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Putting the Light in LightWave

Part 1: 3D lighting basics By Kevin Schmitt
3D lighting--and photographic lighting, for that matter--is a lot like hair. Good hair can radically enhance even the plainest of faces, while a mullet (for example) tends to uglify those who might otherwise be "purty" (as some are wont to say in my neck of the woods). By the same token, good 3D lighting can make even the simplest scene beautiful, while bad 3D lighting can turn your meticulously crafted objects, pixel-perfect surfacing, and butter-smooth keyframing into a flat, uninteresting mess. But, as we'll see during the course of this series, it really doesn't take a lot to get into that good 3D lighting frame of mind. So let's start the ball rolling by going over what the art of the possible is with LightWave's lights.

Now, what I may have mentioned once or twice in my intro to character animation series I did a while back will still hold true here: I'll be using NewTek LightWave as my 3D package. But, as usual, much of the stuff we'll be going over isn't at all unique to LightWave, and probably will translate just fine to whatever 3D package you happen to be using.

The basics
Back in the day ("the day" being mid-1998, which is when I switched to LightWave as my main 3D package), LightWave 5.5 was the latest and greatest version, and lighting was all over the proverbial map. Sure, there was a lot there, but good portions of what could today be considered core lighting functionality for any 3D package were spread out between various panels and augmented by plugins, making for a muddled environment in which to try and light your scenes. LightWave 6 came along a while later and changed things, and now pretty much all lighting control is handled through a single, unified property panel (fig. 1). I say "unified" because both individual and global lighting properties are accessible from one panel, even though it requires an additional click to spawn the global light properties (fig. 2). If you have more than one light (which is a good idea for many projects, as we'll see in just a moment), you can also change the selected light through a drop-down menu without leaving the panel. Unfortunately, you still can't add or clone lights through the panel, which would be a good feature to have, but it's not all that hard to go into the Add menu and create new lights or clone existing ones (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 - LightWave's Light Properties panel.

Fig. 2 - The accompanying Global Illumination panel.

Fig. 3 - You can't add or clone lights through the Properties panel; alas, you have to use the standard Add menu.

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