How to Approach Daytime Lighting?

Daytime lighting scenario is an undeniable king of commercial imagery. From billboards to social media feeds, these scenarios dominate the visual landscape. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no art to crafting a daytime scene, especially one that stands out from the crowd. So today, let’s explore all the nuances and subtle elements that make it truly captivating!

By COMMONPOINT / Jun 01, 2023 / 23min READ

Daytime Lighting Scenario

Why is it that 3d artists seem to be obsessed about daytime scenarios. It dominates every portfolio and you see it all over your Instagram feed. Are day shots really that important?

Well, consider this:

What kind of setting do your clients typically anticipate for their exterior shots? What kind of lighting setup do the envision?

I’d say, It’s safe to assume that around 70 to 80 percent of the time, they picture a daytime scene. No wonder. In the daytime scenario, we show the entire space while it’s being used the most. That is during the day. Mastering this scenario is basically a must-have since the demand for such shots is so huge.

Commercial demand aside, the day should be a priority for us artists for several compelling reasons too.

First of all, if you truly understand it, you can take this scenario to a whole new level, and stand out from the competition. Secondly, the day scenario combines many elements, that let you grow artistically in different directions. It’s essentially a creative sandbox where you are compelled to tackle multiple challenges at the same time.

Lastly, when you master the essentials of daytime scenarios, you’ll understand better how composition, lighting, and color work together. Those will all become handy in other scenarios as well.

So today, we’ll show you a few key elements of daytime lighting setup. All served in small chunks, so hopefully, you won’t get overwhelmed at any stage. Also, we’ve included many references to additional resources like articles and videos, allowing you to grow in all the departments.

Ok, so what’s the daytime lighting really all about? Let’s find out together!

Building Blocks

Today we’ll show you a certain way of thinking about daytime scenarios.

Imagine it as stepping into a laboratory of sorts, where we isolate individual problems, dissect them, and find solutions within smaller scopes. By breaking down each image into its fundamental building blocks, we can enhance them, improve them and ask questions about them separately.

This way, we’ll shift focus from viewing the image as a whole to examining its smaller details. So we will encourage you, to look at your renders in a specific way, just like in the images below:

Detail Treatment

Memory Colors

We’ll be shedding light on broad aspects you need to consider when dealing with daytime scenarios. And since there’s no way to explain it all in one article, we’ll be directing you to various resources, that will help you understand it all.

Mastering it will require practice, and this will be your hub, leading you to the relevant sources you need at every stage.

This will include:

Sounds interesting? Or maybe a bit scary? Don’t worry. It will all come together soon. And we truly believe that these are the most essential parts of building daytime lighting scenarios, and it will definitely help you propel your career forward.

Ok. Let’s do this!

Evaluate The Potential

The first thing we want to emphasize is this:

If you learn the language of composition, you’ll illuminate your scenes way better.

Oh yes! The good old composition yapping. You’ve heard it like 1000 times already, haven’t you? But it’s THE most important thing. Before you approach lighting, you need to understand what you’re dealing with composition-wise. Sometimes you’ll struggle with the lighting, and it will be just a composition problem to solve. You can learn new lighting tricks, but they will fail if you don’t know when to apply them. So you need to be sensitive to both composition and lighting and how they are tied up together.

Composition is your compass, and it can really set you on the right path to success. So it’s worth listening to it and understanding how to read it.

While we cannot teach you how to do it from scratch, we can show you a really nice way of looking at composition in general. This will help you understand and evaluate composition in external shots:

Good composition lets you discern what’s visually important in the image, right from the get-go. It should simply be satisfying to watch. And any composition mistakes will immediately throw you off, even if you don’t realize it.

It’s a wide topic, but what we propose for now is a bare minimum. Focus on lines, shapes, and depth in your image. Notice where it grabs your attention, what paths your eyes follow, where there is tension, and where you have some space to breathe.

A useful trick is to approach your image as if you're seeing it for the very first time. Try flipping it vertically or viewing it from far away. A well-crafted composition should work effectively both at its full scale and as a miniature representation.

