Image based lighting (IBL) has become an essential part of lighting for CGI. You might have the gumption to figure out all the buttons in Blender or Maya, download some panos off the internet, and hook them up, and instantly recognize how beautiful and instantaneous they make your lighting.
But how the heck do ya make them!?!?
Put your hand in mine, dear reader, and we’ll venture into the basics. I am by no means an expert, but at this point I’m at least a highly seasoned amateur. I’ll assume you’re like me: not a massive studio with a devoted IBL team already. But not a n00b, either. You’re versed enough in 3D (and possibly IBL) that you realize it’s time to shell out for some camera equipment and learn some new software. And we’ll try to keep that software as free and open source as possible.
I purchased my HDR gear cautiously and piecemeal, putting one toe in the water at a time for fear of blowing all my money on gear that didn’t work. Sometimes I regretted this or that purchase, but it still works well enough. So if you’ve got a bunch of camera equipment already, chances are you’re all set! Here’s what you need.
- Full Frame DSLR camera. “Full frame” means it doesn’t have a crop factor. A crop factor means the camera crops some of the edges of the image, and you’ll have to take more pictures. In lieu of technical jargon, just know that DSLR cameras give you features and control necessary for HDR. I’d recommend going with a Canon 6D. I sadly learned from experience about full frame, and use a T3i, which is NOT full frame. The main downside of this is that I shoot 4 angles to get a panorama, rather than 3.
- Fisheye lens. I’ve got a Sigma 8mm fisheye and it works great. Outside of your DSLR camera body, this is probably the biggest expenditure you’re looking at. This is another one where I learned from experience. I didn’t want to shell out for a fisheye, so instead I went with a 10-18 mm lens at first. What’s the difference? With the fisheye, I shoot 4 angles and it catches the whole environment. With the 10-18 mm I would shoot nine angles, and because it didn’t capture the foreground floor or the sky, I’d shoot three “bands”. In other words, shooting 4 angles with the fisheye vs. shooting TWENTY SEVEN ANGLES. So many more files to store and process. So much more time something could go wrong while shooting. Get a fisheye.
- Ball joint tripod. Getting your camera level is important, and it’s easier to adjust one socket joint rather than 3 separate tripod legs. Again, learn from my mistakes; the ball joint tripods were $10 more and I didn’t shell out, so getting my tripod level is more of a hassle.
- Pano head. This tripod attachment will do two things. First, give you accurate, stable movement as you shoot different angles. Second, it’ll help you rotate around the nodal point (the exact focal center) of your lens. I recommend the Panosaurus. It’s cheaper than the other ones but does the job really well, and breaks down to a small profile.
- DSLR controller for Android/iPhone, plus a micro USB to mini USB. Imagine your camera’s a computer, and even though it COULD run a fancy program like Photoshop, the manufacturer locks it down so you can’t install it. All that power, but you’re still on MS Paint. Most cameras have this issue, but technology finds a way. A lot of people use Magic Lantern to beat this, but I’m not a fan. First, you install Magic Lantern directly on the camera, which can void your warranty. Second, Magic Lantern still uses your camera’s button interface. These are usually low-res screens, and you have to touch the camera to change its settings, thus destabilizing your carefully prepared shot. DSLR Controller gives you two choice bennies. The first is that, hooked up to your camera via micro to mini USB, it’s a remote shutter. Shoot your pics without destabilization.Secondofly, hack your firmware for lots of new features. My t3i can only shoot 3 brackets by default, but with DSLR Controller I can shoot from my camera’s lowest range to its highest range–AND I can bracket weird things like ISO or aperture.
- High speed memory card. Make sure it says high speed! Shooting 7 brackets in raw format means you’re generating 140 mb with a single click. If you skimp on a memory card, your card will pause a few seconds while writing the images, and BLAM! A jogger ran into your shot. If your memory card choice is faster speed or more memory, go for speed.
- Neutral density filters. We’ll get into light theory later, but for now just know that the sun is really, REALLY bright. So bright that with your camera’s darkest settings, it’s still probably getting clipped. Neutral density filters act as sun glasses, darkening your shot so that the sun’s full ratio isn’t clipped. NDs come in two forms: screw-on lens caps, and thin gelatins inserted between your lens and camera body. If you’re using a fisheye, it’s not possible to screw a lens cap in front of it, so you’ll end up using gels.
The camera body and fisheye lens are the biggest financial hits. You can often find camera bodies used, but they’ll still be expensive. Fisheye lenses are more specialized, so you’ll probably resort to getting a new one.
Before shelling out on a tripod, check Goodwill and yard sales. You can sometimes find them for a paltry $5! Often times they’re missing a tiny attachment part, easily replaced for pennies. Pano heads, like the fisheye, are specialized; chances are your local photography store doesn’t even carry them. Purchase it on the internet.
Together, DSLR controller and a micro-to-mini USB cable are less than $15. Well worth it.
The SD card your camera comes with probably isn’t fast or big enough. Drop $40 on a new one.
A sheet of .9 ND gel is around $6 and will last you a while. It’s actually still a ripoff–they sell whole reels of the stuff for $50. Start with just one sheet, and by the time you’ve used it all up you’ll officially be better at HDR panography than I am.
If you get lucky with some used gear, you might be able to get this whole setup for about $2000. If you already have a DSLR, just fit that square peg into this round hole and you’ll probably be fine, with considerable savings.