Lighting is one of those subjects that is really addictive once you start going down that particular rabbit hole. The subject itself is vast and complex so finding a new course dedicated to this for 3d in Blender is refreshing because there’s always more to learn about lighting methods, psychology, and how to achieve those stunning results we’re all after inside Blender.

Interview with Gleb

gleb_alexandrov_02Gleb Alexandrov is a self-styled lighting guru for Blender with projects like his Open Lighting Project. And now with the release of his new course Realistic Lighting in Blender: 11 Hacks You’ve Probably Never Tried he is blowing open the notion that having great lighting in Blender has to be a really complicated endeavor and is instead showing us all how to kick things up a notch and save ourselves a lot of time and headache along the way.

After catching up with Gleb to ask him a few questions about his new course I share what you’ll learn along with my personal reflections about the content you’ll find inside the course.

You’ve had a pretty meteoric rise with Creative Shrimp, can you talk a little bit about how you got started with Blender and why you use it?

I was a 3ds Max user for quite a long time. Then a few things happened.

First, I quit my job of 3D modeler in a game development studio. I said to myself: “Stop whining and start doing what you really want to do. Start your own thing”. So I took a leap of faith, you know.

After a few weeks of walking in pajamas and playing StarCraft, I spotted something interesting. It was a Steampunk competition called Her Majesty’s Air Fleet. I took this opportunity.


And funny enough, I decided to use… Blender! Blender has been attracting me for a long time. A bunch of happy nerd friends that’re doing cool things, like Jonathan Williamson from CgCookie said. So true!

Leaving all pain of learning aside, I won this competition.

It’s ridiculous, but the Zeppelins was my first render in Blender. Still, one of my best.


03_personality_of_a_lamp Gleb I know you’ve been obsessed with the topic of lighting for quite a while now. For people new to 3d graphics how important is lighting anyways?

Let’s put it straight. 9 times out of 10, what makes people say “wow” is the lighting. Or it can make people close your portfolio page and never come back.

Some years ago I caught myself thinking in terms of the light splotches, shapes and other shenanigans. Like I have a mini-photographer inside me. A sneaky guy with a camera.

And people new to computer graphics tend to learn three point lighting first. And it’s okay. It won’t hurt.

But imagine this. Photographers like Bruce Barnbaum paint the abstract artworks with light.

Photographers involved in the so called ‘lomography community’ love doing crazy stuff with light. For example, they detach a lens from a camera body and let the light burn out a film. This is being done to create the optical distortions, the ghosting effects and the rainbow-hued light leaks.

By the way, this technique is called ‘lens-whacking’.

Or we can take the HDR (High Dynamic Range) and tone mapping for example. It’s such an interesting subject. Taming the light that is spanning over 8 orders of magnitude (or 100 million to 1) forces you to be creative.

There is so much more to lighting than setting up the lights in Blender.

Good grief, when I realized this I began writing a book. I call it The Lighting Project, you can find the free chapters on my blog. It’s my exploration diary, if you wish.


bonus_lighting_open_book Can you speak a little bit about the course from your perspective? What’s it all about?

Realistic Lighting in Blender is the first video course I produced. I describe it as a course for artists who want to discover the creative side of lighting.

What do I mean by that?

Say, realistic caustics is a pain in the butt. Volumetric lighting can be pretty hard to deal with too.  You can spend 5 hours watching how render buckets crawl across the screen. Or you can hack it, and spend just 5 minutes.

I vote for hacking.

Basically I wanted to liberate myself and other nerds from the fear of cheating. Real pros cheat a lot! Pixar used 230 lights in 1 shot of Ratatouille (according to the Pixar in the Box free course on Khan Academy). 3D graphics generally is largely based on hacks.

Essentially, I figured out the common pitfalls and provided the quick fixes. For swapping the reflection, simulating dust and so on.

The reviews for the Realistic Lighting have been hugely positive so far. Honestly, when I was uploading it online, my hands were trembling like I’m a drug addict. But after the release the people from all over the world told me that they like the course!

Thank you creative peeps, you’re literally keeping me afloat.

Hey, feel free to drop me a line if you wish. Tell me what you like/dislike about the course, anytime you want.


06_the_winter_morningYou mention breaking the physical rules of the Cycles engine several times during your course, do you feel that Cycles always puts artists at a disadvantage forcing them to think outside the box to achieve artistic flexibility, or is that just part of learning how to be a good 3d artist?

That’s a hell of a fun to break the rules. Every kid knows it.

It’s no secret that render engines have limitations.

I often look at the real-time engines like Unreal and, you know, it’s so awesome. It renders 60 frames per second, and the results are stunning.

Still, Unreal has many limitations, compared to an offline render engine like Cycles. You can’t throw in a gazillion of particles to simulate a grass, like you do in Blender. You have to play smart. And you use alpha-mapped planes.

In the end, part of being an artist is breaking the rules. Or finding the shortcuts.


05_the_fogFor some 3d artists out there who would argue that these hacks are cheating, how would you respond?

