How to Create Your Own HDR Environment Maps

Note: This is an update of an old tutorial,
I’ve learnt a lot since then and made the process easier.

garage

A simple 3D scene that was lit using only the HDRI above (no additional lamps)

There is no easier or quicker way to light a CG scene than to use an HDRI. They are essentially snapshots of the real world that contain exquisitely detailed lighting information, which can transport your bland CG objects into realistic virtual environments.

Not only do they provide accurate lighting, but they can be seen in the background and in reflections, which makes them all the more immersive.

Creating a high quality HDRI from scratch is quite a complicated task that requires very specific equipment and a meticulous workflow. One mistake like using the wrong focal length or choosing a slow shutter speed can mean all your time has been wasted and you’ll have to start all over again.

I’ve been making HDRIs for a couple of years now, so I hope I can save you some time and experimentation. This is by no means the only way to make an HDRI, but it is a good introduction to the process.

By the end of this tutorial, you’ll have made your very own 360º HDR environment map that can be used to light a 3D scene.

Buckle your seat belts boys and girls, because this is gonna be a long one!

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What Makes a Good HDRI and How to Use It Correctly

HDRIs are everywhere these days. If you’ve got a half-decent camera, a tripod and some software you can even make them yourself.

But just like creating art in Blender, being able to do it at all is not the same as being able to do it well.

So, after I created my first crappy HDRI and discovered how challenging it could be, I decided to embark on a quest. I wanted to create the perfect high dynamic range environment map that would give you perfectly accurate and realistic lighting as if you had teleported your CG scene to the actual location of the photo itself.

In truth, this is an unending quest, but I’ve made some fair progress over the years. So without further ado, let me explain…

What Makes a Good HDRI

Just like art, the quality of an HDRI can be a subjective thing, but I think we can all agree that there are a few fundamental attributes that define (although not exclusively) how useful or accurate an HDRI is.

Dynamic Range

evs_grid2

Let’s begin with what is, to me, the most important aspect of any HDR image that you intend to use for lighting.

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