3D Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tutorials to Master Lighting [2023]

by | Dec 18, 2022

Looking for a 3D lighting tutorial?

If you’re learning 3D lighting, tutorials are key for learning the right techniques. And today, you’ll get the best lighting tutorials and learn how to light a scene.

Want to learn more? Read on!

 

How do you light a 3D scene? 

Let’s start from the beginning. What does it take to light a 3D scene? 

Lighting a 3D scene is all about using different light sources and visual effects in lighting programs. So, what are the best lighting techniques to study to become a successful 3D lighting artist? How important is signing up for a 3D lighting tutorial to develop your artistic and technical skills? 

Here are the techniques and tutorials you need: 

3-point lighting 

3 point lighting example

Photo credit: Pinterest.com

This lighting technique consists of three light sources arranged at strategic points around the subject to create a three-dimensional look to the scene. To create this lighting effect, you will need the following: 

Key light: This is the primary light source and is the brightest of the three in the 3-point arrangement. It makes up about 3/4 of illumination on a subject. Typically, the key light is set in front of the subject at a 45-degree angle to the camera. The lighting creates sharp shadows on the opposite side of the subject, adding depth and dimension. 

Fill light: This is a supplementary light set opposite the key light. As the name implies, the key light “fills” in the shadows created by the key light on a subject. It is less bright, and light artists would either dim or brighten the fill light, depending on the mood or effect that they want to achieve. The softer illumination helps bring out the details of a subject. 

Backlight: AKA rim light or hair light; this supplementary light source creates an outline of the subject and separates them from the background. The backlight is set behind the subject opposite the key light. Sometimes the backlight is set slightly elevated, just high enough to be out of the frame and pointing at the back of the subject’s neck to achieve a third-dimensional look. 

Tutorial: Filmmaking 101: Three-Point Lighting Tutorial

Take a look at this three-point lighting tutorial to learn to light your own scenes: 

3D character lighting 

Character lighting is a technique used to illuminate a character in a flattering way and support the story being told. It tells the character’s story, conveys and highlights the character’s emotions, shapes the viewers’ perception of a character’s personality or intent or elicit the mood of a scene. There are two techniques used to illuminate a character in a shot: Natural and dramatic character lighting. 

Natural lighting: Practical lights already exist in the scene, like the sun or artificial lights. Supplemental lights are needed to illuminate the character and their surroundings properly. That said, it is rare for lighting artists to use natural lighting alone. Big studio lights are still needed to achieve the desired effects. 

Dramatic lighting: This lighting technique brings out the emotions a character conveys in a scene. Depending on the intensity of the light and the set-up, the lighting can make a character look good or evil, happy or sad. Lights used for character lighting includes: 

  • Key light: The most intense light source. It is used to shape the light in a shot.
  • Top light: The light source is set above the subject, and the light streams downwards. 
  • Bounce light: A light source emits an intense light, and a reflector is set at a strategic spot, so the intense light bounces off of it, producing diffused light. The reflected light covers a bigger space and is more evenly spread. 
  • Ambient light: This is a type of indirect light that produces diffused illumination. Ambient light gives an overall tone to a scene, and changing its color enables light artists to create atmosphere.

Rembrandt lighting: This is a lighting technique that produces dramatic lighting for a character. Named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt who often used this type of lighting, Rembrandt’s lighting is characterized by brighter-lit triangles under the eye of the character and dimmer illumination on the side of the face. The sharp contrast between light and dark is achieved by setting a primary light source that produces intense light and a reflector. 

Academy of Animated Art: AMA: Character Lighting for Animated Films

Want to learn how to light a character? Take a look at our own tutorial on character lighting: 

Academy of Animated Art – Properly Lighting Dark-Skinned Characters for Animated Films

Here’s our tutorial on how to light characters with darker skin tones: 

3D environment lighting 

This 3D lighting technique simulates lighting produced from the surroundings like skylight, daylight, and so on. Lighting can be manipulated using a 3D animation software program, enabling a light artist to control the light’s shape, color, and intensity. The type of light used can be directional, point, spot, or area light.

Spotlight: This light source produces intense, concentrated, cone-shaped light on a specific spot. 

Directional light: A distant light source that simulates sunlight in a scene. The illumination is spread all around the surroundings, and the light source does not have an identifiable position. 

Point light: A light source that illuminates all directions from a point in space. The intensity of the lighting is proportional to the square of the distance from the light source. With increased distance, the illumination diminishes. 

Area light: The light source projects light from a surface. The illumination shows in all directions evenly from the surface.

