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Large datasets typically contain coarse features comprised of finer sub-features. Even if the shapes of the small structures are evident in a 3D display, the aggregate shapes they suggest may not be easily inferred. From previous studies in shape perception, the evidence has not been clear whether physically-based illumination confers any advantage over local illumination for understanding scenes that arise in visualization of large data sets that contain features at two distinct scales. In this paper we show that physically-based illumination can improve the perception for some static scenes of complex 3D geometry from flow fields. We perform human-subjects experiments to quantify the effect of physically-based illumination on participant performance for two tasks: selecting the closer of two streamtubes from a field of tubes, and identifying the shape of the domain of a flow field over different densities of tubes. We find that physically-based illumination influences participant performance as strongly as perspective projection, suggesting that physically-based illumination is indeed a strong cue to the layout of complex scenes. We also find that increasing the density of tubes for the shape identification task improved participant performance under physically-based illumination but not under the traditional hardware-accelerated illumination model.