3D Photography

1 Introduction

Many of the same rules learned and followed by professional photographers can be applied to the world of 3D photography. Lighting direction, adding reflectors, choosing a lens and blocking a composition are all things that a photographer does to create a great shot and these are all things that can be done in very much the same way in 3D.

What’s interesting though is that with 3D, your photographer’s kit is completely unlimited. Unlimited lenses, reflectors, lights and even light intensities that can easily start to push your renders away from being photo-real. Which is why it’s so important to understand the fundamentals of real-world photography and part of the purpose of this guide.

We will cover the concepts that go into making a compelling shot, judging the balance of light and shadow for your shot, improving a shot with reflectors, choosing the right camera lens and setting up a shot using some basic composition tips.

1.1 Compelling Imagery

Often times it doesn’t take a gifted artist or photographer to recognize a compelling shot or interesting composition. A great great shot simply feels right to the average viewer even if they can’t tell you why. However, most often, a talented artist will have used specific techniques to get the best shot.

Along with that, a talented artist should have a deeper understanding of their subject. They should know what to do with their lighting, lensing and composition to change a shot from comical to menacing. After all, creating a great shot isn’t just about completing a checklist of rules. It’s also about building an emotional response in the viewer.

Creating photographic 3D renders
Creating photographic 3D renders
Creating photographic 3D renders

1.2 Signature Renders

Make signature images for TurboSquid

Many times it can be quite a challenge to create a compelling shot of a mundane subject. If your model is a teacup, then you may find yourself trying to pose the cup, saucer, spoon and sugar cube in a variety of precarious positions.

However, nearly every object has a signature shot… and this should be the first shot you take when setting up your camera. For the teacup, this would be a simply arranged scene perhaps with the teacup sitting atop the saucer and the spoon and three sugar cubes placed beside the teacup.

Let’s use a tank as another example. There are many compelling shots that can be taken of a tank, but perhaps the most signature shot is looking straight up at the front of the tank facing directly at the camera. In a case such as this, this shot would be both signature and compelling since it instantly causes an emotional response.

2 Model & Texture Fidelity Artifacts

Even the best models will start to break down once the camera gets too close to the object. Geometry faceting, not enough modeled detail and texture resolution all contribute to fidelity artifacts. Since not very many models are created with the intent of extreme close up renders (macro photography), it’s important to be mindful of an object’s limitations. Things to look out for are:

Of course, if you start to see any of these issues and you can not or do not want to make any modifications to the model or textures, simply move your camera back until the artifacts become unnoticeable.

3 Light & Shadow

3.1 Light Rigs

If you’re working in 3ds Max and using V-Ray as your renderer, you have the option of using our custom light rigs that come with the PixelSquid Studio Tool. These light rigs are carefully calibrated to produce globally predictable results and are suitable for countless types of objects to a variety of specialty light rigs for specific objects such as cars, aircraft, character and even food. Feel free to explore all the light rigs to find one that works for your models.

Setting up light rig in 3D
Product Light Rig

Classic three point light rig precisely designed for all types of products. The Product Light Rig is very versatile and is omni-balanced to make an object look great from every angle.Uses – As stated before, this is a very versatile light rig that can be used for nearly any type of object. Since its based on a typical white seamless photo-studio, it’s easy to achieve well balanced shots with very little effort.

Outdoor Light Rigs

Three different daytime light rigs designed specifically for outdoor photography.

  • Morning – Warm mid-morning sunlight with cool long shadows.
  • Midday – Whiter early afternoon sunlight with very cool slightly overhead shadows.
  • Sunset – Saturated early evening sunlight with warmer long shadows.Uses – Buildings, landmarks, ships, planes or any other object that would normally be photographed outdoors.
Morning light 3D render

Outdoor Morning

Outdoor light 3D render

Outdoor Midday

Sunset lighting 3D render

Outdoor Sunset

Specialty Light Rigs

Four specialty light rigs for everything from cars, characters and food.

