Photorealistic rendering with Radiance

Dion Moult


Radiance is the world's leading lighting simulation toolkit. It is used by lighting engineers internationally when they want to predict how a space will be lit, either through natural or artificial lighting. It is also unique in its quest for "photometrically correct" rendering (see a comparison of Radiance and other rendering engines here).

The most common usecase for rendering with Radiance is for scientific quantitative analysis. In contrast, the CG community (such as Pixar) has the goal to make the unreal look real, to give wonder, surprise, and to make you believe in another artistic world.

Somewhere between the scientists and the artists lie those who design the world around us. They are the architects, industrial designers, and installation artists. The unreal, at the end of the day, needs to manifest in a physical creation that can be manufactured and placed in space. A mixture of physical prototypes virtual prototypes are used to flesh out the idea. But how do we guarantee that the physical creation will match the virtual prototype? How can we trust our virtual sketch?

In this article, I will give a breakdown of a living room render done in Radiance. This is a proof of concept of implementing a level of qualitative detail that isn't usually done in Radiance renders, with the end goal to make it economical to create scientifically accurate, unreal renders.

Living room renders with Radiance

The scene used is my living room at home in Sydney, Australia. Let's start with some images.

A luminance render of my work desk at night

This is a luminance render of the work desk lit only by a cheap artificial desk lamp from IKEA. It is adjusted with human exposure adjustment, so there is a slight desaturation and ability to see the depths of the room.

To judge the human exposure adjustment, there is only my word as evidence of actually sitting in that space looking at the scene at night. Radiance does an excellent job at what is an incredibly complex field of human interpretation. One immediately visible flaw is the glare given off by the computer monitor. At night, after the screen is on for a while, this glare is not visible. Other than the glare, I can only give a qualitative statement where I claim that the real life scene and the render look quite similar.

Let's see how it compares to a photo.

A greyscale comparison of the render and a

For completeness, here is a colour version.

A colour comparison of the render and a

This comparison of three images represents a greyscale version of the original luminance render on the left. On the right is a photograph of the actual room taken with a phone camera set on automatic. Naturally, the photograph has the desk lamp shown as overexposed. The camera also captures lighting effects not visible to the human eye, such as a blue tinting to the computer monitor, and the extremely reflective surface of the desk. In real life, the desk is much less specular.

In the centre, it shows a photo taken of the render of the left. This naturally "adds" the layer of camera exposure imperfections (subject to the brightness clipping of the computer screen).

For qualitative results, which is the purpose of this render, it is suffice to say that they look rather similar. Here is another night time shot that shows more of the room.

A luminance night time render of the entire room

Let's see it in the daytime.

A luminance render of my living room

This daytime render shows the entirety of the living room taken from behind the desk with human exposure adjustment. There is a variety of entourage in the scene, as well as a glimpse of the backyard outside, turf grass, perimeter fencing, and planter bed to the right.

Again, there is only a claim made by myself that it does look indeed quite similar to the real life scene.

To help others appreciate the similarity, here is a greyscale comparison. The render is on the left and the phone camera photo (on automatic settings) is on the right. The photo is not quite exactly the same in terms of time of day, contents of the living room (a lot more messy in real life!), and camera position. However, it is enough to qualitatively admit that they are quite similar. No extra manipulation (apart from the greyscale filter) was done on either the render or the photo.

A greyscale comparison of the living room render and a

For completeness, here is a colour version.

A colour comparison of the living room render and a

To bring some numerics to this primarily qualitative exercise, this falsecolour luminance render shows the range of values seen in the render.

A falsecolour luminance render of the living

Similarly, a falsecolour illuminance render is shown to give an idea of the range of values.

A falsecolour illuminance render of the living

To complete the set of images, here is the work desk again, this time rendered in the day time.

A luminance daytime render of my living room work

As a bonus, a panoramic VR environment of the room is supplied that uses WebVR and can be viewed on any computer or phone. If you have a form of cardboard VR goggles, you can view the scene using them.

Capabilities demonstrated by the render

The objective of this render was to essentially use Radiance with techniques that are usually only used in a more traditional CG workflow. However, there was one prerequisite: the render had to be done "blind".

