Creating compelling furniture images: digitally.

One of the ways Messen provides value to clients is by keeping a low overhead and passing the savings on to our customers, something that we take a lot of pride in. For instance, we do not have a show room, which means we do not need an inventory or to pay for rent or otherwise maintain the ongoing expenses involved with a physical retail operation. With that said, furniture is an inherently aesthetic product, and getting a sense of the look and feel of a particular piece is very important to our customers, or anyone that is shopping for furniture.

Messen furniture offers a unique value proposition, and we try to use images to showcase just what we mean!

So what do we do here at Messen to help our customers replicate a physical visit to a store? We strive to provide realistic, life-like digital representations of our furniture that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. This process is not easy however, and as one learns how to create digital environments to simulate real life they also learn a lot about how humans perceive the world. We’ve slowly been getting better at it over the years! Today, I’m going to take you on the journey from basic 3D model all the way to a life-like representation and talk about the little details we don’t notice about the world around us, but that are really important for helping us understand if something is “real”.

Please note, today I’m going to be talking a bit about eyes, colours, and vision. I’m not a doctor, and these comments are based purely on my own observations of the world! Similarly, I’m not an expert in the 3D rendering space – there are many people far more qualified to talk about this subject, but I hope to provide a fun introduction to it and talk about the little that I’ve learned.

With that, let’s get started! We’ll be looking at a lot of the same image but with different details today.

A blob that resembles a shelf.

Let’s start with our model. This one is not actually offered right now on messenfurniture.com, but it will be soon. It’s very similar to the Super Hornet Bookcase, but has one long piece across the top which makes it great as a sideboard/smaller shelf because the top can be used to place decorative items.

The 3D software we use to render our models is also how we create the actual objects that will be manufactured, so the physical entity represented in the photo below is actually reflective of what we use to make the parts for your furniture! In the image below, we have our model shown just in an “infinity” backdrop, with nothing else much going on:

Just a shape, nothing else.

Clearly, this is a bit uninspiring. Although the wood might look real, it’s quite obvious even to the untrained eye that this shelf is not “real”. It’s a sham!

The first step to making this image look more compelling is to start by creating an environment that “looks” like where you might see a bookcase. Humans have a way of detecting patterns, and when we notice that something isn’t quite right, we’re very sensitive to it. The Vsauce channel on YouTube has a great video about what makes something “creepy”, and it talks a little bit about how something that is slightly misplaced often gives us an uneasy feeling (named the “uncanny valley”). I like to think that renderings that fall into the “uncanny valley of interior design” is why poor digital renderings look so unattractive, although that is purely speculation. They are “almost” lifelike, but not quite. You be the judge of whether my theory is ture!

So let’s add some simple details to start making our way out of the 'uncanny valley'.

We have a simple room... better!

Great, we’re already doing a bit better. We have a wall, and a hardwood floor with some baseboard trim. However, there’s a few things in this picture that you might not realize at first, but which are holding back this shelf from looking “real”:

Sharp Edges

In the real world, human beings rarely see extremely sharp edges. Most surfaces are a little bit rounded, even “sharp” edges like corners in a room or the edge of a picture frame are really a little bit rounded. For Messen furniture specifically, the edge banding we apply has a very slight roundover to it, the type that you wouldn’t notice unless you looked carefully, but it’s definitely there. We should add these details if we want to improve realism.

Perfect Colors

Rarely, if ever, are humans exposed to a “perfect” white. Although this rendering has a bit of a pinkish tone in it, that’s mostly due to reflections from the wood floor and the color of the lighting in the room – the color used for the paint on the walls is RGB 256, 256, 256, or perfect “white”. Even if it’s only a slight shift, we should change the color to make sure it’s something humans might actually see in the real world (remember, we like to see the types of things we expect if we are going to perceive them as “real”, so even though “perfect white” is possible in real life, we should pick a colour you might actually find in a home).

Lighting

I saved the best for last. More than anything, the single most important thing you can do to create a “real” looking object is to make sure the lighting is reflective (hah, get it?) of what you would expect to see in the real world. The previous two images used a single light source that is great for some applications, but isn’t what you’ll find in most living rooms. In most homes, you have many sources of light. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Light from the sun.
  • Light from the sun bouncing off other objects and then into your room.
  • Light from other rooms.
  • Light from multiple lights in the same room.
  • Light from objects in your room bouncing off each other.

Without proper lighting, you don’t get proper shadows either. With only one light source in a digital rendering, you only get sharp shadows when in reality, you’re going to get multiple shadows. Check out the shadows next to the window in my office in the image below – there weren’t even any lights on in the room!

There's at least three distinct shadows in this image, and that's only light coming from outside!

So, we’ve got three big changes we want to make, let’s try it out! In the image below, we’ve rounded out all of the edges that you wouldn’t expect to be perfectly sharp, we’ve added a ceiling with pot lights to project multiple light sources, and we’ve added a wall color based on Benjamin Moore’s 2020 interior colours list (I like bold colours, so I went with Blue Danube).

Improving Step by Step

Okay! We’re getting somewhere. You’ll notice here that the wood gets multiple colour tones to it, whereas the older versions only had a few because of the “sharp shadows” effect. Although subtle, the slight rounding of the edges of the shelf provide a softer look, and you can see we’ve created a shadow against the wall where the shelf sits flush where there didn’t used to be one before because of a sharp edge.

Here's what the room looks like in the design view. You can see our shelf, and I even included fake furniture and art that's not on set to help add extra depth to the lighting. 