  • Automotive Classic – A classic seamless photo-studio that utilizes a basic three point light rig for added shape enhancement.
  • Automotive Tech – Very similar to the Automotive Classic light rig but with a much more silvery high tech seamless photo-studio.Uses – Automobiles of nearly any type, Motorcycles, Sci-fi objects, Sleek electronics, Robotics.
Automotive classic lighting

Automotive Classic

Automotive tech lighting

Automotive Tech

  • Charcter – A very specific light rig created for full body and portrait character shots. It uses the exact same studio HDRI as the product light rig but utilizes a special selection of lights for more dramatic effect. There are also custom lights that accentuate and brighten the eyes of the character.Uses – Characters of nearly any type, Animals, Insects.
3D character lighting
Lighting a 3D character

  • Food – A very specific light rig created for shooting food. This light rig also uses the exact same studio HDRI as the product light rig but instead of a classic three point light rig, it uses a two point light rig (key and fill) along with a large reflection card behind the object for bolder reflections. Uses – Food, Fruit, Vegetables, Candy
Lighting food in 3D
3D model food lighting

3.2 HDRI’s

HDRIs for TurboSquid 3D light rigs

Each TS light rig relies a specific HDRI to work properly. If you are using the supplied light rigs, we ask that you do not change the HDRIs. You can however use the TS tool to adjust the intensity/exposure of the HDRI. Feel free to experiment with the controls to see what best suits your shots.

3.3 Adding Reflectors

Even in 3D, reflectors or reflection cards can be used to bounce soft light onto an object to help fill darker areas and reduce contrast. However, because lights are basically free in 3D, it’s sometime easier just to add another light to your scene and adjust it’s intensity until you get the results you’re looking for. So often times reflectors are used to add very specific highlights to an object.

The PixelSquid Studio Tool has an option for easily adding realistic reflection cards to your scene without contributing to the overall light of the scene or casting shadows from the cards. They are also completely invisible to the camera, so they can be placed directly in front of the lens.

Note: Be careful to not over do it. Just because you can add as many cards as you like, it doesn’t mean you should and usually it only requires one or two reflectors to achieve great results. 
3d reflection cards

Without glass reflection card.

3d reflection cards

With glass reflection card.

4 Composition

4.1 Lensing

Choose lens for 3D render
Lenses for 3D render
Choosing lenses for 3D renders

Photographers spend an incredible amount of money on the perfect lens and for a very good reason… the proper lens, especially a prime lens (which cannot zoom) can turn a good photo into an incredible photo. So when a photographer compares the features of a great lens they’ll weigh the option against the limitations. How fast is the lens (f-stop/aperture), how many shutter blades (DOF quality), quality of the glass (less chromatic aberration, vignetting and sharpness), auto-focus speed and quality construction. As 3D artists, we don’t need to worry about any of these things.

We have an endless supply of every conceivable lens, and every single one of them is super fast, can have exactly the amount of shutter blades we want, flawless sharpness with absolutely no aberration or vignetting and can always be in focus. So why not experiment with them? Get the perfect shot, your lens budget is unlimited.

With that said, you should consider a few simple rules to when choosing a lens to photograph 3D objects. Generally speaking there are seven basic types of lenses or “Angle of View” to consider:

Standard Lenses

  • Fisheye (0mm – 10mm)
    Characteristics: Extremely exaggerated depth and perspective, very dynamic
    Cautions: Can be comical, Can feel very 3D
    Uses: Landscapes, exaggerated dimensions, Comical Portraits

Ultra wide lens for 3D render
  • Ultra Wide-Angle (15mm – 20mm)
    Characteristics: Exaggerated depth and perspective, still dynamic
    Cautions: Can still be comical, often overused in 3D
    Uses: Landscapes, Buildings/Architecuture, Comical Portraits

Wide angle lens in 3D
  • Wide-Angle (24mm – 35mm)
    Characteristics: Good depth and perspective, Carefully dynamic without being comical.
    Cautions: Still often overused in 3D
    Uses: Landscapes, Buildings/Architecuture, Heroic Characters, Super cars

Standard lens in 3d
  • Normal or Standard (50mm – 70mm)
    Characteristics: Close to human eyesight, very pleasant and safe
    Cautions: Will not exaggerate your image in any way
    Uses: Landscapes, Characters, Portraits, Standard objects, Cars

Long lens in 3d
  • Long (85mm – 105 mm)
    Characteristics: Starts to flatten out perspective, Makes characters with exaggerated features less noticeable
    Cautions: Starts to make objects seem flatter and less three-dimensional
    Uses: Standard Objects, Portraits, Large vehicles, Macro shots

