Lighting 3D Characters for Storytelling

In this video, Martin Klekner shares several character lighting tips that he learned throughout his career as a cinematic 3D artist. From light placement, to adjusting its quality, quantity and color, you will learn practical workflows to make your character lighting more cinematic and help you in your storytelling needs.

Substance Painter Launch Pad

Kickstart your PBR Texturing Skills

Here’s what we will cover:

Lighting Scenario 1: Beauty lighting (02:21)

There are several questions you should ask yourself before you start the lighting process:

  1. What is the focus of the shot?
    In this example case we know that the focus is drawing the attention to the character. To do so, keep in mind that human eye is attracted by the brightest spots or those that has more contrast.
  2. What is our relationship to the character?
    How do you want to portray him? This is something that will change in each scenario of course. In this first example try to make something pretty common, very similar to what you usually can see in commercials, model photos and movies that want to achieve some calmness and general lack of tension.
    For that first try to ensure you have a pretty neutral composition like the one you can see in the example.
  3. What techniques support our decisions?
    According to the answers to previous questions you’ll be able to choose the right techniques that will support your choices.
For that first try to ensure you have a neutral composition

High-key / Low-key lighting (04:00)

For the first scenario, something that will fit pretty well is a High-key lighting, which is basically a very bright setup that fills your scene with light. The opposite of that would be a Low-key scenario, which is much more dramatic. You’ll see some examples of this kind of lighting later.

So to set a high key lighting, you can start by adding some brightness to your environment and you can do this by using an HDRI. There are several websites like HDRI Heaven or where you can download some HDRIs for free. 

It’s really important to spend some time on choosing the right HDRI and rotate it around since it will influence the whole lighting process.

The HDRI will influence the whole lighting process.

Light types (Key, Fill, Back, Rim…)(05:06)

After choosing the right HDRI image, you can start to add some lamps. The first one will be a soft Key light.
Before going on with our scene let’s take a look to which kind of lights you usually have in a scene.

 So a Key light is the first and usually most important light in a lighting setup, highlight the form and dimension of the subject. 

Key light

By adding the keylight, some dark shadows will inevitably show themselves, these can be filled with a Fill light

Key light + Fill light

Then, there is also the Back light, that is used to separate the character from the background and give it a nice highlight on the edges.

Key light + Fill light + Back light

Light Quality – Soft Lighting (06:02)

Coming back to the first scene lighting, to achieve the softness of the Key light, you can make it bigger. The bigger the size is, the softer is the result and vice versa. A softer lighting will help you to achieve a less dramatic result. You can use a Spot light set on white color with a tiny bit of warmth for this purpose. 

By making the key light softer, you'll achieve a less dramatic result.

At this point you can place another soft light below the character to fill the shadows that came out. This time you can use an area light to make it softer. In this way you’ll achieve a nice glowy fill.

Add a soft light below the character to fill the shadows.

Finally, add one more Soft light and place it behind the character to the top. In this way you’ll separate your character from the background and add a nice glow effect to his hair. You can make this light colder to combine it with the warmer Key light.

Add a back light to separate your character from the background

To achieve a better result you can tweak some settings in the rendering tab like activate Ambient Occlusion, enable Bloom, raise the resolution of shadows and turn on the Soft Shadows. 

One more thing you can do is to add a fog element. If you don’t know how to create it, just take a look to this video

As a last touch you can add a spotlight to the background, illuminating it lightly trough the window and add a dust texture to the scene. At this point you’re done!

Lighting Scenario 2: Dramatic (08:54)

The second example will be something much more dramatic. 

So put your character in a more dynamic pose to add some drama. Position the camera so that it’s almost on the same level as him, only slightly below him. This will give the viewer a feeling of being a tiny little inferior.

