Integrating Your Lighting With 2D Backgrounds

June 22, 2007 10:57 pm

Morning Attack

I am assuming you know how to get lights into your scene and adjust their paramaters. One thing that I seem to get the most comments about is the lighting in my scenes. Lighting can add mystery, drama and realism to a scene, or if badly done, totally ruin an otherwise well crafted work.

I take a rather minimalist apprach to lights. I prefer not to use light sets, or if I do include them, I pare them down considerably.
I rarely have more than 3 or 4 lights in a scene.

In a studio, photographers put the lights where they feel they best enhance the subject. That is okay if you actually want your model to appear to be standing in front of a backdrop such as in portraiture. But if your goal is to make your model interact with the environment, then the lights you add have to work with the environment too.

Always keep in mind where your main light source is supposed to be coming from. This is particularly important when using a pre-made background or other 2D image. I find it jarring to see shadows on one side of background images and at a completely different angle on the model(s).

The Adept

Study your background image and determine where it would have been lit from. Once you think you have that figured out, try placing lights, one at a time, and do some test renders to make sure the shadows on your character are as close as possible in placement to those in the image.

Also, pay attention to the sharpness of the shadows. If they are clear and deep, you want to use bright lights. If they are soft and muted, then your lights will also have to be. This will take some experimentation.

Another consideration is the colours. You may have to adjust the colour of the light(s) to achieve a similar effect as the play of light and shadows in your background image.

If there is a light source actually in the background image, you will need to have lighting coming from that direction. This adds a new challenge as your model will likely be in front of the light. If you don't want your image to be a silhouette though, another source will need to be added. I don't find random omnipresent lights to be very realistic or interesting.

Moonlight Magic

Remember that light does reflect off of nearly everything, even air. Barring being in a vacuum, there will always be a little residual light everywhere if there is a light source present. Of course, you can't depend on your virtual fog/air/walls etc. to reflect much light so it will have to be faked. I like to use spotlights or pointlights to replicate ambient light. I place them in front of my model at a very low setting, just enough to bring out details. Morning Attack has a distant light coming from the sun and a spotlight in front and to the left to simulate ambient light from the fog.

Other ways to get light into a backlit scene include: fire, campfires, torches, spells, lamps, lighters, headlights, street signs, and other glowing objects. It is helpful if you have them actually in the scene, but it is not necessary if you can convincingly infer their presence. For example, spotlights or pointlights with orange/yellow light shining on your character can make it seem there is a fire nearby, especially if you can get the reflection into eyes or gear. I place the point lights right in the items casting the light, even if the item is off screen (make sure to turn off cast shadows and adjust opacity in the "glowing" objects). In The Adept, the object she is holding actually has 3 different coloured pointlights set in different places, simulating the multicoloured inner light of the "orb." The orb was actually added in postwork, as it is a 2D fractal image.

Light might also be coming from multiple sources. In Moonlight Magic, the light is coming from the moon (distant light) behind her, the staff and 2 magic missiles (point lights).


Some of the light sources can be off screen, but just from context we know it makes sense for them to be there. In Magefire, he is being struck by bright moonlight (bright white spot light set far to the left) as well as the glow from the spell he is casting (purple pointlights inside and parented to each of the magic missiles he is casting).

Finally, make sure your background is actually sufficiently lit. If it is dull, while your model is bright, it will again look like a photographer's backdrop. If I am using a cyclorama or other plane, I usually point a spotlight at it with it's spread angle set to encompass the plane.

Whatever light you put into a scene, think of why it is there, how strong it is, colour, and why it is casting from the direction it does.

Happy rendering :)


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dragonmuse - Guest Columnist
What keeps me going is the images in my mind, all clamoring to get out. Sometimes those images are the impetus for me to learn new things because my skills do not match what I want to do. This is especially important to me as I have an illness that makes learning very difficult. My art helps me overcome the pain and fog, even though it is usually a slow process.
Always looking for ways to improve my work and new ways to do things, I doubt that I will ever be totally satisfied with anything that I do. I also like my work to say something, to elicit feelings from the viewers, even if only a sense of familiarity. It is my way to reach out to people :)

August 6, 2007

Article Comments

Virtual_World ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 09 August 2007

Thank you dragonmuse for this fantastic article on lighting!

sapat ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 10 August 2007

Wonderful article, very insightful. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. Visited your galleries and your images are very well done, and I especially love the Requiem revamped.

Kachi ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 11 August 2007

Interesting stuff, thankyou for writing it!

rodneyrenouf ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 12 August 2007

A true artist is never fully satisfied with their art, no mater what type or how well done it is. I have not seen your gallery yet, but as soon as I leave this page that is where I am heading. As for the article it is very informative and well written. Great job.