Medium telephoto lens in 3d
  • Medium Telephoto (200mm – 300mm)
    Characteristics: Flattens perspective, Compresses depth
    Cautions: Can make a 3D object seem very flat and graphic
    Uses: Voyeur/Spy shots, Aerial shots, Massive vessels, Sports action, Wildlife

Super telephoto lens in 3d
  • Super Telephoto (400mm – 1200mm)
    Characteristics: Almost Orthographic, Flattens even extreme depth
    Cautions: Makes 3D very flat and graphic
    Uses: Voyeur/Spy shots, Aerial shots, Massive vessels, Sports action, Wildlife, Microscopy

4.2 Controlling Your Camera

  • Point of View (PoV)

    Think about how the position and angle of the camera affects a viewer’s perception of the scene.When framing images of familiar objects like vehicles, table-top items, and architecture, always try to include at least one shot from a human point of view, by positioning the camera eye at a natural human height:

  • Standing: 160 cm
  • Sitting: 79 cm

Think about familiar points of view, depending on the type of content

  • Architectural objects are often shot from ground level and also from helicopter
  • Vehicles and table-top items are often seen from standing and sitting positions

3d render POV
3d render POV
3d render POV

Familiar angles like those above should be included, but moving the camera into more compelling, less practical positions can provide for some great images, especially when matched with an interesting FoV. Have fun and also provide attractive shots from novel camera positions.

  • Coverage

    There is no correct number of shots for a given subject.

    • Don’t include too many similar shots of the same object. Each shot should offer a unique view of the object and new opportunities for use. This especially pertains to similar images that vary only by a slight angle change.
    • Don’t include images that can easily be mirrored horizontally or vertically in PhotoShop.
    • Do include enough shots to cover likely use cases for an object. Using image searches is a good way to explore the possibilities. Put yourself in the position of a 2D stock image buyer and imagine what kinds of shots they might want to see and use in their projects.
    • Do include symmetrical images. Not every image needs to be from a ¾ angle.

  • Alignment

    Be very careful with camera alignment making sure that your composition is not off by only a few pixels or degrees. An example would be if you’ve intended to have an object perfectly centered in frame, but instead it’s slightly off center or angled away from center by only 3 degrees.

Correct alignment 3d render
Incorrect alignment 3d render

Correctly Aligned

Incorrectly Aligned

  • Scale

Guide the viewer’s perception of an object’s scale when composing your image, by thoughtfully combining FoV and PoV.

3D scale3D scale

  • Dutch Angle (Roll)

A Dutch Angle is a camera technique that is often used to cause tension to a shot by angling the camera on its roll axis. It’s a great way to add drama to a boring shot but be careful as it can be easily overused.

Dutch angle photography

  • Breaking Frame

When setting up a shot, it is perfectly ok to break the frame. However, if you do break frame, make sure that it’s intentional and controlled.

Breaking frame 3d photography

  • Filling Frame

There are instances that you may want to fill the entire image with your subject, pushing the composition to the very edges of the frame. This is fine, however, it’s usually preferable to have the object rest comfortably within the frame and allow the empty white space frame the object. This can sometimes evoke a creative response from viewer, as their imagination fills the void.

3d photography composition

  • Consider the Shadow

Shadows can sometimes play just as important of a role as the subject you’re shooting. The problem is that in 3D, we usually don’t see the shadow until we render and it can often become an oversight. When setting up your shots, consider the shadows and how they fit within the composition.

Shadows in 3d render

  • Camera Movement Terminology

  • Dolly – Moving the camera towards or away while maintaining its perpendicular relationship to the subject.

  • Truck – Like dollying, but instead moving the camera left or right while maintaining it’s perpendicular relationship to the subject.

  • Pan – Rotating the camera left or right. Like looking left or right with your head.

  • Tilt – Rotating the camera up or down. Like looking up or down with your head.

  • Roll – Rotating the camera on it’s roll angle. Like tilting your head towards your shoulders.

  • Zoom – Zooming involves changing the focal length of your camera lens. Zooming in (subject appears closer) means you’re increasing the focal length and zooming out (subject appears farther) means you’re decreasing the the focal length.

  • Pedestal – Moving the camera up or down perpendicular to the subject.

4.3 Posing & Blocking

Creating a compelling shot of a static model can be a very big challenge. Especially if that model is simply sitting lifelessly on the ground plane. So oftentimes it’s important to experiment with more dynamic or interesting poses. Usually, this is done before setting up your shots, as the pose usually dictates the composition, but that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t re-pose the model for different shots. You should feel free to choose multiple poses for any number of interesting shots.

