FREE TUTORIAL: 10 Tips for better lighting in Cinema 4D

In these 10 tips for better lighting in Cinema 4D, I cover techniques which explore basic lighting concepts and how we can implement these using Maxon’s Cinema 4D.

lighting in cinema 4d

1. Which type of light?

Depending on the atmosphere you are trying to achieve, choosing the correct light can be fundamental.


For a candle or a light bulb in a room, an omni or point light is the obvious choice so the light emits in all directions. For outdoor scenes, perhaps a light dome or GI for ambient light, then compliment this with an area or infinite light for sunlight.

I tend to use Area lights 90% of the time unless I am after a specific effect. Perhaps an infinite light is more suited for sunlight, but the sun after all is a huge area light that happens to be a very long way away. We can simulate this using an area light, by moving it further away and reducing it’s size, we can control the shadow falloff and give the illusion of parallel shadows.

In this example we have the scene rendered using (from left to right) Default Light, Area Light, Area Light with Area Shadow.


2. Use an appropriate shadow

The type of shadow will strongly influence the feeling of the shot, for a bright sunny day you would want the shadow to be dark and hard with very little falloff, this is in sharp contrast to an overcast day where the shadows will be barely visible as the falloff is so high.

A Clockwork Orange

In Cinema 4D we have the option for three types of shadow, shadow maps, area shadows and raytraced shadows. Raytraced shadows are great if you want a cartoon or stylised feel with graphic well defined shadows, the drawback is that they mostly require high anti-aliasing settings to reduce the chatter around edges.

Soft shadows are often used because they give quick results over area shadows, you can fine tune the shadow by increasing your map size and the number of samples. The problem with soft shadows is they do not look very realistic, the hardness or falloff on the edge of the shadow is uniform regardless of distance from the object casting the shadow.

Shadow Types

Area shadows are by far the most superior shadow type as they offer high accuracy and the most control. This does come at a price though, area shadows are the slowest to render. To speed things up you can decrease the number of samples and accuracy, this will give you results faster but also will introduce noise.

Area Size

By adjusting the radius/size of the area in the lights details tab, you can control the sharpness and falloff of the shadows, the smaller the area size, the harder the shadow. In the example below you can see how by increasing the area size, the shadow becomes softer. Note that the area shadow is the most accurate type which you can see with the shadow which will always be hard at the point of contact and then will soften as it gets further from the subject.

Area Shadow Size

3. Multiple lights.

One light alone is rarely going to give you the result you’re looking for as it will leave you with areas in your scene which have no illumination.


A common lighting technique is three point lighting, this uses a main light (key) for the primary illumination, a fill light to illuminate the darker areas, often finished of with the third light, a rim of light from behind to lift the subject away from the background. There are many ways to light a scene or character and three point lighting is fairly basic, but it is still a good technique to master as it can be a good starting point for many shots.

The key / fill ratio is the balance between the intensity of the various lights dictating the overall contrast. If the key light is bright and fill lights are dull, the result is high contrast dramatic lighting such as the full sun of midday. If the illumination of all lights is more or less the same, the result is the opposite and the scene will look flatter, more like an overcast cloudy day.

Inglorious Bastards

A good trick is to add a spill light to your scene, this is a light positioned similarly to your key light, however the spill should be much softer and illuminate a wider area, the combo of key and spill creates a more natural look than key light alone.

In this example there are only two lights, a key and a fill light, from left to right, the key becomes brighter and the fill becomes darker showing the effect this has on the scene contrast.

Key Fill Ratio

A common lighting trick is to light in layers and have areas of dark move to light and then back to dark to light. This lifts the hero elements away from the background but also allows detail to be seen in the distance. This next render shows how the addition of a rim light will lift the foreground from the background. The render on the right has shadows enabled for the rim light as this removes the unnatural rim on the nose and other areas which should be occluded.

Rim Light

4. Diffuse, Specular and Shadow casting lights.

Although you might be striving for realism, often you may be guided by art direction. Lights can create diffuse illumination, specular highlights and cast shadows, they can do all of this simultaneously or you can disable individual components.

Diffuse and Specular

Perhaps your key light position is perfect, but the specular is hitting the wrong spot? You can disable the specular option for the key in the lights general tab, duplicate the light, then enable specular and disable diffuse on the new light. You now have a light which will only create a specular highlight. You can reposition the specular without affecting the key light. Often I will disable the specular on all my fill lights so the primary specular stands out and the subject is not covered with multiple highlights from different directions which tends to look unnatural.

Shadow Caster

Under the light details tab, there is a checkbox for Shadow Caster, this will turn your light into a shadow casting light only. This can be used in combination with a non-shadow casting light to create the illumination and allows you to reposition the shadow so that you have a more pleasing composition.

