OpenGL 4 Shaders

Anton Gerdelan. Last edited: 2 October 2016

Shaders tell OpenGL how to draw, but we don't have anything to draw yet - we will cover that in the vertex buffers article. If you would rather skip the introduction, you can jump straight to the Example Shaders and get them loaded into GL with the Minimal C Code.


Shaders are mini-programmes that define a style of rendering. They are compiled to run on the specialised GPU (graphics processing unit). The GPU has lots of processors specialised for floating-point operations. Each rendering stage can be split into many separate calculations - with one calculation done on each GPU processor; transform each vertex, colour each tiny square separately, etc. This means that we can compute a lot of the rendering in parallel - which makes it much faster than doing it with a CPU-based software renderer where we only have 1-8 processors (in the graphics world, "hardware" implies the graphics adapter). Example:

Common drawing operations such as transforming each vertex and colouring each fragment can be done independently. We write a shader (mini programme) to compute these operations, and the GPU's highly parallel architecture will attempt to compute them all concurrently.

Shaders are a way of re-programming the graphics pipeline. If we wanted to use a different colouring method for the cube in the image, or have an animated, spinning cube, we could tell OpenGL to switch to using a different shader programme. The rendering process has several distinct stages of transforming a 3d object in a final 2d image. We call this staged process the graphics pipeline. All of the stages of the graphics pipeline that happen on the GPU are called the [programmable] hardware pipeline. Older OpenGL APIs had pre-canned functions like glLight() for driving the rendering model. We call this the fixed-function pipeline ("fixed" because it's not re-programmable). These functions no longer exist, and we have to write the lighting equations ourselves in shaders. In OpenGL 4 we can write a shader to control many different stages of the graphics pipeline:

A complete shader programme comprises a set of separate shader (mini-programmes) - one to control each stage. Each mini-programme - called a shader by OpenGL - is compiled, and the whole set are linked together to form the executable shader programme - called a program by OpenGL. Yes, that's the worst naming convention ever. If you look at the Quick Reference Card (or further down the page) you can see that the API differentiates functions into glShader and glProgram (note US spelling of "programme").

Each individual shader has a different job. At minimum, we usually have 1 vertex shader and 1 fragment shader per shader programme, but OpenGL 4 allows us to use some optional shaders too.

Shader Parallelism

Shader programmes run on the GPU, and are highly parallelised. Each vertex shader only transforms 1 vertex. If we have a mesh of 2000 vertices, then 2000 vertex shaders will be launched when we draw it. Because we can compute each one separately, we can also run them all in parallel. Depending on the number of processors on the GPU, you might be able to compute all of your mesh's vertex shaders simultaneously.

Comparison of Selected OpenGL4-Capable GPUs
GPU typeGPU cores
GeForce 60548
Radeon HD 735080
GeForce GTX 580512
Radeon HD 8750768
GeForce GTX 6901536
Radeon HD 89902304

Because there is a lot of variation in user GPU hardware, we can only make very general assumptions about the ideal number of vertices or facets each mesh should have for best performance. Because we only draw one mesh at a time, keeping the number of separate meshes drawn per-scene to a low-ish level is more beneficial (reducing the batch count per rendered frame) - the idea is to keep as many of the processors in use at once as possible.

Difference Between Fragments and Pixels

A pixel is a "picture element". In OpenGL lingo, pixels are the elements that make up the final 2d image that it draws inside a window on your display. A fragment is a pixel-sized area of a surface. A fragment shader determines the colour of each one. Sometimes surfaces overlap - we then have more than 1 fragment for 1 pixel. All of the fragments are drawn, even the hidden ones.

Each fragment is written into the framebuffer image that will be displayed as the final pixels. If depth testing is enabled it will paint the front-most fragments on top of the further-away fragments. In this case, when a farther-away fragment is drawn after a closer fragment, then the GPU is clever enough to skip drawing it, but it's actually quite tricky to organise the scene to take advantage of this, so we'll often end up executing huge numbers of redundant fragment shaders.

Shader Language

OpenGL 4 shaders are written in OpenGL Shader Language version 4.00.9. The GLSL language from OpenGL versions 3 to 4 is almost identical, so we can port between versions without changing the code. OpenGL version 3.2 added a new type of shader: geometry shaders, and version 4.0 added tessellation control and tessellation evaluation shaders. These, of course, can not be rolled back to earlier versions. The first line in a GLSL shader should start with the simplified version tag:

#version 400

The different version tags are:

Version Tags for OpenGL and GLSL Versions
OpenGL VersionGLSL Version#version tag

GLSL Operators

GLSL contains the operators in C and C++, with the exception of pointers. Bit-wise operators were added in version 1.30.

