The other day I wrote an article about defining a good portfolio. One of the main points in it was to define a good presentation and share it across all the pieces you plan to add in there.
While unifying the look of your work may not be what you want in some cases, like when storytelling with your props, it is a very efficient way to ensure your work is consistent across your profile.
Today's article will serve as a short and easy-to-follow guide on creating a scene that requires minimal changes to accommodate other pieces.
If that's not what you are after, and you wish to dedicate some time to make each presentation unique, this guide will also teach you some basic lighting and presentation concepts to ensure they all look great!
The first step to a successful presentation is to ensure you have some guidance, and nothing better to provide it than some nice-looking references.
When looking for good looking photographic references, Google might not always be our best partner. I recommend websites like Pexels or Unsplash, which are free stock photo websites. These will provide us with images from actual photographers that lit their models to get the best-looking images.
A short search for "gun" on Pexels gave me this image, which is the reference we'll take to render our model. Today, I'll use the Interdynamics MP9 used in my Quality vs. Quantity Artstation Learning tutorials to exemplify this article.
Before we start with our scene, let's analyze the reference.
We can tell there are a few things we need to keep in mind in order to make this one come to life in our scene. I'll use Marmoset Toolbag 4 for this one, by the way.
For those that don't understand much about lighting, a rim light is the one usually coming from the back, adding brightness to the silhouette of our object. Fill lights are usually the ones coming from the sides, which help mitigate too much shadowing in the object. Main lights are those that usually come from near our view.
I'd say, don't take those notations as the correct technical naming for the lights, as it's just a small quick mind map for where light is coming from and what defines this image.
Now that we have our small breakdown let's begin with assembling our scene!
After importing the model and assigning its textures, we end up with a pretty underwhelming result.
Looking at my model, I can tell achieving the same composition is going to be nearly impossible. To begin with, you can't support the model on its magazine without it looking like it might fall anytime soon.
We also don't have a solid stock that takes enough space in the image to make it as relevant to the composition as the one in the reference.
We are definitely going to have to be inventive with this one. I also want to show the left side of the gun in my renders, so I'll have to mirror the composition.
After a bit of fiddling around, I think this composition will be a good replacement for the one in our reference.
I adjusted the field of view to mimic a 75mm lens and added some boxes below the grips to stabilize the gun to make it all a bit better. I will make sure I tint those boxes the color of the background to integrate them with it.
I also added a shadow-catcher plane that catches no shadows at the minute and detached the magazine to allow for a more horizontal composition.
Now that I'm happy with the composition let's start lighting our object following our reference.
The first element in a good lighting setup is the sky. I will use a pretty neutral, unsaturated sky for this piece and reduce its brightness by quite a bit, as pretty much all our detail will come from directional lights.
It is also a great time to turn ACES on. If you aren't aware of what that does or how to work with it, please refer to the following article from a while back.
Now our scene looks quite dark, so much I was even battling myself on how necessary it is to post an image of it, but I guess it won't hurt to show it to you.
As you can see, it is actually super dark. This is an amazing canvas to start working on, as we aren't limited by any pre-existing lighting. We are only introducing just enough light so that our final render doesn't have any pure black in it.
I know this might not make much sense right now, but choosing the right sky, even if it isn't very visible, will allow for more control further down the line.
Let's start adding the lights I noted on our reference. You can either click on the sky to create them or add them from the drop-down menus. The important part here is that we detach them from the sky once we are done adding them to control the two elements separately.
After a bit of playing around with some lights, this is the closest I could get to something that looks like the reference.
Some of the lights introduce a purple-ish hue, and the result is still not there, but we are slowly getting close to something that could look nice.
Having a pitch-black background doesn't help either, and the fact that we didn't add any ambient occlusion or other post-processing effects makes this image way less interesting than it could be. Let's fix those.
Fixing the dark background now shows that the object is indeed resting on a surface, and not flying.
We have now gone way too far from our initial concept. Am I bothered about it? Yes, but only because I know you are reading this and saying, well, that doesn't look much like the reference!
A note to that is, our references don't have to tie us to a certain look. In fact, there's a lot about the reference that can't simply be applied to my round-shaped gun. Light won't bounce the same, and that by itself is just enough of an excuse to deviate from it.
We are still way too far from a good render.
As you can see, there's a bit of work left to do.
Let's now continue with the process. I don't love that red-colored background, and some areas could use a little bit more light, as I suggested on the annotated image.
After a little touching up, I am at a point where I'm somewhat happy with the results. I quite like the colors in the composition, and I don't see any major issues with the result.
You can also see the number of lights I'm using. I'm always looking for a good amount of control when adding them, sometimes ending up building those shapes with small touches of brightness.
At this point, I'm finally reaching the point where I don't want to follow the reference anymore, as it is introducing colors that might not give the best-looking results. I'll mitigate these, go for more neutral tones, and finish showing the nice contrast I have in the roughness.
In the end, you can see how I was able to bring the model to a point where I was happy with it again with very minimal tweaks. All I did to make it work was add one light that brings our roughness back in the handles and reduce the lights' and background saturation.
I also played a bit with an extra light that paints the handle's silhouette in a very charming way.
As you can see, we still had quite a bit to do in an image that might not be as interesting as the unsaturated one. Introducing different hues and color variations to the light, and not only red, gave us something much better.
This is my light list. You can see a ton of different color lights to bring that variation to the different areas, and use other lights, like point and spot to control the reflections in unwanted areas, like the magazine.
We completely skipped our reference for this one for a result that brings a lot more to the table. Oh, and no RTX is enabled in this render as it killed the ambient occlusion in the resting spots, making the gun fly again.
This is my end result.
What did we finally learn here? There are a few important notes to take home:
- Reference is a great starting point but can sometimes restrict our creativity and vision, so we need to make sure we only use what is actually useful for us.
- It is super important to play with lights and build our shapes and image with them, without caring too much for the amount we end up using.
- Iterating on our presentations is key. A good piece isn't finished in a day, and we need to treat our renders in a similar fashion. Sleep on your piece, find your errors with a fresh pair of eyes and fix them. Then rinse and repeat until you are comfortable with showing the world your work.
If we want to take shots for other angles, this might be as easy as rotating the objects in your scene. Sometimes tho, it will require a whole new composition and adjustment of the lights.
And that's all! I wasn't expecting the article to come out like this, but I guess this is as good advice as any other straight-to-the-point tutorials out there. At the end of the day, we need to be in peace with our results by all means necessary!
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