5 Tips for Better Studio Lighting

The Importance of Lighting

Lighting makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of any final render. After hours of hard work modelling your scene, it deserves to be seen in its best light. However, lighting is often undervalued and misunderstood by 3D artists, and it's not easy to find trustworthy resources to teach the art of lighting. So I've put together my personal top 5 tips that I feel will help artists avoid common mistakes and ensure a well-lit studio shot.


1. Model and Materials correct before Lighting

If your model or materials are not right, the lighting process will highlight this.

You can be fooled into thinking the model looks great in the viewport. But try checking your model inside a zebra-striped HDRI map to see how those lines are reflected in the surfaces. Render the model at different angles and see if you can spot any problems. What we are looking for is strange wobbly reflections, showing that the modelled surface is not as smooth as you thought. Fix any modelling problems now, as they will only appear worse in a final render when lit properly.

Fig 1: Image above shows a poor model with wobbly surfaces vs high-quality smooth model

If the materials are not physically correct, they will react incorrectly to the illumination and reflections coming from your lighting. This will make the scene harder to light and it will never look realistic. Try testing your model in a variety of HDRI maps first - studios, indoor and outdoor environments. Does chrome look like chrome, does metallic paint look correct? How are the materials balancing with each other under these different lighting conditions? Basically, does it look real? This is called 'Look Development'. If you don't get the materials correct now, you will need to keep tweaking them during the lighting process. You may even need to adjust the materials for different camera angles, which is a really bad idea. It makes sense to get the materials right first, lighting will then be far easier to do.

Fig 2: Image above shows materials are looking realistic in a variety of HDRI environments

2. Light Sources with Character

The appearance of light sources seen in reflections really matters. A perfect white rectangle with hard edges (just like a standard out of the box area light in your 3D software), will look fake and will make your render look 'cartoony'. Real-world lights have a shape and often hot spots where the light is brightest and graduates away from this, they have character and include imperfections too. 3D artists are already aware of the importance of texturing their model, the same goes for lights. A library of HDR light source images to map to your area lights is ideal, or at least use gradients in your 3D software to create a more interesting light appearance.

Fig 3 - Image above shows a fake-looking light vs a light with more realistic character

3. Lights Reveal Materials and Form

Off the shelf HDRI maps are too generic when it comes to lighting products. For a great result you need to perfectly position the lights and control each light's appearance... but why? To reveal the materials and form. Let's explain why...

The product being lit is most likely made from different materials and surface finishes. If the same light reflects across a material change, this reflection will give a clue to what the material finish is. In product shots, you often see lights with a hard edge are used to show this. The edge remains sharp when seen in chrome or glass, like a phone screen for example, and then the reflection spreads on materials with a more textured finish. Choose light appearances and positions to help show off the different materials. Remember producing a product shot is about visually describing the product to the viewer.

Fig 4: Image above shows the effectiveness of a soft light vs hard edge light in revealing surface finish

The form is the 3D shape of the object. Lighting should help to communicate the form. Reflections of lights should flow in the direction of the form and not fight against this. If a light goes in the opposite direction it will look like a strange 'stripe' or a 'spot' on the product.

Fig 5: Image above compares lights fighting the form vs following the form

4. Avoid Unwanted Reflections

Sometimes you will place a light in a position that creates a really great illumination or reflection effect - then only to see it also creates another awful, unwanted effect somewhere else on the model. You should reposition the light to avoid these unwanted effects. But sometimes this is unavoidable, so in those cases try using a softer light appearance, these are much more forgiving when seen in reflections.

Fig 6: Image above shows soft lights are more forgiving in reflections in unwanted areas

5. Keep It Simple

You can't run out of lights using 3D software, so it’s easy to create way too many lights. In a real photography studio, a handful of well-placed lights will be used, each added for a very specific effect. So when lighting your shot, research how others have lit the same type of product when photographing them, and use these images for reference. It's easy to work out what type of lights have been used by looking at the reflections. Many successful 3D artists have learned to light by using reference images this way. Remember photography is the benchmark by which we all judge the CGI product shot, so we can learn a lot from photographs.

Fig 7: Image above shows lighting is too complex. Thumbnails make it obvious the lighting is too fussy.

Once you have lit your shot, look at your render as a small thumbnail, it should still look good. What do I mean by 'good'? You should be able to easily recognise the form and materials, and the lighting should not overpower or be adding distracting levels of detail. It's too easy to focus on lighting one small area and to forget the overall feel of the image. If the image looks strange as a small thumbnail, then you probably need to simplify the lighting. Another trick is to flip your image horizontally and see if it still looks good. This provides a fresh perspective on the image and this can reveal new issues you couldn't see before.

Follow these 5 tips and your lighting should look good:

Fig 8: Image above summarises the top 5 lighting tips with an example of a well-lit shot.

About HDR Light Studio

Fig 9: Image above shows HDR Light Studio software lighting a car

HDR Light Studio is a 3D lighting app that connects to your existing 3D software (3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, MODO, Blender and many more) and vastly improves the lighting process. Lighting becomes as easy as 'drag and drop'. Lights can be moved by clicking and dragging on the rendered model - it's like 'painting with light' and lets you concentrate on the creative side of the lighting process. HDR Light Studio ships with a vast range of HDR studio light source images too. So you have the right light appearances at hand for any type of project shot.

HDR Light Studio is the perfect playground for learning and fine-tuning your lighting skills. HDR Light Studio makes it so easy to put the 5 lighting tips seen here into action.

This entry was posted in Tips.