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How To Achieve Better 3D Lighting

How To Achieve Better 3D Lighting

Take your lighting in your 3D renders a step above everyone else's.

When working with 3D, lighting is absolutely crucial. It can be tempting to throw a pre-built HDRI map into your scene and call it a day, but your 3D shot can benefit from taking a little extra time to consider ways your lighting can be its absolute best.

We’ve looked at how to create your own custom HDRI references, (which can be tremendously helpful in achieving a stunning photorealistic look), and today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into lighting theory to help you get the most from your 3D lighting setups.
3D model of futuristic car.

How Understanding Practical Lighting Can Serve Your 3D Render

A comprehensive understanding of photography and practical lighting techniques is becoming more important than ever due to the increasing level of realism that’s available in physically-accurate 3D renderers.

The video below expertly demonstrates the advantages of viewing 3D lighting simply as practical on-set lighting.
Sometimes, it’s quite easy to get lost in our digital workspaces and forget this fact. Remembering that we can apply simple real-world lighting principles to our VFX can make lighting a 3D scene much more intuitive, eliminating a lot of unnecessary guesswork and yielding more natural results.

Practical Lighting Tips to Remember 

Recall that your light source’s size and distance matter more than your light’s intensity. Ramping up the lighting intensify probably isn’t as beneficial in most scenarios. You can adjust your camera’s shutter speed, exposure, and other settings to create a more optimally-lit image with finer control.

Also, adding diffusion is essentially making your light source bigger. A small light equals hard shadows, and a large light equals soft shadows.
Source: Dimitris Katsafouros |
As the light source size or proximity to your subject increases, your subject’s shadows will decrease.
Source: Dimitris Katsafouros |
The higher your light source is above the subject, the shorter the shadows will be. The lower your light source is above the subject, the longer your shadows will be.
Source: Dimitris Katsafouros |
Another great concept Dimitris’ video illustrates is utilizing a black card to cut light from a background just like a photographer on set. This will allow you to maximize the lighting on your subject, and distinctly separate the subject from the background.

This is such a clever technique to apply in 3D!
Source: Dimitris Katsafouros |
Also, rather than put your light directly in front of your subject, try lighting your subject more subtly from either side. This will allow for more form definition and a more realistic look.

Lastly, if you want the maximum amount of control over lighting your subject, make sure you keep a considerable amount of distance between your subject and the background. 

Light Experimentation in the Real World

Source: Dimitris Katsafouros |
The beauty of thinking about practical lighting when working with 3D scenes is that there are endless possibilities for adapting lighting setups from the real world.  Consider spending some time experimenting with lighting as simple as a flashlight in your home, studio, or office to inspire creativity and gain a deeper understanding of lighting for your 3D scenes.  

You could even set up your phone on a cheap tripod and capture photos of your best lighting setups for reference later. You can also pay careful attention to the lighting in scenes from your favorite movies, and try to re-create the lighting on a subject in 3D.

Most of all, get creative and have fun discovering new ways to think about illuminating your virtual world. For more 3D lighting tips, check out the great tutorial below!
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