Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.


Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio


What is 3D Lighting in Animation? Step-By-Step Guide

by | Last updated Dec 13, 2023

In VFX and 3D animation, lighting is what sets the emotion and mood that can make or break a film. It’s what sets the emotion of a scene and makes or breaks a movie. 

But how do you light a scene? And what are the different types of 3D lighting? 

Today, you’ll learn just that. Read on for more!

What is 3D lighting?

First things first: 

What is 3D lighting and why is it needed? That’s what we’ll look at next. 

Introduction to 3D lighting

3D lighting is the application of light and shadows to a computer-generated scene. Basically, professional lighting artists use different 3D software applications to illuminate a scene. These applications can simulate natural light, mimic how it behaves in real life, and interact with the surroundings to add realism to a scene.

For example, these are a few images by our lighting students. See how lighting sets the emotion for these images? 

Credit: Laura Brousseau

Credit: Anuar Figueroa

Credit: Ryan Hansford


Why is 3D lighting needed?

The play of shadow and light helps to:

  • Elicit the right emotions
  • Support storytelling
  • Set the mood and tone of the scene
  • Focus the viewer’s eye on the most important element of an image
  • Depict the time of day, climate, and/or location of a shot
  • Highlight specific characters or objects in a scene
  • Create the illusion of depth and volume
  • Maintain continuity
  • Present a visual style
  • Create lighting design 

How is 3D lighting used?

3D lighting is used in every aspect of an animated film. It’s also used in gaming, video production, and digital artwork. 

But how is a scene lit? You’ll need to look for reference materials, assess the scene, optimize the initial scene, and apply the proper lights. 

This is a detailed process, so you’ll have to be creative in terms of speeding your workflow. 

3D animation software: To light a basic 3D animation, you’ll apply various light sources from 3D animation software. These software applications come with a host of lights, including base lights, accent lights, filters, and blockers to enhance the atmosphere and create realism in a scene, layer by layer. Digital lights vary depending on the 3D animation software and renderer being used.

Reference materials: Every digital artist has their preferences in terms of how to start lighting a scene, but generally, the first step is to look for reference images. Artists use reference images to get a sense of the proper lights they’ll use to create a realistic scene. Without reference images, it’ll be challenging to achieve a sense of believability in a scene and so the final image could end up looking cartoony because the lighting is off.

Should you rely heavily on reference images or use them simply as an inspiration for your work? That depends entirely on you. It’s OK to rely heavily on reference materials if you find yourself stuck on a challenging animation. 

That said, don’t be afraid to experiment with the lighting software. Use the reference images as a guide to understanding the scene you’re animating but let your imagination run wild to create an original shot.

If you want to see how a scene is lighted, take a look at our tutorial here below:

The 5 most common types of 3D lighting 

What are the 5 types of lighting? These lighting types are commonly used in 3D lighting and are foundational for any lighting artist.

1. Spotlight

The spotlight creates a cone-shaped light with the intensity focused in the center of the cast beam. You can control the cast beam’s intensity, but the spotlight tends to create sharp shadows and light that tapers off towards the sides. 

This lighting is often used to simulate a flashlight, a desk lamp, a street light, or a car headlight in a scene. Spotlight is also used to create 3-point lighting, which comprises three spotlights to illuminate a scene.

Photo Credit:


2. Point light

Also known as “omni light,” a point light emits light in every direction. The light doesn’t have a specific shape or size, and the shadows it creates are hard with blurry edges. The intensity of the illumination hitting the objects in a scene suggests the distance between these objects. 

This lighting is often used to depict a light bulb in an open space or candlelight or Christmas lights on a tree. 

3. Area light

The light source emits light from surfaces, creating soft shadows with no parallel rays. The size and shape of the light have a set boundary of either a rectangle or a circle. The area light is often used to depict the soft illumination of fluorescent light or the light from a window. 

4. Directional light

Directional light is the complete opposite of point light because the light source creates parallel light rays in a single direction. The light can be controlled by adjusting the position and color of the light or by rotating the light source. The illumination travels infinitely through the scene no matter the position of the light source. 

Directional light is often used to simulate sunlight or moonlight in a scene. It is ideal for illuminating large, open spaces.


5. Skydome lights with HDRI maps / Image Based Lighting (IBLs)

Skydome lighting is typically used for lighting exterior scenes. It simulates light from a sphere or dome, which represents the sky, above the scene. Skydome lighting can be used with high dynamic range (HDR) images to perform image-based environment lighting. 

While it’s important to understand these different types of lighting, you also need to know how to light a scene.

That’s what we’ll look at next. 

4 essential tips for 3D lighting

If you’re looking to light a scene, there are a few things you need to take into consideration. Let’s find out what they are. 

1. Use high-quality models

If the model you’re lighting is looking off, the lighting won’t look realistic. For example, a poorly-made model may have a wobbly or uneven surface, and when lit, the modeled surface won’t look smooth at all. It’s essential to render the model at different angles to check if the model looks great at every angle. 

Fix any modeling issues as soon as you see it, or the final result won’t look good in the final render. (Pro tip: Investing in our Lighting Asset Library is the best way to access high-quality, ready-to-light characters and scenes.) 

2. Set the main light

The main light has to be set well so that the illumination and shadows can convey the proper shape and structure of the scene. Correct positioning of the main light could also influence the composition by defining the positive and negative spaces. If the main light source has been set correctly, the shot could convey the mood and atmosphere of the scene even without sound. 

