, you will probably have to write a vertex and fragment shader.


  • Shaders are programs that are executed on your GPU and are used to draw triangles of 3d models on your screen
  • Shaders are often used to interact with light. In Unity, we can use Surface Shaders as a way to write effects that interact with light in a realistic way.
  • We can write Vertex and Fragment shaders to apply our own lighting models, create post-processing effects and effect 2D images

For more info on the Surface and Vertex and Fragment Shaders below are some links to some old tutorials that are still relevant, with probably some horrible typos. However stay tuned, as I may do a revision post on both soon!

Unity Shader Tutorial – A look at a basic surface shader

Unity Shader Tutorial – a look at a basic vertex and fragment shader


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