Tag Archives: 3d modeling

How to get good at photorealistic rendering

By , CastleView 3D
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photorealistic rendering of kitchen remodel by CastleView3D.com

3D rendering of kitchen remodel by CastleView3D.com

Five tips for improving your photorealistic rendering skills

Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about how to produce high-quality photorealistic renderings, and I thought some tips might be useful for anyone trying to learn or to improve their skills.  But a few caveats are in order:

  • I don’t consider myself an expert in this area, just someone with some knowledge to share.
  • I’m completely self-trained.  (If this field of study had existed when I was in school, my life might have unfolded quite differently.  Or maybe not.)
  • What I’m going to say may only apply to architectural rendering, because that’s all I do.

1.  Train your eye.

Carefully observe the world around you to develop an understanding of the interplay of light and materials.  Notice how different types of light sources interact with different material surfaces.  Make mental notes about the shapes and depth of shadows and reflections.  Learn some of the basic physics of photons and properties of different materials to further inform your observations of light scattering and reflection.  Learn some stuff about photography to understand the ways various lenses and apertures and film types and speeds affect how a scene is captured.  Learn how basic rendering terms (specular, translucent, refraction, bump, anisotropy, sub-surface scattering) relate to the things you’re observing in the real world.

You don’t have to be an artist, just a good observer.

This first step can take a long time (possibly a lifetime), but you’ll never get photorealism if you don’t get this.  You have to have a deep understanding of what you’re aiming for in order to be able to guide your rendering program to produce it.  Some people seem to come by this ability naturally; but it’s a skill that can be learned with discipline and motivation.

2.  Master your modeling software.

No matter how good you get at rendering, or how powerful or expensive your modeling software is, you will never master photorealistic rendering if you don’t first master whatever program you use to produce your models.  If the model isn’t perfect, you will never produce a rendering that is indistinguishable from a photograph (or comes really, really close), because there will always be some jarring detail that is just WRONG.  It might not jump out at you, but subliminally the viewer’s eye will register that something is off.  A symbol that’s too blocky, a book “floating” a half-inch above a tabletop, or a chair leg that disappears into the baseboard are all things that can subtly ruin the realism of a model.  (Want to know how I know this?)

This requires more than a slight degree of obsessive-compulsiveness.  Go over your model with the proverbial fine-tooth comb to identify anything that’s not quite right.  Then do a preliminary render at a really big size to help you see modeling mistakes that might not have been apparent at a lower resolution.  Zoom in really close and go over every detail.  Only when you’re satisfied that the model is absolutely perfect should you proceed to step 3.  And even then you will most likely still find things that you didn’t catch before.

3.  Master your rendering software.

I can’t really give software-specific advice.  At any rate, a skilled renderer who has accomplished #1 and #2 above can produce decent results with pretty much any rendering application.  But whatever you use, the better you understand all the technical bells and whistles in your rendering software, the more power you will have to tweak even the smallest details to obtain the effects  you want.  Read the manual, do the tutorials, frequent the user forum, set up experimental renders to test lighting, materials, displacement, and special effects.

cover of book "Digital Lighting and Rendering" by Jeremy Birn - great resource for photorealistic rendering One of the best resources I know for learning more about how to set up realistic scenes for rendering (without being too software-specific) is Digital Lighting and Rendering (2nd Edition) by Jeremy Birn.  A classic.

4.  Practice, practice, practice.

I know this sounds like the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall, but there’s simply no better way to improve your skills and knowledge than to keep practicing them over and over.  Set up a render; see how it looks; decide what you don’t like or what could be better; tweak your settings; render it again.  Compare it to the first version (or the first 100 versions) and see whether it’s better, or not, and figure out why, or why not.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Try something new, experiment, take a risk, see what you end up with.  Sometimes it won’t be pretty (the first time I tried displacement on a stone wall, it looked like the wall had blown up!).  The good thing is, it’s only pixels, so no one gets hurt, even if it doesn’t work.

A lot of times I hear frustration from beginners because the software won’t “give” them the results they want — like they expect to be able to simply push a button and produce a realistic render, just like taking a photo.  But your software isn’t that smart, no matter how much  you paid for it.  Some rendering software has very sophisticated algorithms built in with amazing plug-ins to take it even further.  But the bottom line is that it can only do what you tell it to do.  And this is where your trained eye and in-depth understanding of your modeling and rendering software really make all the difference.  Which brings us to #5……….

5.  Repeat steps 1-4 on infinite loop.

There is always more to learn, more observations to make, more to refine.  Never stop trying to improve.  If it starts to seem easy, you’re no longer growing or improving.  Get out of your comfort zone by doing more observing, more learning, more experimenting.