3. Real-world lighting is imperfect

Real-world lights have a shape, and the brightness depends on the light source. The light is not perfectly even throughout the surface; it has character and imperfections. You need to map your area lights or use gradients to achieve natural-looking lighting, especially in reflections. 

4. Don’t forget about the composition

Lighting lets you manipulate the viewer’s eye by directing the attention to where you want to. That’s the power of a well-designed composition. If you’re struggling with composition, we suggest learning the fundamental art theories such as the Rule of the Thirds, Golden Ratio, and Grid Theory. By understanding the fundamentals of composition, you’ll know how to use lighting to support the composition.

That’s it in terms of the fundamentals of 3D lighting for animation. But how do you use 3D lighting in game development? That’s what we’ll look at next.

3D lighting in game development

In game development, lighting isn’t just used to illuminate a scene; it is a part of the overall storytelling and gameplay. If the lighting is off, the user experience will be affected, translating to low sales. That’s the reason why so many software applications are geared towards game development. 

Lighting used in 3D games

In game development, directional light, spotlight, ambient light, and point light are often used to illuminate characters and objects as well as to add depth and topology to surfaces.

  • A directional light is often used to cast constant light to the entire world all at once. It can be used as sunlight, moonlight, etc. But because most scenes only use a single directional light, this type of lighting works more like key lights. 
  • A spotlight is also commonly used in gaming to imply specific directions and/or define specific places during gameplay. 
  • The point light is also applied to draw attention to a given light source. 
  • The simplest form of lighting is ambient light. It is typically applied as a fill light, particularly for outdoor spaces.

Accurate or realistic lighting can only be achieved through mathematical calculations. This is something that 3D software applications conduct to determine how light interacts with different surfaces. Many of the lighting principles that apply to film making and photography also apply to game dev. 

However, since video games are interactive, the lighting often changes based on the characters’ actions. For instance, if a character is shooting lasers, the lighting surrounding the said character changes every time a laser beam appears. 

Lighting a game

Establish a light source: No matter what game you’re making, it’s essential to determine the light source because this will set the game’s tone. The light source could be anything from the sun to a street lamp. If the light source is not fully established, it can affect the user experience. 

Lead the player: Apart from illuminating objects and adding realism to the game’s world, you can use lighting to identify objects and threats as well as help the character make way through the game’s environment. 

Use real-world references: Don’t depend on software completely to recreate the natural light. Use reference materials to get the lighting right. Look at real-world pictures, watch movies with lighting similar to what the scene demands, and take photographs at different times of the day to see how light interacts with its surroundings in the real world. 

That’s it for using 3D lighting in game development. Next, let’s look at how you can create a career as a lighting artist. 

How do you become a 3D lighting artist?

Finally, can you become a 3D lighting artist? That’s what we’ll look at in this chapter.

Benefits of being a lighting artist

Being a light artist comes with many perks. You’ll build a body of work that you’d be proud of. You’ll be working on exciting projects that’ll inspire and entertain people for generations to come. You’ll have the opportunity to work with some of the best artists in the animation industry, travel to fun places, and gain unique, life-changing experiences throughout a long and fulfilling career. 

Oh, and yes, acquire enough knowledge and skills, and you’ll be paid top dollars!

How do we know? Because we, Mike and Jasmine, have years of experience in the industry. Some perks have included hanging out with a baby kangaroo and working on existing movies like Rio and Ice Age. 

Learn the basics

A lighting artist must have a trained eye to create the proper lighting that a specific scene demands. 

To become a 3D lighting artist, you need to learn the basics of lighting, develop your artistic sense, and hone your technical skills. 

You should have a deep understanding of different artistic concepts such as shading, composition, color theory, and design theory and perspective. You’ll also need to master industry-standard software applications. 

We offer workshops on software applications that big studios use, such as:

Once you’ve developed your artistic sense and technical skills, you’ll be able to tell a story through proper lighting. 

Specialize in lighting

You have to specialize in lighting if you want your work to stand out. Art schools offer different courses for 3D animation, but not a lot of these schools focus on 3D lighting. 

And while you can always learn about 3D lighting on your own, we suggest signing up for an online lighting course to develop a solid foundation. 

To execute proper lighting, you need to have a deep understanding of the many artistic principles. The same can be said for using popular 3D lighting software applications; you need to know what tools work best for the scene. Most free resources won’t discuss these at length. The great thing about signing up for a lighting artist course is that you can learn the fundamentals of 3D lighting at your own pace.

Our school offers a range of lighting courses, including:

To familiarize yourself with 3D lighting, start by getting a copy of our book: Lighting For Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling.


It sounds cliche, but it’s true; practice makes perfect. You’ll need to collect reference materials to learn how to light according to the time of the day, the weather, and so forth, to achieve realistic lighting. 

Plus, you’ll need to experiment with different 3D lighting tools and applications to master other lighting techniques, as well as assets to light. Finally, you’ll need characters, objects, and scenes to light to hone your skills as well as to create a killer demo reel

There are loads of free assets online, but some of these tend to have faulty settings. If you’re looking for high-quality assets and scenes that are ready to light, you can check out our Lighting Asset library. We’re constantly updating our assets library with new characters and objects each month, and all of these could be added to your demo reel. 

Over to you!

There you have it! Now you know what 3D lighting in animation is.

What questions popped up for you?

Let us know in the comments below. 


Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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