Hi there! In this tutorial, we’re going to take a look at something we all struggle with – lighting. After reviewing the basics, we will analyse several common lighting situations and share some useful resources to help you with further learning.
First things first – let’s take a look at the anatomy of light and shadow.
On the image you can see above, there are several terms that you should remember – each of these elements is essential to creating realistic images. Firstly – the light here comes from our upper left side, hence why on the very top of the ball you can see a highlight (1). The transition from the part of the ball covered with light to the part covered with shadow starts at the terminator (2) (keep in mind that if we’re talking about a soft, diffuse lighting, you’re most likely not going to be able to distinguish as clear a line/border as you can do here). Below the ball you can see two types of shadows marked – an occlusion shadow (3) and a cast shadow (4). Another thing marked is reflected light (5).
Okay – let’s talk a bit more about all those words.
1) Highlight – is, as the name suggests, the brightest part of an illuminated object. It will be visible particularly on highly reflective surfaces (take a look at shiny metal, for example, or plastic, or glass) and forms on a direct line from the light source.
2) The terminator – can be distinguished especially in direct lighting. It’s basically a border between the illuminated part of an object and the one in shadow, and can actually be the darkest part on the object. Like said above, though, if the lighting is soft and diffused, you might not be able to see the terminator at all, since the transition from light to shadow will be very gradual.
3) Occlusion shadow – remember this. If you’re having problems with your objects looking like they’re floating, check if you added an occlusion shadow – if not, there’s the root of your problem. Basically, you can describe it as a small and very dark shadow right below the object. They form when two objects are close enough together to block out all the light. You can also see occlusion shadows forming where materials push together in folds or at points of contact with the ground, or at the inside corner of the room where two walls meet.
4) Cast shadow – this is the “basic” shadow – and it occurs whenever a form intercepts direct light. These can have a myriad of shapes and colours. For example, a soft light will cast a shadow with a blurry edge, while a hard light will cast a shadow with a sharp edge. On the image above there are two different light sources, which results in two cast shadows in two different directions. Remember! If you’re working a portrait and add, for example, longer hair to your character, it will also need to cast a shadow!
5) Reflected light – each object that receives strong light becomes its own source of light. And colour and light go together. On the image above, the ball reflects a slight gray colour on the red floor, and red seeps into the shadow on the ball. In most natural environments, the colour of the shadow will be the sum of all sources of reflected illumination combined with the colour of the object. Still, a thing to remember – reflected light falls off quickly. This means it will disappear very fast the farther you get from the source, unless the source is very large.
Common lighting scenarios
In settings like the ones above, the light source is pretty easy to determine – duh, it’s where the sun is, of course. Right? Sure. Though not really.
On a clear, sunny day, you have three different light sources – the sun itself, the blue sky, and the reflected light from illuminated objects. The sun is the most important part, but not the only one, which is something you need to remember. Here’s a great short tutorial on reflected skylight: Click! by toerning.
Sunlight is pretty direct – in contrast to that, skylight is soft, diffused, and basically directionless – meaning, it comes from all directions at once. The amount and colour of light will depend mostly on the cloud cover, season and time of the day.
At midday, the shadows will be sharpest and the light brightest. Strong light bleaches out colours, which will look less saturated than at other times during the day. The one thing that will benefit from this type of light is water, which means midday will be a good setting for all your tropical and nautical scenes.
During the afternoon, light becomes progressively warmer as it goes down. Everything will take on a yellowish cast, and the sky will be a deeper, more saturated blue. As the day progresses and we near the evening, you’ll encounter what the photographers call the golden hour, which occurs most often roughly an hour before sunset. The light then is considered particularly photogenic – the illuminated parts of your object will have a warm, orange/yellow cast to them, and the shadows will have a blue tint. All colours will appear highly saturated.
At sunset, contrast will be low, and shadows will become darker and very long. With clear sky, they might take on a rich, blue cast. The clouds will be lit from below, which means you can create some dramatic scenes with lots of red, orange, pink and yellow.
At dusk, the sun is below the horizon, so the main light source will be the sky. This gives you the opportunity to create a scene with soft, delicate colours, subtle shadows and low contrast. On a clear day, you might notice a phenomenon called alpenglow, which is a distinct pink glow on the eastern sky. It will cast a noticeable pink light on reflective surfaces, but is too weak to affect darker ones, such as foliage.
2) Overcast light
On cloudy days, sunlight will be diffused by the cloud layer, making it soft and eliminating contrasts between light and shadow. Colours might appear brighter and purer than they do in direct sunlight. The sky will seem light gray or white, and the lighting will allow you to evenly expose a bigger scene. The shadows will be soft and not very visible.
Candlelight and fire light (including fireplaces, bonfires, lanterns etc.) are yellow-orange in colour and quite weak – which means that light will drop off rapidly as your object recedes from the flame. The source will be surrounded by a halo of warm, orange colour. Remember that light sources that require fire – candles, fireplaces – are often placed close to the ground or a low object such as a table, which means you need to account for the direction – the objects and characters around them will be lit mostly from below.
The light of a full moon is roughly 450,000 times weaker than direct sunlight. Still, the sky still has some light in it, so it will always be lighter than the land. The colours will be very desaturated, and any natural light will be incredibly soft and diffused. If you’re working with a scene set in our time, remember about light pollution – even quite far away from a big city you can still see a faint orange reflection on the night sky.
5) Indoor artificial lighting
Most sources of indoor light are soft and diffused (unless, of course, you have a bare lightbulb or a spotlight) – that’s what we use lampshades for. A lot of indoor lighting until recently was based on tungsten lighting, but it is steadily being replaced by newer technologies. Tungsten lighting is warm and orangey in colour, but a lot of modern lights are white.
The most important factor with indoor lighting is that you’re likely to have multiple light sources, so you need think about how they interact with one another – your objects might have multiple shadows and highlights, for example. Bulbs are not the only objects emitting light, too – remember that computer screens, smartphones and a countless number of other modern devices also can be a part of your scene.
If your scenario takes place in an office, stations and public buildings – basically anywhere where cost is more important than mood – you will probably see fluorescent lighting, which can be slightly greenish.
- Why aren’t shadows grey? by artbyriana
- Blue reflected light by toerning and A Note of Light and Colour by toerning
- Basic Lighting Tutorial by alenas
- 5 Lighting Tips for Beginners by me
- James Gurney, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
- Richard Yot, Light for Visual Artists
- Scott Robertson, How to Render: The Fundamentals of Light, Shadow and Reflectivity
- P. Jasmine Katatikarn, Michael Tanzillo, Lighting for Animation: the Art of Visual Storytelling
- Jeremy Birn, Digital Lighting and Rendering
… and what do YOU recommend?
Important: Don’t look at the fact that some of these books aren’t specifically about YOUR medium; you can get a lot out of a lighting book created for animators even if you aren’t an animator yourself!
…among many others!
- Painting with Light and Colour – Click, Click
- Fundamentals of Lighting – Click,
- Designing with Color and Light – Click
- Lighting for Story and Concept Art – Click
Almost The End
This article obviously doesn’t exhaust the subject – there’s a ton of more advanced or simply different things you still need to learn. Still, we hope it’s a good start and that we managed to explain one or two things.
That’s it. Go create!
*All the photos used in this article are on CC0 license and come from either pexels.com or unsplash.com.