Tag Archives: raytracing

What’s new in Chief Architect X5

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new version of chief architect x5 to be released soon

image of Chief Architect X5 software product coverChief Architect has just posted a video peek at the new features that will be available in the upcoming X5 Premier version, which they expect to release in Fall 2012.

http://www.chiefarchitect.com/products/whats-new-x5.html

Some of the new or improved features in Chief Architect X5 include:

  • shadow boards and ridge caps (finally!)
  • greater customization of railings
  • auto corner boards and quoins
  • new auto dimension tools and options
  • plan display of door and window casings
  • complex cabinet door configurations
  • automatic catalog  updates
  • PDF file import
  • callout labels for cameras
  • progressive raytracing and better control of raytrace settings
  • improved walkthrough tools, including keyframes.

The upgrade to X5 is automatic for anyone with Chief Architect’s SSA support package.

Chief Architect has been my modeling software of choice for the past 5 years, and this looks like a nice set of improvements and new features.  

UPDATE 8/15/2012:  X5 Beta was released to current SSA subscribers today.  check your digital locker if you’re a Chief Architect subscriber.


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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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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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“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” – or $1,000 in Your Pocket

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Today I’m featuring a guest post by fellow Chief Architect user Chris Brown.  Chris is a Design/Build General Contractor with his own company, Stone Castle Homes, in Republic, Missouri (contact Chris at chrisdbrown@att.net).  His post today is directed mainly at builders and home designers who aren’t currently using 3D renderings in their work with clients.


I find that dealing with most builders on the subject of 3D renderings (especially raytracing) is like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. Builders don’t want to do it because they don’t want to pay for it. When I design a custom home for a builder, the builder just doesn’t know how to talk to his client about the benefits of the 3D renderings, and therefore it almost never gets done. But when the builder allows me to talk directly to the clients and show them examples, the clients always want it.

Seeing examples always changes a client’s mind, even if they’re not enthusiastic about the idea to start.  When I show them samples from my previous projects, instantly, it’s “Yeah, we’ll pay for that!”  They appreciate the value immediately of being able to see the finished product before the ground is even dug.

In the olden days, plans were hand-drawn, just line drawings; even when CAD came along, they were still just line drawings for a long time.  This leaves a lot to the imagination.  But nowadays, 3D renderings provide the wow! factor – it gives clients the opportunity to actually SEE what their finished home will look like.  Which do you think a client would rather see?  This…….

Custom home floorplan

Floor plan for custom home

Or this………….

3D Rendering of Main Living Area by CastleView3D.com

3D Raytrace of Main Living Area by CastleView 3D

A builder today can make an extra $1,000-5,000 per house by using good 3D renderings.  Renderings allow you to put in all the extras, like crown molding and granite countertops, right from the start, and let the client see how they will look.  Once they’ve seen the top-of-the-line version, then their budget can dictate what to take out, rather than trying to do it the other way around.

It’s taking time, but I finally have some builders coming around on this 3D rendering stuff.  There are some key ways to talk to builders.  You just have to keep at them, and keep explaining the benefits:

  • No change orders
  • Better relationship with client
  • Better communication with client
  • Quicker build
  • More money

Builders can also use the 3D renderings for advertising – a sign on the lawn, brochures, website, etc.

For Chief Architect users, if you don’t learn how to make nice raytraces, you are leaving money on the table. You’ve already done the work, made the 3D model, so why not make a little more money while providing a great service to your clients?

Clients can even seek out a 3D designer first, before they meet with a builder, who can help them work out their ideas.  Then they can bring the finished pictures to their builder.  This is beneficial to both parties, because builders often don’t ask all the questions they should when trying to determine a bid, about the thousands of details that go into a project.  Renderings give them something more definite to work from.

In addition, with the economy the way it is, clients need to be even more sure they’re getting what they want, and 3D renderings are the most cost-effective way to insure that.  “Seeing is believing,” and being able to see what their finished home will look like will inspire confidence.

When a project is completed, I sometimes ask the client about their 3D images: “Was that worth the money?”  And I’m sure you can guess what their answer is.


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