The Overlooked Simplicity of a Single Light

Nov 15, 2022 at 07:27 pm by Warlord720

Point lights – area lights, spotlights, volumetric lights, atmosphere, Image Based Lighting, HDRI and let’s not forget post-processing. It seems complicated because it is complicated if you are new to it all. Even to those of us that have been along for the ride since the days of 3D Studio, it can become a bit tedious to lay out dozens of lights or more to get that perfect cinematic look.

And there it is… the modern-day golden fleece/holy grail of 3D… the “cinematic” look. I’m not talking so much about angle and camera settings but rather the lighting that drives the scene. Cinematic means a lot of things to a lot of people but the common aspect is atmospheric, and sometimes complicated lighting.

In a modern 3D production, it can take as much time to light a scene as it does to lay out the scene assets and terrain. All of the aforementioned lighting tools can come into play in order to bring a proper atmosphere to a scene. The “look” of a scene is as important as the substance as we are all spoiled to near perfection by modern standards. Sloppy or terrible lighting is just as reprehensible and distracting as a poor story, terrible dialog, or sloppy animation.

For some of us, the initial lighting of any scene starts with a dark environment, bereft of anything that might even slightly light an object including glow and the shininess of objects. Slowly we build the lighting, layer by layer until we have spent a significant amount of time placing, tuning, and previewing lighting setups. If you are not in real-time, then the process is a bit longer as you wait for the render to see what your work looks like.

You can attend university-level courses devoted to cinematic lighting or learn the process online with courses and tutorials both free and commercial. A significant amount of training, learning, and development of skills are based on modern lighting.

In all of this, we sometimes forget about the single light concept which can be as rare as the single camera shot in today's film, tv, and videos. While the single camera shot takes a deft hand and a good understanding of what the scene must convey, the single “light” shot can be pulled off by just about anyone including newbies.

So as not to confuse, I am talking about a single light source in a scene. Usually, a tense or despairing scene needs to convey some form of gloomy atmosphere without being overly dramatic about it like a lot of dystopian scenes are.

Single SpotlightA single spotlight, off to the side, is used to show shadows of the bars. Volumetric lighting was added to highlight the area of light in this example.

These scenes are usually all about shadow placement. In the real world, there will always be multiple light sources in real-life production, but a 3D environment can start off clean, pitch black, and work its way up to the intended effect on the viewer as mentioned earlier.

One such example is a single light, like a hall light, shining through the bars of a jail cell door casting multiple shadows across the floor, wall, and subject of the scene. The cell itself would be dark with the only light, besides maybe ambient, coming from a single source.

Single Light SourceThe final render from iClone via Iray. 

If the source is animated for a video, then it can be even more dramatic, but shadows make for a good quick image render. These shadows are simple to control with a single light source. You can even add volumetric lighting to the source if appropriate or desired.

Lighting is an often-asked question and my advice has always been, as I have learned, to keep it simple until you understand what you are trying to accomplish and start off with little or no lighting so you can see the progression as you add lights. Like most things we do… it’s not rocket science.


M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord, is an international award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director, and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years.  Now retired, M.D. is currently working part-time on writing and select character development projects. You can learn more about MD on his website

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