Creating and Working With Your Own HDRIs – In the Studio Breakdown

a render from Stonemason's Wonderland and the words "In the Studio with Daz 3D"

Welcome to your ultimate guide for creating HDRIs and working with them in Daz Studio. Taken from the In the Studio livestream with Jay Versluis, these steps will help you master the basics if you’re new and learn additional tips and tricks if you’ve been here a while.

Let’s dive right in!

To follow along with Jay, watch the full livestream.

HDRI Basics

The cool thing about HDRIs is that they provide lighting as well as a background. You don’t have to use them as a background, but it speeds up render times enormously. 

But HDRIs aren’t an end-all or be-all. Some beginners tend to think they have to use either scene lights or HDRIs, but why not use both? While HDRIs are a good starting point, it’s often necessary to add additional light sources.

Let’s use this analogy. Outdoor photographers make harsh lighting better by using a flash, and they often have an assistant off to the side with a bounce board or reflector bouncing light back into the character’s face to illuminate things that would otherwise be in a harsh shadow.

So how do you use HDRIs in Daz Studio? Let’s start with the basics.

  1. Open an empty scene.
  2. In the Create tab, click New Primitive. 
  3. Go to the Surface tool and add a metal shader — Jay uses Platinum in the livestream.
  4. In the Render Settings tab, click Environment, then Environment Map. There’s a default Ruins HDRI pre-loaded, but you can use whichever one you’d like.
  5. Click Draw Dome to rotate the part of the HDRI reflected in the metal ball.
  6. You can also click Dome under Environment to adjust the environment intensity.

Note: Using an HDRI makes metallic objects (like pieces on clothing) in your scene much more realistic because the metal has something to reflect. Using just a character and scene lights makes metal look oddly blank.

Changing the Size of Your HDRI

Moving around the viewport, you’ll see that the picture on the sky dome moves as well. So essentially, the sky dome is fixed, and we’re moving the camera. But if you zoom in and out, the camera perspective seems to change — the distance between the camera and sphere certainly do change, but the image itself on the sky dome doesn’t change. 

Here’s how to change the size of an HDRI. 

  1. Under the Dome settings, change the Dome Mode option from Infinite Sphere, meaning the sphere is infinitely large and doesn’t move, to Finite Sphere, which will give you even more Dome setting options.
  2. Change the Dome Scale Multiplier from the default 100 to 10 to really see a difference. You should see more of the landscape than you did before. The lower your setting, the more of the HDRI you’ll see, so it’s like changing the focal length, not for your actual camera, but just for how it’s projected onto the sky dome.
  3. Now, when you zoom in and out, it should appear that the metal sphere and HDRI move together.

This comes in handy when making characters and buildings look proportional. Say you’ve got a door that looks nine feet tall and your character looks tiny — this is how you can change the size of your HDRI in relation to the 3D objects you’ve got in your scene.

If you make the Dome Scale Multiplier too small, things may look a bit distorted (e.g. tops of buildings curving into the dome). Instead of using the Finite Sphere option, the Finite Box and all of its options can help keep your image from curving at the top. However, you may see the geometry shift as you move around since the dome is now a box instead of a sphere. 

Don’t be afraid to play around with the options to find what works best for your HDRI!

a screenshot demonstrating how to change your HDRI size

Changing the HDRI Ground Height

At this point, take a look at the shadow cast by your metal sphere. While you can turn contact shadows off, keeping them on makes it more believable. 

Iray is relatively clever and recognizes that this ground is the lowest object in the scene. So if you duplicate your sphere and place it higher and off to the side, you’ll see that its shadow renders further away, making it look as if it’s floating in midair.

Want to change where the ground is? With the second sphere selected, go to the Parameters tab and set it to a negative number. This will drop the sphere below the original sphere, making it now look as if the second is sitting on the ground and the original is in the air.

This is really neat if you have a single character in the scene, but what if you have multiple or want something half-buried in the ground? There’s a way to tell Iray not to use this automation.

  1. Go to the Render Settings tab > Environment > Ground.
  2. Set the Ground Position Mode to Manual.
  3. If you’d like to turn off contact shadows, switch Draw Ground to Off. (In the livestream, Jay leaves them on.)

You can further customize your settings from here. If you want the objects sunken in the ground, adjust the Ground Origin Y setting. If you leave the contact shadows on, they’ll adjust accordingly with how much of your object is above the ground.

You’ll also see the Ground Position Mode. On Auto, Iray will calculate the lowest part of all the objects in your scene, and if you switch it to Manual, you have full control of how that’s being calculated.

If you’re adding a character to the scene, you may find that what looked proportional for your metal sphere doesn’t really work for your character. So don’t be afraid to go back into Dome settings and adjust the Dome Scale Multiplier.

Turning the HDRI Dome

Once you have your character where you want them in the scene, you may notice that the light is shining on their back, leaving their face in shadow. Newcomers may just crank up the environment intensity, but this can overexpose the rest of the image.

Or maybe you’d like to turn the dome so the light shines from the other side. 

  1. Back to the Dome settings, you’ll find the Dome Orientation Y and Dome Rotation settings. Both essentially do the same thing: turn the sky dome.
  2. Dome Orientation works by degrees. So if you want to rotate the dome 180 degrees, type in 180.
  3. If you’re partial to a particular background, you can also turn your character around.

