How to Visualize Photography Lighting Setups in Blender

Not too long ago I finally got around to picking up a decent manual flash for exploring lighting and speedlight techniques. I picked up a Yongnuo YN-560 Speedlight Flash for Canon and Nikon, and my friend Sean was kind enough to send me his old radio triggers to play with. I was mostly all set to start exploring the world of off-camera lighting…

I say mostly because though I had a rough understanding of how I wanted to use the light, I was not well versed on what could be done with it. So I spent a bit of time on the Flickr Strobist Group, and read through all of the Lighting courses on the Strobist site. There is an absolute wealth of information on the site, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Having a reference for how the contribution of different types of light will affect the final outcome is very handy for me. I’ve seen people who have taken the time to setup lighting diagrams where they will modify a given light for direction/angle, and cycle through many possibilities to help as a reference (here is one cheat-sheet from DIY Photography).

This is nice, but what if I wanted to visualize the effect multiple lights will have all simultaneously? I guess I could go and shoot every, possible, variation, but I am really lazy. Plus, I don’t have access to a model with the patience to sit there while I fiddle with multiple lights, multiple times.

It occurred to me that I already had a great tool for doing this visualization already installed on my computer. That tool is Blender 3D. I already had been using this open source 3D modeling tool for some time, and was familiar enough with it to be comfortable emulating my lighting setups. All I needed was a good model.

Infinite Realities released a full 3D scan by Lee Perry-Smith that was graciously licensed under CC-BY. This gave me a full 3D scan of a head & shoulders with the UV maps already created for textures, and a normal map to use for bumping. Perfect!

I loaded up the model and textures, and proceeded to create some lights in Blender that would mimic lights I might use in the real world.

I focused first on a softbox. I have a DIY 24″ softbox I put together ages ago that I used as a primary light for some time. I wanted to emulate what I was getting as a result from that lightbox, virtually.

24″ softbox 45° cam left, up 30°


What’s cool, though, is that I can now add any other type of light that I want easily to see what the effect will look like. Say I wanted to add a kicker behind me on the shadow side of that softbox?

24″ softbox 45° cam left, up 30° with kicker behind ~ 45°

Or place 2 identical softboxes to either side of the subject…

24″ softbox left and right of subject

I can also emulate the effect of other types of light modifiers. If I wanted to use a ringflash only, I could do this…

Ringflash (or beauty dish if I wanted)

Or I could try any combination my heart desires! In this case, what about a clamshell setup, where I vary the power of the lower half of the setup…

Clamshell – top and bottom same power (both 24″ softboxes)

Clamshell – top full power, bottom 25% (both 24″ softboxes)

Clamshell – top full power, bottom 30% & kickers

I could go on and on with examples, but I think you get the idea.

Now, I’ll go ahead and leave the .blend file here for anyone to download and use. Don’t forget that you’ll need to grab Blender as well (download Blender here).

Download the 3D Lighting .blend file (27MB)

A few quick words of note to help out if you’re new to Blender. Right-click will select an object (it will turn orange). The “A” key will select all, and cycle to select none if you hit it again.

The softbox shown in the initial startup is set to always point at the model (so is the camera, btw), and to stay a set distance from them (approximately 2 feet). With the object selected (like the softbox), the “G” key will allow you to move it in a view, and the “R” key will allow you to rotate it in a view. The main window is what the camera is seeing, and there are side and top views right next to it.

Most importantly, the F12 function key will render your image for you!

I did intend to try to make this more user-friendly. The key word there was “intend” as it’s a royal PITA to do so. I may fiddle with it more if there is any response or interest, and try to help out where I can.

In the meantime, I generated the obligatory light map cheat sheet from all of the different renders. There are three here, one for the softbox level, at 30°, and at 60°. All of them move the softbox around the subject in 5° increments.

Softbox Level with subject, 5° increment rotation. (Download full size)

Softbox 30° with subject, 5° increment rotation. (Download full size)

Softbox 60° with subject, 5° increment rotation. (Download full size)

Feel free to use these cheat sheets however you see fit! Hopefully this will be helpful to at least a few people who might be brave enough to tackle the Blender interface to try this out. I know it’s been quite helpful for me to be able to quickly setup a scene and visualize what it will look like ahead of time!

About the author: Pat David is a Director of R&D by day, and an amateur photographer by night (and some weekends). You can find him writing up GIMP tutorials and other errata on his blog, or peruse more of his photography experiments on his Flickr page.

  • Lou

    That’s pretty cool!  I’ve thought about doing something like this before, but I haven’t played with Lightwave or anything in over a decade…  This is a pretty powerful substitute for those who want more power than what’s available in the Studio Light Rigger app (|Apps)

  • Mike Distras

    Oooo im going to download Blender now purely so i can test this out.

    Ive lighting set ups in my head, but havnt bought the equipment yet. It could potentially save me money if the sets ups arnt good in practice/blender – Or make me spend twice as much with ideas! :D

  • danielmaissan

    I’m definately going to try this…. if I can figure out the programm, does that also mean that I can make a complete light setup of a set? (eg. a room whith furniture and one or two people.) And can you vary the light source?

  • Pat David

    This is absolutely possible to do, though the render times might start to make you cry…

    This example is raytracing my lights, but with the exception of a single wall behind the head for some of the test I was running, it was just the head in space (I added ambient occlusion to simulate some light spillage from the environment).

  • Terrance Lam

    Nice write up Pat…. hey are you going to do any thing new with your awesome Patr chrome extension plug in?

  • Pat David

    Thanks!  I do have plans, but I’m juggling time right now. :(  First on my list is to fix things that got wonky when Flickr rolled out their new design stuff…

  • danielmaissan

    Hi Pat, thanks for your quick respons. I’ve downloaded the program and the file… but I have to say… i think this is a bit more then I can handle allready… let alone if I want to make sets in it…. lol. How for example do I get a second or third lightsource in my example?

  • Pat David

    Yeah, I wanted to (and still will try) to put together a basic video tutorial walking through how to get around at least in Blender…

    Add another light source?  In one of the 3D views, hit the spacebar, and type in “add lamp”.  The option should show up, and you can add another light. :)

  • 9inchnail

    Great tip. Don’t think, my old PC will be able to pull this off, rendering would propably take forever. Someone needs to make an app or something that does just this. Good stuff.

  • Pat David

    I’ve updated the post to include zip files of all the renders I used to make the lighting maps.  You can open these individually in your editor and combine them to see the cumulative effects (set one over the other as a layer, and set it’s layer mode to “Screen”).  No re-rendering needed… :)

  • Pat David

    Also, the download link the article is suspended (thank you very much Dropbox…).  I’ve since updated it by mirroring the file over to google docs:

  • Bill

    Anyone have any mirror links to the 3D Lighting Blender file, I guess it is too popular, download link was suspended due to too much traffic.  Looks really cool

  • Bill

     Looks like I forgot to read before posting….thanx Pat

  • Renato Murakami

    Awesome stuff Pat! Not only for pros, this can also be a very clear and powerful tool for teachers and students trying to understand more about light/lighting setups.

  • Jack Dausman

    this is a game changer. Very cool, very powerful. I’m impressed by your imagination.

  • Anette Du Preez

    Very nice! However can’t download the file on second link either :(

  • Michael Zhang

    Which link?