The 3 Biggest 3D Lighting Mistakes (Are You Making Them?)

The 3 Biggest 3D Lighting Mistakes (Are You Making Them?)

So, you’ve just completed your new render, and it didn’t quite turn out right. Again. Chances are high that you rely on tedious trial & error and get random and unpredictable results. It’s not your fault, it’s not that you lack artistic talent. You simply need to incorporate a few quick & easy techniques that will make a HUGE difference in your 3D lighting. Having been coaching thousands of 3D artists since 2005, I see a pattern on a daily basis. I’m going to introduce you to the 3 biggest 3D lighting mistakes and show you how you can immediately go around them, and start creating gorgeous renders right now.

Mistake #1: Lighting Everything.

Most new 3D artists (and I see this way up to the semi-pro level too, myself included in the start too!), add way too many lights. Further more, most of the added lights engage the entire scene, making it hard to figure out what’s what. With too much lights everywhere, it’s easy to lose track of the focal point, which is the main important part of your image (usually where your main characters are, or where our eyes are naturally drawn to).

Let’s take an example. This first image has lights going on everywhere, lighting everything up:


Note how flat and uninteresting the image looks like. It’s like we don’t really know where to look. There is no INTENTION behind the lighting. Now, let’s take a look at a different set up. Below, we’ve carefully directed the lights towards the main important part of the image, making it stand out more, while leaving everything else slightly darker:


A good rule to start with when your scenes are scattered with lights everywhere, is to simply use a single light. And make it COUNT. The important part is to know WHERE to place it and why. In most cases you want to enhance the focal point, the natural point in your image that you just end up looking at.

In the above render, a single Distant Light gives the main lighting, and is constrained by the bars in the ceiling so that it produces lighting on the main characters only. This scene is then backed up with an overall light, in this case an Uber Environment 2 light for DAZ Studio, that gives additional lighting everywhere, carefully toned down to avoid interfering with the main light. The additional light DOES illuminate most of the image, but it does it in such a way, so that it ADDS and contributes to the image, rather than stealing from it. See, it’s not difficult at all, and this simple and immediate shift will give you tremendous impact right now, in every single render you make.

Which brings us to the next mistake:

Mistake #2: Random Lights.

Good lighting is achieved when there’s a balance between darkness and brightness. I call this the flow of light, and it simply means you want to alternate between darkness and brightness, so that it makes your image more interesting to watch. Far too many 3D artists simply throw in random lights, without really having a plan behind it. This can lead to unwanted random effects, and again, looks like there’s no intention behind any of the lights. A scene created with random lighting can look like this:


There is a simple fix you can start using right now, and it goes like this…

Way back, photographers invented the 3-point light set up to enhance studio photography. This popular light set up naturally made its way into the 3D world. It consists of a main light, also called Key Light, which produces the main lighting in the image. Often, it comes from the side, front and slightly above the characters, ideally at a 45 degree angle where it produces the most depth and interesting shadows at the same time. The same scene lit using the 3-Point Light Set Up may look like something like this:


It doesn’t matter what light type you use to get this Key Light flowing, as long as you use it for what its designed to do. Next, the Key Light often produces very dark shadows on one side of the image, and that’s easily fixed with an additional, so called Fill Light. This light is weaker, softer and fills in the blanks without overpowering the Key Light. Typically, the Fill Light is placed on the other side, but still from the front and above.

Finally, you want to separate the characters from the background, and also give them that typical silhouette effect using a third light called the Back Light. A Back Light can also illuminate the environment around the characters, giving most interesting results on the go. Typically, when done correctly, with a good balance between darness and brighness, you can achieve professional looking depth and make the image look more interesting.

Here’s a video I made for the 3D Light Master program, that shows how to use the 3-Point Light Set Up.  I’ve used Lightwave to showcase this in action, because of Lightwave’s amazing quick live preview function suitable for this demonstration. This technique is however directly applicable to any 3D software:

There’s a lot you can achieve with the 3-Point Light Set Up, and it can be your best friend in many cases. However, bear in mind that it was designed for studio portrait photography, and therefore it’s very limited in its use when it comes to ALL your work. (I’ve invented something much more powerful and versatile than this, more on that in a moment)

And finally, there’s one final devastating mistake that 3D artsits make, which prevents them from achieving their full potential…

Mistake #3: Not Using Shadows Correctly (Or At All).

I know, it can be scary. I’ve been there. In the beginning, shadows seem to get in the way. They seem to obstruct and block your art, and there’s this feeling of “what should I do with them” constantly in the background as you try to create and shape your art. Well, there’s again a very simple solution to that. Use them to balance your image, and create contrast and depth at the same time. Simply put, use them to your advantage, and make them fill in the void / empty spaces in your scene.

A simple example without shadows:


Note how lifeless the image looks like, and how much “dead space” there is, especially on the floor. The most dramatic shadows are easily achieved with careful back-side-lighting. Just a single (or a few) back light(s) can dramatically change your render, making it interesting and virtually come alive:


Back lighting can be used for enhancing your 3D art in conjunction with other lights, and also stand alone, for more scary scenarios like in the above example.

And that’s the s biggest 3D lighting mistakes I wanted to cover. Because I see them all the time, and now you know how you can easily avoid them. However, no matter how much you know, you still need to put things into practice, to make things perfect over time. At least by being on the right track, you no longer need to stay in the guessing game, and spend any more time on tedious and frustrating trial & error.

By looking at the above renders, you can clearly see the DRAMATIC difference lighting makes in your art, since we didn’t touch the camera or anything else in the scenes. I use to say that lighting is 90% (or more) of your 3D art. If you get lighting, the rest will automatically fall into place much easier.


Now, there’s a lot more to 3D lighting than we can cover in this short blog post. If you liked this post and found it useful, then I’ve designed an entire program, towards something I call the 7-Point Light Set Up, which will let you make all of your renders POP any time, in any scene. Check it out HERE.

– Val Cameron

P.S. See how you can Conquer 3D Lighting NOW

Happily sharing how to create great 3D & 2D art in DAZ Studio, Lightwave and Photoshop, Val Cameron, CEO and founder of Dreamlight, has been coaching and mentoring hundreds of thousands of artists since 2005. Bestselling DAZ 3D vendor with over 230+ video tutorials, plug ins and light sets.

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4 Responses to “The 3 Biggest 3D Lighting Mistakes (Are You Making Them?)”

  1. K'ankh VanAmore' May 20, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    The minute I see the word Dream light on any email, I know it’s going to be good. I have purchased training from you guys, and not once ever disappointed. I took the Light Master course, Film Noir, just purchased the Character Creator V6, from DAZ, and Hexagon course. And I still read this entire email. So there you go:)

    • Val Cameron May 20, 2015 at 11:41 pm #

      Thank you for your kind words, glad to be of help! 🙂

  2. JeffersonAF March 19, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    Your work is great.

  3. Christina Maltese January 20, 2017 at 4:43 am #

    I’m 6 months old in Daz studio even I’m professional photographer I always keep my mind open for others artist that kindly share their knowledge with, thank you for sharing what you know.

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