Studio lighting is a technique in 3D that was taken from traditional photography and cinematography. Typically in photography a studio light setup consists of a simple white backdrop in a room without any windows so no sunlight can come in. This allows complete control over the 3D lighting and numerous different lights are set up to perfectly illuminate the subject in a pleasing and non distractive way.
Its typical purpose is to present a product or a portrait in the best possible way. Studio lighting can be seen in just about every photograph in a magazine, whether it's a product display or portrait. For example, go to your favorite burger place and look at the menu, the burgers always look better in the picture don't they? Well if you were to get a behind the scenes look, you would see an elaborate studio lighting setup with numerous lights perfectly placed just to illuminate this one burger.
With using a studio lighting approach you have complete control over your lighting and how it should be displayed in your render. When needing to showcase something you want it to have no distractions for the viewer, which means dark areas, bright spots or deep shadows. The viewer should be able to see exactly what it is that is being shown to them.
Studio lighting in 3D is basically the same as it is in photography except in one you are using virtual lights and a virtual scene and the other can easily cost into the thousands for a good studio light setup. Remember that using a studio light setup is not necessarily the best approach for all of your projects, especially when needing to illuminate your scene in a more realistic way by using a directional light to mimic the sun.
Studio lighting is great for something like product visualization, a character bust or an automotive rendering, something that is going to be a still image, and needs to be showcased in the best way. So first determine if your project would benefit from this type of lighting approach.
Tips for Setting Up Proper Studio Lighting
One of the first steps for setting up your studio lighting for your scene is to create the studio backdrop. This serves the same purpose as the photographer's white backdrop. It doesn't need to be fancy, just a simple backdrop for your product to sit on. A great way for setting this up is using a NURBS plane because it is smoother than a polygon object. Once created, a simple bend deformer can be added to curve the plane upward creating a nice smooth backdrop.
A common technique for setting up studio lighting is to use the three-point lighting approach. By establishing these three lights in your scene you can have a great place to start from and build upon. Keep in mind that three point lighting is typically set up using three spot lights, but don't be afraid to use a different light type, like an area light to achieve the look that you want, and to properly illuminate the subject.
Since studio lighting is all about making the product look better, working with studio lighting is a great time to take advantage of a linear workflow. This will allow you to achieve a better and more consistent lighting.
A linear workflow simply allows the lighting information to be properly displayed on your monitor and display it closer to what the human eye sees. To learn more about setting up a linear workflow check out this tutorial on linear workflow rendering strategies in Maya.
When you are setting up your studio lighting and beginning to fine tune it, make sure you are happy with your camera angle that you have. Most times with studio lighting, it is set up in such a way so that it only looks correct in this one view. As soon as you adjust your camera angle so too will your lights need to be adjusted accordingly, so to avoid this make sure you have established a proper camera angle that best showcases the product.
By default most light types in a 3D application will have no decay rate set for them. Meaning it will be just as bright on an object three feet away as it would for an object 500 feet way. This is obviously very unrealistic to what we see in the real world where the further light travels the less intense it is. Make sure you utilize the light decay rate options for your light sources so your render will be properly lit in a realistic way.
When it comes to studio lighting there is really no limit or magic number to how many lights you should use for your setup. The purpose is to be able to display your subject so there are no distractive shadows, or dark spots, etc. If that means adding more lights to get rid of these areas, then don't be afraid to do so. As long as it looks good in the render that's all that matters.
An important thing to remember when adjusting the lights in your scene is that the light levels should be relatively even in the render. You don't want some lights too intense to where some areas on the model are blown out, or too low to where some spots are too dark. In the above image, you can see that the render on the left is blown out, and your eye automatically goes to the areas of intense brightness. The image on the right has been leveled out, with the light being distributed evenly throughout the render, showcasing the entire product, and not putting emphasis on just one area, which is what you want when it comes to these types of product renders.
When you need to render a product visualization or just want to create a nice looking render, try a studio lighting approach. To learn more about setting up great studio lighting check out this Studio Lighting Techniques in Maya tutorial.
Keep learning with more 3D lighting posts and 3D lighting tutorials.