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Architectural Visualization with HDRI Skies and V-Ray

by Paco Morales

In this tutorial, we will illuminate an exterior architectural scene with help from V-Ray and a HDR image (High Dynamic Range Image, or HDRI for short) from Hyperfocal Design. Using 3dsmax and HDRI Skies with the V-Ray rendering engine will enable us to create super realistic results. Our HDR sky image will be used to light our scene and to create realistic reflections with a high level of realism, and with great ease of use. Conventional light rigging schemes can eventually achieve similar results, but with lots of time wasted on experimenting and tweaking. And time is money. We will use the V-Ray rendering engine, adjusting several parameters along the way to obtain nice shadows, materials, caustics, etc. V-Ray has proved itself to be a market leader for speed, ease of use and stunning lighting capabilities. The first thing we will do is download the necessary files to start building and setting up the scene, and provide it with lighting and material information This is a step by step tutorial, with lots of images to help grasp the general workflow idea. After all, one good image is better that a thousand words! You can find the 3d file attached with this document. For the sky, if you do not have one of Hyperfocals HDRI Skies you can of course use one their free HDRI samples, which can be found in http://www.hyperfocaldesign. com/free-textures/ You could use a spherical HDRI for your scene, however you will usually find you have unwanted objects such as buildings or trees which do not match your scene. You may also get unwanted lighting, color and reflection information. We will use one HDR image in several different sizes - one small image for the illumination and larger ones for the background and reflections. Note: This is not always the case, do some tests before committing an HDRI for a background. Depending on your scene, you may have little in the way of reflections, and you may not need a dynamic HDRI background. In this case just resample the HDRI Sky to 8bit at the exposure level of your choice. The resolution of the HDRI for the background and reflection mapping is larger than that of the lighting image. For lighting we just need to get the general intensity, color and direction of the illumination from the image, whereas for the reflections, we need lots of detail showing. The higher the detail, the more realism in our final render. Scanline render, standard lights

HDRI Sky + V-Ray

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

Lighting HDRI

Reflection HDRI

First disable Default Lighting under Global Settings and delete any lights you have in the scene. Now we load the HDRIs into the material editor; one for the illumination, one for the reflections, and the other for the Environment. Follow the instructions for the lighting HDRI below and then setup your reflection and environment HDRIs in the same fashion.

Setup your white and black point as shown below, but dont clamp the HDRI, otherwise you will lose the valuable illumination information. Clamping the sun may reduce splotching and speckling artifacts in your final render, however you are better off resizing or blurring your lighting HDRI. You will need to adjust the RGB level to match your white point figures.

I like to handle the large background/environment HDRI independently, as this way you can adjust the background exposure level to suit your taste, without affecting the reflections or lighting. In other words, you can make the sky HDRI look brighter or darker without over or underexposing the scene, this is good, as you have more overall control over the scene this way. This is effectively a way of tonemapping within your scene. Shortcut Key F10

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray


We create a direct light with the values shown in the image shown to the right. You can follow the images to see where I have placed the light. But it really is a matter of taste, and of course, it depends on the particular scene.

Press (Alt+B) and a window will appear (Viewport background). Use the values as shown on the screengrab. Then adjust the direct light as per the image above, because we need to match the direct light with the sun position within the HDRI.

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

Here is the image with the direct light, this provides strong but dispersed shadows. In the images shown to the right, different values have been applied to the V-Ray shadows with resulting levels of shadow sharpness. The first image has a value of zero (0 with 32 subdivisions), giving it a focused look with no fading. In the second we have a value of 1 (1 with 32 subdivisions), and there is now some fading in the shadow borders. And so on till  with subdivisions. I personally use a value of 3.0 with 32 subdivisions most of the time. UVW 1.0 (32 Subdivisions) UVW 0.0 (32 Subdivisions)

UVW 2.0 (32 Subdivisions)

UVW 3.0 (32 Subdivisions)

UVW 4.0 (32 Subdivisions)

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

Here we have the image with pure illumination provided by the HDRI, without direct light and the resulting soft shadows. Depending on what size lighting HDRI you use, and whether you blur it or not, you will find that you can achieve anything from very blurry shadows to quite sharp. However the larger your lighting HDRI, the longer your render times and the harder it will be to remove speckling/splotching artifacts. Depending on the scene and the look we wish to achieve, we can work with or without direct lights. For example in this cloudy sky image, the sun is behind the clouds, giving a soft shadow look. Many of the HDRI Skies in the Hyperfocal range have the sun positioned on a cloud edge, allowing the artist to choose a direct light/hard edged shadow appearance, or a soft shadow appearance as if the sun is behind the clouds.

With a single sky you can alter the exposure level to create a number of different looks or atmospheres, as you can see in the images below. Or view the animation here.

Multiplier 0.1

Multiplier 0.25

Multiplier 0.

Multiplier 1

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

For the materials, you can use the screen shots of the material editor below as reference.


With fresnel, and without fresnel

In the reflections of the submaterial, we put a falloff (fresnel), this will make a more realistic-looking material. Just dont overdo it.


Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray



Apply a grey scale bitmap to roughen up your reflection map


Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray


If you want caustics, make a plane with 10 segments each side, and collapse to a mesh. Then add some noise, as roughness is needed to make subtle variations in the surface, and this generates the caustics. You can see the settings above. Note: Remember to enable gamma correction in preference settings. Go to Customize > Preferences > Gamma > Enable Gamma correction. My values are 1.8

Shortcut Hot key F10


Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

Final result, HDRI + V-Ray with Caustics

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. If you have any queries or suggestions then please mail me at Visit my Blog For more HDRI related tutorials, articles, news and products, visit

Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray


About the author

Paco Morales lives in Mexico and works as a freelance architectural and still life illustrator and animator. Paco discovered the fascinating world of 3D in university, and it was there that he started to learn simple programs like Minicad and Autocad. When he finished university he enrolled in an Autodesk Training Center in Mexico City and since then has studied Illumination, GI, modeling and HDRI. Paco is a winner of numerous awards and challenges and has also written a number of tutorials including this one.


Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray

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Arch Vis with HDRI and V-Ray