How to light your models and scenes

Lightbulbs

Getting good lighting is the biggest Blender improvement most people can make. This article is all about lighting your models and scenes. I’ll cover setup, direction, intensity, and mood.

Lighting models

When you light your models, you want to bring out the best in them. When done right, your lighting highlights your model’s best features, creates depth, and enhances the overall mood you want your art to radiate.

Setup

Before you start setting up your lights, make sure your camera is in the right place. Nothing is as annoying as getting the perfect lighting, only to decide you want to shoot from a different angle and finding out your lighting doesn’t work from there. Try out as many angles as you want, just do it before you light everything up.

When you’ve done that, you can start with a basic lighting setup like shown in this picture. These aren’t exact positions, so feel free to vary them a bit. The key light is usually the main source of light and should be positioned in a way that it lights the part of your model you want to stand out. Your fill light is there to make sure you don’t make the dark side of your character too dark by adding just a little illumination. Don’t set it to the same strength as your key light, as you do want some shadows left. Finally, there’s the backlight. Your backlight should always be behind your model and facing the camera and sets your model apart from its surroundings. With a stronger backlight comes a stronger lighted and what parts are in the shadows. Because of this, the direction of your lights will influence how people perceive your model and create a 3D effect.

Direction

First of all, you can move your light up or down:

  • Horizontal light or flat light means you light your model directly from the front. There are almost no shadows here, so you get a kind of neutral effect.
  • Under lighting is a way to make your model look slightly creepy and unfamiliar. Because you put a lamp under your model you get shadows in strange places, adding a strange effect.
  • Top lighting has a similar effect. Because you light your model from above you get shadows on the eyes,  making your character look scary. Because of the sun, most things are lighted slightly from above, so keep that in mind if you want natural lighting.

Of course, you don’t always go all the way down or all the way up with your lights, but as you do the effects of top- and under lighting become stronger.

Besides up and down you can move your light from left to right around your model:

  • Side lighting
    A good example of side lighting

    Straight lighting gives, like horizontal lighting, almost no shadows and doesn’t change much about your model’s appearance.

  • 45° angle. This is a very common way of lighting. You mostly light one side of your model, while also casting some light on the darker side. Make sure you add a little spot of light on your model’s dark side with this kind of lighting, as this adds a little extra bit of special to it.
  • Side lighting, meaning your lighting is at a 90° angle with your camera, makes one side of your model fully lighted and one side completely dark. Because of this, it gets very clear that your model is 3D and not just a flat cardboard cutout. Side lighting also creates a lot of contrast, as your model isn’t evenly lighted.
  • Backlighting is something you get when you shine a light from behind your model towards the camera. It adds an edge around your character and sets it apart from the background. When you shine directly in the camera, you only illuminate the edges of your character. This can be nice in some cases. If you want more from your model than just a silhouette, an extra light comes in handy.

That’s it for lighting directions. You can use a combination of these techniques with your different lights, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little (or a lot). Now on to intensity.

Intensity 

First of all, don’t go too bright and don’t go too dark. If your colors start to become white, you should dial down your light’s brightness and when you have to squint your eyes to see what’s there, turn it up a little. Don’t worry, I’ll explain how to make dark scenes later on, so hang on. First, how do you get the right brightness?

There are no exact rules. If you want to get it right, you’ll have to try it out for yourself. There are some guidelines like the ones above though, so here they come.

  • Your key light is usually the strongest light in your scene.
  • The brighter your backlight, the stronger the lighting around your model and the separation of your model with the background.
  • Your fill light should always be weaker than your key light. You use it to fill in the dark shadows, and you don’t want those to disappear.

Besides this, brighter lights bring make for stronger colors and the emotions associated with them. This is more something for the “mood” part of lighting, so I’ll continue there.

Mood

The most important role of your lighting is to set a mood or create a certain atmosphere. You can do this by using direction, intensity, and color.

Color emotion reference

Like I said before, natural lighting is something we’re familiar with and makes for a character that looks safe or even welcoming. To get this kind of lighting, put your light a bit up and at an angle, mimicking the direction of the sun. Adding a bit of red or yellow to your light makes it look even more real. Lighting from slightly above also lets your model look more attractive by highlighting cheekbones and hiding the chin, making it ideal for a photoshoot.