CG artists usually render by creating test renders, and then slowly tweak the scene until it matches the look they are aiming for. For this "blind" render, no artistic license was taken with these renders. There were no tests or tweaks, all of the data was entered and the render is final (unless further data can be added or re-measured to improve scientific accuracy). All geometry was taken from measurements of real life objects (with one exception to do with foliage, which is described later). All materials are also taken from real life measurements in a different environment. The render is a result of careful numeric input of measurements on top of the pillars of scientific validation in Radiance's history. This "blind" render methodology was to prove the ability to reliably predict the look of a unbuilt space simply by measuring samples of objects.

Apart from the "blind" render, here are some other capabilities demonstrated:

Asset structure in the scene

The assets were largely split into three areas for organisation:

WIP image of the entire scene

Splitting the assets meant that should a portion of the scene change, the entire octree didn't need to be recompiled. The scene was then further split into:

The assets were organised into atomic directories following a proposed Radiance Filesystem Hierarchy Standard. This allowed the scene to include many objects without being overly complex in its programmatic definition.

A brief glance at scene.rad and the Makefile demonstrates the succinct, intuitive, human description of all elements that are present in the scene.

Mesh modeling and objects

The meshes were included in Radiance using mesh objects. This is described in my beginners tutorial to Radiance. This by itself is enough to immediately create a lot of realism in the scene.

Here's a wireframe view of the scene. Relatively standard CG modeling practices are used here. Examples include maximising quad meshes to improve mesh topology, and using bevels to give realistic edges.

A wireframe OpenGL render of the scene

Let's take a look at the wireframes of some of the more detailed aspects of the scene. This gives an idea of the level of detail in modeling required.

Shoes and GPO outlets in the distance are given the same level of detail as
nearby objects

A softbody simulated cloth, along with wires and beveled keyboard

Glints from screws, bevels, and beads give slight hints of detail for realism

Materials and textures

In order to record materials, every real life object was brought outside into bright clear sunlight, and measured using the macbethcal method. I've detailed how to calibrate textures using macbethcal in another post, but essentially this involves a RAW photograph of the material sample together with a colour checker chart. The average RGB of the diffuse material is then measured after running macbethcal, and any CG diffuse texture map then is scaled to that measured RGB. Specular and roughness values were guessed based on sensible values, with help from examples of specular and roughness in Radiance.

Some materials could not be brought outside, such as the carpet or wall. However carpet or wall close to a window in ideal conditions can still be measured using macbethcal. In the future, I plan to invest in some accurate artificial lights.

Translucent materials had their transparency measured using a luxmeter placed in front of and behind the object. Multiple measurements were taken at different times of day and an average taken of the results.

Artificial lighting

Only one artificial luminaire is present in the scene: the desk lamp. This is a cheap luminaire bought from IKEA, which originally came with a clear LED candle bulb that is no longer sold. The LED lamp contained a reflector which casted rather interesting shadows, but unfortunately no .ies file is provided. However, this lamp can be replaced with any cheap generic bulb, and so there is no guarantee that users of the space will choose that particular bulb.

As a result, I replaced the original lamp with a cheap, relatively omnidirectional bulb that you might expect to find at the shops (in other words, an easier bulb to simulate). Online, I found an .ies file by Cree, that provided the same shape, temperature and lumen output of the simpler bulb. Therefore, it isn't the exact same bulb, but is similar. The nighttime render verifies that the bulb behaves as expected. You can see the .ies sphere shape relative to the luminaire in the picture below. The bulb itself, although not seen in the render, contains glow materials.

A sphere representing the lamp's IES data placed inside the

The computer monitor is also technically an artifical light source. The good news is that all computer monitors are roughly the same in terms of brightness, and that Greg Ward has already measured a VDU (visual display unit) in the past, at 250cd/m2. Therefore his material settings were copied verbatim.

The environment lighting is created using both a CIE sky and a typical HDRI environment you might find in CG renders. The HDRI map was multiplied to give a ballpark correct figure for grass on a sunny day, and then a mask was applied to remove the sky portion of the HDRI map.

The sky portion was replaced with a gensky CIE sky with parameters for the geolocation and a solar disc for the sun. As such the primary lighting is provided by the sky, but the scaled HDRI environment helps add a bit of variation within the ballpark values, but does not significantly adversely affect the simulation.

