Tips to Get Your Renders One Step Closer to Photorealism

Renders by Curtis Lau
September 16, 2021
written by
Curtis Lau

While the best way to realistically represent a product is with traditional photography, technological advancements in 3D modelling software has made creating photorealistic renders easier at a fraction of the time and cost. This article will offer some tips to help get you started in producing a more photorealistic render.

What is photorealistic rendering?

As the name suggests, a photorealistic rendering is created through the use of a computer rendering software to produce a life-like image that looks as if it was captured by a camera. Though the quality of a photo remains the most ideal for product visualizations, digital renderings offer more creative control and freedom to easily adjust specific parameters that are hard to do with traditional photography.

Representing a product through a photorealistic render helps present it for marketing purposes and helps breathe life into it to connect with audiences and communicate an intended idea or story.

The closer to realism the render gets, the more it helps emphasize the viability of the product to potential customers.

Here are some tips to help your renders achieve a more photorealistic quality.

Note: Tips shown here are done in Blender but can be applied to other 3D software as well.

1. Soften hard edges

Perfectly sharp edges on everyday objects rarely exist in real life. Softening the edges of your model with a fillet will help give it a natural highlight when illuminated. Take into account that this process can be tricky if the geometry of the model you are working with is complex.

2. Use PBR textures for your model

PBR (physically based rendering) is a rendering process that tries to mimic the interaction between the surfaces of materials and light with its real-world counterpart. Understanding how to work with PBR textures is very beneficial if photorealism is something you are aiming for. There are many resources online that offer these textures as well as instructions on how to properly apply them for the best results.

Don’t be afraid to tune the texture’s shader settings to something that best suits your model. Just be sure to work with a reference.

3. Add a touch of imperfection

No object in the real world is free from fingerprints, dust, or scratches. There is a bit of chaos everywhere in the real world. In a digital workspace, however, the opposite is the case. Everything is assembled perfectly, with perfect edges and spotless surfaces, void of any human contact.

Adding imperfections to surfaces helps bring life and even a story to your model. This could be adding blemishes like finger smudges to the surfaces of your model or introducing wear onto the edges. To further enhance the effect of this, take into account where you add these imperfections! A fingerprint on a commonly used button is a lot more believable than having it randomly placed elsewhere.

Do be careful to only add a subtle amount of surface imperfection to your model. Believe me, it is very easy to get carried away. You want these textures to enhance your model, not distract from it.

4. Imitate real-world lighting

Lighting plays a critical role in pushing your render to the next level. HDRIs (high dynamic range images) are something you could consider using to produce a more life-like environment for your product.

HDRIs are images you can use to light your 3D scene by wrapping itself around the digital world like a sphere. Imagine it like the sky that envelopes an environment. A sunrise would illuminate objects in a scene with soft, warm lighting, while a bright sunny sky would light objects with a more intense, cooler lighting.

In a way, you are using specific lighting values from a photo to light your scene. You can always add lights manually to recreate the lighting conditions an HDRI provides. However, considering how easy it is to set it up, you should take full advantage of HDRI lighting, especially with the amount of detail it provides.

With that said, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to also add additional lighting to your scene, which leads to the next tip.

5. Experiment with different lighting setups

Add a few lighting sources onto your scene, as well as experiment with the sizing and positioning of these sources to dynamically highlight objects or specific areas of interest. This part can get a little tricky in the rendering process since you need to make sure there’s a balance between the intensities of all the lighting you have. Though a good starting point would be to light your scene with three-point lighting, keep playing with the lighting to see what kind of setup works the best with your product’s context.

6. Adding depth of field

One of the easiest ways to make your render look realistic is by adding depth of field. Depth of field is a photographic technique that determines how much of your image is in focus. Adding subtle depth of field will not only highlight and bring your subject into focus but will also help make your render look like it came from a camera.

Just remember that a little goes a long way. Similar to adding imperfections, it’s very easy to add too much to your overall composition. The times where it makes sense to have a stronger depth of field is in a situation where you are preparing for a close-up shot, or to help emphasize the scale of a smaller-sized model.

7. Post-processing

Following the previous tip of depth of field, adding other post-processing effects like bloom, glare, or chromatic aberration to your render not only makes it looks good but will also help make the overall image look more photo real by imitating effects created by a camera lens. Again, be cautious not to overdo it otherwise the effect of realism will be lost.

The post-processing doesn’t end in the 3D rendering software. It is also good to look at your rendered image again in an image-editing program like Adobe Photoshop for further tweaking. Tuning the colours and overall contrast of your image are a few of the adjustments I find myself commonly make.

8. The small details matter

The final tip is to account for the smallest of details. Similar to surface imperfection, usually the subtle details that are most easily overlooked are the ones that trick the viewer into believing the render is real. This could mean offsetting doors of a cabinet unevenly, adding a little bit of fuzz to fabric materials, or giving a set of pillows different variations of folds and wrinkles. Again, work with references and try to imitate the “unnatural” patterns you see.

This isn’t the easiest tip to give since it highly depends on the model and its surrounding environment, but overall will help push your render one step closer to realism.

Though plentiful, these tips are only the starting point! What sets good renders apart from great renders is whether they can effectively convey a desired message or idea to the viewer, and that just comes with practice.

If you want to learn more about rendering, there are still more detail-oriented tips that couldn’t make this list, so be on the lookout for future posts!

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