Catching Rays: Rendering the Final Landscape

Final rendering
Final rendering with fewer clouds and day and time set to 8:15 a.m., May 1, 2016.

Maybe it’s because of my photography background, but lighting a digital 3D scene is my favorite part of the process. It’s my reward for all the long hours spent planning, modeling and shading. It’s fun to watch everything come to life.

This is a digital landscape, so of course we’re free to light it any way we want.

But visual verisimilitude is an important goal here. Most readers will sense that the image not a real photo. But it still needs to be as convincing as possible – if only to not distract from the story we want to tell. And shadows that point the wrong way would be a dead giveaway.

The lighting will simulate a specific date: May 1, 2016, close to the magazine’s publication date. Terragen is really good at simulating natural light, so it will be a simple matter to position the sun once we know where it’s supposed to go.

To find out, we return to, locate the observatory (due east of Puebla), and set the date for May 1. The website calculates the sun’s position throughout the day and allows us to download the data as an Excel file.

Any landscape photographer knows that early morning or evening light makes the most dramatic photos. That’s also the case here. After a few tests I pick a time shortly after sunrise. The low angle of the sun illuminates the observatory in the foreground – almost like a spotlight – but leaves much of the background in shadow. Backlighting makes the clouds seem to glow. Details near the mountain peak get some nice highlights.

Mainly out of curiosity, I later rendered a quick animation to show how the lighting changes over the course of the day. It clearly shows how much more dramatic the lighting is at either end. The low, raking angle accentuates every detail and, besides being more pleasing, also communicates more information about the scene.

Here is how it looks with the air shower images added, with some enhancements in Photoshop:

Air shower added in Photoshop and glow effect applied.
Air shower added in Photoshop and glow effect applied.