Achieving Photorealism in Blender

This is a summary of the presentation that I gave at the 2012 Blender Conference in Amsterdam.

For those that couldn’t be there, I’ve written this summary…

(Unfortunately the video I recorded on the day was too dark and difficult to hear, so I figured there was no point in uploading it. Sorry about that!)

In this presentation you will discover:

  • How to train your eye to see more detail
  • How using the “Photorealism Pyramid” can help you achieve realism
  • Tips for creating better materials and lighting in your scenes

Have you ever tried to create a photorealistic scene in Blender? Have you ever failed? You’re not alone.

In this presentation I’m going to break down the topic of photorealism into easy to understand concrete ideas that you can use in your next project.

 

Photorealism is when something comes so close to realism that it’s indistinguishable from a photograph. Artists have been doing this for hundreds of years with paint and pencils, but with the advent of cg software, the process has become a whole lot easier and more fun.

 

I first became interested in the topic of photorealism when I came across this website called “Fake or Foto” 8 years ago. It was created by Autodesk, and in my opinion is one of their smartest marketing campaigns.

The viewer was presented with 10 images and had to guess which ones were real photographs and which were cg images. When I first saw this 8 years ago at the ripe age of 16, my mind was blown. The idea of creating something that looked identical to a real photograph conjured up limitless ideas in my mind.

Ever since then I’ve been trying to achieve photorealism in my works…

 

Why Photorealism is Important

If you pay any attention to the entertainment industry you’ll notice that an increasing number of movies and video games are centered around photorealism.

Whenever a movie needs to blend live action with VFX, it needs to look photorealistic. Video games have been feeling the pressure too, with fans now judging their games based on how realistic it is in comparison with others. If you’ve ever read a discussion on CoD4 vs BF3, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Most would agree that the line between reality and fiction is becoming increasingly blurred. So as an artist, being able to master photorealism puts you in a good position, and makes you more desirable to an employer.

 

The Photorealism Pyramid

To help better understand what makes up a photorealistic image, I’ve created the “Photorealism Pyramid”: Modelling, Lighting, Materials and Rendering.

All of these elements are required for cg images, but photorealism only occurs when all 4 are perfect.

 

View more breakdowns from The Nature Academy.

breakdown from The Nature Academy.

Here’s an example using a breakdown from The Nature Academy trailer. First the geometry is laid out, then lighting is added, then materials and finally post processing is added for rendering.

 

Studying Photos

One of the best ways to get good at photorealism is to start by analysing real photographs and training your eye to notice the small amounts of detail.

Take a look at the following photographs and try to think about how you would approach each one in blender:

 

Modelling

How would you model this flower in blender? By zooming in on the flower, you can see there is a dense amount of detail around the bud, so you’ll need to decide early on about how much to model and how much you can fake.

Next is topology. Looking at the petals you can see that the ridges pinch at the base and flow outwards, so you’ll need to use proper mesh topology to ensure the models look as clean as possible.

Finally scale. It’s one of the most overlooked parts of modelling and pertains to how big objects are in comparison to the rest of your scene. If you made the flower as big as a tree, it’s going to immediately look fake to the viewer. If you get the proportions wrong in modelling, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot before you even start.

 

Lighting

Now let’s analyse this photograph of a carpark in Japan. How would you light this scene in Blender? The main light source is clearly the sunlight. Look closely to the temperature of the light and the size of it’s shadows. This will tell the viewer what time of day the scene is (sharp shadows + white light = noon).

Next you have the environment lighting (lighting from the sky). This is easily added in the world settings (in Cycles). Pay attention to the color of this light and it’s strength if you want to get a perfect match to a photograph. The human eye is very good at picking up subtle inaccuracies.

Finally you have bounce lighting. Thankfully this is mostly now solved thanks to the Cycles render engine. It’s unlikely that you’ll need to add any extra bounce lighting as Cycles does this fairly accurately automatically.

 

Materials

According to Pixar, when making Ratatouille, the food was one of the biggest challenges. This is because the properties of food materials are complex and hard to make it look life like.

