At one time, Minecraft was the most talked-about video game in the world, and seemingly synonymous with the medium itself for many people. With so many people putting so much time into Minecraft — a game centered on creation and customization — it’s not surprising that some of them would want to put their own stamp on it by developing their own mods.
One of the most popular categories of Minecraft mods is a type of graphics enhancement called a shader. Just looking at Minecraft running with a shader will give you a good idea of exactly what they do, but most are designed to make the game’s water, lighting, and shadows look more realistic and dramatic, as opposed to other graphics mods that tweak individual textures.
Of course, not all shaders are equally up to the task, so we’ve picked out some of our favorites to get started. Since shaders are a totally aesthetic change, you may end up finding some of them not to your taste, but they’re all guaranteed to make Minecraft look like more than a familiar collection of blocks.
How to install Minecraft shaders
As with any Minecraft mod, you’ll need to do a little work to get prepared before you start installing shaders. To install most Minecraft mods, you can use a mod manager called Forge, but for shaders and texture packs, you’ll want to use a tool called Optifine. On its own, Optifine introduces some handy fixes to Minecraft, including increasing its framerate, but it’s also essential to allow shaders to work. Optifine can be used with or without Forge.
To install it, simply go to Optifine’s website and download the latest version. After you run the installer, it will add a new version of Minecraft to the Minecraft Launcher, which you can select to play the game using Optifine and any installed shaders.
To install a shader, you just need to download one and drag the file you get into the “shaderpacks” folder in your Minecraft installation. If you don’t know where that is, you can find it automatically by going into Options on the main menu of your Optifine version of Minecraft, then clicking Video Settings > Shaders > Shaders Folder. Once the shader is placed there, you’re good to go!
The best Minecraft shaders
Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders
Minecraft players who have any experience with shaders have almost certainly heard of Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders already. SEUS was one of the earliest shaders to hit the Minecraft modding community, and it’s remained one of the most popular visual overhauls ever since for good reason. SEUS focuses on realistic lighting, favoring subtle effects over the wild colors and contrast some other shaders produce. There’s even a new experimental version that supports ray tracing on any Nvidia graphics card, and another one designed to run without as much of a performance hit.
Essentially the opposite end of the spectrum from SEUS, Lagless Shaders was designed to make Minecraft look as good as possible without requiring an expensive PC or grinding the game’s framerate to a crawl. It may not feature the most stunning lighting effects of any shader on this list, but it’s still a marked improvement over vanilla Minecraft, enhancing the game’s overall look and adding impressive lighting effects like god rays and lens flare, and it should work on practically any setup.
When it comes to photorealistic shaders for Minecraft, there’s really no way around it: Continuum Shaders is the best of the bunch. It packs every top-of-the-line visual enhancement out there into a single mod but keeps everything nicely balanced so it doesn’t just end up as a mishmash of pretty effects. With pristine water, realistic fog and clouds, unbelievable shadows, and vibrant but realistic colors, Continuum does everything right, and is worth checking out even just to see how incredible Minecraft can look under the right circumstances. The downside — because of course there has to be one — is that it’s also one of the most resource-intensive mods around, only really suitable for high-end machines. If you’re got the gear for it, though, there’s even a fully ray-traced version of Continuum and a custom high-res texture pack built specifically for use with these shaders.
If you’re aiming for the most realistic graphics in Minecraft but your computer shrinks at the sight of Continuum, BSL Shaders might be the mod for you. Like Continuum, BSL Shaders is a total package, adding depth of field, volumetric lighting, bloom, and pretty much any other fancy visual effect you can think of to completely overhaul Minecraft’s look. BSL Shaders would be easy to recommend in any case, but what really makes it stand out is that it does all that while still running remarkably well, so you can enjoy one of the most beautiful versions of Minecraft out there on a less powerful computer. BSL Shaders is so good that it should basically be the default shader choice for most players.
Sildur’s Vibrant Shaders
Many of the best Minecraft shaders aim for a natural look that enhances the game’s visual style without totally transforming it. Sildur’s Vibrant Shaders takes another route, loading Minecraft up with incredible effects until it almost looks like a different game. With blown-out lighting and saturated colors, Sildur’s Vibrant Shaders is one of the most intense graphics mods out there for Minecraft, so it may not be for everyone, but it’s also highly configurable for those who like the idea behind it but want to change things up.
Another extremely popular choice, KUDA Shaders aims for a mostly realistic look, but there are a couple of areas where it really shines. This shader gives Minecraft’s colors a noticeable but not over-the-top boost, makes shadows more dramatic, and adds great water reflections, though there are other shaders that do that better. Where few mods can match KUDA Shaders is in the sky, thanks to its incredible clouds and atmosphere effects that make everything from sunrise to the full moon look absolutely incredible.
If you notice some similarities between projectLUMA and the previous entry, KUDA Shader, there’s a good reason for that. ProjectLUMA is officially the successor to KUDA Shader, made by the same developer, so it shares a lot of the same aesthetic. It’s designed to provide the best-looking game with a minimal performance hit and without the visual effects being too overwhelming. It’s safe to say that projectLUMA succeeds on all fronts, delivering an incredible-looking game (including KUDA Shader’s signature skies) without dragging performance down too much.
Rather than making the game look as realistic as possible, Nostalgia Shader makes Minecraft look like — well, Minecraft, playing up the game’s unique blocky look and emulating the popular shaders of a decade ago. Nostalgia Shader is the perfect choice if you just want a better-looking Minecraft without really changing anything too dramatically. Because it’s not going for mind-blowing quality, Nostalgia Shader also has the bonus of being easy to run on most machines.
A relative newcomer on the Minecraft shader scene, Oceano Shader can’t compete with some of the best-known shader packs when it comes to realism, but it isn’t trying to. Instead, Oceano enlivens Minecraft with bright colors, soft lighting, and beautiful use of bloom. One area where Oceano does better than perhaps any other shader is in its stunning water effects, but it really excels in the big picture, giving Minecraft a warm, welcoming atmosphere that will just make you want to spend more time there. Oceano has a particular aesthetic that might not be for everyone, but its unique visual style can make even the best realistic shaders out there look drab in comparison.
Naelego’s Cel Shaders
A true outlier, Naelego’s Cel Shaders isn’t content to just make Minecraft look better; it makes it look like a completely different game. Rather than enhancing Minecraft’s visuals, it transforms them into something more like Borderlands, adding a cel-shaded effect that draws thick, cartoonish outlines around everything in the game. It might not be the kind of shader you want to put on every time you play Minecraft, but as a one-of-a-kind novelty, Naelego’s Cel Shaders is at least worth a look.
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