Reproducing a Photograph with UE4

Reproducing a Photograph with UE4

Jean-Baptiste Sottile talked about his small realistic project Schooldesk reproduced from a photo in UE4.

I’m Jean-Baptiste Sottile, a 3D freelance artist from France. I’ve been working in the 3D industry for 4 years now, after my graduation in 2015. I started to work with offline renders and moved to the game industry to discover the use of game engines in architecture visualization. My first experience in the game industry was with CryEngine at Enodo and recently I decided to start my freelance career mainly working in Unreal Engine 4 on architecture visualization, VR apps, and more. You can check my page here.

In the past, I also had the chance to work as a consulting technical artist at Epic Games.

About Schooldesk Project

The Schooldesk project is, in fact, something I’ve always wanted to do, because in my opinion, if you want to improve your skills, you must practice. And I think that the best exercise to improve realism is to re-create a real photo.

The idea for this project came from Fabrice Bourrelly. He is one of the artists who inspired me to start working in Unreal Engine 4 and I learned a lot through his YouTube videos. I also had the chance to work with him, and he once told me that it would be nice to precisely reproduce a photo to demonstrate that we can reach a very good visual quality in a game engine.

As the original photo looked simple in terms of modeling, I tried to make it just in 1 day.


Achieving Realism in UE4

To achieve a high level of realism, you first of all need to take time to watch the real world. I’ve always been inspired by my surroundings because I believe that the learning process is an infinite task.

As I said, the original photograph was very simple, so in my project, the realism would come from the small details. Shadows were also important as I wanted to made them soft just like in the picture.

Unreal Engine has a high capacity for realistic rendering and lighting results in UE4 can be as good as in offline renders. That is the main strength of this game engine for me.

Working with Materials

When you create a material, the most important thing is to think about the way it behaves in real life: how it’s built, the way it gets older, etc.

To achieve interesting results, I highly recommend first working in Detail Lighting Mode after you set up your lighting (either polished lighting or not).

My materials are pretty simple: I usually make a Master Material and when it comes to a specific effect, I create a separate material.

Most of the materials for this project were created in Substance Painter and tweaked in Photoshop (I’m more efficient there). Here’re a few screenshots:

The vase and the candlestick use the node MetallicShading that helps to achieve a more “metal” and interesting look.

The candle is made with a simple SSS color plugged to Subsurface Color. The lighting does the rest of the job.

The overall color was set in UE4.


Start simple with a skylight (the most important light). Build lighting and see how your skylight is rendered throughout your scene. Take your time to pick the right HDRI with the right mood identified in the original picture. I generally use HDRI from but since this year I’ve also started to capture my own ones with a DSLR camera.

Once the main lighting is set, you can get carried away and play with your post-process volumes to rectify the colors, contrast, and brightness of the overall mood and also the white balance (this is an important step, in my opinion). Also, in each of my project, I like to add a very small chromatic aberration because it blurs the edges a little bit and makes it feel less “3D rendered”.

A quick tip: try to avoid strong contrasts in your scenes as it breaks realism.

After that, you can start adding detailed lights (if needed) one by one to match the picture.

Don’t forget to place a reflection capture necessary for the reflections in the environment.

And one more thing: if you want to make something realistic, you have to think realistically. Focus on how a real room is built to identify the light sources (windows, a door opened, artificial lights, etc.) and offscreen objects that will create shadows and might accentuate realism.


When people ask me how to get better in UE4, I always say the same thing: for the last 5+ years, I’ve been watching at least 2-3 videos of any kind of work created in Unreal Engine a day. I also spend some time in Facebook groups dedicated to Unreal Engine and I can say that it’s not a waste of time at all.

Take time to train your eye and learn from others’ success and mistakes. Also, try to build a scene with a simple lighting setup because the realistic look is achieved exactly this way: quality over quantity.

Apart from that, don’t be stubborn and don’t do the work alone. Remember to always ask others’ opinion about your progress.

Jean-Baptiste Sottile, Freelance 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Pete




    ·10 months ago·
  • Rory

    I actually thought the unreal one was the real one. I was like yeah okay I see the shaders



    ·10 months ago·

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Reproducing a Photograph with UE4