Reflections on Lighting

Figure 1: Lighted scene


Beyond the AEC and gaming industries, 3ds Max® has been employed as a low-cost solution to conduct a multitude of technical and advanced studies to present detailed simulations and analysis related to a number of topics. In this article, I’ll be discussing simulations related to 3ds Max and its lighting system.

Understanding light is more complicated than some might imagine.  For example, in cloudy weather sunlight has a tent of blue, but in clear weather it’s primarily pale yellow.  Good light is generated by the sky, but not necessarily the sun, and the measurements we use to gauge lighting are dependent on multiple factors. By understanding how the lighting components inside 3ds Max work we have the ability to apply our understanding of lighting in the real world to a multitude of projects. A few areas 3ds Max and its lighting system have been used are listed below:

  • Maximizing the use of natural light in buildings, solar power, and agriculture
  • Studying security concerns related to low-light conditions
  • Reducing cost by maximizing light spacing
  • Studying the effects of light on habitats and working environments
  • Review shadows and light-pollution related to natural and manmade features
  • Emergency service and military applications such as supplemental lighting for target detection
  • Presenting the effects of lights on biomass and various environments
  • Presenting planetary exploration options utilizing solar-powered robots and much more


3ds Max is a powerful tool for both artificial and natural lighting analysis. This is due primarily to the software’s ability to visually present accurate luminance and illuminance values.  Illuminance is basically the light travelling toward a surface from a light source.  Luminance is the amount of light reflected from the surface of an object. With 3ds Max we can generate a point-by-point analysis of lighting to review and present its effects on a particular environment.  This is primarily where materials play an important part when rendering a scene in 3ds Max.  Every material reflects light differently.  Some absorb light (in a manner of speaking), which is typically referred to as refraction.  See Figure 2 for a visual explanation.

Figure 2: Light ray figure


By imagining our scene in 3ds Max is a virtual stage we can begin to place lights accordingly. The decision to mimic natural or artificial light should be determined early in the process.  Primarily, outdoor scenes will use 3ds Max’s Daylight system to appropriately simulate the sun and realistically generate the necessary shadows to ensure realism with our three-dimensional objects, while interior scenes will use a series of lights to accent our objects or provide a wide area of lighted coverage or “wash” a scene.  Balance, ambience, and additional illumination can be provided with additional light sources added to our scenes. 

While randomly placing lights is perhaps acceptable, there have been studies completed to ensure elements are presented well and that the viewer’s eye is not distracted by imbalance such as areas that appear either too dark or too bright. Some of these theories include angling lights at 45 degrees above an object on each side of the center, with a single back light to enhance the three-dimensional appearance. This particular layout enhances the objects shadows and pulls the object from the background.  Adversely, if a light is placed directly on top of an object the shadows are eliminated and the object appears to be very flat.  See Figure 3 for the light layout discussed. 

Figure 3: Optional lighting layout

3ds Max also gives us the ability to set light strength based on different units of measurement (such as watts) as well as by color.  Open to cool and warm colors, we have the ability to adjust our lights for a various number of environmental effects to study or improve our scenes.


To calculate the light levels in a scene we use the LightMeter object located under the Helpers in the Create panel.  The helper exports the values to a .csv file that can be reviewed where we can identify areas that need improvement or decide how those particular areas affect our objects and materials.  By controlling the minimum and maximum values found by selecting the Edit button in the LightMeter object panel, we can create a color-coded visual representation of the values calculated to increase the quality of our visualization, display the results in studies and presentations, or analyze the effects lights have on our scene. A quick example of a LightAnalysis object is displayed in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Lighting analysis


The 3ds Max lighting system is perhaps the most advanced system available to users for simulation and visualization with components such as Skylights, Area Lights, Radiosity, Light Tracer, Photometric Lights, and more. In addition, solutions for more advanced lighting simulations are provided through a number of plug-ins available to 3ds Max, including E-light and VRay, and simulations can be used in conjunction with applications such as Ecotect, Radiance, and Dayism to produce highly detailed and accurate models pertaining to environments and the effects lights have on them.

Appears in these Categories