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5 Blender lighting & shading tips to make your renders pop

Without great presentation, even the most amazing render won’t shine. Here’s how to always showcase your artwork in the best light with Blender…

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Introduction

A recent comment from a Blender modeler: “It’s funny how lighting just doesn’t feel so important.” So true. Especially for new 3D artists, creating in Blender is all about modeling and texturing. But don’t be fooled: good light is to a render what frosting is to a cupcake: it can make or break the final product. These tips, which unavoidably feature an annoying number of light-related idioms, will illuminate your Blender workflow once and for all.

Good light is to a render what frosting is to a cupcake: it can make or break the final product

Environment lighting for the win

We’ll say it: if the single light source you’re using is lamps, you’re not doing it right. Your renders won’t look realistic. The lights may be on... but there’s nobody home. Why? Realistic rendering should mimic real-life lighting, which rarely relies on a single light bulb. There is a myriad of light sources and reflectors like the sun, cars, white walls, fidget spinners. How can you possibly imitate this complexity in Blender? This is where environment textures really shine.

An image lit with a lamp, versus an image lit with HDRI

HDRIs have become the industry standard for realistic environment lighting. High Dynamic Range Imaging is a technique that “photographs” the real world including hyper-detailed information about light which is impossible to replicate manually.

Bottom line: It’s a must to develop a collection of HDRI images that you can easily apply to your Blender project.

Global Illumination saves you from eternal damnation

In the dark ages of computer graphics (like, 5 years ago) all light calculations assumed that light bounces off an object... and disappears. That’s, basically, exactly not at all how the real world works, which made realistic render lighting an incredible pain. So when Global Illumination entered the picture, it was like a light bulb going off.

With Cycles, there’s no more tedious lighting with an ungodly number of lamps as GI does all the super-realistic light bouncing out of the box. Yes, some scenes benefit from GI more than others: characters and objects, for instance, need it less than ArchViz, where GI is essential.

Global Illumination off versus Global Illumination on. Which toilet bowl looks more inviting?

Bottom line: Rule #1 “Leave GI on by default for all your Blender renders. Rule #2 “When speed is of the essence and you’re considering turning GI off, refer to Rule #1.”

Gradients, Gradients, Gradients

Have you ever chosen a color for your bedroom that looked one way in the sample and very different on the wall? Blame gradients. (Unless you bought super cheap paint. Then, blame yourself.) Turns out, quantum physics is, in fact, real and photons travel through space. Their behavior changes depending on the conditions, creating different light values and hues of the same base color. Let’s explore two images up close.

Limited & Bland versus Absolute Awesome use of Gradients

The left one is lifeless and flat, with little variation in values both on the character and the background. The right image is straight up sexy – and it’s all because of a good use of gradients.

Let’s count them, shall we?

The key light is close to the goblin’s head. It guides your gaze towards it, then rapidly falls off, making the feet barely lit for a dramatic effect. Gradient number 1.

See how the scene is washed in a contrasting purple-orange gradient? The upper-left key light is yellowish, the far-right fill light is purple. Bam! Gradient number 2.

Remember GI? (Let’s hope so, we literally talked about it one paragraph ago.) The right render has GI enabled, the left one doesn’t. Enabled GI is realistically creating small color-bleeding gradients all over the place. Finally, the background is not a plane but a cylinder which produces a natural, appealing vignette around the character.

Love gradients yet?

Bottom line: There’s a reason why, spelled backwards, “gradient” reads “fabulous.” Use them.

Stop being scared of colorful lights

Chromophobia = fear of color. Let’s keep in mind that this is a real clinical condition and if you suspect you might have it, consult a medical professional. If not, don’t avoid colors in your lighting. There’s nothing wrong with a subtle warm key light and a subtle cool fill light.

Sure, if you’re working on a mid-century Danish interior design scene, desaturated colors will be your go-to. But experimenting with saturated lights can give your renders a whole new dimension, depth and dynamics. Take a look at the sequential images below. Don’t they get more awesome and eye-catching towards the right? Yes, they do.

From meh... to yeet!

Bottom line: Try using saturated color light in one of your renders. If saturation was on a scale from 0 to 1, crank ‘er up to 0.8 for once! You might love the results.

Honorable mention: Glossy reflections and fresnel

As John Hable put it, "Everything is shiny." Even totally diffuse surfaces are simply glossy reflections with a high roughness value. Basically, glossy reflections are not a big deal...unless you want your renders to be believable!

Nowadays, glossy reflections are the standard, but that hasn’t always been the case. Specular reflections used to rule the day, creating unrealistic results. For some Blender old timers, it took a while to switch to glossy reflections but once they did, there was no coming back. The results are far too superior.

And what about fresnel? Like gravity or irritating smooth jazz playing in the background, fresnel is something we tend not to notice until we zero in on it. Pronounced ‘fruh-nel’ (the French word ‘croissant’), this is a fun natural phenomenon which can get quite technical with hugely off-putting equations and cos symbols, but we won’t get into that. Blender does the math for you, thank Ton!

You just need to know that transparent objects reflect as well as refract light, and the amounts of each depend on the angle at which the lights hit them. Fresnel occurs because the surfaces close to our eye reflect less than those further from our eye. And since a picture is worth more than a 1,000 poorly written words, here is a red sphere showcasing a spectrum of fresnel values.

If you don't get fresnel right, you won't get realistic renders

Bottom line: Glossy and fresnel reflections are now a standard among render engines. This hasn’t always been the case, so let’s never take them for granted.

Conclusion

Lighting your renders in Blender is a discipline in its own right. And while Cycles does a lot of the heavy lifting for us, there are tools which you should utilize to maximize the appeal of your renders. Less isn’t always more and experimenting with color and gradients can give you incredible results. So suspend your disbelief and follow Pink Floyd’s immortal advice: shine on you crazy diamond!