So what better example than sushi? :)

Looking at the pink piece of fish on the left you can see that the entire surface is very wet (making a glossy map unnecessary). However it has a very fine level of bump, so a high resolution custom bump map will be perfect. Also notice that the towards the bottom of the fish, it gets darker. This is due to the light dispersing as it passes through the flesh of the fish. To recreate this in blender you’ll need to use SSS (SubSurface Scattering). Unfortunately this feature isn’t in Cycles yet, but it’s planned for 2.65-2.67.

Next let’s look at the piece of seaweed on the right. You’ll notice that there is a subtle amount of bump, but more importantly, some portions of the seaweed are shinier that others. This means that a glossy map is necessary to get a good level of realism.

 

Rendering

The final step for matching a cg image with a photo is adding the appropriate amount of post processing.

Looking at this image you can see several camera flaws. The first is the very obvious sunflare, that occurs naturally in cameras when light bounces around the internal components of the camera. It’s one of the more fun aspects of post-processing and quite a few artists go overboard with it. Look at real photographs to determine how much flare to use.

Next, notice the Chromatic Aberration. This is a rather ugly camera flaw that creates a red/blue outline around objects in the photograph. It’s most prevalent when high contrast areas clash with low constrast areas, and is also more obvious in cheaper cameras. You can add this in blender by using a Lens Distortion node in the compositor and increasing the Dispersion amount. Note: Professional photographers go to great lengths to eliminate Chromatic Aberration, so if you want your scene to look professionally shot, skip this.

Another key camera flaw is Barrel Distortion. This is a very subtle camera flaw that slightly bends the images outwards, creating unstraight lines. It’s most noticeable when looking at the wall of this building. Upon first sight you may miss it, but if you drew a line from top to bottom (as I have done here) you can see that the wall is indeed bending outwards. You can create this in blender using the Lens Distortion node in the compositor, and increasing the amount of Distortion. But again, pro photographers eliminate this in post production, so use it only when necessary.

Finally you have Focal Blur (aka Depth of Field of DoF). This is probably the most obvious effect. It’s when objects in the foreground or background become blurry. It is both a camera flaw and a creative tool. It adds realism whilst also allowing you to point your viewer to a certain element by focusing on it. However be careful not to overdo this or your scene may appear miniature in size to the viewer.

Workshop

Early Render from the upcoming training course "The Architecture Academy".

Early Render from the upcoming training course “The Architecture Academy”.

To demonstrate these tactics, I’m going to give you a brief summary of how I created some of the above image. I’ll be showing you in the same order as the photorealism pyramid.

Unfortunately I don’t have time to show everything, so I hope you don’t mind me focusing on just a few elements.

NOTE: This image is based off the upcoming training product called “The Architecture Academy”, so I am unable to provide any source files.

Modelling

The house was built to scale by taking measurements from a book, and modelling them to scale in blender.

Enable measurements and set it to METRIC. Try to avoid that silly Imperial system ;)

Enable measurements and set it to Metric. Try to avoid that silly Imperial system ;)

Once you’ve enabled measurements you can find out the size of any object by pressing N.

The dimensions of an object displayed in the properties bar (N).

Once you start modelling with measurements you’ll never go back ;)

Lighting

Add a sun and rotate it to fit the scene.

The important values are the strength, color and size. The size value will determine the size of the shadow.

The important value for the sun is the strength, color and size. The size determines the softness of the shadow.

Next you’ll want some environment lighting:

Go to the world settings and adjust the color to the color of the sky. Experiment with the strength till you have a value you're happy with.

Go to the world settings and adjust the color to the color of the sky. Experiment with the strength till you have a value you’re happy with.

Materials

Next, let’s look at the material of the Concrete wall:

By using just two textures, two shaders and the right know how, you can create a realistic material.

Rendering

I want the image to look as though it was a taken by a professional photographer, so a lensflare, chromatic aberration and lens distortion will not be inappropriate.

However, focal blur would add a nice subtle touch:

I want most of the scene to remain in focus, so I set the F/stop to 11 (a nice number that photographers use for long open scenes) and set the focal point to the center of the scene.

I want most of the scene to remain in focus, so I set the F/stop to 11 (a nice number that photographers use for long open scenes) and set the focal point to the center of the scene.

