Photoreal CG Landscapes
By bmckain
Published: 7/31/08

Photoreal CG Landscapes
by Simon Jones

Hello and welcome to my landscape tutorial. My name is Simon Jones. I would like to point out that I am still learning this stuff myself and am just sharing what I have learned so far. If you have any questions please feel free to email me at

Also I would like to thank Bob McKain for his help and getting with me about some different techniques to improve the images. The third image you see below was redone using some of his advice. Thanks man. Also at the end of this tutorial you can download my scene files, and tear them apart for your self. With that said, lets get started.

I have always wanted to make CG landscapes that look real. This tutorial is a result of that desire. I had been looking through the Vue 4 Professional gallery and was thinking to myself: Self, why can’t I do that in Lightwave? So I sat down and tried to do it. These pictures are the result of about 3-5 hours of work. They are not perfect and they still could use a lot of work, but they are a start.

There were 4 main stages to making these pictures.

• Modeling and Displacement

• Texturing

• Rendering and lighting

• Post-production

Modeling and Displacement

I Started out in modeler and make a very simple plane. 50 m by 50m and 14 segments on the X and Z axis.

Then I hit the tab key to turn on subpatch mode. After that I saved my object with some fancy name, like my landscape, and sent it to layout. That’s all for modeler. We will do the rest of our modeling in layout with displacement maps.

Once in layout I started by bumping up my subpatch display to 15. This allows me to see some detail without it totally crashing my computer. For the final render it will be even higher.

I added an image displacement map to the plane using these setting. The image was made with Texture Maker. Texture Maker is a seamless texture maker. It is very powerful for a very small price. I recommend it.

This layer is to give slight detail to the landscape. After that I added another image layer.

This is another detailing layer. Just to give it some of that smaller detail. The last layer that I added was a procedural Turbulence texture with falloff to make it highest in the middle and slowly fall off toward the edges of the landscape. This gives the landscape the mountain like form.

(falloff settings)

This is with the subpatch level bumped up to 50. This will be our final render setting.

That is it for the Modeling and displacement. If you want more detail you can either subdivide your plane or up the subpatch level. If it were me I would subdivide it rather than push the subpatch lever much over 50.


This project was made a whole lot easier with the use of Fprime. I used it the whole time while I was working as well as for the final render. Please, if you have the money, get this plug-in. It will change the way you work totally. Lighting and texturing is a breeze with it. And no, I don't work for Worley labs. :D

I started out with the default smooth surface and worked out from there. Lets take a look at the bump textures first.

The first layer is a procedural turbulence layer. It is a very slight bump.

The next layer is an additive procedural layer. It is a very small bump 20mm X 20mm X 20mm. This adds small detail that helps make it all look real.

The third layer's blending mode is set to alpha. It is a gradient that keeps the detailed bump of layer two from affecting the areas that will have snow on them.

Layer four is just some more detail.

Layer five is the crowning jewel. I love the crumple procedural for rock like surfaces. It can be overdone though, so just be judicious with it.

That is all for the bump channel. Now we will move to the color channel. There are 8 layers in all.

Layer one is just a basic color layer base. I used a brown rock picture and auto sized it to cover everything without tiling.

Layer two is an additive detail layer. Very small to add detail. Not very visible though. Just a slight effect.

Layer three is a turbulence layer set to difference. This basically desaturates the image to a degree. It also pulls the shadows up a bit and makes them lighter.

Layer four is a gradient that makes the top of the mountain white and the foot hills green. It also has some alpha applied to allow the lower layers to shine through.

Layer five's image map gives some color variation to the overall texture. It has some falloff on the Y axis.

Layer Six is a brownish rock like texture that covers everything. It will be used to affect just the mountain with the help of the next layer

Layer seven. This gradient has it's blending mode set to alpha so it will erase the parts of the texture below it that are not within 23 meters to the objects pivot point. Gradients are very powerful tools to use for this sort of texturing.

Layer eight is the final gradient layer. It creates snow on a certain range of slopes on the object.

