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The use of Dome lights has been one of the greatest advancements in CGI creation over the past decade. Bathing a scene from every direction used to be computationally intensive, but with advances in both hardware and software, the Dome light has emerged as an efficient way to start lighting your 3D art.  

This is because a Dome light can embed an image-based light image (IBL, also known as HDRIs). This is a single image of a real environment or one created by an artist which, when mapped into a Dome light, instantly re-creates the lighting environment.  

These images are usually saved in a 32-bit format that captures nearly the full range of available light, and allows lighting to be created with a rolling falloff with no ugly clipping or banding. As the images have a full range of captured light they can be adjusted either with more power or less to help set the desired mood of the image.  

  • 12 tips for realistic 3D lighting

While there are applications that can create IBLs, there are countless images available that re-create everything from a rocky vista to a photography studio.

Dome lights are also highly computationally efficient, which means it can be a good idea to use a spherical camera in an existing scene to create a HDRI map of the background. Placing that in a scene creates no loss of light fidelity, but enables the artist to concentrate on the primary geometry with little slowdown.  

The biggest caveat with using Dome lights is that they solve so many problems that it can be easy to neglect other light types. This can be a mistake, as adding extra light to highlight key objects will always make a scene feel more alive than just using a Dome light.

What is a Dome light?

Dome lights give your 3D work a studio look

A Dome light in its simplest form is a light object that surrounds the scene in a constant white light from all directions. As soon as a Dome light (Skydome or Environment are other commonly used terms) is placed it creates an instantly pleasing soft 'studio' look, which would be hard to re-create with any other type of single light object. Be warned that not all applications show the Dome light as a visible object, especially when it is for a third-party render solution.

01. Colour a Dome light

Colour gradients can give you interesting visual results

While Dome lights are most commonly associated as a base for image-based light sources, this doesn't mean that there aren't other ways to light a scene with them. One of the easiest and most powerful ways for a creative effect is to use a ramp or gradient texture to feed in a range of colours into the Dome light, to produce a more interesting look. As the Dome light is a physical object in the scene it can be rotated to easily adjust the look you are after.

02. Use image-based lighting

Use 32-bit HDR images for best lighting results

Using an image with a Dome light is a really effective way to add a much more realistic look to a scene. High Dynamic Range images which contain a full 32 bits of colour data are the best format to use with a Dome light, as they allow exposure to be adjusted without any clipping. Otherwise, the coloured areas in an image can either go to white or black as there is not enough colour data, which can in turn create some ugly, unwanted image artefacts.

03. Eliminate the background

Hide the light image for better results and faster renders

While many HDRIs come with additional background images, it is still a good idea to ensure that the HDRI is invisible to the alpha channel and potentially to the camera itself. This means that the Dome light is only lighting the geometry and creating interesting reflections rather than getting in the way where it is not needed, such as skies. Also, not having the background enabled can save on render speed, as the computer only needs to render the areas that are visible.

This article was originally published in 3D World, the world's best-selling magazine for CG artists. Buy issue 233 here or subscribe to 3D World here.

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This issue we take a look at not just some incredible projects (from Adam to Altered Carbon) but also an in-depth look at some of the tools used to create some of the environments used in them. We explore invisible visual effects to uncover some of the astounding work carried out that isn't explosions, superheroes or aliens.

We bring you some of the best training, to help you build your skill set to include the creation of jointed models in Zbrush, animatable vehicles using iClone, as well as our regular Q and A section.

> Buy 3D World issue #235 now

Not only that but we cast our expert eye over the latest releases, to help you decide what's the best investment for your time and money. This month we take a good look at Substance and Zbrush 2018.

Tutorial: Create action figures

Create poseable action figures with this Zbrush training

In this tutorial Brodie Perkins shows you his process for creating poseable action figures, using Zbrush. A great way to breathe new life into an old scene file and a truly useful skill to learn.

Feature: Invisible effects

We explore some of the unsung heroes of the visual effects world

In this in-depth feature Ian Failes explores some of the shots you might not expect to be heavily effects laden. We are all used to seeing huge spaceships exploding, dinosaurs on the rampage or giant robots stampeding through cities but there is much more to vfx. This feature explores some of the unsung heroes of the visual effects world.

Feature: Altered Carbon

We investigate the creation of a future Earth

We investigate the creation of a future earth, for Netflix' Altered Carbon. We talk to VFX supervisor Everett Burrall, to get the low down on how the team put together this astounding vfx work.

Feature: The Beyond

Explore the sci-fi creation of a vfx artist turned director.

Visual effects artist turned director Hasraf Dulull chats to us about his sci-fi feature film; The Beyond.

Tutorial: iClone vehicles

Animate vehicles in iClone

Tutorial: Tiny Worlds

Learn to create macro cinematography

In this tutorial Greg Barta shows you his workflow, tips and tricks for creating macro cinematography, using the standard tools you use for your other 3D projects.

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If you've taken the time to master the best 3D modelling software around, the last thing you want to do is ruin your artwork with a bad render. Here, Polish 3D artist Łukasz Hoffmann shares his top tips for creating realistic 3D renders, specifically cars. 

His expertise in this field is evident from the fantastic image above, which won the silver award in one of Hum3D's Car Render Challenges. Check out Hum3D's latest competition on creating  the best car in a post-apocalyptic style, judged by a team that includes 3D Artist's editor Carrie Mok. 

01. Start simple

In the modelling stage, try to maintain a simple shape and focus on leading proper curve lines. Cut out details after the main shape is established.

02. Make use of fresnel shaders

Use more complex shaders to create great effects

While creating a car material, keep in mind that real car paint is a combination of a few layers of dielectric and metallic materials. Use complex shaders, comprised of multiple basic shaders, and make use of fresnel (an incidence angle) to blend between them at a specific angle. You can also add a procedural voronoi (which is a specific type of noise algorithm) or similar texture into the normal channel of the shader to create a metallic flakes effect.

03. Choose HDRI wisely

Use high-dynamic-range imaging, which will accentuate the shape of the car. The best choice would be a high contrast HDRI, which will help to enhance the reflections along the curvature of the car. Use a high-resolution 32-bit HDRI to get appropriate light information for your scene. You will find that the simple studio HDRIs are the best for most car scenes.

04. Use additional lighting

Add in additional light sources for a more believable scene

If your environment or HDRI is not enough, make use of additional light sources in your scene. Make sure the highlights are emphasising the shape of the car and try setting up a rim lights to pop out the silhouette of the car.

5. Consider composition

You can easily tilt your camera to add a sense of movement in dynamic shots, place a car in an interesting environment with a pleasant colour palette or sell your render with a good focal point and additional close-up shots. When creating an entire scene try to separate first, second and third plane, and lead the viewer’s eye with guide lines and focal points.

6. Bevel every edge

Bevel your edges for a realistic look

Don’t forget about beveling edges in the modelling stage. Even the sharpest edge in the real world is not perfectly sharp. Adding a subtle bevel, especially on refractive elements such as light diffuser, will catch a nice, realistic light reflection.

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