3-D and Photoshop: A Dynamic Duo

A Dose of Realism   By adding realistic-looking special effects in Photoshop, artist Nick Fain is able to transform simple 3-D models into dynamic illustrations. He applied his technique in this artwork to make a circuit board look like a futuristic cityscape.

Three-dimensional imagery is so appealing because, when it's done imaginatively, it can seductively pull you into the depths of its fabricated world. But far too many illustrations fall short of that ideal. One of the reasons, says San Francisco-based digital illustrator Nick Fain, is that 3-D programs typically don't allow for much customization of colors and textures. As a result, an image rendered in a 3-D program tends to look flat, dull, and unrealistic.

That's where Adobe Photoshop comes in. Exploiting its arsenal of color-enhancement tools and filter effects, Fain can quickly create natural-looking texture maps for his 3-D models. Doing the work would be much more time-consuming and difficult with a 3-D program alone.

For this illustration, which appeared in Publish magazine, Fain created a circuit board that resembled a cityscape. In Byte by Byte's Sculpt 3D, he built a relatively simple model and ray-traced it.

For highly detailed print images such as this one, Fain prefers to add shadows and atmospheric effects–such as fog, smoke, and glowing lights–in Photoshop. It not only gives him better control and quality than a 3-D program but also lets him create and modify such effects much more easily. For instance, he can alter an element without having to rerender the entire image.

Fain created this image on his Power Mac G3 with Photoshop 5.5 and Sculpt 3D, although he could have built the model with virtually any 3-D program.

Photoshop F/X

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1) In Sculpt 3D, Fain used relatively simple geometric shapes to build a model of the circuit board, shown here in wire-frame mode. Using a wide-angle lens, he positioned the program's camera to view the scene from a dynamic three-point perspective.

2) To achieve a photo-realistic look, he ray-traced the image in Sculpt 3D, with the highest-quality settings and with shadows turned off. Fain typically renders 3-D images without shadows, which reduces rendering time. More important, he can easily create the shadows in Photoshop, a program that provides better controls and produces superior results.

3) He created an alpha mask in Sculpt 3D in order to separate key elements in the image--such as the CPU in the center and the cylindrical-shaped capacitor --from the background. Then he imported the mask into Photoshop and worked on the elements individually.

4) To punch up the colors and sharpen the contrast throughout the image, Fain made adjustments with Photoshops Curves command, increasing the saturation, lightening the midtones and highlights, and increasing the density of the shadows.

5) Finally, he added the glowing comet tails swirling around the CPU. Each of the tails consists of a yellow tail, a white tail, and a white hot spot (the last two residing on the same layer). Using Photoshop's airbrush tool, Fain made two stroked paths (a long, soft stroke for the yellow tail and a shorter, thinner one for the white tail) and added a glow for the hot spot at the beginning of the tail by clicking once or twice with the airbrush tool. He used a 35-pixel brush for the yellow tail, a 25-pixel brush for the white tail, and a 65-pixel brush for the hot spot.

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