If you leave out the version tag, OpenGL fall back to an earlier default - it's always better to specify the version.

GLSL Data Types

The most commonly used data types in GLSL are in the table below. For a complete list see any of the official reference documents.

Commonly-Used GLSL Data Types
Data TypeDescriptionCommon Usage
voidnothingFunctions that do not return a value
boolBoolean value as in C++
intSigned integer as in C
floatFloating-point scalar value as in C
vec33d floating-point valuePoints and direction vectors
vec44d floating-point valuePoints and direction vectors
mat33x3 floating-point matrixTransforming surface normals
mat44x4 floating-point matrixTransforming vertex positions
sampler2D2d texture loaded from an image file
samplerCube6-sided sky-box texture
sampler2DShadowshadow projected onto a texture

File Naming Convention

Each shader is written in plain text and stored as a character array (C string). It is usually convenient to read each shader from a separate plain text file. I use a file naming convention like this;

My GLSL File Naming Convention
texturemap.vertthe vertex shader for my texture-mapping shader programme
texturemap.fragthe fragment shader for my texture-mapping shader programme
particle.vertthe vertex shader for my particle system shader
particle.geomthe geometry shader for my particle system shader
particle.fragthe fragment shader for my particle system shader

Some text editors (notepad++, gedit, ...) will do syntax highlighting for GLSL if you end with a ".glsl" extension. The GLSL reference compiler; Glslang can check your shaders for bugs if they end in ".vert" and ".frag".

Example Shaders

GLSL is designed to resemble the C programming language. Each shader resembles a small C programme. Let us examine a very minimal shader programme that has only a vertex shader and a fragment shader. Each of these shaders can be stored in a C string, or in a plain text file.

In this case we just want to be able to accept a buffer of points and place them directly onto the screen. The hardware will draw triangles, lines, or points using these, depending on the draw mode that we set. Every pixel-sized piece (fragment) of triangle, line, or point goes to a fragment shader. Just for the sake of example, we want to be able to control the colour of each fragment by updating a uniform variable in our C programme.

Vertex Shader

The vertex shader is responsible for transforming vertex positions into clip space. It can also be used to send data from the vertex buffer to fragment shaders. This vertex shader does nothing, except take in vertex positions that are already in clip space, and output them as final clip-space positions. We can write this into a plain text file called: test_vs.glsl.

GLSL has some built-in data types that we can see here:

We can also see the in key-word for input to the programme from the previous stage. In this case the vertex_position_local is one of the vertex points from the object that we are drawing. GLSL also has an out key-word for sending a variable to the next stage.

The entry point to every shader is a void main() function.

The gl_Position variable is a built-in GLSL variable used to set the final clip-space position of each vertex.

The input to a vertex buffer (the in variables) are called per-vertex attributes, and come from blocks of memory on the graphics hardware memory called vertex buffers. We usually copy our vertex positions into vertex buffers before running our main loop. We will look at vertex buffers in the next tutorial. This vertex shader will run one instance for every vertex in the vertex buffer.

Fragment Shader

Once all of the vertex shaders have computed the position of every vertex in clip space, then the fragment shader is run once for every pixel-sized space (fragment) between vertices. The fragment shader is responsible for setting the colour of each fragment. Write a new plain-text file: test_fs.glsl.

The uniform key-word says that we are sending in a variable to the shader programme from the CPU. This variable is global to all shaders within the programme, so we could also access it in the vertex shader if we wanted to.

The hardware pipeline knows that the first vec4 it gets as output from the fragment shader should be the colour of the fragment. The colours are rgba, or red, green, blue, alpha. The values of each component are floats between 0.0 and 1.0, (not between 0 and 255). The alpha channel output can be used for a variety of effects, which you define by setting a blend mode in OpenGL. It is commonly used to indicate opacity (for transparent effects), but by default it does nothing.

Minimal C Code

Note that there is a distinction between a shader, which is a mini-programme for just one stage in the hardware pipeline, and a shader programme which is a GPU programme that comprises several shaders that have been linked together.