These suggestions are just one person’s opinion, and may even be painfully obvious — like “duh.”  So I’d love to hear others’ ideas about what you think it takes to get really good at this challenging and fascinating skill.


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A career in 3D — it’s not all glitz and glamour

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Skyscraper rendering by Stanley Tang

A career in 3D modeling and rendering — sounds very exciting and cutting-edge, doesn’t it?  Movie premieres of the latest 3D films, gaming conventions, consultations with leading architects on their newest skyscraper or high-end real estate development.  How thrilling!

But trust me, that’s far from reality — at least MY reality.  Although this occupation certainly has its moments of excitement, it’s actually pretty nerdy and requires a high tolerance for sitting at a computer and working by yourself most of the time.

And it doesn’t lend itself to a jet-set lifestyle, either, in terms of time OR  income.  At least in the beginning, you end up doing pretty much any job that knocks on your virtual door, just to be able to make some money.

I was lucky:  early in my rendering career (way back in 2007) I landed a dream job — clients who wanted to pay me a handsome sum to create a complete “as-built” (i.e., an exact detailed model of an existing structure) of a gorgeous multimillion-dollar house they were buying, which they would then use for remodeling and redecorating the home.  And I accepted, because I was too green to realize that it was way beyond my skill level at the time.  Luckily my 3D mentor, Kay Nordby, was willing to help with some of the trickier bits.  I completed the job, the clients were very pleased, and I learned a lot and cemented a lasting virtual friendship.  More on that big job — including further developments — another time.

So far I haven’t done any other project that has been on the same scale as that one, and certainly nothing so grand as a skyscraper.  One recent job was really the antithesis of glamour — a quick rendering of a bunch of self-storage units for a developer, something he could take to the town for permit approval.

Decidedly non-glamorous rendering of self-storage buildings

Decidedly non-glamorous rendering of self-storage buildings

But no matter whether it’s the big cool challenging jobs or the quick moneymakers, I’m happy with my second career in 3D modeling and rendering:

  • It allows me to combine my artistic and technical skills with my love of architecture and interior design.
  • It’s always full of new challenges, new design problems to solve, and new rendering techniques to practice and perfect.
  • It allows me to be my own boss and run my business the way I want to.
  • I can work in my jammies and bunny slippers if I want (not that I would ever do that, of course — I don’t even OWN bunny slippers.  But you get the idea).
  • People pay me to do something I really enjoy and am passionate about.
  • It provides daily opportunities to be helpful to other people by using my skills to translate their 2D ideas and plans into 3D images — and sometimes into gloriously detailed photorealistic 3D images, if that’s appropriate for their needs.

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Remodel, or move?

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I was contacted recently by someone looking for 3D modeling and rendering services.  He and his girlfriend had lived in their home for 13 years, and had done a number of upgrades to it.  But they were at a point where the home’s floorplan configuration wasn’t working for them anymore.  They wanted a larger family room and deck, an expanded first-floor master bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet, and a new main entry.  They were debating between undertaking yet another major remodel/addition project versus selling and moving to a different house.

Proposed remodel floorplan drawn up by architect

Proposed remodel floorplan drawn up by architect

Proposed remodel elevations drawn by architect

Proposed remodel elevations drawn by architect

They had already consulted with an architect about their remodeling options, and he had done some nice drawings for them.  But the clients were having trouble visualizing the changes from what the architect had drawn up (a floorplan and two exterior elevations).  They asked the architect for 3D images, “like the ones we see on HGTV,” but the architect refused, saying he just didn’t do those. So they  did an internet search and found my website.

Working from the architect’s drawings, plus photos of the current house, I was able to model the house in Chief Architect and produce some basic renderings of what the proposed modifications might look like.

Their place is an old farmhouse that has already been remodeled and added on to a number of times in its 100+ years, so there are numerous roof pitches and floor levels to contend with (always something of a modeling challenge).  But I think the final images capture the essence of what the remodeled spaces would look like.  Here are a few examples:

Front view with new entry

Front view with new entry

New entryway looking up

New entryway looking up

New family room looking towards kitchen and entryway

New family room looking towards kitchen and entryway

New bedroom with bath and walk-in closet

New bedroom with bath and walk-in closet

I haven’t yet heard whether this family has decided to go ahead with the remodel, or move to a new home.  But at least with these 3D images in hand, they have more information to use while considering their decision.

