When done right, proper lighting makes a 3D scene virtually indistinguishable from real life! When used properly and in combination with the right textures, camera angles, materials, geometry, etc., 3D lighting gives life to the scene. But when used improperly, objects could look flat, harsh, or fake.

Although 3D lighting simulates real-life lighting, you have to apply a number of settings to achieve convincing results. That’s because lights do not exist in 3D quite the same way as it does in real life. If your objective is to make a scene as realistic as humanly possible then you need to know what kind of techniques and applications to use. And that’s what we’re here for!

Apart from enrolling for our 3D lighting master class, you could make a scene alive with these lighting techniques:

Light in Real Life

Observe how light behaves in real life, study photographs, and other references to improve your lighting skill. Studying how lighting looks in photographs give you an idea of how to manipulate light to achieve a certain effect.

When observing how light behaves in real life, pay close attention to how the illumination bounces on objects, how colors affect light and how colors and light affect surfaces. Look closely at how shadows and light interact with each other in photographs; determine what light was used for a specific purpose.

Learning how to read photographs lets you figure out your strengths as a light artist as well! So collect and study different photographs in your free time. Collect photography magazines as well as 3D-specific industry magazines and focus on composition and post-production topics.

In a bid to make a scene as hyper-realistic as possible, there are times when we become slaves to photographic realism. As an artist, exercise your creative freedom and use photographs as reference materials only. Do not let your references limit your creativity. Sometimes you have to bend reality a little to take your work to the next level.

Composition is critical to directing and manipulating the viewers’ eye to where you want. If you are struggling with composition, study traditional art theory. There are many photography rules to keep in mind for successful composition, including the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio. 3D lighting could be used as a support for the composition to create a compelling, captivating scene.

3D lighting techniques
Photo Credit: cgvilla.com

Working on Your Light Setup

When you are ready to put your lighting skills in motion, get your shaders ready. Shaders go first because lighting a scene without is only a great waste of time. Once your shaders are ready then you could start figuring out your light setup.

Stick to a basic lighting setup if you are still figuring out how the light will affect your final composition. Don’t go all out with the complex textures and materials too soon because you might not execute the final composition properly.

When you are working with complex materials and textures right away, you will end up amending or rearranging models after they have been textured, which will slow you down. Take this opportunity to play with different lighting setups; you might discover techniques that could enhance your composition even more.

To become a great light artist, you have to start small. That means testing all your lights first before setting a complex set up. If you don’t get the smallest details right, you will come across issues later in the light process, which will only delay your progress. Starting with too many lights, for example, will only keep you from seeing how each one affects your scene. It’s much better to arrange your light setup in steps, get the primary lighting right the first time, adjust the angle and intensity and then add the extra fill lights to achieve the proper effect.

Making a scene as life-like as possible is all about highlighting the recognizable elements of an image. When working on your light setup, do experiment with the angle of the light source to enhance the textures of an image. This is a great trick to try if you are aiming for photo-realism, some angles help accentuate the textures. The opposite is true when the angles are not right, details are lost.

3D lighting techniques
Photo Credit: cgterminal.com

Light Effects, Darkness, and Shadow

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different lights. Change up your lighting setup or vary your colors to get original results. Using different colors in your specular channels or maps while using the same light lets you create different colored scenes. Use warm colors against cool colors, a large light source on one side balanced by small, multiple lights on the other side, etc., these techniques will add more depth to your scene.

Use light rays to illuminate areas in a scene that you’d like the viewers to see. Create a moonlight effect by setting multiple light sources that point downward in the same spot. Brighten the main elements in the center of a scene from the top using a spotlight with a slightly bluish tint. Set the angle at five degrees and the intensity around 10%.

Fill a room with soft light in a gradient pattern or draw soft shadows using a large area light. Choose an area light with a dark blue color and set the intensity to 180% with the falloff using Inverse Distance Squared setting.

Heighten the drama in a scene using strong contrast to create a silhouette. This technique allows you to highlight and draw the attention of the viewers to one part of an image. The interaction between positive and negative space makes a scene even more dynamic and interesting.

What the eye cannot see is just as important as what the eye sees in a scene. Don’t feel like you should add light when you shouldn’t, embrace the darkness and the shadows. The fact is, not all areas of a scene should be illuminated. If you illuminate areas you shouldn’t, the effect becomes unnatural because darkness adds atmosphere. For example, a pitch black cave or an unlit room, these are supposed to look dark in real life. Adding even low-level light to these scenes could ruin the atmosphere.

Add off-camera lights to simulate how light behaves within a city and affect the buildings, signs, or cars within it. Shadow and darkness affect the objects in a city along with elements that are not visible in the main scene. Even when these elements are not visible, there are reflections and subtle shifts of lights.

Applied properly, volumetric lighting adds interest in a scene’s light setup. This light could be combined with obstacles in the light’s path to draw the eye to the main subject and add interest to the scene.

Uniform light tends to look unnatural so you have to add subtle variations of light to make the illumination as life-like as possible. You can do this by breaking up the light to create lighting with subtle variations. Putting a noise map in the projector map via 3DS Max or a tree billboard in front of your light, for example, are some techniques that will break up a light. Light or heavy dirtmaps in specular bump slots also adds subtle variations of light to a scene as opposed to a uniform light.

Add a final touch to your renders by adding floating dust particles. This can be done using simple geometry with alpha planes or using particle systems. The floating dust particles have a way of making a scene look hyper-realistic when picked up by all the light sources.

Apply a light fog to add depth to your image as well as to create a mysterious atmosphere. This effect is perfect for scenes where the sun’s rays cast through a hole in the clouds or when the light is coming through the window in a dusty room. Quick smoke effects could be added using simple texture in your volumetric lights setting. The combination of light, light fog or quick smoke effects adds a layer of detail to a scene that makes it incredibly life-like.

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