Graphics are obviously the most interesting part of Skyrim to mod. You can almost never break your save game with them, can try out literally thousands of combinations, and there’s a ton of room for simple improvements. Even a beginner to modding can pretty easily update a texture or mix and match mods without concern for the safety of his save.
(You CAN cause stability problems with graphics mods, of course, so do try to stick to good practices and remember the troubleshooting steps. Any stability problems caused by graphical changes are easy to un-do once you’ve figured out what you did wrong in the first place).
Basically it’s a bottomless sinkhole, a beautiful, aqua-blue, with godrays shining down through the photorealistic trees and beautiful fuzzy rabbits frolicking along the pond while the ferns and lupins sway gently in the breeze… but a sinkhole none the less.
Here’s a starting point for those who just want their game to look good without going too far down the sinkhole.
ENB of your choosing. Try:
- Serenity or Tranquility
- Grim and Somber series
- Seasons of Skyrim
That’ll just get you started. There’s also this list, which actually is out of date
ENB is a massive fps drop. What the final fps after ENB is depends on the settings, your monitor resolution (NOT texture resolution), your hardware, and of course what your starting fps is.
It doesn’t matter if you can run every other mod on this list at 60 fps, if you aren’t well over 60 fps with vsync disabled, you will drop below 60 fps with ENB.
As a rule of thumb, ENB, even with every single feature disabled, will drop fps by 20-30 frames, a bit less if you’re on Nvidia, a bit less if you’re at 1080p, a bit more if you’re on AMD, a bit more if you’re running at 1440p or higher. (ENB runs heavier on AMD, and its fps drop is disproportionate with resolution). That’s just inherent through sending the entire game through a second rendering engine before displaying it on your screen.
You can turn on a lot of features and still only see a 20-30 fps drop, but depending on the quality of the features and other factors as well, the fps drop will slowly increase. The heaviest ENBs drop frames by over 80 lost per second. That is, even if you were running at 80 fps without enb, you’ll still be at 1 fps after installing it. Luckily, you can get the most amazing look without all features at max quality.
This is my favorite explanation for how to adjust features in ENB for maximum performance and to stay true to the ENB’s look.
Another rule of thumb:
If your GPU is about as good as an AMD 7970/Nvidia 770, you can start to think about running ENB. You’ll still see an fps drop but it’ll be worth the improved graphics to some people. If your GPU is worse, you will not be able to run an ENB and get playable fps. If you want a slideshow to take screenshots, that’s fine. It won’t break your GPU (assuming your cooling situation is fine), it’ll just run like shit. If your GPU is better, you probably still want to run a light ENB, but you can at least think about it and how to get it to run.
If your GPU is about as good as an AMD 390/Nvidia 970 or better, then you can start to turn feature quality up and still get decent fps, depending on game resolution. (At 1440p both will probably still struggle to stay at 60 with increased quality, but it’ll definitely be playable). You’ll still have to tweak based on your exact modlist and desired fps, but you can really turn a lot of things up and still have a smooth experience.
Anyways. Enough about ENB.
You’ll also want a weather and lighting mod that goes with your ENB. Many of the ENBs above are based on a custom, enb-only weather pack called NLA; some have a Vivid Weathers version (which I would recommend), others work with CoT or Purity. All are good. ELFX or ELE or some random combination of ELFX, ELE, and relighting skyrim, are your lighting mods. I like ELFX best. You’ll also want a water mod. There’s one built into Purity that’s quite good, or there’s Realistic Waters 2. You can get either the WATER retexture or RW2 for ENB retexture, if you like their look – they look good with both water mods, but I like the base water mods better.
That alone will massively improve the look of your skyrim, while still keeping fps above 60 (depending on the exact ENB you choose).
Play around with different combinations. A given weather mod, ENB, lighting mod, water mod, will have one look; changing just one of those variables can totally change the look.
Next up, flora.
You’ve got a small number of choices for trees, depending on what you want.
If you want vanilla trees, but better, try
- Skyrim Flora Overhaul (my favorite mod)
- Enhanced Vanilla Trees
If you want more or bigger trees try one of the following
- Tamriel Reloaded HD 1
- Enhanced Landscape Overhaul or Realistic Aspen Trees
- Skyrim Bigger Trees
- Skysight Simply Bigger Trees
Grass (again, pick one)
- Skyrim Flora Overhaul (again, my favorite. Most realistic and best performance)
- Verdant – the crowd favorite. Lush, dense, grass with lots of wildflowers.
- TRHD – meh
- Unbelievable Grass 2 – similar to verdant, heavier performance. There’s also a version included as an Enhanced Landscapes option.
- Unique Grasses and Groundcovers – can be used alongside the above mods, covers some of the areas they don’t.
- Unique Grasses and Groundcovers plugin (separate mod) – this is a full on grass replacer, not compatible with any of the above mods. And it’s not as well done, and heaviest performance.
- Grim Grass – like UGG, this is meant to use alongside one of the other grass mods.
- Unique Flowers and plants – adds hand-placed flowers around skyrim. Compatible with all of the above.
It’s gonna be too hard to list all of the texture options out there, but my advice is pick one big texture pack (Noble Skyrim, Skyrim HD, Skyrim Realistic Overhaul), and layer it with other mods. Gamwich’s stuff and Hulk Hogan’s stuff can’t be skipped. Pick 1k (lite) options for small stuff (baskets, tools, shoes, etc.) and 2k options for big stuff (houses, rocks, armor, etc.) You probably could go up to 4k for really big stuff (the armor you’re gonna wear, mountains, etc.), but I wouldn’t push it. For more ideas see the texture list.
More rules of thumb:
If you have 1 GB or less of VRAM, you’ll want to stick with vanilla resolution for everything but the largest objects. That means 1k at most, and smaller for most things.
If you have 2 GB or less, you’ll want to stick with high res DLC resolution for most things. 2k at most, and most things 1k.
If you have 3 GB of VRAM, you can run 2k textures without too many worries. There’s still no point to run bigger textures on big things, but you also don’t have to stress keeping everything tiny.
If you have 4 GB of VRAM you can start running 4k textures on the really big things if you want to (it’s not necessary, but most people can really see the increase in detail), and 2k textures on most things.
If you have more than 4 GB of VRAM, and you are on Windows 8 or 10, you still functionally only have 4 GB of VRAM.
If you have more than 4 GB of VRAM, and are on Windows 7, you can pretty much do whatever you want. I would love to see your results, and whether you see a noticeable difference with higher res textures on most objects, as well as the maximum VRAM useage you see.
For the body, the most popular is UUNP. It’s got bodyslide like CBBE does, and it is higher poly. It seems like most new conversions are for it. For textures, SG female textures renewal or mature skin are the most popular. On males, your best bet is to stick with the vanilla body and get Skysight Males for the textures. Alternatively, you can try Better Males.
1. TRHD is much more than just adding new trees. It’s truly a complete overhaul of Skyrim, consisting of new meshes and textures for all of the cities, new grass, new trees, new rocks, and all coordinated. The downside? A lot of people think it’s ugly, a lot of the textures are poorly done… and not just in the “this is kind of ugly” sense, but in the “this has something technically wrong with it” sense – wrong compression, missing mip maps, badly trimmed edges with no appropriate alpha, etc. Some of the meshes are also badly done, leading to UV gaps in whiterun, missing normal maps, etc. But, the half of it that is well done is really cool.