A Realistic Lighting Crash Course for 3D Artists


Image Foundry | 24.04.2017

Every visualisation has a story and purpose behind it, whether it’s a still or animation. Lighting plays a crucial role in the mood of a CGI, we discussed this previously on the blog which you can read here. A particular style of lighting can drastically alter the mood from a warm summer’s day to a British fresh morning, but before we can do that, we wanted to go back to basics.

Lighting is an essential technique to master for a 3D artist; if an artist can show their capabilities, being able to alter a visualisation so drastically with one lighting change, then they are definitely on the right track.

If you too are a 3D Artist or 3D Animator in the making, we put together a few handy tips on what Image Foundry artists believe are very important in the process.
A Realistic Lighting Crash Course for 3D Artists Image Foundry         A Realistic Lighting Crash Course for 3D Artists Image Foundry         A Realistic Lighting Crash Course for 3D Artists Image Foundry



An absolute must is doing your research! It doesn’t take a genius to work out how light shines onto an everyday object; however, be wary of assuming and jumping straight to render! Light movement, intensity and reflections are very intricate and will take a lot of time to understand inside-out.

Most artists work with a good understanding of how light works with certain materials and environments but this only comes with time. There is no cheat sheet unfortunately but most artists will know instantly that they will need to region render an area with both reflective chromes and flat woolen fabrics for example. You must look at real life photographs to pick out the tiny details we may otherwise miss, we would even suggest asking photographers questions on how they would physically light a scene.

Lastly, getting shaders ready. Yes, that too is a part of your research so that you rig your lights after the shaders are set. Begin with a simple light, avoiding GI (Global Illumination), use an area light and note how the shaders react to it. Once all of your shaders are ready, consider adding more.


Lighting Setup

Begin with setting up basic light without adding complex materials or textures. To ensure that the final composition is just as you imagine, it’s vital that you take a little time to notice how the light is diffusing.  It will help you save time as you would have the right tone set and would not have to modify or rearrange the models. Test lighting with transparent, basic diffuse or glossy shaders to bring out the best effects.

Do not begin too big, instead start with the smallest effect your lighting has. Introducing this delicacy into your workflow will undoubtedly differentiate you from a novice; gradually applying effects with lighting is a process you cannot rush into. Keep experimenting until you’re happy. Contrast will make your scenes look dramatic, while warm colours beside cold colours will give you enhanced results.


Effects & Shadow

A tough for task for many 3D artists is setting the gamma just right, some would argue it is quite the skill. Typically, we assume a gamma of 2.2 as an average for what we see every day. A small change to gamma to 1.8, 1.6 or even 1 can making a real striking change to the image.

While tending to effects and shadows is important, try not to get too worked up working with dark areas. Light doesn’t always work, sometimes there just isn’t a big window or bright light available to the scene. It’s also worth mentioning that darkness can add a lot realism to your images; quite often, junior artists are so concerned with creating an image that is perfect in our mind, rather than reality. Forcing light where it wouldn’t naturally be will instantly decrease the quality of you visualisaiton.

Shadows and darkness will help. To create more dynamism, use volumetric lighting. This is especially effective with interiors; volumetric lights can be combined with obstacles in the path of light to help draw the viewers’ attention to the main product subtly. To create highly detailed lighting, use luminous polygons or lumigons, even when in sunlight. When used in MODO it produces a much enhanced effect that a normal photorealistic light simply cannot.

Effects appear better when strong colours are blended with a lower settings. Other than these few tips, you can play with fog effects, sprinkle dust particles with the help of alpha planes and volumetric lighting, and even break up the light by enabling the noise map to bring out subtle intensity of light with its variations.


The more time you spend improving and learning new, more enhanced techniques, you will certainly gain traction very fast. A 3D artist needs to maintain and improve their work, to stay in touch with the current trends, whilst also mastering the art that comes naturally after time with effects, light, graphics and photography.