For clarification, our definition of posing means that you are free to translate and/or rotate an object within the relative bounding box of the ground plane. It’s especially important to stay within the bounding box of the ground plane when using the supplied light rigs, since moving any objects outside of the bounding box means those objects are no longer being illuminated by the lights or casting a shadow upon the ground plane.

You can also replicate objects so long as they can be considered entourage of the scene. A better explanation of this would be a padlock with a single key. The padlock would be considered the main object, while the key may be considered entourage. So a shot of the padlock and key is a good image, but a padlock with a stack of fifty keys makes for a more compelling concept. Like translation and rotation, feel free to modify the amount of replication for each shot.

Now depending on the object, you may find that a dynamic pose helps to convey motion and can turn a dull object into a much more interesting complete scene. However, not every object will require a dynamic pose. Sometime it’s a simple matter of resting an object on it’s side or lifting it off the ground plane to give it a sense of motion. As mentioned before, this doesn’t mean that if you put an object on it’s side that it needs to stay that way for all of your shots. Feel free to go ahead and try other poses for added variety.

Posing and blocking shot in 3d

4.4 Common Composition Techniques

  • Rule of Thirds
    This is probably one of the single most important rules to understand when creating a composition. Imagine two vertical lines and two horizontal lines slicing the image into 9 equal segments. The rule of thirds states that you should position the main subject of your composition either along the lines or at the points they intersect.Doing this should create visual balance and added interest to your composition. It’s actually a very simple technique that works very well and can be aided by the viewport grid generated by the Rule of Thirds button in the PixelSquid Studio Tool.
Display guides PixelSquid studio tool

Display guides PixelSquid studio tool

  • Framing
    Placing objects around the edge of your composition can help visually isolate the main subject from the empty world of 3D. The goal is to create a more focused image that draws the eye of the viewer to the main point of interest.

Framing render in 3d

4.5 Advanced Composition Techniques

Symmetry and Patterns in 3D renders
  • Symmetry & Patterns
    The preciseness of 3D allows for exceptional symmetry and patterns, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both can make for very compelling compositions, especially when the viewer isn’t expecting it. However, that’s not to say that every symmetrical composition needs to be unexpected. Sometimes a strong symmetrical or pattern composition can have clean angles that add tension and weight  to the image.

Leading lines in 3D photography
  • Leading Lines
    When viewing a photo, our eyes are naturally guided along strong lines. You can pull the viewer towards your subject or create a journey to the action of your scene by creating lines within your composition. The lines don’t have to be straight, they can be curved, radial, zigzagged or diagonal… whatever works for your subject.

Shape in 3D composition
  • Shapes
    Much like leading lines, shapes can also play a major role within your compositions. It’s important to consider the shape of each element in the frame and how they work together. Squares and triangles are the easiest shapes to frame up, while spherical or circular shapes can be more difficult. However, take time to look at how each shape interacts with the next and decide if they need to be re-posed to accentuate those shapes or help them interact better.

White space in 3d render
  • Balancing
    White space can be a very good thing within a composition and positioning your main subject off-center (Rule of Thirds) usually creates a more compelling image. However, not every photo should be left with an empty feeling void. Always consider the balance of the scene from a conceptual standpoint, can you picture something there in the emptiness, should you dolly the camera in to fill that space or add another object of lesser importance to fill the space?

Depth of field in 3d render
  • Depth
    Creating a shot for a single object has a pre-determined depth. However, when adding multiple objects, depth becomes a much more relevant factor. That’s not to say that you can’t create images with depth from a single object, it just means that the object will be limited.
    When shooting multiple objects, you can create depth by establishing a foreground, middleground and background. You can also overlap objects, another great way to build depth, to partially one object with another.

  • Negative Space
    In the natural world, negative space is much less abundant than in the 3D world. In the natural world there’s almost always some type of visual noise that enters frame, but in the 3D world that noise must be created. Because of this, there is a tendency to try and fit the entire point of interest in frame. Instead, consider that the composition may be far more dramatic if you employ more space around your subject.

Cropping 3d render
  • Cropping
    Much like poor framing, an image can sometimes lack impact when the main subject is so small that it becomes insignificant within the frame. Try cropping tight around the subject instead to be sure that it gets the viewer’s full attention.