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How to Light Historical Architecture in 3D

For this project I tried to achieve a faithful copy of the original cathedral in Carcassonne. I used 3dsMax 2016, Vray and Photoshop. Let me show you how I worked on the lighting setup in order to recreate these 3D historical architecture images.teresa-corbin-06References

Before starting any project I usually research visual references. In my opinion this is a decisive part in the process, and I like to spend at least one or two days on it before starting in 3dsMax. I find it really inspires me.
Searching for examples is useful as it helps me decide upon the mood, point of view, lightning, colors, etc

After analyzing lots of photographs of Saint Nazaire and other gothic cathedrals, I realized that lighting played an important role in these architectonic spaces. Enlighten was the aim of the gothic cathedrals to show Heavenly Jerusalem, as was described in the book of Revelation. Humbly, I worked specifically on lighting to bring this atmosphere to my project.


I compiled a lot of cathedral images in which light was the most important thing. As I usually do, I also studied some fine art pieces related to this purpose. Looking into the details of paintings by Dirck van Delen, Jules Victor Génisson and Pieter Jansz Saenredam were truly inspirational to me. Commonly, they painted about architectonic perspectives and interior spaces, and most of their paintings are cathedrals.


I found these paintings so stimulating. They minimised people presence and emphasised the cathedral space and construction itself. This was the exact idea of my project: to highlight the cathedral architectonic elements (vaults, columns, stained glass windows), under the light effect.

Modelling and Point of View

The next step was modeling the whole cathedral. It was a big challenge for me because I usually work on contemporary architecture projects. Hence it took me a long time to get the result I wanted. During this process, I decided upon the camera viewing angle, so I could model and detail only the things that would be visible.

Gothic architecture emphasised building proportion. That is why I thought that symmetry could perfectly work with this project. Because of that, two of the three images I have created are symmetrical and the camera is exactly in the centre of the piece. This central point of view generates a deep feeling of serenity, a mystical perception which absolutely fits in a religious space.

teresa-corbin-03The purpose was always the same: simplify the elements of the images so as to highlight the architecture under the light.

Illumination and Camera

After that, I began to work on lighting the project. I always light the scenes with an override material in order to achieve a better illumination. In this case, I used a simple grey Vray material for everything excluding the stained glass windows.

During this process, I decided upon the camera viewing angle, so I could model and detail only the things that would be visible.

I thought that it could be nice to recreate the medieval atmosphere of the sun trespassing the stained glass, and to see the windows drawings reflections on the walls and floor of the cathedral. Under no circumstances would I show the exterior. Thus a view of the sky wasn’t needed for my project. I finally chose a combination of Vray Sun with Vray Sky for the scenes.

Unfortunately, with this lighting system I couldn’t get the exact result I wanted, so I worked a bit more on the lights of each scene, adding some fill lights to balance and illuminate dark zones.teresa-corbin-04For the camera, I did not use any special settings. I only adjusted the exposure and the white balance. To me, this is a very important parameter because it can dramatically change the mood of an image. In this case I adjusted the white balance trying to emphasise the warm colour of the scenes.

Once the general lights were decided, I began to work on the Vray Materials. When I finished with them, I readjusted the lights intensity and the exposure of the camera. After that, I was ready to render!

Related Link: The Rookies Entrants Architecture Category

Render Setup

For rendering, I used VRay 3.40.01 with Irradiance Map and Light Cache. I always set the Global Illumination settings separately to optimise the render time and I do this process for each image, one by one.

I first launched the render with light cache + light cache to decide subdivs and sample size, and then irradiance map + light cache to determine irradiance subdivs and interpolate samples. Since Vray 3.40 it is not necessary to set local subdivs, so for antialiasing, I used the Sample Rate Channel to decide the max and min subdivs of the whole scene. I also reduced Burn Value parameter in colour mapping to avoid over-bright areas.

These are the render settings of one of the images:


Post Production

As I see it, postproduction is a very important part in the process of designing an image, and I really like it. For the cathedral, the adjustments were very simple: Increase contrast, decrease saturation, colour correction, vignetting and a glow effect.teresa-corbin-07And that’s it! I Hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed doing the project. I would like to thank The Rookies for the opportunity to write this short essay about my recent project “Saint Nazaire Cathedral”. Thanks for reading!

Author: Teresa Corbin

I am an architect, and I am passionate about ArchViz. I love working with textures, colors, light and geometry. I am a very active person, always looking forward to continue learning.

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