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5-step guide to creating a realistic 3D display model

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We, humans, are visual creatures and tend to be attracted to "nice things". That is a well known fact and can be noticed in almost every part of our lives, no matter if it is cars, furniture or even a nice bottle of wine. We react to nice design and nice presentation, and in the retail industry, that is what sells your products.

Creating a great looking display for your products is just one part of the equation, since it has to be functional and almost always, it has to be cheap for production.

As someone who has designed these kinds of displays and interiors for a quite long time now, I would like to share my experience with you, so you can skip most beginner mistakes and level up your game with some more or less simple tips that will make a ton of difference in your presentation of products to potential clients.

Choice of software and hardware is really not that important, as any decent 3D software can do all that will be shown here. Hardware will just make it possible to render faster. 

I personally model in Rhino3D (been using it for almost 20 years now), and have used many renderers, from BMRT, Flamingo, FPrime, Keyshot, Octane and now, V-Ray.

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Step 1: Modelling your display

Let's start this off at the beginning, with modeling your display. I don't want to tell you how to design things, that is your own creativity at work, but I can help you in simplifying the process and making it faster for you. Here are three top tips for you:

  • Start with basic shapes. Don't spend too much time on details.
  • Use basic materials, just to have approximate look of your model.
  • Experiment with many variations.

This way you can make models fast, and you can quickly see what looks good and what does not. Since you haven't spent a lot of time on details, it is all easy to change and even start from scratch if needed.

Step 2: Adding details

Only when you get to the point you got the design nailed down, should you start working on detailing your model. When doing fine details like hinges, screws etc, help yourself with online resources, since many great (and free) models can be found on sites such as GrabCAD, Archive3D etc. In most cases someone already made it, and it would be a waste of time to model it again.

Also, as you download those models from various websites, make for yourself a local collection of those models, so you can easily reuse them again.

Always keep two versions of a model: one without all the details, and one that you want to render. In case you need to apply changes desired by the client, it is always good to have the base model, which is much easier to change.

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Step 3: Rendering

So, you modelled your display. It is time to render it!

I have seen many designers simply place basic materials on their models and render them that way. Don't! Spend some time creating or customising predefined materials on your models. Always think about the production process, what materials will be really used, and try recreating them as best as you can.

Most modern renderers come with built-in material databases that will be more than enough for most of your work. It is up to you to use them correctly and customise them for your own needs.

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Once it all looks perfect, you are ready to render the final product to be sent to your customer. You place your model on a flat plane and let it render. And you get something like this below. You may think something like "well, this is great!"

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But is it? How can we make it look even better?

Step 4: Building an environment

One thing that people always seem to forget is the fact that all materials look as they do because of all the light and reflections from the environment. Best example of this would be a simple chrome ball in a completely white environment. Since it would reflect only white color, you would not know it is chrome. 

In every render where you want a more realistic look, you simply have to have reflections. Just look around you, look at any glossy object you have near you, even your mobile phone or watch, and you will notice the whole environment being reflected off it and giving it its look.

So, in order to get a more realistic look of our 3D model, we need to place it into an environment that has elements that will be reflected, and of course, light sources, which are the ones that are responsible for the final, real look.

Building an environment is not as hard as it may seem, since you can help yourself with free models available online. Which means you don't really need to model every chair, table, lamp, computer or door, as there are many available for free in high quality. The only thing you would need to do is arrange them and give them the materials you want. Of course, sometimes you have to model it from scratch, but it is always worth it, since you will end up with more models you can use later in your other projects.

Yes, reusing models is a great time saver ;)

For this example, here is an environment made completely out of models available online, for free. The only thing I modeled was the table (which I did for one previous project). 

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After applying all the materials on every part, let's check out our rendering.

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Well, you expected more, didn't you? What is missing? Lights!

Step 5: Lights & Reflections

Ok, that should not be a problem, let's add some ceiling light so that light can fill the room and we can actually see our scene.

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That is much better, but… is it realistic? What can we do to get that realistic feel? 

We need to add natural light! This is done by using HDRI probes that act as environment light sources. Just imagine a 360 image of a place, wrapped around your scene and emitting light. That is exactly what HDRI probes do (many available online for free).
But, since we have a closed environment, we need to open it up in order to let the light get in. So lets simply add a couple of windows on both sides, so we can get light coming inside from all directions.

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Well, that looks much, much better to me!

But it can still be improved. Let's have some fun with camera placement, finding the correct angle that will show your display in the best possible light. I tend to use narrow camera angles, between 75 and 100, because it gives a more flat and natural look than wide angle cameras. But you might get into problems at this step… If you use a narrow camera angle, the camera has to be far away from the object that you are rendering. And our room is not big enough, so the camera ends up outside and we can't use it! The solution to this is actually quite simple. Just extend the room in the direction where your camera is placed ;)

Framing is done, the model looks great, and as a final touch, add depth of field. Not too much, just enough to blur the background and make your model pop.

Also, now that we are close to finishing, we can play a bit with materials to make our display stand out even more.

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After making the final render, you can always touch it up in post, using software such as Affinity Photo or Adobe Lightroom. Simple color corrections can make a big difference!

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And that was it. Here's our finished display model. Have you followed along with your own software, or even tried your own while reading this article? Let me know in the comments section!

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