The last texture is in the luminosity channel. It is a gradient that really makes the snow shine bright.

That is all the texturing now let’s move on to the ...........

Rendering and Lighting

I have two lights that I am using in the scene. One is a distant light pointing down toward the ground and slightly toward the camera. Its settings are here:

The second light is a spot that has a pretty tight cone. It is on the low far right and pointing at the mountain top to give it the feeling of being either early or late in the day. Both lights have ray traced shadows on.

I have Fprime's radiosity turned on to backdrop and 50% intensity.

I am also using a backdrop image. It is the same image I will use for the background in the final composite. This will help match some of the lighting between the foreground and the background.

I turned on Ray traced shadows and let Fprime cook for a while. This is the result.

Not very impressive I have to admit. As a matter of fact, if I have not been working with 3d for a while now, I would have given up in frustration, but I know that post production can change an image that is ok to great. I didn't know how well it would work for this one, but I wanted to give it a try. Besides, everyone else always tells me to fix it in post, so why can't I tell myself that? :D

Post Production

I use Discreet Combustion for my post work. As soon as Fprime had a draft of my image I fired up Combustion (no pun intended) and started working. As I worked, every so often I would reload the higher quality version that Fprime had been working on in the back ground. It is a great workflow enhancement.

I loaded my image and added a sharpening effect to it or operator as it is called in Combustion. I sharpened the image by 20%. The sharpening alone helped the image out quite a bit. Then I added a Color Corrector to the mix. This CC (as we call them) was used to boost the contrast in the shadow range to 145.

The next step was to add film grain. Combustion's grain tools are very good. However as you can see I did not really push them much on this piece. :)

I then added another CC. This one was used for coloring. The shadows were pulled to a greenish/blue, while the midtones were a yellowish/orange. Lastly the master was set to reddish/pink and the contrast moved slightly up to 104.

I then drew a mask around the tops of some of the mountains to the left of the image and feathered it out a lot. This will allow some of the sky to show through making it look like distant haze. Cheap trick but it works.

I have my sky separate, just to allow more control in the final picture. In this case I didn't really need it so I just copied and pasted all the operators from the first image except the mask.

Add the sky layer and the mountain layer together and you get this.

Getting there. And now I am going to show you a trick that you may or may have not known. I took both the sky and mountain layers and merged them into one using the nesting tool. I then copied and pasted an exact copy of it. I added a Unconstrained Gaussian Blur and set the blur width and height to about 50. I then changed the layer blending mode to hard light and set the layer opacity to 50%. So to sum that up I have one blurred image sitting on top of the non blurred image and the one on top is set to hard light. I also find that the Overlay and Screen settings work well too. This trick really can give your shots a neat feel.

One thing that I thought was missing was some sun beams coming in from the right. So I added my own. I added a new layer and made it a paint operator. I drew this....

Ok, so I can't draw. But that is ok because I am about to add a dolly blur operator that will make it all look good. I also added a mask and a CC to trim the edges and match the colors.

I Changed the sun beam's layer blending mode to Hard light and there you go. Easy sun beams. :D You can use this method for making haze and fog as well. I used it in the second and third images you saw at the front of the tutorial to make a hazy look to the images. The third image was rendered out with fog in LW. Thanks to Bob McKain for that tip. The image is coming along, but there are a few things still needed.

I added a selection to this area....

and set up a lens flare to further simulate sunlight. It is subtle but I think it helps.

Then last but not least I removed the earlier selection and added my letter boxing and text with a paint operator. The image was done, and if you ask me, it looks a bit better than the LW output. So "fix it in post" is not always a bad thing.

I went back later and tried a few different color schemes and came up with the blueish one at the front of this tutorial. I think maybe a few cities in the hills to enhance the sense of scale would be a good thing to add too. Hope you enjoyed it and learned a little too. If you have questions, drop me an email at

Thanks for reading.

Download the support scene here.

This tutorial has also been provided as a PDF file: Photoreal CG Landscapes.pdf