Now let’s add some trees:

I'm going to use this alpha masked tree image from The Nature Academy, but you can find similar images on CGTextures.com

I’m going to use this alpha masked tree image from The Nature Academy, but you can find similar images on CGTextures.com

Go to File>User Preferences and enable the Import Images as Planes add-on

Go to File>User Preferences and enable the Import Images as Planes add-on.

Next go to File>Import>Import Images as Planes. Select the alpha masked image then in the sidebar click Diffuse & Transparent, which will automatically add it with the correct materials.

When you click import you will see a plane imported into the scene. Repeat this step with multiple trees and distribute in the background and behind camera.

Click import and you’ll see a plane imported into the scene. Repeat this step for multiple trees.

Voila! You now have trees in the background and a lovely shadow casting in front of the camera.

Voila! You now have trees in the background and a lovely shadow casting in front of the camera.

There’s obviously a bit more to it than that, but trying to fit all this into a 30 minute workshop live on stage was pretty tough.

You can look forward to more in the upcoming Architecture Academy, due for release in Spring 2013 ;)

Hope you enjoyed this mini preview, as well as learned a few things in the presentation :)

Will you be at next year’s blender conference? Leave a comment below!

About Andrew Price

User of Blender for 9+ years. I've written tutorials for 3d World Magazine and spoken at three Blender conferences. My goal is to help artists get employed in the industry by making training accessible and easy to understand. I'm an Aussie and I live in South Korea ;)
  • nick

    Enjoyed this article. Andrew are photography terms for cg always the same principle as an old photography book?,I have an old book and wanted to learn from it is why I ask.

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  • Edward Baker

    I have to echo the comment below. Is Architecture Academy coming in spring for northern or southern hemisphere? Which month? :) Really really interested in it.

  • KRUChY

    So how work is going on Architecture Academy? When it will be done?

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  • Anthony Burbal

    How did you create that gradient effect on the sky?

    • TimTylor

      I am desperate to know that too.

  • marius

    You always are an amazing teacher-artist. Fan-tas-tic

  • Keks3000

    Very nice, but you cant compare BF3 and CoD4, CoD 8(MW3) and BF3 would be more appropiate

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  • peter lener

    andrew makes contributons to the whole field of art–he is a true inspiration

  • Jason H

    Shouldn’t “Texturing” be mentioned in this pyramid as well?

    • http://davidzerba.wordpress.com/ David Zerba

      I think Texturing would be considered Materials , since that’s when you add Images and Bump and other stuff like that to your model.

      • Andrew Price

        Yeah it’s a part of materials.

  • Zubru

    Great work, really enjoyed reading it:) When will be some info about architectural academy? Can’t wait for it:)

  • Reshef15

    Aww yeah! A new academy! I loved the last one, and am definitely buying this one. Great article too, it helped me a lot. I’ll try to start paying attention to this stuff more from now on.

  • Verticies

    I really miss the nature academy, it was one of the highlights of my life. Will definitely join in on the Architecture Academy :)

  • chaitanyak

    nice!

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  • Odysseus93

    As usual, you do a great job of educating. Would you be willing, and or have time to repackage this into something downloadable? It would be terribly convenient to have this in the original power point for study.
    Keep up the good work! and Thank you.

  • Mustafa Jadav

    thank u so much for this great tutorial.

  • Blended999

    You’re dead right in saying that the line between reality and fiction is becoming more and more blurred. But is that really a good thing ?

  • kurisutofu

    I see you put the lighting before the materials. What would be the drawbacks of doing the other way around?

  • masluch

    Thanks for the mini tutorial on architecture.
    I have a question: could you make these images bigger (for e.g. in a lightbox) ? I have problems to see exacly how the node tree looks like on the materials.
    And speaking of architecture in blender I think that it still lacks of some feature’s that would be helpful in achiving good results. If only I could program in phyton… maybe you Andrew have some developers who you can ask or something ?

  • hashusdin

    Thank you !! Very nice.

  • greg p

    Upcoming Architecture Academy is the best news!
    When you say spring 2013, is that Australia’s spring, or northern hemisphere spring?( In other words, which is the probable month, I am in Australia)
    It looks Awesome by the way, the Nature Academy was the biggest Blender boost I ever had! Highly recommended, I want to sign up for this one,
    cheers.

