Simulate portrait lighting using 3D software

Tim Wells
6 min readJul 22, 2022

Let’s take a look at simulating portrait lighting using the excellent open source software Blender.

If you don’t know what Blender is, it’s a free to use open source tool for 3d modelling, sculpting, compositing, vfx, video editing and is even used to make 3d assets for use in video games. You might think that being free and open source makes it limited in quality, but it’s super powerful and we are just going to look at something pretty basic that might be of interest for photographers to help setup portrait lighting.

This isn’t a tutorial on how to use Blender, just a quick and dirty look at a way to use it to get an idea of how to setup lighting for a studio portrait. So, we’ll fire up Blender, import in a 3d model of a person, set up some lights and get rendering.

The basic initial setup.

For my basic setup I’ve imported a posed female base mesh model. I’ve removed any materials which will give us a plain white mannequin type model in our render. I’ve moved the default camera to be front on and set it to an 85mm focal length. I’ve also added an empty placed on the right eye of our mannequin and set the focus of the camera to it. I’ve enabled depth of field for the camera as well. I’ve also removed the default light and set the world strength to 0 to give us a pitch black scene if we rendered it.

If you don’t have a base mesh you can find plenty of options at places like CGTrader or Mixamo.

Next up we’ll add some lights. Let’s start with a key light. Click add -> Light -> Area Light.

By default it’s going to be flat on the floor. Use the positioning tools to position the light where you want it. I put mine a little above and left of the character at a 45 degree and downward angle. Like this.

A large (1 meter square) key light. Think of this as a large softbox.

This will behave like a large softbox for our key light. I’ve left the color of the light as a pure white and it’s power at the default of 10W. The line pointing out of the light surface indicates the direction the light is facing. I’ve got mine reasonably close so it should give a soft light across our mannequin. Rendering the scene gives me this.

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Tim Wells

Self taught software developer and photographer.