Light Ratio – Low / High Light Ratio (08:56)

To add some emphasis you can use the so-called Light Ratio, which is basically the contrast between the dark and the light areas of the image. There are two types of Light Ratio: 

  1. Low Light Ratio: Has just a little contrast between the darkest and the lightest areas.
  2. High Light Ratio: Has high contrast between the dark and light areas of the image. This is the one we’re going to use.
To add some emphasis you can use the so-called Light Ratio

In this case no HDRI is needed, we can use the default gray background. This time we will show a part of the window, so we can add an image of a landscape behind it. Add also some fog like in the previous example, this will allow you to fill the scene and have very nice light streaks.

This time add the background light first, so you can see your light streaks on the wall. You can use a sun light, it will give you really straight shadows, harder to achieve with a spotlight. To illuminate your character better, also add a proper Key light: a spotlight behind the window. 

Short (Reverse) / Broad Lighting (12:01)

This type of Key Lighting, when the light is most intense on the side of the face opposite to the camera, is called Short Lighting. If you shone the light on the side of the face that is close to us, it would be called Broad Lighting

Since you’re searching a more dramatic effect, go with the Reverse one.


Paramount Lighting (12:23)

The type of Key Light, that strong raised up, coming from the front of the character is sometimes called Paramount light. You will recognize it by a distinct shadow under the nose, also called as butterfly shadow.

Butterfly shadow.

Loop Lighting (12:46)

If you move the light slightly to the side, you get Loop lighting, indicated by the looped shadow under the nose.

Loop lighting

Coming back to the scene: you can give to your light a warm orangy color, this will simulate a late afternoon sun.

Finally, you can add one more spot light, with bluish color and a small radius for hard effect, illuminating the character from behind. Raise the specular value of your light to make everything glint a little more.
You can add one more spot light illuminating the character from behind.

Motivated Lighting (13:52)

Using a physical incorrect lighting, like in this case, is something that happens pretty often in CG. This is totally okay as long as you respect some rules

One of these rules is called Motivated Lighting and it means that you shouldn’t make up lights that don’t make sense.  For example, in our composition we have two “fake” lights here: one is coming from the window and another one comes from the other side of the room, where theoretically could be another window, so both of them totally make sense.

At this point the result is already pretty good. As optional plus you can add a small fill light that illuminates only character’s face to make the shadows a little softer on that area. Another optional addition you can make is adding a soft light to illuminate the area on the right side and the ground slightly, like if there is a window.  

Finally, you can add a big bluish area light behind the window we see in our render, to fill the fog with some more bluish light spill.

These last tree things are just small touches and you can choose if use them or not according to your personal taste.

Don’t forget to add a transparent image of dust like you already did in the previous example and also a new one with light rays. These two will add some realism to your scene.

You shouldn't make up lights that don't make sense.

Lighting Scenario 3: Mysterious (16:40)

Now we can try an even more dramatic scene.

Place the camera very low to indeed feel very little compared to the character, and move the camera to really focus on him. Bring the environment shader almost to black.

You can use the same settings from the previous example, like the fog.

In this case the setup will be very simple. You will create a very low Key light, which will help to give your scene a mysterious atmosphere.

Place the camera very low to indeed feel very little compared to the character.

Hair Light (17:28)

To create this mysterious atmosphere, you can use the so-called Hair light

It’s a light placed on the top of the character and it’s called hair light because it creates a very strong light rim on the top of his head. Bring the specular value to maximum. You can make it blueish, like it’s actually a moonlight coming from a hole in the roof.

Hair Light creates a very strong light rim on the top of character's head.

Split Lighting, Rembrandt Lighting (19:23)

You can also add an orangy Key Light, like if there’s a torch that could possibly hang on the left side of the scene. In this case a point light can be a good choice.
This kind of lighting that illuminates only one side of character’s face is called Split lighting, because it splits the face into a light and dark side.
Split Lighting.

Another similar kind of lighting is the Rembrandt Lighting

This one is based on the paintings of the famous Dutch painter, who regularly used a specific light scenario where his Key Light would be very much to the side, but not too much, still shining over the nose  onto the other cheek.

Rembrandt Lighting.

Anyway in the example you will use the Split lighting.