In this example I used three lights and pushed the specular high to emphasise the result. In the first render on the left all three lights are contributing a specular, centre there’s no specular and finally on the right, only the key light has the specular enabled.


5. Use light falloff.

In the 3D world a light will illuminate infinitely which is an unnatural behaviour as in the real world, illumination will decrease the further it gets from the light source.

Fight Club

If you enable falloff in your lights details tab, you will achieve a more realistic result as the light will reduce intensity the further it gets from the light source. You should probably choose to use Inverse Square as your falloff type, as this is the most physically correct falloff curve. Cinema 4D offers a second (physically inaccurate) option called Inverse Square Clamped, this uses the inverse square function, but has the brightness clamped to help prevent over exposure.

Inverse Square Falloff

6. Solo Lights.

As you add more lights to your project it can be difficult to really assess the influence each has on the scene. I like to solo my lights as I build my lighting, this means that I disable all the other lights in my scene and focus on each individual light to refine the illumination and the shadows being cast. If a light is not really contributing anything to the scene then ditch it or move it. There is no point wasting valuable rendertime on lights and shadows which are coincidental. Each light should matter and have a reason for being there, telling a story, just as your composition and staging does.

Here we have the key, fill and rim lights from a simple three point light setup.

solo your lights

7. Coloured lights.

Rarely in the world is a light source pure white, for more interesting lighting use colour with your lights. A popular lighting trick is to use warmer orange colours for your key lights and then use a colder blues for the ambient and fill lights. If you fold down that tiny triangle in the light general tab you can pick your colour using temperature rather than RGB.

Colour Temperature

Often it will work if you light with complimentary colours for your key and fill lights as these colours will naturally be harmonious. How far you push the saturation of your colour is dependent on the look you’re trying to achieve. For realism, keep the saturation fairly low, if however you’re creating a stylised look then you can push the saturation very high and still obtain pleasing results.


The colour of the lights is essential for portraying a certain time of day or a particular environment. Early morning sun is very different to the harsh lighting of fluorescent tubing. Think of the lighting you’d like to achieve so you have a target in mind and then chase it. Study other 3D renders for reference, and also look at how the old masters worked with light in traditional painting. Artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio whose studies of light are an inspiration.

Coloured Lights

8. Light position and direction.

We already looked at the three point lighting rig and this gives a basic studio result, however, your story is far more complex and exciting.


Think about the environment you’re attempting to recreate and the emotion you’d like to evoke, perhaps it’s a moonlit night with a cool blue from above and a flickering fire off to one side. An early morning with the light low, casting long dark shadows and a deep blue fill from the fading night. Position of your light is fundamental to the story.

Light Direction

9. Linear workflow.

This is enabled by default in your Project Settings and will ensure you’re renders are created in linear color space. In simple terms, the monitor that we work on has a gamma of 2.2, this is so the output of the monitor looks pleasing to the human eye. When you enable Linear Workflow, all elements which contribute to the final rendered image are converted into linear colour space, the renderer processes all images in linear colour space and then finally this is converted back to your chosen colour space / monitor gamma.


What this means is your images will have a more balanced and pleasing look to them. Light and colour will react more naturally and generally it will be much easier for you to achieve a good result than if you had linear workflow disabled. If you want to read more about linear workflow and how it works in Cinema 4D, multipass rendering and compositing in After Effects then here is an article I wrote about this when LWF was first introduced to Cinema 4D.

Linear Workflow

10. Global Illumination.

If you have the opportunity to use Global Illumination then your lighting should improve simply by enabling the feature. Global Illumination will create secondary bounces of light reducing the need for many fill lights and producing a more pleasing and balanced result in the process. GI can be expensive for render times especially if you’re creating animation and not all projects have the budget for these longer renders. Using the Cinema 4D Physical Renderer combined with QMC Primary and Light Mapping as a Secondary bounce produces a beautiful result, but the renders can be a little noisy unless you bump the samples high enough, at the cost of longer render times.

Global Illumination

It is possible to fake GI by using a hemisphere area light or a light dome of some kind, if you combine this with strategically placed bounce lights you can simulate the effect of light bouncing off surfaces. You can download the light dome I use here.

Moonrise Kingdom

Faking it is never going to be as good as the real thing and rendering with GI does take your creativity to a new level. It is important to remember that lighting is still an important skill and you should not rely on global illumination alone to solve your lighting issues. The shot should still be considered, with each light placement for a reason and all of the tips above are still relevant and should be considered. Lighting is an incredible skill, one that artists can finesse throughout their whole career, it can be so rewarding when you nail that look you’ve been working so hard to achieve.