We covered all of this in length in the video you see above. Jump in and learn 5 most important elements to watch for, when you evaluate your composition.

Make it shine!

Now, that you’ve grasped the essence of your image’s DNA, you can approach the lighting.

Where should you start?

With the hero, of course - the architecture.

After all, that’s what you’ve been hired to do. You should try to present it in the best way possible. Your client already envisioned it in their mind and wants the space and materials to look credible. You need to comply with this perception, but at the same time, try to make it as attractive as it is possible according to your expertise.

So, the first crucial thing you need to do is to carefully choose the appropriate sun direction.

Lighting direction plays a huge role in the perception of your client's projects. You should use it to help viewers understand the architecture and appreciate the architectural elements at play. If you bet on a bad direction, you can easily end up with flat, overexposed, unreadable, or simply unattractive scene.

Don’t worry, though! We’ll teach you all the necessary details to make a well-informed decision about it (link below). One of those being a handy little trick, to help you in selecting an optimal sun direction.

Just apply black material to all the objects in the scene, besides the midground. Then you’ll be able to focus on the architecture alone, get that initial feeling of the materials, and choose the best sun direction.

As you dive into the process of selecting the optimal sun direction, you’ll often find two viable options: side lighting from the left or from the right. In the video linked below, we go over a few nuances, but in general, you’ll use side lighting 90% of the time.

Why so often?

Well, this helps the viewers understand the very basic character of architectural massing. They can perceive materials, colors, and reflectivity on a slightly deeper level. And the whole image is nice and 3-dimentional.

It seems to be a clear winner. But we have to admit, this is a bit simplified way of choosing sun's direction. So we need to see the bigger picture and explore additional factors at play.

Sun Direction

Even though you need to choose a direction that works best with the architecture, you also have to remember it will influence everything else in the scene.

You can change the sun's direction every 0,01 degree, so you have a lot of room for fine-tuning. For instance, if you decide to illuminate the right side of the building, the sun can be positioned more towards the front or back of it, while still achieving the desired lighting effect on the right side.

You can explore it and get two drastically different options for side lighting. Just look at the images below. While both of them illuminate the right facade, the lighting has a tremendous effect on the rest of the scene as well.

The ends of this spectrum differ drastically, but they both present the architecture well in their own way. The Lighting is showcasing the key features, with one wall illuminated by the sun, and the other staying in the shadow. And while the sun moves from one end to another, the image also smoothly shifts between two very specific looks. In these two examples, it’s clear as day. 🙂

In the video lesson, we’ve pointed out a few important differences regarding the look of greenery, the sky, reflective objects, micro-contrast, and volumetric behavior.

This will be a solid tool for you to set the proper direction and evaluate whether your scene behaves the way it should.

If you think it’s overwhelming, we’re gonna stop you right there.

You don’t always have to think about all of those differences. It’s important that you’re simply aware - even intuitively or subconsciously - of what you are exactly balancing here. What are these impressions, what are these distinctive looks?

It can work on different levels in various scenes. If you move the sun backward, you’ll start to play with translucency, reflections, and micro-contrast. If you move it forward, you’ll emphasize the natural direct colors and overall blocking of our composition.

Sun direction is a tool we use in different ways, and we'll come back to it later in this article. Feel free to watch the full video to learn more about it, but for now, let's move on.

04. Sun Direction

Check Youtube Video

Fix The Background

Next, let’s shift our focus to the background layer of our image - the area that lies behind your hero object. In many scenarios, the background and foreground are hundreds of meters away from each other. So they should look distinctly different, right?

The best way to achieve that is to apply an aerial perspective to it. It's that atmospheric effect which gives a blue tint to the objects further on the horizon. This will make your image look more natural.

Another thing about aerial perspective is that it dictates how contrasts should look in different layers of an image. Contrast is the sharpest in the foreground and gets softer as we go further until they’re completely washed out.

