For the layman – How 3D Rendering Works. Part 6: Composition

[ about a 25 min. read ]
Part 1: 3D models
Part 2: Materials & Shaders
Part 3: Textures
Part 4: Projection mapping & UV mapping
Part 5: Camera

In the previous article I talked about the camera. I discussed the creative options we have at our disposal to set up our shot. Those options were basically already part of setting up the composition. But I also mentioned that camera and composition are very intertwined. In this article I will be discussing more about composition. Specifically some general rules and design elements that can help in choosing the right camera position and doing a proper placement of 3D elements.

One thing I think is important to know before diving into the topic, is that with camera & composition (and especially with the composition part) there are some rules that can be used as guides. But in the end the approach will be different for each product and each new visualization. The thing is to be aware of the rules, but in the end try to let go of them and take each visualization as its own, and do what feels natural.

The mayor thing to take away from this article is that you understand the idea behind the guiding rules and design elements, and be more aware of the influence of composition in a final render.

1. What is composition?

Composition is the arrangement of the subject(s) in an image, combined with the position from where the image is captured.

It is all aimed at properly emphasizing the subject(s) and guiding the viewers eye through the image.
It is thinking about where the focus of attention needs to be and if there are lines and curves that can guide a viewers eye towards it.

There are a few general rules that can be used as guidelines for setting up a composition. I will address 2 of the more well known ones below. These are:

  • Rule of thirds
  • Golden ratio
  • 2. Rule of thirds

    The rule of thirds is probably the most well known composition rule out there. It basically states that you need to divide your image into 9 equal parts by drawing 2 vertical lines and 2 horizontal lines. The subject of the photo should be placed at any of the 4 intersections of the vertical and horizontal lines (indicated by the red dots in the image below) or along the lines themselves:

    The idea behind the rule of thirds is that the human eye is naturally drawn away from the center of an image and more towards the positions of the intersecting lines. By offsetting your subject from the center you therefore create a more dynamic and balanced image which should be more aesthetically pleasing.

    The below example has the main subject (the wall display) at the top right intersection point:

    KONE Elevators - Scene 1 - Landscape - Wood 24PT Small - Black

    And the below example has both displays along the vertical lines of the grid:

    Concrete Office building Wayfinding

    3. Golden ratio

    The golden ratio is a composition rule that is based on the Fibonacci spiral. Fibonacci (a.k.a Leonardo of Pisa) was an Italian mathematician who had come up with a famous number sequence. In this sequence you start with the numbers 0 and 1. Each number after that is the sum of the previous 2 numbers. So you get 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on. This number sequence can be applied to an image by constructing a guiding grid as you can see below:

    The size of the squares follow the Fibonacci number sequence. By placing an arc through all the squares, connecting each opposite corner, you create a natural path that the human eye follows when viewing an image.

    You can place a main subject at the starting point of the smallest 2 blocks (the red dot). From there you spiral outwards and keep all other elements within the arc. Following this rule creates a naturally pleasing image. The viewers eye can start at the focal point and move outwards following the arc. Or the arc can lead the viewer inwards towards the focal point.

    In the example below, your eyes start at the right side as you look up and over the tea pot towards the bonsai tree in the back. From there you spiral inwards towards the 2 cups. You see how the arc brushes the bonsai leaves and the tea pot handle, but both items are centered inside their spiral’s box.

    The next example shows a similar curve, but this time the spiral comes from below. The big screen, which is in a brighter portion of the image, has more color and is positioned on a more emtpy wall, catches your attention:

    Bespoke Interior - Office

    4. Design elements

    The 2 composition rules mentioned above create a more aesthetically pleasing image. But there are also specific design elements that can be used as tools to create the balance and emphasis to focus or guide the viewers eye. There are a few of these elements that I want to address. These are:

    1. Lines
    2. Color
    3. Light
    4. Negative space
    5. Rule of odds
    6. Camera position/angle
    7. Depth Of Field (DOF)

    4.1 Lines

    Leading lines in an image guide the viewers eyes towards what you want them to focus on. The lines can originate from symmetrical perspective. Leading the eyes over the front desk, towards the back wall in the example below:

    Bespoke Interior - Reception

    Or from a diagonal perspective. Leading the eyes from left to right in the example below:

    Public Buildings - Restroom Green Dark

    Or curves through the scene. Leading the viewers eyes along the pathway towards the house:

    4.2 Color

    The contrast of color can catch the attention, and create a focus or starting point in your image. For example, the contrast from the brighter green in the lenses of the binoculars below create a starting point for the eyes. The viewers gaze can then curve up diagonally due to the perspective in the image, and land at the top of the product where the product is better lit:

    4.3 Light

    Lighting can create contrast. Parts that are more illuminated will sooner catch your eye. For example. In the office entrance example from earlier in this article, the scene was lit with a daylight setting. The light was coming from the left. That, along with the more colorful big screen on a more empty wall, creates more attention to look towards the left side of the image:

    Bespoke Interior - Office

    But lights can also create strong contrast by placing an object alone on a dark background:

    4.4 Negative Space

    Negative space is the space in your image that you leave blank. It can drag the focus towards the items that are in the scene. E.g. a product that you are trying to display. The rule of thirds is a perfect composition guide for this. Place your product at one third of the image and leave the other side blank. For example for text, if you are making an add:

    4.5 Rule of Odds

    The rule of odds is useful for product visualization and it works on a subconscious level. It is based on the premise that an even number of items in a scene can be easily perceived by a viewers mind. But an odd number causes tension and interest. The viewer will work longer and harder to properly perceive it. 3 or 5 products normally works best. Varying the items with colors, size and position will break any kind of repetitive nature:

    4.6 Camera position/angle

    Camera position and camera angle were already addressed in my previous article on camera settings. I want to quickly repeat it here, as it is an important design element. Choosing the right camera position can greatly influence the feel of an image, or the features you might want to emphasize for a product.

    Camera position can make you feel like an ant:

    Or a proper adult:

    Or create a more stylistic product visualization:

    Or provide a more familiar perspective on a product:

    4.7 DOF

    Depth OF Field was also mentioned before in my previous article on camera settings. I want to repeat it here as it is also a very important design element for creating focus. Out of all the design elements this element literally controls the focus in the scene by blurring the foreground and/or background in a scene.

    The example below has it’s foreground blurred. Along with the colorful advertisement on the screen, the DOF creates more focus on the big display on the wall in the back.

    Public Buildings - Stadium Entrance

    5. Ignore the rules

    The composition rules mentioned at the beginning of this article can make your image more pleasing by adding balance to it. But in some cases you need to just throw the rules out of the window and do what feels natural. Especially with something like product placement. You sometimes just need to put things front and center. It makes the item the center of attention without any distractions. The product is the eye catcher itself. And if you do need some help for the focus, you can always apply some of the design elements mentioned before:

    Pepsi Can on Ice

    FYI: the red in the logo is the eye catcher and the flare in the background creates the color contrast to make the soda can pop out.

    Those are some of the basics on composition rules and supporting design elements. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, look at the rules more as guides, and listen to your gut feeling to see if something is right or not. Most of the time you already feel if something is a good composition or not.

    As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments below.

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