Author: Tim


  1. zach
    zach On May 30, 2015 at 3:17 AM

    these tips are fantastic tim! would you mind doing some more of these lists for perhaps other functions of cinema like texturing or animating?

  2. Urban
    Urban On May 30, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    Amazing as always!
    Is it possible that you add some pictures from C4D (screenshots) with setup lights in these tips?

    Thank you!

    • admin
      admin On May 30, 2015 at 1:01 PM

      Thank you, I think I may upload all the scene files for you guys to pick apart.

  3. bobc4d
    bobc4d On May 30, 2015 at 11:09 PM

    Thank you for this excellent tutorial on lighting scenes in Cinema4d using the native tools.

  4. illd
    illd On May 31, 2015 at 1:36 AM

    That was very enlightening – Thank you Tim. I always find the clamped inverse square fallof easier to use than the (physical accurate). With the inverse square you have to be much more precise or it blows out. Why is that so critical? Has the Inverse light to be set at a exact size to fit your scene dimensions or is this behaviour normal?
    Also I would love to see some tips on animated cameras in your scene. When to link a light setup to your camera doing big moves ect.

    • admin
      admin On June 2, 2015 at 10:02 AM

      The inverse square option is more physically accurate and if you’re getting areas of over exposure then you need to either move the light further away, reduce the intensity or adjust the falloff. The clamped version is easier to use for sure and I often choose this if the inverse square is blowing out.

  5. Douglas Baldan
    Douglas Baldan On May 31, 2015 at 6:00 AM

    Thanks for the tips, Tim. I liked the result of the tip #10, its something I use so often.

  6. AlexDI
    AlexDI On June 1, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Please, make video for these tutorial(light setup, light parameters, changing parameters), very useful tips! Tim – you best in Cinema 4D šŸ˜€

  7. John Dickinson
    John Dickinson On June 1, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    Good stuff Tim!

  8. neil
    neil On June 1, 2015 at 11:47 PM

    Thanks man. Great read, really useful. Looking forward to lighting something šŸ™‚

  9. alx
    alx On June 4, 2015 at 2:54 AM

    Thanks for the tips and great article !
    It’s cool to find great articles to read, we’ve got lots of good tutorials already, but I find deep text articles more difficult to come by.

  10. Paul
    Paul On June 6, 2015 at 7:59 AM

    Thanks for this great article. To me, perfect balance between practical know-how, depth and tips. But i guess thats why i get back here to helluluxx regularly. Keep up the great work!

  11. Milan
    Milan On August 26, 2015 at 4:49 AM

    Good tips especially for lighting objects/people.
    When it comes to interiors/exteriors (archviz for instance) things tend to get more complicated as number of lights increases.

    Another useful techniques are pools of light, as shown here:
    The scene is not lit evenly, because of cluds… think about this when using sunlight that gives you superclear sunny day (and overused) type of scene.

  12. clement
    clement On January 6, 2016 at 12:11 AM

    Thanks Tim šŸ™‚ . your tuts are always usefull !

  13. Duca
    Duca On January 13, 2016 at 1:26 AM

    Hi Tim, when you say: ” Using the Cinema 4D Physical Renderer combined with QMC Primary and Light Mapping as a Secondary bounce produces a beautiful result…” What do you mean about lights to use? Area lights or other c4d lights ? Or Luminance materials…? Or Light Dome? Or a Physical Sky, maybe…?
    It is crucial to KNOW how to maintain LOW the redder time! (In other words, whic kind of lights are suggested to use GI without wait a life to render….?)

    Many thanks for a reply!

  14. So long! NYC – fshrimp On September 5, 2016 at 12:50 PM

    […] FREE TUTORIAL: 10 Tips for better lighting in Cinema 4D […]

  15. […] 10 Tips for better lighting in Cinema 4D. (2015). helloluxx. Retrieved 6 September 2016, from… […]

  16. […] 10 Tips for better lighting in Cinema 4DĀ – Similar stuff to the first video, however it does mention the use of different shadow types and features. It states that “Area shadows are by far the most superior shadow type as they offer high accuracy and the most control.”. However Ā “area shadows are the slowest to render. To speed things up you can decrease the number of samples and accuracy, this will give you results faster but also will introduce noise.” […]

  17. didar
    didar On December 11, 2018 at 3:02 AM

    man this was great. i was always looking for a place to learn about lighting so easily and straightforward. hmm still did not learn all you wrote but it was very good start for me. Thanks. also a question. so if render time is not an issue I always use GI and not fake it?

    • Tim
      Tim On December 11, 2018 at 2:03 PM

      If you can afford to use GI then use the real thing, but only if you think the shot needs GI.

  18. […] FREE TUTORIAL: 10 Tips for better lighting in Cinema 4D […]

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