While this step seems straightforward, surprisingly enough, you see artists getting it wrong. You can notice trees in the background casting shadows at a level of 0% brightness. This should never take place! It ruins the realism, looks unpleasant, and draws viewers' attention away from the main hero.

The simplest way to make it work is to apply some sort of volumetric effect. You can also easily apply it later down the road in Photoshop as well.

One thing’s for sure:

Keep the aerial perspective in mind, as lack of it can easily throw your viewer off.

Fix The Foreground

At this point, we've addressed the architecture in the midground. We've also applied a proper depth in the background, so naturally… it's time to tackle the foreground.

We know this order is slightly counterintuitive because, come on, the foreground usually makes up for half of the image and has a tremendous influence on its perception. And it’s true: foreground will force you to summon all your compositional and lighting skills.

Just look at the example below. Notice how these adjustments can bring about a remarkable difference:

There are quite a few tricks you can use depending on the scene and the sun's direction. There are just too many to go through them in this article. however, we do explain it in great detail in our Masterclass Training.

Ok, here’s a little secret for you:

When it comes to the foreground, you can usually employ some clever cheats to enhance the image. Take a look at the images below and scroll to see both before and after.

Can you guess what are the tricks behind both of them?

The direction of the sun stays the same in both of them. However, there’s a distinct difference between them.

In the image on the left, there’s a box casting a uniform shadow into the scene. In the image on the right, the box has volumetricmtl applied to it. And so its shadow takes a form of a gradient, which has a completely different compositional impact.

You can see it on the diagram below. Pretty neat, right?

It can be challenging, and you need to know many tricks to pull it off. But with time and some experimenting, you’ll learn it all. We’re very lucky because the foreground gives the most creative freedom. You can freely slap your best-quality assets here. Even if there is a landscape project, the decision on how to place an individual tree or a bush will always be yours.

You can juggle objects all around the camera and build shadows that fit your composition. And it’s enough to make it work.

Depth Perception

Check Youtube Video

Seeing The Bigger Picture

Now comes the exciting moment when all the elements of your image come together BIG TIME! Now you can truly examine if the colors, composition and lighting are working as they should. But before we jump into colors, let’s look at the light and composition one last time.

At this stage, you should ask yourself:

- Are your images selling what they're supposed to sell?
- Has the lighting improved the composition?
- Is there anything that’s too distracting?

Go back to the composition DNA and ask yourself:

Hey, what’s the topic here? Sound trivial?

Turns out it’s really not.

Just because you produced a nice image, doesn’t mean it’s a successful one. Especially when it comes to commercial success.

So, at this point, you need to jump back and forth and tweak all the things we’ve covered so far. Make subtle tweaks and changes to achieve the desired outcome. For example, you might rotate the sun slightly, sacrificing a small decrease in the architectural appeal for a significant improvement in the foreground. Take your time to assess the background again. Move objects around the foreground. And so on and on, until you’re happy with the result.

This is the moment to see the big picture. Small adjustments can make or break the composition. So remember to green-light it before you move on to the next step.

Now, let’s sum things up.

You can examine the foreground, midground, and background and assess if they are resolved correctly. You can go back to composition and check if you’re selling what you’re commissioned to. You have a lot of tools to solve problems in smaller elements of the images, instead of looking at them as a whole.

It’s now and only now that you can proceed to colors. You have to do the analysis first because it’s unreasonable to evaluate colors before you apply depth, or if you choose a bad sun direction.

So as we’re approaching the end of this article, We will explore color in two different ways:

First, in black and white, to analyze the underlying tones and values.
Then, finally, in full splendor, explore the rich hues and their impact on the overall image.

We’re going to show you the essentials of it and, again, point you to other sources that will help you analyze your images. Let’s jump right into it.

Investigate B&W Image

So now, let’s be real.

Have you ever analyzed images in B&W? Do you know what a “standard” B&W of the daytime shot looks like? What’s the average brightness of the sky? Have you looked at B&W images of top studios to see, how a successful scenario looks like?

