Introducing Blender: Free CGI Software for Photographers
We’ve already introduced you to Ethan Davis, Blender expert and guest instructor for our 3D CGI classes.
Now it’s time to meet Ethan’s CGI software of choice: Blender.
What is Blender?
Blender is a 3D creation suite, licensed as GNU GPL (general public license). As open source software, Blender is ‘owned’ by its contributors and comes with no price tag. In other words, it’s free!
Blender covers all aspects of 3D, from modelling, rendering and compositing to rigging, animation and simulation. People even use it to make and edit videos – including full-length movies – and make video games. The software is also popular among 2D animators, VFX artists and VR content creators.
Built to run equally well on Mac, Windows and Linux computers, Blender is perfectly suited to individuals or small creative collectives.
All of this makes Blender a perfect starting point for anyone looking to make the leap into the world of 3D and CGI.
From Photography to CGI: An Interview With Ethan Davis
How does Blender work?
Blender is an incredibly powerful and versatile piece of software, with a massive range of features and capabilities.
To create a 3D scene in Blender (or any other 3D CG software for that matter), you need at least three components: models, materials and lights.
For photographers beginning their CGI journey, the three primary processes you’ll be undertaking are modelling, lighting and rendering. But as you’ll see below, you can skip the time-consuming modelling step altogether if you wish!
3D modelling in Blender
Creating a model is usually the first step in producing a 3D CGI scene.
According to Blender, “Modelling is simply the art and science of creating a surface that either mimics the shape of a real-world object or expresses your imagination of abstract objects.”
Blender offers a comprehensive array of modelling tools designed to make the process as smooth and intuitive as possible. These include extrude, inset, bevel, loop cut, knife, bridge, booleans and edge slide.
If those terms are confusing, don’t worry! Once you get started in Blender, things will soon begin to make sense.
And if modelling sounds daunting, there's good news: making your own model from scratch is not compulsory.
Instead, you can purchase pre-made 3D models from sites like CGtrader, Blendermarket, Sketchfab, and Turbosquid. There’s also Blenderkit, an add-on that actually comes bundled with Blender.
Blender 3D Basics
Modifiers for modelling
During the modelling process, the primary tools you’ll use will be modifiers. These are automatic operations that affect an object in a non-destructive way. They allow you to perform effects that would be too tedious and tricky to update manually.
There are four categories of modifier, each of which includes various tools:
- Modify (includes Data Transfer, UV Wrap, Weighted Normal)
- Generate (includes Array, Bevel, Decimate)
- Deform (includes Armature, Curve, Hook)
- Simulate (includes Cloth, Collision, Explode)
At first, modelling can seem daunting. But once you’ve familiarised yourself with these tools and had some fun experimenting, you’ll soon start to get the hang of it.
Lighting in Blender
Once you have a 3D model in your scene, it’s time to move on to lighting.
You light your 3D scene in the same way you would light a real-life scene in photography. But instead of setting up physical lights in your studio or on location, you introduce virtual light sources.
Just as you would in real life, you can position, adjust and modify these virtual lights to achieve the effect you want.
This means the lighting knowledge and expertise you have acquired as a photographer will be hugely valuable for your 3D work.
3D rendering in Blender
To turn a 3D scene into a 2D image, you have to render it. To do that, you need a render engine.
Blender offers three different render engines with different strengths: Eevee, Cycles, and Workbench.
In addition to these, you can also download other, extra ones.
How your render looks will depend on the cameras, lights and materials you choose to use. In other words, it’s at the rendering stage that you’ll put your experience of photography lighting to use.
Renders can be split into layers and passes. These can then be composited together for full creative control, or else to be combined with real footage.
When it’s time to output your render, you’ll do so based on the output settings you selected at the beginning of the rendering process.
Blender supports a range of image formats, including BMP, PNG, JPEG and TIFF, as well as Iris, Targa and more.
You can also render in video formats, as well as EXRs (32-bit colour depth images).
More to explore
As we said before, Blender is a hugely powerful and useful piece of software. Indeed, it has many capabilities we haven’t touched on here.
But the best thing about Blender is the fact that it comes with no price tag or compulsory subscription, making it extremely accessible. It also means you can give it a try without making any expensive commitments.
The Blender user manual is a great resource and freely available online. Even better, it’s super user-friendly, divided up into bitesized sections that make getting started feel manageable and exciting.
Get started with Blender
With our new series of CGI classes due for release in 2022, now’s a great time to familiarise yourself with the Blender interface.
Though it may seem overwhelming at first, our classes will soon give you the guidance and structure you need to make the most of this exciting software.