Lighting in Photography and Games

Lighting in Photography and Games

Lighting artist Maria Yue shared her ideas on lighting and named a couple of great book for lighting enthusiasts.

Lighting artist Maria Yue shared her ideas on lighting and named a couple of great book for lighting enthusiasts. 


Hello. I’ve started working as a video game lighting artist since 2012, my first job in dev team started at Ubisoft Shanghai. Then I moved to Crytek GmbH in Frankfurt Germany, now I am currently working at Foundry 42, the UK studio of Cloud Imperium games.

During the game development, I worked on lighting both characters and environments, ensuring the lighting setup meets the performance request with ideal visual quality.

So far, I have been lucky to work on a few titles below:

  • Far Cry franchise (Far Cry 4, Valley of the Yeti DLC, Far Cry Primal) — Ubisoft Shanghai, China
  • Robinson the Journey, Climb the North expansion — Crytek GmbH, Frankfurt Germany
  • Star Citizen, Cloud Imperium Games. Manchester, UK 
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I was a photography student at a local art institute, back then I was impressed by photographers like Jan Saudek and Tim Walker. After my first year, I started concentrating on my personal work with heavy set up / artificial lighting. In 2008 I moved to London and studied exhibition/ theatre design, later I worked as a freelance fashion photographer and a part-time theatre assistant. At that moment, I was fascinated by lighting design for musicals, willing to work as a lighting artist for films and musicals.

I have always a big fan of video games, for me they are like a movie you could participate, even though I myself have never good at playing them. I do enjoy watching playthrough videos online or sit and watch my brother playing video games.

In 2013 I saw a friend of mine doing rendering work in Maya, I was really surprised by how much potential 3D software could provide, especially when it comes to lighting. Meanwhile, my friend also encouraged me to learn 3D tools by self-studying, as there are so many good websites with free tutorials, I guess that’s when I started slowly moving my career from photography to video games.

For me applying for job in game industry is very similar to applying study at an art institute, since I made up my mind that I am willing to work as a lighting artist for games, I started self-learning with free tutorials online, then I built up my first portfolio with Maya and Unity.

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Lighting in Photography and Games

The lighting principles that I’ve learned from photography are very helpful during my entire workflow. Since most of the projects I’ve worked on are based on real-time lighting, there is an interesting coherence when it comes to controlling the lighting budget.

Lighting is a very functional job, no matter if it’s for theatre or video games, a good lighting setup must serve the character well with ideal illuminance and the reasonable range of visualization. Sometimes a beautiful lighting setup could be visually attractive, however it might not have enough ‘flexibility’ which allows the character to be illuminated well in his/her movement.

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Atmospheric Lighting

In real-time shoot, atmospheric lighting highly depends on the weather and hours. While working with CryEngine, the fog and directional light sources are working with each other as well. In general, the solar angle always plays a significant role for the result of shadow/ fog/ cloud. I normally block out the solar angle at the very beginning of my workflow, and decide the further polishing of fog density, falloff value, ramp value later.

Apparently, I got the mood guidance from my Art Director and concept artist. I am always using my reference library with similar weather conditions while working on key scenes.

My reference library consists of image collections with different weather conditions and moods, these could be any sort of images.

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Light Sources

Again, for the production, the rendering budget and mission design always dominate the visual attraction.

However, speaking of personal preference, I do believe different light source serve very iconic effect. Spot lights are good at emphasizing the volume, while the omni lights are perfect at mimicking secondary bounces. A good lighting design always counts on the rhythm between different lighting sources.

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Baked Lighting

I am still studying and practicing my skill of baked lighting. Since most of the projects I’ve worked on are real-time, I do prefer using baked lighting pipeline for my personal projects.

Baked lighting allows you to polish the lighting design towards more details and let you worry less about real-time rendering budget. I personally feel baked lighting has more control when it comes to details of softer lighting setups.

Since most of baking light workflow requests a unified path to textures and mesh settings, the control pass of initial bake setup is very important.

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Using Light in Games

We focus most of lighting budget on a playable area, and make sure the lighting set works both for characters and environments in various angles of view.

In addition, the color contrast always helps to tell the space better, with interactive scenes, the theory of lighting design is similar to real life.

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Volumetric Lighting

I cannot talk about the volumetric lighting via tech side as it’s highly based on which tool you choose. However, I do feel the volumetric lighting boosts the coherence between fog and light.

To give an example, the volumetric fog works in a very similar way to smoke machines and light setups in theaters. In contrast to setting up light and fog separately, the volumetric lighting allows a lighting artist to create more convincing lighting design with light fog.


It depends on the level and the mission. Sometimes we get notes from level designers about important locations / items we should highlight. Sometimes it depends on the time of day .

Blocking out a scene with basic lighting setup is always a good start. Knowing the purpose of the lighting design is very important since the beginning of workflow.

Observing how the light behaves in real life is always inspiring.


My reference for artificial lighting

A very good tutorial I’ve been following, special thanks to Tilmann Milde for sharing his knowledge of Unreal Engine:

Books for photography and stage lighting study

By Richard Pilbrow.

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Maria Yue, Lighting Artist at Cloud Imperium Games

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Learning From Lighting in Photography for Games