One final note:  The images I provided for this client are not high-end, photorealistic raytraces.  These are just simple 3d renders to show the basic layout of the plans — sufficient for this stage of their decision-making.  Detailed raytraces are more appropriate for the later stages of project planning, when trying to make decisions about final finishes, lighting, and decor.


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The Google 3D Warehouse — like shopping without a credit card!

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Examples of free stuff you can get in the Google 3D Warehouse

Examples of free stuff you can get in the Google 3D Warehouse

Have you visited the Google 3D Warehouse yet?  This is an amazing free resource where you can find 3D models of just about anything you can imagine.  It’s part of Google Sketchup (Google’s free 3D modeling program) and connected with Google Earth, a worldwide geo-modeling project which aims to put every village, town, and city in the world on the 3D map!*  But for someone like me, who specializes in 3D renderings of interiors and exteriors of homes, I’m usually visiting the warehouse looking for furniture, appliances, lamps, or plants to include in my models.

Browsing the “stock” at the warehouse can be addictive — and time-consuming.  It has a good search function (no surprise there).  But almost every search brings up so many examples that it takes a while to sort through them all to find what you want.  And of course, just like shopping at a real store, you always see other cool stuff that you weren’t looking for but have to have (because did I mention that it’s all FREE??).

The 3D Warehouse has been especially useful for Chief Architect software users ever since Chief added a drag-and-drop feature in version X3 — you download the model from the 3D warehouse and simply drop it into your Chief plan, no import process required.  So easy even a …. well, we don’t need to go there.

The quality of the models in the warehouse varies.  It’s like shopping at a store which carries everything from IKEA to Roche-Bobois to Stickley, all under one roof!  And as a general rule, the better the model, the higher the polygon or face count (and I don’t believe the polygon count is included in the model info).  Sometimes if you furnish a room with a lot of high-polygon furniture, it can slow the performance of your modeling or rendering programs down to a crawl, so you need to keep an eye on that.

Spending time in the Google 3D Warehouse feels like shopping without a credit card.  You can “buy” anything you like — even the Eiffel Tower!  The only cost is polygons.

*Is it my paranoia, or does it seem like Google is on a quest for world domination?  Just wondering.

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What’s new in Chief Architect X4

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Chief Architect SoftwareMy favorite 3D architectural modeling software, Chief Architect, will soon release a new version of the program, version X4.

Watch this video to get a summary of new features expected in X4:

http://www.chiefarchitect.com/scripts/flash/whats-new-x4.html

No release date has been announced yet, but rumor has it that it will be sometime this summer.

UPDATE:  Chief X4 was released in July 2011.


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You can be clairvoyant!

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Yes, that’s right!!  You really can see into the future!

And while clairvoyance can have its negative aspects (as in premonitions, omens, creepy “sixth sense” experiences, etc.), the kind of clairvoyance I can offer is definitely a positive experience.

How can I help you see the future?  Through the medium of photorealistic 3D renderings! (of course).

Seeing the future isn’t easy.  You have to begin with at least a vague idea of what you WANT to see in the future — some people might call that a dream.  But starting from just the barest outline, we can work together to turn that outline (also known as a floorplan) into a 3D model with walls, doors, windows, and a roof.  As the vision of the future becomes clearer, we can shade it in, giving it colors and textures, lighting it naturally and/or artificially, even landscaping, furnishing, and decorating it!

Eventually, a clear picture of your architectural future will begin to emerge.  Your dreams will have taken shape, and you’ll be able to see your new or remodeled home as clearly as if you were standing in it — before a single shovelful of dirt has been dug or a single piece of drywall hung.  Now THAT’s practical magic!

I’ve created 3D models of existing homes where I’ve measured and photographed the actual house in order to make an accurate model of it, and it’s always rewarding to feel like I’ve faithfully captured the essence of a house or a room.  I’ve also created many 3D models for architects and builders far removed from my little corner of the world — buildings I will never see and so have no particular connection to or investment in (other than doing a great rendering for my client).

But there’s an entirely different feeling that accompanies creating a 3D version of someone’s dream — AND THEN SEEING IT ACTUALLY BUILT IN REAL LIFE.  It’s sort of eerie — a sense of deja vu — to see something that has existed only in my mind and on my computer become bricks and mortar and sinks and toilets.  It’s hard to describe, but it really does feel like I’ve seen into the future.

I had this experience recently in my own home when we had our 1935-vintage bathroom remodeled. I created detailed 3Ds of what I wanted the finished room to look like — and then got that eerie feeling as I saw my renderings slowly come to life as the remodel progressed.