  • Tri

    Bravo,,,I like this tutorial… ^_^

  • Jeremy Deighan

    Where does camera composition come into play? It seems you would want to make those choices first, but sometimes after I’ve modeled the scene I might find a better camera angle.

    What are your thoughts?

  • luisv

    this means you are not going to give the nature academy more???? tht would be a shame

  • http://www.facebook.com/Muniz.Anderson Anderson Muniz

    Thank you !!

  • http://thereactivearts.com Quazi Irfan

    Thank you for taking your time to post it in a written format. Really saves a lot of time.

  • Marc

    Good work Andrew!
    I’ve got 10 rigth result on “Fake or Photo” test :-)!

  • blessing

    thanx so much. am really inspired as a 3d artist.

  • ciansweeney

    Could you make the architecture academy a bit cheaper than the nature one because im only 14 and dont have credit card and my parents woudnt agree with spending so much money on a coures.Love your work though keep it up:-)

    • http://twitter.com/b8bym0nkey babymonkey

      Well take them out of the equation! When I was young, I found ways to make money all over the place. I sold baby mice to pet stores, walked neighbors dogs, babysat, mowed lawns, made bead necklaces, etc. Give it a try! Once you start earning some real money though, save it up for that car!

    • BMF

      Everyone has different situations, but when I was your age, well over 50 years ago, I mowed lawns, I had a paper route, I washed cars, I hired out to do yard work (rake leaves, weeding, fertilizing, etc.) that the home owners didn’t want to do themselves, I did painting work, etc. I tried everything I could think of to earn money so that I could buy the things I wanted. I even picked tomatoes when the laws in those days were not strictly enforces. My parents weren’t poor like in poverty, but neither did we have extra money at the end of the month. Let’s put it this way. They didn’t have enough money to buy a television and on the record player, they played the big band “78′s” of the 40′s (which I still love today).

      In those days, I mowed lawns for a dollar, yard work was two dollars, etc. That’s not much money today, but that was a lot of money in those days. I lived like a teenage king.
      Computers didn’t exist. Cell phones had not been invented. We did not yet own a television. We listened to dramas on the radio and our imaginations filled in the visuals. But I made enough money to buy a motor scooter, pay for the gas (my parents paid for the insurance), and I made enough money to buy the plastic and wooden models that were so popular in those days. I paid a bundle for a wooden model of the “Flying Cloud” sailing ship and it took me 5 months to put it together, paint it, and add the “weathering”–sort of like 3D computer graphics only much more difficult and time consuming. I also paid for my own flying model aircraft that had .049 engines but were limited to hand-line controls. Remote Control models were leading edge technology and far too expensive for me.
      It took great skill to make the wooden ship model to look realistic. These days, you can change materials and textures in a heart beat. But in my early days, it took days to weeks to undo mistakes.

      But because I worked for most of my money, my parents would occasionally chip in and help me out if I wanted something important and was a little short of the cash.

      It’s a two way street. Show your parents that you are hustling to buy the things you want, and if they are caring parents, they will help out when your hard work falls a little short of your goal.
      My parents were very demanding, but they were real softies when they saw I was working as hard as they were. BTW, demanding parents are much more effective than parents who spoil their kids.
      When I was a few years older than you, I worked construction with some hard and unforgiving dudes, I dug ditches for the telephone company, I installed telephones, I strung drop wire on telephone poles, and I re-sealed the tar between the cement slabs on 12,000 ft runways among many other odd jobs. The latter was one of the hardest and one of the most thankless jobs I’ve ever done. It nearly killed me and left me so sunburned that felt like a piece of fired chicken. But I’m a better person for the experiences.
      My first full-time paying job was as a U.S. Marine fighting in Vietnam. That was 1000 times more difficult than re-sealing runways. But that experience also made me a much better person.
      My point is that life is neither fair nor is it easy for most people. You are better off making your own way in life than waiting to win the lottery.
      I hope you find a way to purchase the Architecture Academy. You sound like a good kid who wants to be a good artist.
      God, to be your age again with so many wonderful adventures in future!!
      BTW, in case anyone is curious, growing up in the 1940′s and 1950′s was like heaven. No one locked their doors, no one feared for their kids trick or treating, and I did so many things that kids today have no opportunity to enjoy. I honestly regret the direction our country has taken.
      Today’s generation could not possibly conceive of the better times we had 50-60 years ago. My generation was more like the novels “Tom Sawyer,” “Treasure Island,” and the TV shows “Father Knows Best{” and “Leave It to Beaver.” That’s because in my generation, we focused on the positive and in todays generation the young people seen to dwell too much on the negative.
      Sorry for the long post. It was somewhat nostalgic

      • Ov

        I have three kinds… they are still young but I am also a young father (I’ll be 36 this week). Thank you for this great live lesson!