Cheating is fine. Actually, when I hear something like this I remember what Austin Kleon wrote in his book called “Steal Like an Artist”. He wrote: “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.”

I would rephrase this quote. Cheat cheat cheat cheat. At the end of the cheat you’ll find an awesome image. Something like that.

In other words, I care only about whether a final image looks jaw-dropping. And that’s what your audience and your clients care about too.


08_warm_and_coldDo you attribute your breakthroughs to experimentation or a dedication to continually learning from other sources?

Definitely some breakthroughs come from experimentation. A simple ‘What if…?’ question often does wonders. Often when I’m recording a new tutorial for Creative Shrimp, I don’t even know what direction it will take. I figure it out during the process. And so many ideas were born this way. Even the Realistic Lighting course started out as a book chapter!

On the other hand, learning is super important too. Actually I wouldn’t separate these things and compare them.

I think that the perfect combo would be to experiment AND learn. Pushing buttons is going to be more rewarding, if you back it up with theory. Luckily we live in the 21st century. So we have all the knowledge at our fingertips. People doing a great job with sharing knowledge on their blogs, Youtube channels, social media pages and so on.

The Blender community seems to be especially forward thinking. I’m so hyped to live in today’s world.


04_complexity_of_light At what point do you stop trying to force the results in a render and decide to break the rules and use a hack to get the result you want?

If anything, I listen to my Pareto meter. It’s a special device that… Ah, that tells you that 20% of your work produce 80% of the outcome.

When I do something and feel that I’ve started running in place, I shift gears. I switch from modeling to painting textures. Or I switch from Blender to Krita, and post-process the hell out of it. The key is to feel this break point.

Though, sometimes I do stupid things. I definitely can keep banging my head against the wall for a long time. I can be tweaking a single render for a month. It pretty much sucks (I don’t enjoy the process so much when it takes so long).

But in the end it leads to the delicious pictures. Ah, you never know.


02_station_45What would your advice be to those artists who are just getting started with learning about lighting or Blender in general?

Drink more coffee. Keep yourself caffeinated and what else? Wear the cool pajamas, they seem to boost your nerd mojo.

Don’t give a damn what people say about you. Have the guts to follow what you’re passionate about. If that’s computer graphics, good for you.

Because today it’s a freaking great time to be an artist.


Initial Thoughts

I was drawn to this course from the beginning because, well, I’m a Blender fanatic. But I’m always looking for ways to learn that one special tip to improve my workflow that is going to (hopefully) push my work to the next level. And I know that lighting technique is one of the areas that can single handedly push your portfolio into the stratosphere if you understand what you’re doing. So when Gleb set out to create a course where he was going to not only demonstrate realistic lighting, but how to reduce wasted time (and render time) all in one big release I knew that I wanted to see where he went. So before I get into what I thought about the course section by section here’s what Gleb demonstrates for you inside the course.

What You’ll Learn Inside the Course

After leading off with a very helpful “Start Here” PDF and an introduction video Gleb gets right into his lighting hacks with several videos taking special care to break down each and every lighting hack in detail:

1. Fake Reflection – Learn how to “borrow” reflections from an alternative source inside your scene instead of using the reflections from the actual objects in the scene.

2.1 Fake Caustics – Caustics can take all the get-up-and-go out of your render time so this will show you how to add a fake caustics effect to quickly get back to creating great artwork for your scene.

2.2 Light Texture – Borrowing from a technique used directly in cinematography, Gleb demonstrates how to add shadowy textures to your lights in Cycles giving your lighting much more depth without adding render time.

3.1 Wet Ground – This is one of my favorites in this course and is really simple as well. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to add that wet street looking effect you see in old films then this will get you those results in record time.

3.2 Super Glossy – Learn how to really punch up and accentuate the surface textures of your materials by adding some ultra glossy reflections to your materials.

4. Normal-Based Lighting – Another favorite tip shows you how to get the perfect rim lighting effects using the normal node in Cycles. This one tip can really improve the quality of your renders if you really understand how to exploit the lighting hack to the fullest.

5. Energy Conservation Law – If you’ve ever encountered a stubborn scene where you want to achieve more lighting, but your lamps or HDR backgrounds just aren’t cooperating then this will show you how to break your lighting in a good way to get the results you’re after by adding more light to an object.

6. Paint the Light Map – This three part section demonstrates how to use camera projection to actually paint the light in the areas you want back into your scene. A really nice way to capitalize on an artistic method for creating what could easily turn into a technical nightmare done in another way. I love this tip!

7. Traffic Trails – Ever see those really artistic time-lapse videos of traffic going through a shot and wondered how to get a similar effect in Blender? Well this will show you how to get that streaky light trail effect in a very easy way.

8. Physically Incorrect is Fun – This will show you a demonstration of baked lighting combined with normal-based lighting and super glossy materials. It’s like an extended demo of the past few hacks showing you more possibilities of how to put them together and make them work for you.