3D Bathroom Remodel Rendering by CastleView3D.com

3D Render of Planned Bathroom Remodel

Photo of Actual Remodeled Bathroom

Now maybe this shouldn’t come as such a surprise — I did design it, after all, so what did I expect them to build?  But it happens every time with projects like this — I feel that somehow I’ve been able to glimpse the future and capture it in pixels.

Have you ever wished that you could see into the future?  I can help.


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What’s the difference between a 3D render and a raytrace?

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When I’m discussing a project with a new client, I often get asked what the difference is between a “render” (or “rendering”) and a “raytrace.”  Sometimes I use all three terms interchangeably, which I’m sure can be confusing.  But are they actually different?  If so, how?

Answers to these questions could (and do) fill entire books and webpages, but I’ll attempt a very simple explanation here (which will still be way too technical for a lot of folks!).

Computer rendering* is a general term for producing an image from a model constructed with 3D modeling software.  3D modeling involves creating a mathematical representation of a three-dimensional object.   Once the model, or mesh, is created, it is possible to take a “camera view” of the object from any angle (hence the term 3D).  The information from the 3D model is transferred to a rendering program to be processed and output as a digital image file, typically using a simple rasterization or scanline rendering method.  Current processors can produce this type of rendering quickly and efficiently, pretty much in real time, and it is what is used in most computer gaming.

Raytracing is a specific type of rendering technique.  The name refers to the way the computer creates the final image — by analyzing the light sources in the scene and computing the paths of the rays (photons) produced by those lights.  The result is a very realistic image including reflections and caustics (light refractions through glass), resulting in lighting and shadows that are close to what would be observed in the real world.  Raytracing algorithms simulate light realistically as it bounces between different objects, calculating the exact color of each pixel based on its material properties and the amount of light it is receiving.  In raytracing, many different algorithms can factor into the computation of a pixel’s final shade, including the material’s absorption, reflection, transparency, translucency, and refraction characteristics.

Raytracing actually proceeds opposite to the way light normally travels, because it works backward, only calculating the paths of photons that actually intersect the camera’s view frame.  Although this makes the process more efficient than if it actually traced the path of every photon emitted from every light source in the scene, it does not always yield the most realistic results.  Other methods which combine both eye-based and light-based ray paths, such as photon mapping and bidirectional path tracing, can yield superior results, especially in scenes involving indirect lighting or caustics.

Rendering is generally less time- and computer-resource-intensive than raytracing. However, technology is improving rapidly and real-time raytracing will soon be an accessible reality.

* Of course there are also the time-honored “artist’s rendering” architectural illustration methods such as pen and ink, watercolor, colored pencil, pastels, etc.  Nowadays, the look of many of these traditional techniques can be produced using computer graphics and photo-editing software.  More on this topic another day.

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So, are you still with me?  What does all this technical stuff mean for someone who wants computer images of their new home or remodeling plans?  An example can demonstrate the differences best.  Here is a comparison of a render versus a raytrace of the same room.  The first image is a Chief Architect rendered camera view of a great room and entryway with curving staircase.  The second image is one I posted the other day, a raytraced image of the same space.

Great room and front hallway - 3D Rendering by CastleView3D.com

3D rendering by CastleView 3D

Great Room and Entry - 3D Raytrace Rendering by CastleView3D.com

3D raytrace by CastleView 3D

In the rendering, you can see that there is some differential shading of surfaces depending on their angle and the amount of light they are receiving.  But overall the scene looks fairly flat.  The lighting in the raytraced image is much more realistic — sunlight coming through the windows, reflections on the polished wood floor, and a greater sense of depth and dimension.

You can view another render-vs-raytrace example here.

Renders are fine for the initial stages of a project, when rough approximations of the look and feel of the space are sufficient for planning purposes.  But once the major decisions have been made, final raytraces are what really bring the space to life and promote confidence in the material and design choices.

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So there you have an oversimplified explanation of the differences between rendering and raytracing.  I was enchanted and enthralled the first time I produced a simple rendering with my beginner-level Home Designer software.  But once I learned how to create raytraces with Chief Architect’s POVray, and later on with Kerkythea and Thea Render, it was impossible to feel satisfied with anything less realistic again.

My sincere apologies to anyone who is more expert in this area than I am.  I’m an intelligent, educated person, but thinking about the technical explanations for all this makes my brain hurt.  I’ve done my best to distill a very complicated topic down to a few paragraphs.  However, I realize I’m in way over my head here, and I’d be delighted to hear a more correct or complete explanation of the differences in the Comments.


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Reasons for NOT using 3D images for your building or remodeling project

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What are some reasons for NOT using 3D images for your project? 