      • http://www.facebook.com/hzambonin Henrique Zambonin

        Really interesting and inspiring life story.

        Even for me, a 25-Year-Old guy with a solid carrer on Marketing who is working hard to change it and break into a 3D scene.

        Thank you man.

      • http://www.facebook.com/kis.v.kankuro Kis Vyra Fransesc

        bravo….bravo…bravo….This has to be an inspirational “thing” unlike any other Ive heard of.

  • http://davidzerba.wordpress.com/ David Zerba

    Wow, really awesome article!

  • JVDW

    Thx for this. Looks impressive. I followed several presentations via streaming, but yours was not in ‘Theatre’ so missed out on that one. Maybe next time try to be in Theatre ?
    Can you say anything about your upcoming course Arch Aca yet, i.e., if its for in 1 week, 1 month, 1 year ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/EvenTarash Even Tarash Tudu

    this article was a must thanx again . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/JamesMIchaelMahoney James Mahoney

    Awesome Andrew – looking forward to the Architecture Academy! (loved the Nature Academy)

  • Dan Lenartowicz

    Great tutorial, thanks! Really helpful.
    Also, I found one mistake: under the Rendering section at the end, the first paragraph says that “a lensflare, chromatic aberration and lens distortion will not be inappropriate.” Surely you mean “will be inappropriate” or “will not be appropriate” since you don’t want it ;)

  • kurisutofu

    When I want to show my friends how blender can be used for realistic rendering, I always point to your work!
    Thanks for the nice presentation!
    My problem is that I usually like to pay attention to those details in real life (light, textures etc …) but I’m still new at 3D and blender so I can’t do what I’d like to… :(

  • Tibor Farkas

    Nice job again! Congrats!

  • M.

    Yes I’ll be at the next conference- I live in Haarlem so it’s one train away ^^

  • Nkansah Rexford

    That’s really impressive. Thanks for sharing

  • Ben Amend

    Out of curiosity, what book did you take the measurements for the building from?

    • andrewpprice

      I took it from the book “Tadao Ando, Volume 1″. Here’s the cover and the reference photo the render was based off.

  • http://www.facebook.com/quenting Quentin Geluyckens

    Thanks for posting your presentation online :)
    It was great to meet you there (I’m the one you jumped onto when the
    giant robot killed us all during the October Massacre ^^). I’ll
    definitely come back there next year :)

    • andrewpprice

      Hahaha. (to anyone that wasn’t there, your sentence must be very confusing :P)
      It was great meeting you too!

      • rnadnomgeust

        I wasn’t there, but I think he’s referring to the short the mango team did in 90 minutes.
        Still confuses me though :D

  • Mathias Fontmarty

    As Interesting as usual! Thanks a lot. I guess there is a little mistake in the text of the “photorealism pyramid”: I think you meant “Modelling, Lighting, Material and *rendering*”.

    • andrewpprice

      I think it already says “rendering” right? Am I not seeing something?

      • Pete Robie

        Indeed it has rendering in there a few times.

        Love the work Andrew and it was a pleasure being in The Nature Academy course. Will you be updating the NA course utilizing some of the new features and tricks you’ve gained from the conference?

        Wish I could have been there! :)

      • http://twitter.com/keenguitar9 Bombea Dorin

        Find this in the page:
        “To help better understand what makes up a photorealistic image, I’ve created the “Photorealism Pyramid”: Modelling, Lighting, Materials and Lighting.”
        And also thank you for teaching me most of what I know about blender since I deleted my first default cube! And this article is essential, will recommend this to my friend which is interested into blender too.

        • Mathias Fontmarty

          Yes that’s in the text just below the photorealistic pyramid image. Sorry I wasn’t clear enough.