To get shaders up and running quickly you can bang this into a minimal GL programme:

  1. load a vertex shader file and fragment shader file and store each in a separate C string
  2. call glCreateShader twice; for 1 vertex and 1 fragment shader index
  3. call glShaderSource to copy code from a string for each of the above
  4. call glCompileShader for both shader indices
  5. call glCreateProgram to create an index to a new program
  6. call glAttachShader twice, to attach both shader indices to the program
  7. call glLinkProgram
  8. call glGetUniformLocation to get the unique location of the variable called "inputColour"
  9. call glUseProgram to switch to your shader before calling...
  10. glUniform4f(location, r,g,b,a) to assign an initial colour to your fragment shader (e.g. glUniform4f(colour_loc, 1.0f, 0.0f, 0.0f, 1.0f) for red)

The only variables that you need to keep track of are the index created by glCreateProgram, and any uniform locations. Now we are ready to draw - we will look at drawing geometry with glDrawArrays in the next tutorial. To set or change uniform variables you can use the various glUniform functions, but they only affect the shader programme that has been switched to with glUseProgram.

OpenGL Shader Functions

For a complete list of OpenGL shader functions see the Quick Reference Card. The most useful functions are tabulated below. We will implement all of these:

OpenGL "Shader" (Separate Shader Code) Functions
Function NameDescription
glCreateShader()create a variable for storing a shader's code in OpenGL. returns unsigned int index to it.
glShaderSource()copy shader code from C string into an OpenGL shader variable
glCompileShader()compile an OpenGL shader variable that has code in it
glGetShaderiv()can be used to check if compile found errors
glGetShaderInfoLog()creates a string with any error information
glDeleteShader()free memory used by an OpenGL shader variable

OpenGL "Program" (Combined Shader Programme) Functions
Function NameDescription
glCreateProgram()create a variable for storing a combined shader programme in OpenGL. returns unsigned int index to it.
glAttachShader()attach a compiled OpenGL shader variable to a shader programme variable
glLinkProgram()after all shaders are attached, link the parts into a complete shader programme
glValidateProgram()check if a program is ready to execute. information stored in a log
glGetProgramiv()can be used to check for link and validate errors
glGetProgramInfoLog()writes any information from link and validate to a C string
glUseProgram()switch to drawing with a specified shader programme
glGetActiveAttrib()get details of a numbered per-vertex attribute used in the shader
glGetAttribLocation()get the unique "location" identifier of a named per-vertex attribute
glGetUniformLocation()get the unique "location" identifier of a named uniform variable
glGetActiveUniform()get details of a named uniform variable used in the shader
glUniform{1234}{ifd}()set the value of a uniform variable of a given shader (function name varies by dimensionality and data type)
glUniform{1234}{ifd}v()same as above, but with a whole array of values
glUniformMatrix{234}{fd}v()same as above, but for matrices of dimensions 2x2,3x3, or 4x4

Adding Error-Checking Functionality

The first thing to do is extend the minimal code with some error-checking.

Check for Compilation Errors

Right after calling glCompileShader:

I call a user-defined function here to print even more information from the shader. See next section.

Print the Shader Info Log

This is the most useful shader debugging function; it will tell you which line in which shader is causing the error.

Check for Linking Errors

Right after calling glLinkProgram:

I call a user-defined function here to print even more information from the shader. See next section.

Print the Program Info Log

Where programme is printing the index of my programme.

Print All Information

One of the more common errors is mixing up the "location" of uniform variables. Another is where an attribute or uniform variable is not "active"; not actually used in the code of the shader, and has been optimised out by the shader compiler. We can check this by printing it, and we can print all sorts of other information as well. Here, programme is the index of my shader programme.

The interesting thing here are the printing of the attribute and uniform "locations". Sometimes uniforms or attributes are themselves arrays of variables - when this happens size is > 1, and I loop through and print each index' location separately. I also have a home-made function for printing the GL data type as a string (normally it is an enum which doesn't look very meaningful when printed as an integer) - see next section.

GLenum Data Type to C String

This function converts a GL enumerated data type to a C string (for readable printing).

I only included the most-commonly used data types - I don't use the others so I just called them "other". Look up glGetActiveUniform to get the rest of the list.

Validate Programme

You can also "validate" a shader programme before using it. Only do this during development, because it is quite computationally expensive. When a programme is not valid, the details will be written to the program info log. programme is my shader programme index.

General Conventions

Possible Extensions