Light fields [J. Math. Phys. 18, 51 (1936);The Photic Field (MIT, 1981)] of natural scenes are highly complex and vary within a scene from point to point. However, in many applications complex lighting can be successfully replaced by its low-order approximation [J. Opt. Soc. Am. A 18, 2448 (2001); Appl. Opt. 46, 7308 (2007)]. The purpose of this research is to investigate the structure of light fields in natural scenes. We describe the structure of light fields in terms of spherical harmonics and analyze their spatial variation and qualitative properties over scenes. We consider several types of natural scene geometries. Empirically and via modeling, we study the typical behavior of the first- and second-order approximation of the local light field in those scenes. The first-order term is generally known as the “light vector” and has an immediate physical meaning. The quadrupole component, which we named “squash tensor,” is a useful addition as we show in this paper. The measurements were done with a custom-made device of novel design, called a “Plenopter,” which was constructed to measure the light field in terms of spherical harmonics up to the second order. In different scenes of similar geometries, we found structurally similar light fields, which suggests that in some way the light field can be thought of as a property of the geometry. Furthermore, the smooth variation of the light field’s low-order components suggests that, instead of specifying the complete light field of the scene, it is often sufficient to measure the light field only in a few points and rely on interpolation to recover the light field at arbitrary points of the scene.
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