The z coordinates are transformed in the same fashion as the x and ycoordinates. After transformation, clipping and perspective division, they occupy the range -1.0 through 1.0. The glDepthRange() mapping specifies a transformation for the z coordinate similar to the viewport transformation used to map x and y to window coordinates. The glDepthRange() mapping is somewhat different from the viewport mapping in that the hardware resolution of the depth buffer is hidden from the application. The parameters to the glDepthRange() call are in the range [0.0, 1.0]. The z or depth associated with a fragment represents the distance to the eye. By default the fragments nearest the eye (the ones at the near clip plane) are mapped to 0.0 and the fragments farthest from the eye (those at the far clip plane) are mapped to 1.0. Fragments can be mapped to a subset of the depth buffer range by using smaller values in the glDepthRange() call. The mapping may be reversed so that fragments furthest from the eye are at 0.0 and fragments closest to the eye are at 1.0 simply by calling glDepthRange1.0,0.0(1.0,0.0). While this reversal is possible, it may not be well-suited for some depth buffer implementations. Parts of the underlying architecture may have been tuned for the forward mapping and may not produce results of the same quality when the mapping is reversed.
To understand why there might be this disparity in the rendering quality, it is important to understand the characteristics of the window z coordinate. The z value specifies the distance from the fragment to the plane of the eye. The relationship between distance and z is linear in an orthographic projection, but not in a perspective projection. In the case of a perspective projection, the amount of the non-linearity is proportional to the ratio of far to near in the glFrustum() call (or zFar to zNear in the gluPerspective() call). Figure 18 plots the window coordinate z value as a function of the eye-to-pixel distance for several ratios of far to near. The non-linearity increases the resolution of the z-values when they are close to the near clipping plane, increasing the resolving power of the depth buffer, but decreasing the precision throughout the rest of the viewing frustum, thus decreasing the accuracy of the depth buffer in the back part of the viewing volume.
For objects a given distance from the eye, however, the depth precision is not as bad as it looks in Figure 18. No matter how far back the far clip plane is, at least half of the available depth range is present in the first ``unit'' of distance. In other words, if the distance from the eye to the near clip plane is one unit, at least half of the z range is used up in the first ``unit'' from the near clip plane towards the far clip plane. Figure 19 plots the z range for the first unit distance for various ranges. With a million to one ratio, the z value is approximately 0.5 at one unit of distance. As long as the data is mostly drawn close to the near plane, the z precision is good. The far plane could be set to infinity without significantly changing the accuracy of the depth buffer near the viewer.
To achieve the best depth buffer precision, the near plane should be moved as far from the eye as possible without touching the object, which would cause part or all of it to be clipped away. The position of the near clipping plane has no effect on the projection of the x and y coordinates and therefore has minimal effect on the image.
Putting the near clip plane closer to the eye than to the object results in loss of depth buffer precision.
In addition to depth buffering, the z coordinate is also used for fog computations. Some implementations may perform the fog computation on a per-vertex basis using eye z and then interpolate the resulting colors whereas other implementations may perform the computation for each fragment. In this case, the implementation may use the window z to perform the fog computation. Implementations may also choose to convert the computation into a cheaper table lookup operation which can also cause difficulties with the non-linear nature of window z under perspective projections. If the implementation uses a linearly indexed table, large far to near ratios will leave few table entries for the large eye z values. This can cause noticeable Mach bands in fogged scenes.