Path Tracing vs. Ray Tracing: Illuminating the Future of Computer Graphics

Both path tracing and ray tracing have been around for a long time. These two techniques use light rays to create shadows and graphics that provide the user with stunning visuals.

Although these two techniques do the same thing, they both have different advantages and limitations that can make one a better option to use over the other.

Showing the Difference Between Path Tracing and Ray Tracing

In this article, we will compare the two to not only understand how they differ but also which one might be a better option for you, whether you’re a game developer or just a regular gamer.

What is Path Tracing?


Path tracing is a rendering technique that renders lighting by sending out hundreds of rays from a specific light source and tracing where it goes.

This technique is used to resemble realistic lighting as closely as possible. The aim of path tracing is to simulate how light interacts with objects and surfaces in a 3D environment just as it would in real life.

Key Features

The reason why path tracing is becoming a popular rendering technique for lighting and graphics is because of its ability to produce lighting in real-time.

This lighting is interactive and works well in 3D environments bringing shadows, lighting, and reflections to life while you are gaming.

How it Works

Unlike traditional rendering methods such as rasterization. Path tracing is far more complex. It selects the sources on the screen that you or your character is interacting with and traces the rays in a way that is most likely going to happen.

The path tracing algorithm will simulate the way the light behaves when it bounces off surfaces, reflects on objects, and gets absorbed.

By doing this you will get a more accurate representation of how the light is supposed to interact with your environment compared to older rendering techniques. Resulting in a more realistic/immersive environment.

Advantages and Limitations

Path tracing offers a more advanced form of rendering compared to its counterparts. One of its key advantages is that it can be less demanding on a computer’s GPU, making it more accessible for users with less powerful hardware. However, the method can be computationally intensive, especially for complex scenes, which may limit its real-time capabilities.

What is Ray Tracing?


Ray tracing is another technique used in computer graphics to model the transport of light. It’s been around for quite some time and is widely used for generating digital images that are rich in detail and realism.

Key Features

Ray tracing excels in creating highly effective illumination in computer-generated scenes. It’s particularly good at producing realistic lighting effects, such as reflections, refractions, and shadows, making it a popular choice for high-end video games and cinematic productions.

What ray tracing looks like when its off vs when its on

How it Works

The ray tracing algorithm traces the path of light rays from a camera viewpoint through a 2D plane and into a 3D scene. It then calculates how these rays interact with different objects before returning to the light source. This method allows for a high degree of control over lighting effects but often requires powerful computing hardware to perform efficiently.

Advantages and Limitations

The primary advantage of ray tracing is its ability to render light and shadow with incredible realism. However, this comes at the cost of requiring robust computing hardware. While advancements have been made to make ray tracing more accessible, it still demands a significant amount of computational power, making it less suitable for less powerful systems. For more information, you can read about how ray tracing affects FPS.

Comparison: Path Tracing vs. Ray Tracing


Both path tracing and ray tracing are groundbreaking techniques for rendering light and shadow in 3D scenes. They aim to achieve photorealism by simulating the complex interactions between light and matter.


Path tracing is a more efficient way to produce similar effects to ray tracing. While path tracing is less demanding, you can definitely tell that it needs improvement in some areas. Whereas ray tracing requires more powerful hardware to run effectively.

However, when at its full potential ray tracing will provide you with a better experience.

For a better understanding of specific questions about ray tracing check out my FAQ on Ray Tracing.

Use Cases

Ray tracing is better suited for higher demanding applications such as movies and AAA-rated games, that involve a massive environment.

Applications with these high computational demands require specific scenes to be pre-rendered which is typically very demanding on your computer.

smaller applications that are able to get by, by only processing what the user is interacting with at the time such as 3D environments, will be more suitable for path tracing.


In summary, both path tracing and ray tracing have their own sets of advantages and limitations. Path tracing offers a more advanced, albeit computationally intensive, approach to rendering realistic lighting and shadows. Ray tracing, while older and more established, provides incredible realism but at the cost of requiring powerful hardware. As technology continues to advance, it’s likely that both methods will evolve, offering even more realistic and interactive 3D experiences in the future.

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