9. Separate Lighting and Camera View – I was really impressed by this tip because it has such a practical use. I could see myself using this in almost every render in the future. Learn how to separate the intensity of the visible lights in your scene with their resulting reflections and other attributes. This one tip will give you a massive amount of control back in the lighting within your scenes. Awesome!

10. Particles – If you’ve ever wondered how to setup depth of field with nice out of focus particles (bokeh) in your shots then this will not only show you how, but how to speed it up as well.

11. Fake Volume Light – Taking the previous tip to the next level learn how to fake volumetrics in your scene without having to wait for Blender’s volume scattering to calculate in Cycles. It’s fast and easy, not to mention beautiful.

Gleb was also kind enough to include five extra bonus videos! Here is what you’ll learn on top of the 11 lighting hacks:

12. Introduction to Photogrammetry – If you don’t know what this is then don’t get scared off by big words. What essentially boils down to the process of photographic scanning of real world objects is explained magnificently in this tutorial video leaving you with some free and paid software ideas you can use to get started with this exciting progressive modeling technique in Blender.

13. Post-processing: The Ultimate Hack – Here Gleb will break down some of his post production tips to enhance the lighting and small details in your shot through Blender’s node compositing system. A great demo of what is possible with just a little bit of knowledge.

14. Creating Ripples in Blender – I felt like this video alone was worth an extra $10 just because of how cool it could make your reel look when you add it to your best work. Taking the idea used in his Wet Ground lighting hack to the next level, Gleb demonstrates how to create realistically animated ripples in your puddles on the ground as if shot outside while raining. So simple, but extremely useful making you immediately look like a simulation master inside Blender.

15. Traffic Animation Effect – This last video gets the designer inside me really excited. If any part of your being is excited by those sexy titles found in cinematic openings or other motion graphics like you see in programs such as After Effects then this video is right up your alley. It shows you how to use the same technique in the light trails hack to animate a sort of neon sign effect along a path adding random movement along the way to really give your scene an organic touch.


The Presentation Style

What strikes me as really great about this course from the beginning is that just from the cover you can tell that Gleb has really put himself into the course. Gleb has a really quirky fun way about his presentation on his blog at and his Youtube channel. You can just tell he really loves talking about this stuff and has a very entertaining approachable way about him. So I knew that this was going to be a fun ride right from hitting the “Buy Now” button.

The Length of the Course

The course will take about two hours to go through from beginning to end if you watch all the videos back to back. One of the strengths about Gleb’s presentations is that he’s able to really narrow down the complexity of what he’s teaching and just leave you with the bare essentials of an idea. There’s not a lot of extra commentary to sit through. Every single word and image is there to show you how to accomplish something specific.

What I like about the length is that it’s easily watchable in a single day, if not in a single sitting. I ended up watching the course over the period of a few days, but I never found myself getting bored or wanting to walk away because of information overload. So he has a nice balance between the amount of time dedicated to each section coupled with the overall brevity of the course. He understands the value of not attempting to pack too much into the course because it isn’t a master class. It’s icing on the cake that is your fundamental lighting skills inside Blender.

The Price

For $35 (the price at launch) this course is packed with some serious value for your money regardless of the length. Even if the course goes up in price I think it still holds its value up to the $50 range. It has a little bit of something for everyone. So if you’re a beginner and you’re wondering whether or not this course is worth it I can tell you that I don’t think you’ll feel like everything is just immediately over your head. It’s very well put together. And as a somewhat advanced Blender user I still found every section very informative and helpful as a refresher especially in regards to more advanced functionality such as normal-based lighting and the use of the ever elusive light path node inside Cycles. So it’s also not so basic that you won’t get anything out of it if you’ve been around the block a couple of times with Blender.


Overall Score

So just to recap a little bit about my thoughts on the course and it’s ability to deliver on what it promises the pros are:

  • Tips ranging from beginner to advanced so there’s something for everyone in the course.
  • Very well explained and broken down in Gleb’s fun and quirky way
  • 5 bonus tutorial videos
  • Blend files come with packed textures, very considerate of Gleb, a lot of people forget to do this.
  • You have permission to use Gleb’s assets in any of your projects (Even without crediting him! Nice guy!)

And the cons are basically none. You have to go into the course with the expectation that it’s an extremely niche class on how to improve your realistic lighting skills and render times in the Cycles engine inside Blender. It’s not your run-of-the-mill course for Blender users who don’t know how to create a lamp yet. You need to have your basics down to get the most out of this course. That said I would recommend picking it up no matter where you find yourself if you want to learn some solid techniques for how to add some flare to your renders inside Blender’s Cycles engine.

So if you’re sold on the course, then visit Gleb’s site and grab Realistic Lighting in Blender: 11 Hacks You’ve Probably Never Tried, you won’t be disappointed.


Final Thoughts

I want to thank Gleb for generously lending us his time to answer my questions about his new course. He’s a very kind and thoughtful guy and I’d like to invite you to check out his blog over at along with his YouTube channel. Now stay cool, get unleashed, and happy Blending!