Lighting the Environment and Setting the Scene: Cinematic Lighting Techniques

Check out this tutorial on environment lighting: 

CG lighting 

CG lighting is the process of simulating light in a 3D environment using various lighting techniques. These lighting methods are applied with the help of several 3D animation software programs. 

3D lighting artists are responsible for setting the virtual lights in a shot and adjusting them according to color, tone, hue, depth, and mood. Apart from the key light, fill light, bounce light, backlight, and ambient light, CG lighting includes:

Hard lighting: Consists of a strong light source that produces harsh shadows and intense illumination. This lighting method highlights a subject’s contours and presents a defined silhouette.

Soft lighting: This method involves lighting not set in a specific position to minimize hard shadows, simulate light coming from the outside, and heighten the drama. Soft lighting is more flattering on human subjects than hard lighting because it diffuses hard lines on the face.

High Key: This lighting style is used to create very bright, almost close to overexposed scenes. To set up, the lighting sources have close to the same intensity. High key is often used for dream sequences or scenes that require overwhelming brightness. 

Low Key: This is the opposite of high key; a scene features shadows to create a sense of suspense, drama, or intensity. Low-key lighting is often applied in moody scenes, nighttime shots, or to achieve a film noir look. 

Integrating CG Lighting into Live Action

This tutorial shows you how to use CG lighting in live action: 

AAA Let’s Light 

Take a look at our video critique of a CG lighting test: 

3D lighting and rendering 

The process of converting a 3D graphics scene into one final shot is called rendering. After setting up and adjusting the lighting in a 3D graphics scene, all the image information will be converted into a bitmap image using various 3D animation software programs. These programs evaluate the geometry and lighting information of a given file. 

Generally, a rendered image is fully raytraced and shaded to represent the full scene evaluations. Every render comprises separate layers calculated and represented into one completed scene. 

Besides making digital scenes look realistic, rendering adds materials and textures to make characters, objects, and scenes look believable. Software programs like renderers are used to achieve the look that the scene requires, and technical knowledge is vital to creating realistic scenes. As a 3D lighting artist, part of the job involves mastering software programs such as: 

Arnold

A Monte Carlo ray-tracing 3D rendering tool for feature-length animation and visual effects. Arnold is the renderer of choice by over 300 animation studios worldwide, including Sony Imageworks, which adopted it as their main render engine. 

AAA Arnold for Maya : Ray Depth Time-lapse Example

Here’s our own Arnold example: 

Redshift Renderer

Redshift is a GPU-accelerated 3D render engine developed to satisfy the specific demands of high-end production rendering. The program offers a full suite of powerful features to support artists while integrating seamlessly with other standard CG applications. Redshift renders several frames within seconds, not hours. The program uses a node-based shader graph to develop materials. 

What is RedShift

Check our this tutorial on what Redshift is:

Unreal Engine

Unreal Engine is an industry-standard render engine favored for feature films and high-end games. This render engine utilizes real-world Physics principles to add a profound sense of realism in every shot in real time. Unreal Engine uses DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 pipelines, which include global illumination, lit translucency, deferred shading, GPU particle simulation utilizing vector fields, and post-processing. 

Unreal Engine Quickstart Series: Quick Start

Here’s a quick start to Unreal Engine: 

Octane

Octane is the world’s first GPU render engine that offers cutting-edge graphic technologies, machine-learning optimizations, out-of-core geometry, and NVIDIA RTX Acceleration. This render engine can process multiple frames in a fraction of the time compared to older renderers. Octane also comes with LiveViewer, so rendered scenes can be previewed in almost real time. Octane also supports the rendering of particulate matter such as fog, smoke, fire, and clouds with varying densities. 

Introduction to Octane 

Take a look at this Octane tutorial: 

Maya 

Maya is the animation and visual effects industry’s most widely used 3D lighting software. It’s so widely used that virtually all animation studios require knowledge of Maya to get a job in the US and internationally. Many software programs are based on Maya, so understanding this 3D lighting software will enable you to pick up other software programs quickly.

Intro to Maya Series: Lessons 1 to 10 – Basic Skills

Here’s a Maya tutorial to help you get started: 

Katana

Katana is a lighting and LookDev tool that simplifies the management of assets, materials, shaders, and output files for a streamlined workflow. It features a node-based workflow that processes large files quickly. Katana can also process multiple shots, frames, assets, and other variations from within a single project file, enabling artists to work on complex files in half the time. 

Lighting in Katana

This Katana tutorial shows you how to use Katana:

Nuke

Nuke is a node-based compositing and visual effects tool that features multi-threaded rendering. This feature takes advantage of multiple processes in its calculations, performed with 32-bit precision using linear light levels. With Nuke, you can create, modulate, and render post-production images at any scale and resolution. Nuke eliminates the need to re-render CG elements during content changes. It also supports other industry-standard 3D software programs. 