There aren’t any. 

You might think cost could be a reason.  If so, then either:

  1. You haven’t fully understood the value of 3Ds, and/or
  2. You haven’t found the right professional to create them for you.

For help with #1, read How to estimate the value of 3D visualization, A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Deep thoughts on 3D Biz, or 3D Rendering with Chief Architect.  These posts from seasoned 3D designers and artists should make the cost to value ratio abundantly clear.

For help with #2, contact me at CastleView 3D, and if I’m not the right person for your project, I can refer you to one of the other professionals I know.

Other “reasons”:

  • Time:  See #1 above.
  • Scope:  See #1 and 2 above.
  • “I wouldn’t know who to ask or how to get started”:  See my answer to #2 above.
  • “My architect/builder/designer doesn’t do 3Ds”:  See my answer to #2 above.  There are many 3D design and rendering specialists who can work hand-in-hand with your current architect or builder, or we can work directly with you on images that you can use to improve communication with your builder.
  • “I’m not exactly sure what I want yet”:  See #2 above.  Some 3D professionals specialize in creating concept images to help you choose the features and design elements that are most important to you.

So you can see that there really are no valid reasons not to utilize 3D renderings and raytraces for your building, remodeling, or decorating project, unless you’re the type of person who enjoys big — and possibly unpleasant — surprises.

3D images are a valuable asset for improving communication, ultimately saving you time, money, AND sleepless nights!

3D Kitchen Rendering by CastleView3D.com

Kitchen Remodel -- Design by Louie Carter of Grayson Homes; 3D rendering by CastleView 3D


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Real, or 3D?

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I’m not 100% certain, but I believe this fascinating yacht design, from South Korean designer Hyun-Seok Kim, is all 3d modeling and rendering, not photographs.

Click the photo to see a series of wonderful images of the interior and exterior, published in the web magazine Yanko Design.  What do you think?

I’m not typically a yacht sort of person, but I think I could be comfortable spending an extended stay on this one.


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Learning 3D modeling by copying the “old masters”

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When I was first learning to do 3D modeling and rendering back in 2007, I decided to try an exercise that many art students are given in their studies:  learning by copying the old masters.  With sketchbooks and pencils in hand, students visit the world’s great art museums to learn about an artist’s technique by trying to duplicate it themselves.

For my learning exercise, I decided that my “old masters” would be architectural and interior designers whose work I admired.  So I gathered a collection of photos from the web, many from Architectural Digest (which is, in my opinion, the best place to see consistently fine examples of both interior and exterior design).  I set myself the task of trying to learn something about their design techniques, as well as mastering my own modeling and rendering software tools, by trying to reproduce the photos as 3D renderings. I feel this approach really taught me a lot, and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve their 3D skills.

Now that I’ve been at this for almost 4 years, I still occasionally do this exercise, simply because it provides an excellent insight into a designer’s mind to try to understand why they did things the way they did in the building or room I’m studying.

Room designed by Suzanne Lovell

Room designed by interior designer Suzanne Lovell (photo from an article in Sept. 2007 Architectural Digest)

Recently, instead of tackling a new challenge, I decided to revisit one of my old favorite inspirations, a lovely room created by awesomely talented interior designer Suzanne Lovell in her own townhouse in Chicago.  Her home was written up in a 2007 article in AD (which unfortunately is no longer available online).

I liked my original rendering so much that I had been using it for years in my portfolio on the CastleView 3D website, despite the fact that it was a very early example and wasn’t actually produced for a real client.  But because the rendering software I use now (Kerkythea) is much more sophisticated than what I was using in 2007, I wanted to see how much the image could be improved simply by using the new tool.

I didn’t change my original model except to import it into Chief Architect X3 (to enable VRML export), but instead spent time tweaking the lighting and textures in the imported file within Kerkythea.  Below is a comparison of my original image with the most recent one (you’ll need to click to enlarge the images for a decent comparison).  You can see that in the 2007 version, the render engine wasn’t able to produce reflections, or even shadows!

2011 3D Rendering by CastleView3D.com of room designed by Suzanne Lovell

My recent update (April 2011), using the same model but re-rendered in Kerkythea

2007 3D Rendering by CastleView3D.com of room designed by Suzanne Lovell

My original 2007 rendering, modeled and rendered in Home Designer Pro

Of course I’m much happier with the more recent version, although as I look at the final product there are still things I would like to change in my addictive quest for photorealistic perfection.

Perhaps I’ll work on improving some of my original modeling, and post an update later. But in the meantime, this new image is definitely replacing the old one on my website!


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