At this point duplicate the key light and place it to the opposite side, this time place it on the ground, just like if it came from a candle. In this way you will fill the other side of the character with some light.

You can use depth of field to draw the attention even more on the character’s face and focus out everything that’s not needed. If that’s not enough you can add a spotlight with a very low angle to slightly illuminate his face from the right side.

And finally again add the dust texture, and you’re done!

Duplicate the key light and place it to the opposite side, just like it came from a candle.

Lighting Scenario 4: Evil (21:21)

In this example you will see how to achieve an Evil type of illumination.

The first thing to do is changing the camera’s position to something more dynamic. Try to place it directly below the character, make the focal length sightly lower and rotate it on y-axis. 

This kind of framing will make the viewer feel overwhelmed, like the character is towering above him.

Place the camera directly below the character.

After that you can change the world surface shader and tint it towards dark greens. To justify this tint add green slits to the window. As in previous examples don’t forget to add some fog.

To achieve evil atmosphere you can combine the green tints with red illumination.

The first light you can add is a very intense red Back Light. Then you can add a spotlight to the opposite side, so it will act as rim. Give it a green tint and higher specularity.
To achieve evil atmosphere you can combine the green tints with red illumination.

Finally you can add a small angle spotlight to get rid of the ugly shadows on the character’s face. 

The last light you will add is a small spotlight that will illuminate the ground on the left side, to justify the red fill light.

One more thing you can do is to tint the dust texture in green using an RGB curves node.
Evil lighting scenario finished.

Lighting Scenario 5: Dynamic (25:03)

This time you will see how to do a dynamic shot.

This time the camera will be placed in a higher point of view. In this way you can use a wide angle camera without making the viewer feel like if there’s something wrong. To achieve more dynamic feeling, try to roll the camera to about 7 degrees.


The camera will be placed in a higher point of view.

Now you can start with the lights. 

To divide the character from the background you can add a strong spotlight behind him. Place it slightly to the side and above. In this way you will highlight the body and the staff as well. 

Then you can add another spot, this time big and soft to fill the opposite side of character’s face with a bluish sky color. 

Finally, you can add a point light in front of him and slightly above, so you can fill the nasty dark regions.


Checkerboard Lighting (27:27)

Actually here you can see an interesting lighting technique, called Checkerboard Lighting. Basically, just like a checkerboard it works with alternating dark and bright regions.

In fact here we have a very bright top part of his body with a very dark background and a dark bottom part of the body contrasted with a very bright floor. Since the human eye is very attracted by contrast, this helps us to make the character stand out a lot.

You can add one more light as an extra: a spotlight that you can put above and behind the character just to create a nice mix with the yellow glow.

Again, as final touch, you can add a dust image and you’re done!

Checkerboard Lighting

Lighting Scenario 6: Mystical (28:35)

This one will be the most extreme of the examples. Also, it might be the simplest to make.

The goal to achieve is a very mystical, atmospheric and supernatural shot. To do so you can use a Silhouette lighting.

The first thing to do is turning the world surface shader color almost all the way to black. Then you should add some fog with the help of principled volume shader. Increase the Density to 0.1 to make it much more dense. Also, increase the Anisotropy value to 0.8.

At this point you can add a spotlight behind the character and you’ll immediately achieve a great result with beautiful light shafts. Using a purple pinkish tint will add even more mysticism to your scene.


In this case one light is enough to have a great result!

Now you have a pretty nice look already, so you will not need any more lights, but you still can make the scene better by adding some 3D elements.

For example, you can add some little spheres here and there to make the background less boring. Also, to add some variety to the light shape you can add some cubes in front of it. This will make it feel more natural.


In this case one light is enough to have a great result!

Next, you can add some dust particles like in previous examples. Maybe it would be better to low down a bit their emission value. You can add another image texture set up in the same way but this time with some fog instead of dust.

Finally, to push the levitation theme of this image, you can add some levitating objects, like stones for example.

And now your scene is ready!


Mystical scenario ready


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.