HDRI envmap with a sky portion replaced by a CIE sky

Any surrounding context that was expected to actually affect the simulation was modeled, and therefore the HDRI image was limited to subtle background effects.

Vegetation particles

As in regular CG, a few variations of plant stems and leaves were modeled. These could then be instanced in various locations, rotations, and scales using the typical instancing tools. In Blender, the feature is known as "particles", but the method of growing and placing objects in a render, usually used for vegetation, is well established.

Radiance does not have any particle distribution tools, but it does support instancing. Therefore in the case of the backyard grass, a script was written to copy a patch of grass up to 50 times in an area. I describe more about how to create vegetation in Radiance in another post. You can see the script generated grass.rad which sets out the instances for each species of grass.

Grass and bush as textured planes vs modeled grass and

Instances were deleted where they were not visible from the point of view of the camera.

Grassy patches that form the back yard

Whereas the grass leaves were fully modeled (but not textured), the herbacious vegetation in the planter bed was only semi modeled (but fully textured). Each fern frond, leaf, or stem, was merely an alpha mapped plane. This was done to optimise the rendering time.

Alpha mapped planes arranged to create a planter bed

Vegetation photogrammetry

Photogrammetry with Poisson reconstruction is generally not the right tool to scan moving, thin, homogenous surfaces. This can be seen in the bulbous backfaces in the mesh reconstruction of these ferns in the planter bed.

Poisson reconstruction unable to reconstruct thin

Perhaps another reconstruction technique, such as my proposed point cloud mesh reconstruction using metaballs, may be more successful, but were not used in this render.

From a distance, mesh reconstructions may still be viable. Often, a UV map is generated from the projected raster photos that make up the scan. This is much harder to calibrate, as it is a messy collage of photos. For a bush, where you generally only care if the leaf is within the ballpark of correct values, and you are only seeing it from a distance, it is acceptable to use this technique.

A scanned bush mesh

A generated UV map from a scanned bush

This type of scanned entourage offers much more realism than the alternative technique of alpha mapped planes for far away vegetation.

Alpha mapped trees

There are a few trees planted in the planter bed, and beyond the planter bed. In this render, an alpha mapped plane was used, where the tree texture was calibrated. The side effect of not using a fully modeled tree is that the shadows will not be truly correct, especially as the light generally hits at quite a sharp angle to the alpha mapped plane, which causes it to cast shadows that can't be seen from the room.

The position and shape of these dappled shadows are not critical to the scientific accuracy, as long as they exist. Therefore the tree was placed in the horizontal plane, to represent the canopy of the tree, and to cast the shadows. If viewed from another angle, this would look absolutely ridiculous, but for the purposes of simulating from this camera angle, it does what it needs to.

A view of the alpha mapped plane trees

Rigid body simulation placed bricks

A nearly invisible part of the render is a pile of bricks in the backyard. I don't actually have a pile of bricks in my backyard, but they do show that any regular CG technique is still applicable, so long as it can be baked into a mesh. In this case, a rigid body simulation was used to drop them and have them pile naturally.

A pile of bricks, that you can hardly see in the actual

Panoramic 360 VR

A static, panoramic 360 VR was created from this render. This means that you cannot move around in the space, but you can look around 360 degrees, just like Google StreetView. This is a old trick that has been around for a long time, but Radiance has been around longer than that, and so it is not too intuitive how to achieve this.

I've written a tutorial on how to create 360 VRs with Radiance that covers all the steps required. The scene.rif includes commented out sections that describe how to create a 360 VR using the three techniques described in the tutorial (angular map, cube map, and equirectangular map). The equirectangular map is the preferred approach.

A 360 panoramic VR environment of the room

After rendering out the panoramic image, it needs to be displayed in a real time viewer. Nowadays, there are plenty of open source solutions that provide this function. I have used A-Frame, which is a WebVR script that runs in your browser. You can view a demo of the Radiance VR. If you have cardboard VR goggles, which you can buy as a cheap flatpack online, you can put your phone in and move your head around to see the scene.

Full inspection of the sources

The living room render is a fully open-source creation available for your inspection. It is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license, and you can browse the Radiance living room source files for free online here. It is also a public rsync directory, so you can download it as follows:

rsync -avz rsync:// .

Some of the more reusable assets have been reshared and are available in the free 3D Radiance model repository.


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