There’s other effects too that benefit from realistic lighting. For instance, look in the corner of the room, you can see that the paint is reflecting one of the corner pot lights, and if you look above the shelf there’s a second reflection from another light. Similarly, if you look at one of the middle shelves, you can see at least three separate shadows, which reflects the multiple light sources that are entering the room.

It might seem trivial, but it’s really all in the details when it comes to bringing an image like this to life. It takes time and thoughtfulness to generate a simulated room that starts to approach what we might expect in real life.

Great, so we’ve improved but there’s still a hint of “fake” to this guy. Remember we were talking about how humans like to see things they would “expect”? Let’s add some décor. You really don’t need much, but just a little something that helps us forget that we’re looking at a computer screen and not a real shelf. In the real world, we don’t necessarily need décor to make furniture look real, of course, (although we all know there’s a reason furniture stores decorate their furniture!), but in the digital world we’re fighting an uphill battle against reality so we need to leverage what we can. Let’s add some things we might expect to find in a real room:

  • A chair
  • Candles
  • A serving tray
  • A book
  • Some paintings

Okay, I'm happy with this result so far!

This is getting even closer. You’ll notice a few details – the paintings aren’t actually sitting perfectly flush to the wall, because if you look closely at objects in your home, very few things actually sit perfectly flush (except your Messen shelf!). You’ll also notice the paintings have their own light-source – I modelled little art-lights that you can’t see but which are adding another light source directly onto the paintings. You’ll also notice that the candles and the tray are simple, but they add a little something to the room, and the chair in the background helps make it look more like a home.

Still, this image is missing a little “something”. We’re getting really close to not really being able to tell that it’s fake, but there’s still a final touch that is needed. As it turns out, one of the things about images and video versus our “real” view is that our real view is actually surrounded by “blur”. Here’s a quick example: Close one eye, hold a finger in front of you and focus on it. Then focus on something else in the background. Then back on your hand. Although we don’t notice it, we don’t actually see everything around us in sharp focus. Try focusing on something and paying attention to your peripheral vision – it’s not actually very sharp. Here’s another Vsauce video talking a little bit about how the human eye perceives the world.

So, all of this is to say, high quality pictures and videos usually don’t have everything in focus – there’s almost always something that’s slightly out of focus or blurry. This is one of the telltale signs that allows us to distinguish between amateur video and professional video – lenses that can create “blur” are often expensive or, at the very least, are difficult to use effectively. The blur created in newer smart-phone cameras, for instance, is actually created through software and not through mechanical motion as has been tradition. In any case, adding a little blur can really elevate an image to add the final missing touch to help replicate human vision and help us lose the “fake” look. Once you notice how blur is used in photography, you’ll never unsee it!

So what’s the result?

We're looking close to perfection...

Woohoo! If I do say so myself, many people would have a hard time distinguishing this room from a “real” room. Regarding the blur, you want the portion of the image that naturally captures your eye to be in focus, and you want to gently blur out the other areas. In this image, I’m really trying to showcase the wood, rather than the whole piece. If I asked you to “look at the details in the wood”, you’d notice that your vision will be quite blurry except for right where you’re looking, and this rendering tries to mimic that effect. I might dial back the blurring if I wanted to attract attention to another area of the piece, or the whole piece. With that said, you want to avoid adding focus to areas of the image that do not facilitate that focus. In the image below, for instance, my eye is not drawn to the chair in the background. If I tried to make this the focus of the image, I would get a very uncomfortable effect:

Same image, different focus...

Do you see how your eyes are uncomfortable looking at this image? You naturally want to look at the corner of the shelf, but the focus of the image is on the chair. It’s all wrong!!! To create realistic renderings, you need to find a harmony between the aesthetics of the photo and the blur you add to it to create that “real” look.

I also wanted to bring attention back to one point. Remember we were saying that poor lighting can help make an image look fake? Below I’ve attached two photos, one with the simulated ceiling lighting, and one where I use a single light-source that is built in to the 3D modelling software. Both have all of the other details that were discussed. Although they both look ‘good’, it’s quite obvious that the one without the simulated ceiling is a “fake”. It simply has a je ne sais quois property to it that makes it immediately identifiable.

 

The top image is the original and definitely has added depth and realism to it. 

Criticism

Before signing off, I’d like to say that my rendering certainly isn’t perfect, and to someone who’s worked for years at creating compelling photorealistic renderings, these images may not impress. I think there’s a few areas for improvement in these renderings:

  • A better rendering would have even more detail. It might have little bits of dust on items. You would be able to just barely detect the tiny seam where the edge banding meets the material. You might even notice the hairline imperfections from the manufacturing process. All of these would add to the image’s realism, however, they are not practical to implement in day-to-day life.
  • Lighting could still be better – I believe the lighting on the paintings might be a bit too bright, causing over exposure on the top of the desk where the candles are.

I’m sure there’s more, but these would be a start.

Conclusion

In many ways the personalized rendering process is even better than a show-room for our customers, because we can easily take attributes of a customer’s room, like the wall color, and quickly modify our existing scenes to provide a very engaging customization experience. This ability to economically customize and show customers their furniture in just a few hours is at the core of Messen’s brand, and as we grow we want to introduce automation measures to make this happen even faster!

Paint color can influence wood colour!

If you’d like to see how a custom fit piece of furniture could work for your space, pick a style from our catalogue and ask for a custom size! We’ll work with you to send you some beautiful images of the product you would like in exquisite detail, all free of charge. You can even tell us a bit about the room it will be going in and we can see if we can’t help provide something similar!

Until next week! 

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