Have you ever attempted to create a 3D environment and found that your final render falls a little bit…flat?
Most likely, you may have missed an important step in your scene creation process. Here are 10 things you should focus on if you want to give your 3D environment the best chance of looking awesome and get one step closer to achieving photorealism.
Making use of references in the form of taking images of that thing you want to create in the real world can do a whole lot of good in making your 3D environments look believable.
This may sound unbelievable at first, but even the best 3D modelers in the world rely on references. You may be thinking that hey, Pixar artists surely don’t rely on references, they just come up with their own magic. And that may seem true at first. Their characters, environments and props almost always look way off compared to the real world. As a matter of fact, they do this deliberately. Pixar artists do a ton of research, including taking reference images of almost all the enviroments they create before actually going ahead and creating it. Then they give themselves artistic licence to essentially “stuff” up their models and give it that stylized look that we associate as that “Pixar” look. If they didn’t use reference images, they would have missed vital details in their environments and things would have just looked off.
References help exactly with that. They help you flesh out the details that you would have otherwise missed and they also help you capture the right proportions.
What you can do: Go out and take reference photos! It’s better than sitting at home all day modeling stuff and frustrating yourself wondering why things don’t look epic. Getting that breath of fresh air can do wonders to you and help boost your creative juices. Take out your smart phone and take pictures of everything that you want to include in your environment; trees, houses, mountains, rocks, grass, and so on. If there’s something that you really want to focus on, like a lamp post or something, then take multiple pictures of the real thing and try to include multiple angles and close ups. You could also take pictures of the texture as well so that you could use it later in the texturing and shading process.
If you really can’t be bothered going out and away from your computer, than there are alternatives. You could go onto image reference sites like Pixabay.com, Flickr.com or even Google images. Store a couple images of the things you want to create in a folder somewhere and name that folder something fancy like “references”. This will help you later on when you start creating your 3D environments.
Tip: Make sure to do this as the ultimate first step before even touching your computer. You will thank yourself (and hopefully me as well) later!
There’s nothing more that will make a person look at a render and scream “FAKE” than a 3D environment full of models that are way off in scale. You could have the most detailed looking 3D models in the world and the most complicated texturing/shader/light setups, but people will still call out fake as we humans have this innate ability to spot things that are off in real-world scale. You could probably get away with it if you’re creating a stylized environment, but if you’re going for photorealism…that’s a big no no!
If you have a house model that seems way too big for any human to live in (that is, where you’d need 3 or 4 humans to stand on top of each other just to turn the handle to open the front door), then it would look fake. Even if it’s something really subtle like the length of the arms being a little bit smaller compared to the body or the eyes being a little lower on the face would be picked up fairly easily by the average human.
When all the 3D models in your environment have correct scale, it screams believability and realism. It also helps to give people the sense of scale of your environment. That is, they could tell if your scene is miniature or really epic!
What you can do: Measure everything! Ok, this could be a little tedious. Try to measure the size of as much objects as you can. For the objects that you can’t really measure, like a tree or a mountain, then just google it! Google is the answer for everything. Search for something like “average size of a tree” and you will get an idea of the correct scale to use in your scene.
Make use of the scaling system in your 3D software. If you use Blender, you can change the scale from the default “blend” units to the metric system so that you can speak in cm, m, km just like the normal human.
You’ll want to make sure your environments contain as much detail as needed. The more detailed your models, the more realistic it tends to look.
For example, if you have a plain road with a texture of a road applied, that would look ok, but a bit boring and perhaps a bit unrealistic. If you have a road and used techniques like sculpting or normal/displacement bump maps to add the tiny rocky bumps that you’d find on a road, NOW you have a scene that’s less boring and more realistic.
It doesn’t need to be overly complicated either. It could be something as simple as adding a clock or even a photo frame on an otherwise boring plain wall.
When you look for tiny little details like that and add them to your environment, your 3D renderer will reward you with a pleasing image.
What you can do: When you took reference photos, hopefully you didn’t just take it and let it lie around collecting digital dust. This is your best chance to closely observe the images and pick out any detail you can. It would be best to pick out details that you (or any normal person) wouldn’t usually pick out. Even if the normal person doesn’t pick out those tiny details, subconsciously, they will feel the environment looks more realistic than if it didn’t have those details. Interesting we are, the human species.
Bevel (almost) everything
Here’s a fact: Nothing in the real world is ever 100% sharp. Not even the sharpest knife in the world. Put that knife under the microscope and you will notice, it too has some thickness.
Here’s another fact: Almost everything (by default) in the 3D world is 100% sharp. The edges of the cube, that house you are trying to model. A very little known fact by (especially beginner) 3D modelers is that the object that they deem to be final, ends up being a little too harsh and sharp than it needs to be.
Bevel helps sort that out by smoothing out the edges a bit. Softer edges help to catch the light better and just makes your scene more visually pleasing. It’s very hard to explain why but it just seems to be true. Try to take advantage of bevel whenever you can and make sure the edges almost never looks completely sharp. When I say almost, I mean you could probably get away with it for something like a knife.
What you can do: Once you’re happy with your 3D model, try to smooth out any edge or point that looks sharp where it really shouldn’t be. In Blender, you can enable Bevel by first selecting your object and either going to the Modifiers tab and selecting Bevel or by tabbing into Edit Mode, selecting the edges and pressing Ctrl+B (for edges) or Ctrl+Shift+B (for vertices).
Use real textures where possible
Procedural textures are essentially textures that your 3D software creates for you by using some maths formulas. Image textures are textures that are predominantly taken by a camera of real world stuff.
From my personal experience, I’ve found image textures really helped to push my renders closer to a level of photorealism. To me, that’s what separates a fake procedurally generated render to a realistic one. Procedural textures do have its benefits in terms of helping add variations to my renders. What I mean by that, is it helps me to define parts of the model to use one texture like mud and another texture like grass. It also helps for other things non-texture related like helping me create random waves of an ocean or procedurally decide places to add grass, flowers, trees and so on.
But in terms, of the actual texture itself, nothing beats a real-world image texture (unless you want to go for a cartoon stylized look). Just compare these two images. Which one do you think would help make your render photorealistic?
What to do: Use image photos wherever you can. You can get good quality free textures from Textures.com (formerly CGTextures.com) or you could take photos yourself. There are general guidelines on how to take photos which would need to be a separate topic on its own but generally, try to obtain high resolution images that are seamless and don’t contain too much highlights or lighting in them.
Phew! This is probably too much reading just for one post. Continue onto Part 2 here for the remaining tips!
Prefer to learn by doing? Enrol in the FREE mini-course below to learn how to create a backyard scene from scratch. This will be useful to you if you’re a beginner!