Well, you should definitely do it! And at the same time, pay attention to the histogram of the image.

Each scenario will have a certain look in black and white. You should remember how it looks and how the histogram reflects it. Where does it start, and where does it end?

Even more so, you should know how to assess problems in the image, solely by looking at the histogram. Although it might seem confusing at first, we promise, you’ll get a hold of it. And when you do, you'll take it even further.

You’ll learn to adjust contrast just by looking at a B&W image. ou can probably already tell the difference in contrast, ranging from punchy to mellow, in the collage below:

With practice, you’ll know how to technically pull it off. And black&white images will help you do it. You’ll put your renders on the right track and decide if you want them to be more punchy or not.

Understanding values and contrast is another essential building block of image creation. We encourage you to explore this subject even further. While we've only scratched the surface here, you can delve deeper into the topic in our free YouTube lesson on Values.

Additionally, our Masterclass offers a comprehensive lesson on contrast, if you decide to grab instant access to it.

Tonal Range

Check Youtube Video

Investigate Hues

When you set a proper contrast in black and white, focus on one seemingly simple thing: hues of the sky and the greenery. That’s all. Seriously!

Hues of the greenery and the sky are so-called memory colors and whenever they show up in your images, they have to be very well-adjusted. Those are the colors your viewers care about and understand the most (usually subconsciously). They will feel it when something’s off. And the greater the deviation from natural color, the more it will repel your viewers.

So from now on, you should pay extra attention to the colors of greenery and sky. Build a mental benchmark in your head of what these colors should look like.

For example, check out how it all hit the right marks in the works of our special guests:

When you compare the images of many great artists, you’ll see a certain spectrum of hues they use for the greenery and the sky. Many artists chose similar ones because they sell well visually. And you can learn them too.

The greens should be neither too yellow nor too blue. And the skies - neither too green nor too magenta.

Take a close look at the works of other artists, focusing on the greens and the sky. Try to replicate their color choices. If you focus on it and nail down those hues, you’ll make a huge difference.

If you want to explore this issue, there are a lot of materials for you in the links below:

#Bonus Greenery

This is the last bonus trick and we’re seriously done for today.

We’ve covered quite a lot of subjects, because to be good at 3d exterior lighting, you need to get good at many things. Choosing an optimal light direction, dealing with background and foreground, and understanding how to light the scene - those are the elements of a daytime commercial render. But there’s one more aspect that demands your attention:

3d plant shading!

And instead of making your shaders from scratch, let’s focus on just how to improve and tweak them. Even though we totally encourage you to do the former, usually, you’ll get sound results with shaders that are just good enough.

For example, look at the images below.

You’d be surprised, but we’ve used just really basic, shockingly simple 3d shaders in all of them.

It takes some practice to learn it, but when it clicks, it’s just another automatic thing you do in your process. And to be honest, all you need to do is to train your eye, build that mental benchmark of memory colors and just fix it. You can improve the quality of your shaders drastically with minimal effort.

Little spoiler here, just focus on diffuse, translucency level and color.

Make sure that translucency is not too bright, or diffuse is not too blue, and dark. Check if the translucency level is between 0,15 - 0,7 and if the IOR is nothing crazy. All in all, there’s just a list of things you should check and a direction you try to achieve.

You can learn more about it in the materials below.


And there you have it!

We know it was quite a lot, but what’s fascinating about this approach is that you can use all the principles you’ve learned here today and apply them in other scenarios too.

For instance, analyze and consider the sun's direction for a sunset scene when the sun hangs low above the horizon. Think about how to handle the foreground in an overcast scenario where direct sunlight is absent. While you'll employ different techniques to address these specific challenges, the fundamental questions remain the same.

We hope you enjoyed this article, and if you want to hear some more, join us on YouTube.

Every month we post another free lesson from CommonPoint Masterclass 3d Exterior Lighting. And if you’d like to support us, grab an instant access to the whole training, along with a full 3d scene.

Stay awesome and become a better artist soon!

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