AAA Let’s Light! – Animating TV Flicker Using RGB Lights and Nuke Expressions

Want to learn more about Nuke? Take a look at this Nuke tutorial:

Blender

Blender is an open-source 3D animation software program that supports the entire 3D pipeline. It is used for modeling, rigging, animation, lighting, motion tracking, compositing, as well as game creation. Besides feature-length animation movies, Blender can be used for graphic art, visual effects, virtual reality, 3D printing, and interactive 3D applications. Because it’s an open-source 3D lighting software, Blender is free and gets better with every upgrade. 

Animation for Beginners: Blender Tutorial

This Blender tutorial will help you get started: 

Renderman

Renderman is a proprietary production tool of Pixar. It is used to render all of Pixar’s animated movie productions, including shorts, online content, marketing materials, and theme park visuals. Renderman is also offered as a commercial product to third-party studios and is often used alongside other 3D lighting software programs like Blender and Maya. Developers recently updated Renderman’s RIS technology, adding improved features like an upgraded raytracing core, new hair descriptions, and memory optimizations, to name a few. 

Renderman: Basic Settings and Tutorial

Check out this Renderman tutorial to get started: 

3DS Max

3DS Max is a computer graphics program used to model, light, animate, and render computer-generated characters, objects, and complex scenes for TV, movies, games, and other design visualization animations. It’s one of the widest-used animation programs in the industry because of its simplicity and unmatched speed. 3DS Max also integrates seamlessly with other visual effects tools. 3DS Max offers a robust rendering toolset, animation capabilities, and mapping workflow, enabling artists to save time on rendering.

Beginners Guide 1: Introduction to 3DS Max

For more on 3DS Max, take a look at this tutorial: 

Now that you have all the tutorials you need to light a 3D scene, let’s take a look at how to improve your lighting skills.

How can you improve your 3D lighting skills? 

It takes a keen eye and technical knowledge to become a lighting artist. To improve your craft, try these tips:

Get proper training: The first option is to earn a bachelor’s degree to hone your lighting skills. However, a degree is not necessary to become a successful 3D lighting artist because most studios look at a candidate’s experience and expertise. You can learn the craft online (which we’ll look at more below).

Learn different lighting concepts: Apart from taking technical courses, you need to gain a deep understanding of varying lighting concepts like color theory, design theory, and so on. Learning the scientific principles behind lighting, how light and shadows interact in real life, how light and shadow behave on various surfaces or materials, is also part of the job. 

Master industry-standard software programs: The learning never stops once you get the job. You must continue learning different software programs to sharpen your technical skills and learn new tools. 

Practice: It’s also essential to practice lighting every chance you get, especially if you want to specialize in a certain area of study. You can test your skills by taking lighting challenges or accepting freelance jobs. Joining online communities will be helpful too. Professional and peer-to-peer lighting critiques will be instrumental to your career as an artist. 

Be observant: Watch movies and TV series and pay close attention to the lighting setup and how the characters move in light and darkness. Look at the movements, how light hits different surfaces, and how light and shadows are applied in different scenarios. Apply these observations to the projects you’re working on.

How to learn 3D lighting online

Online education is the best option if you’re looking for affordable courses that you can learn at your own pace. Because it’s affordable, you can take multiple courses to further your education without quitting your day job. You can also accept projects on the side while you study.  

In choosing the suitable online courses, go for an all-in 3D lighting tutorial like the Academy of Art’s Lighting for Animation course bundle. This lighting course has everything you need to become a lighting artist in a year or less, even if you don’t have previous experience. The course includes:

  • A comprehensive curriculum
  • AAA’s proven system 
  • Access to the AAA asset library
  • Access to the AAA Discord channel
  • Free assets to light
  • Peer-to-peer feedback
  • Professional lighting critiques

How to test your skills with 3D lighting challenges 

If you want to test your skills and improve your lighting in 3D animation, try joining lighting challenges and asking for professional feedback. 

At the Academy of Animated Art, we offer monthly lighting challenges and new assets to light. By signing up for the Lighting for Animation bundle, you’ll get access to our asset library and Discord channel, where you will meet fellow students and lighting professionals. By joining these lighting challenges, you’ll receive peer-to-peer feedback and professional lighting critiques, improving your work’s quality. 

Over to you!

There you have it! Finding the proper 3D lighting tutorial is fundamental to honing your skills as an artist. With the right training, you’ll be noticed by hiring managers and eventually achieve your dreams of being a professional lighting artist. 

Get your free guide:

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