For the strange, unfamiliar look you can use downlighting. It casts shadows on the cheekbones and bridge of the nose. It’s like holding a flashlight under your chin when you tell a campfire story. Strange, unknown and a bit scary. If you want to go for the real horror, top lighting is a great alternative, as it makes black holes from your model’s eyes. Be honest, that’s just downright creepy. Using the right colors can also do wonders, so taking a look at Plutkick’s wheel of emotions is never a bad idea.

The kind of shadows you use on your models also adds to your model’s atmosphere, so here’s what you need to know. Sharper shadows look scarier and unfamiliar. To create those, use small lights. For more natural, warmer shadows you can use bigger lights. A bigger light basically equals a softer shadow. Keep also in mind that a brighter light makes for a sharper contrast between light and shadow.

 

Lighting scenes

Lighting your scene isn’t an easy task either. You have to take everything into account, from shadows to realism. Here we’ll also be talking about setup, direction, intensity, and mood.

First of all, set up your camera. You don’t want to move it later on and find out all your lighting has to be adjusted. Once you’ve done that, decide whether you want to light your scene manually or use an HDR or something like it. If so, you can still add a few lights here and there, just not as much as when you’re starting from scratch.

When you are starting from scratch, start with your key light. Depending on what kind of scene you’re making, this can be either a sun light or an area lamp. For outdoor, natural scenes a sun lamp is best, but for anything indoors I recommend using area lamps. If you’re doing an outdoor scene with a creepy atmosphere it’s better to use area lamps, as you can make these smaller and thus create sharper, darker shadows. To start off, set your key light at a 45° angle with your camera and shining down on your scene. You can always change this depending on the specific requirements of your scenes, but it’s a good starting point. Add a bit of color to your key light to set the mood for your entire scene.

Your key light won’t light everything, so you’ll need a fill light. This is basically a big, dim light that makes sure most of your scene is still recognizable when it’s not lighted by the key light. You can put it opposite of the key light to get the best effect. Make sure you can still clearly see the difference between a shadow and a lit place after you put up your fill light, as shadows are crucial for the depth of your scene. When coloring your fill light, make sure its color matches that of the key light. It doesn’t have to be the same, but taking a look at the color wheel never hurts.

When you’ve set up your key and fill light, you can put up some spotlights to highlight special parts of your scene. This is optional, but if you decide to do it you should be careful. Make the spotlight either barely noticeable or blend it into your scene, like a patch of sunrays breaking through the leaves or a streetlamp shining down on something.

If you’re looking for more ways to create a great atmosphere or tell a great story, you should read this article about telling a great story with your scene.

 

How to light a dark scene

 

While this scene is clearly dark, it’s still fairly easy to make out what’s in it

Dark scenes can be hard to light. While trying to get that darkness into their scenes, many people make the mistake of leaving too little light to actually see what’s there. That’s a waste of great work, especially when there are better techniques that make your scene look dark without dialing down your brightness too far.

 

First of all, get some color out of your scene. Make everything a bit duller than it would be in a bright scene. You can do this with the colors you use on your objects. When it’s dark, our eyes have a hard time making out colors and are much better at seeing black and white, what brings on to the next point.

Create more contrast. Try to move your scene a bit towards a black-and-white photograph. You don’t have to go all the way, but more contrast means a better illusion of darkness. Making your lights slightly blue also helps to maintain the illusion.

Finally, you can add a big area lamp or a sun lamp that gives off a very faint glow, kind of like a full moon. Nothing is ever completely dark, and this way you add just a little bit of extra light to your scenes. Whatever you do, never try to create darkness by dialing down your lights. Use a combination of color, contrast and glow, then see how far down you really need to go.

 

That’s it for lighting your scenes. While I hope I’ve shed some light on the subject for you, you should realize lighting is a pretty complicated matter. After this article, you only have an idea of the basics. To really master lighting you have to practice a lot, so stop waiting and get creating!

See you next time,

Jesse Davis

 

Like this article? Subscribe to the Blenderer newsletter to get new articles delivered to your mailbox every week!