Note: To soften harsh shadows, you can also add a bounce board or mesh light. Adding a light from behind your character as well will help separate the character from the background.

a screenshot showing how to turn the dome in daz studio


How to Create an HDRI

In the livestream, Jay breaks down how to create your own HDRI using the Michael 9 HD Fantasy Mega Bundle and the included Stonemason environment, The Streets of the Medieval

Finding a Good Spot to Render

Start by loading your environment in Daz Studio and selecting your lighting of choice (if the product comes with lighting options). You’ll want to find where in the scene the action is going to take place, so you can either wander through the scene or take a bird’s eye view with CTRL+F.

Then, you’ll create a spherical camera that will be responsible for rendering what we’ll project onto a sky dome. 

Here’s how to get that started:

  1. Go to the top toolbar and click Create and New Camera. Click Apply Default Settings and Accept. That’ll create a camera that kind of looks in from the side onto the center of the scene at a slight angle.
  2. Then move the camera to the place in the scene you imagine the action will take place.  
  3. With the camera selected, go to the Rotation settings in the Parameters tab. Make sure X, Y, and Z Rotate are zeroed out. If you want, you can set Y Rotate to 180, which will point the camera the opposite direction.
  4. To see through the camera, change Perspective View to Camera.
  5. At this point, you may want to consider changing your camera height. In the Parameters tab, under the Camera settings, adjust the Y Translate to your liking. 100 is typically good for portraits and landscapes, and shots of dogs or cats will look better set at 20 or 30.
  6. Switching your viewport to Iray, consider your current lighting. If you want to make any changes, now’s the time to do it. Under the Dome settings, look at your Sun-Sky settings. Play with the SS Time to get the right shadows. If the scene looks overexposed, adjust the Environment Intensity as needed.

Note: It’s important to place your camera so it’s not too close to a wall or your HDRI is going to place that wall right in your face.

a screenshot showing a bird's eye view in daz studio

Creating a Spherical Camera

  1. Go back to looking through your camera. In the Parameters tab, under Camera settings, click on Lens. Change the Lens Distortion Type to Spherical. You’ll see that it renders from all angles, but you can only see it when you’ve switched your viewport into Iray.
  2. You can render it as a square image, but most HDRIs are rendered out in an aspect ratio of one by two. In the Render Settings tab, under General, adjust the Pixel Size. For a detailed HDRI, you may go for 8000 wide by 4000 high, but in many instances, you’ll be just fine doing 2000×1000 — which will also render much faster. 
  3. Turn Constrain Purposes on.
  4. Switch on your aspect frame to get an idea of what’s going to render.
  5. Next, look at your Render Settings. You can let it render as long as you want and make it as high res as you want, but if you want something simple, you can do 100 Max Samples, disable the Rendering Quality, switch on the Denoiser, and leave everything else at default.

Now, there’s one more step to turn this into an HDRI directly out of Daz Studio.

Rendering an HDRI with Iray Canvases

You’ll need to tell Iray that you want to render out an HDRI — that you don’t want to render out a regular image — and we do that with Canvases. 

  1. Go to Render Settings and click the Advanced tab on the upper left-hand side. Under that tab, click the Canvases tab.
  2. Enable Canvases by clicking the box. Then click the + button underneath it. Change the Canvas type from Beauty to Environment Lighting. This makes it so it’ll render the normal JPEG, PNG, or whatever you want to save it as, as well as a new EXR image that’ll be saved after the render is done.
  3. You can go ahead and render, save your image, and then you’ll see that the Canvases saved in a folder as well. Open the folder to find the EXR file. If you did multiple passes, you’ll have multiple files.

Ready to see how it looks? Open up new instance of Daz Studio and do the following:

  1. Repeat the steps of creating a new primitive and adding a metal shader to it.
  2. Make sure your viewport is on Iray, and in the Render Settings tab, click Environment, then Environment Map to choose your brand-new EXR file.
  3. Turn on the Draw Dome while you’re at it. 
  4. If the sphere is so bright it’s white, don’t worry. All you need to do is adjust the brightness. Click the number in the Environment Map and change it to “1.0/10000” or “0.0001”. You can adjust this as many times as needed to get the brightness you want.
  5. You can also change the Environment Intensity for smaller adjustments. 

Note: If you rendered your HDRI at 2000×1000, you may see that the image is a bit blurry, but if you plan to use it as a background with depth of field, it’ll look just fine. If you want more detail, go ahead and render it again but larger. You can even apply the Environment Map adjustments before you render, and while the render image itself will look terrible, the HDRI will look great.

a screenshot showing how to render an HDRI with canvases in daz studio

Rendering with Bracketed Exposures

Now, if you create an HDRI from a set that relies on tone mapping for some of the effects, you’ll find that some of the effects don’t show up when you use that HDRI in Daz Studio. Jay demonstrates this with Stonemason’s Wonderland. Thankfully, there’s a way to get the right effects without using Canvases.

  1. If Canvases are still switched on, turn them off, but keep your spherical camera and aspect ratio the same.
  2. Go to the Render Settings tab, and under Tone Mapping, make a mental note of the Exposure Setting.
  3. Then, render as you did before as a PNG — this will be your base image. In the livestream, Jay does several renders, making slight adjustments to the exposure, both underexposing and overexposing, to bring out more of the colors in each part of the scene. 

Then, you use bracketing, which basically captures portions of the scene and stitches them together to create a 32-bit HDRI.

Stitching Exposures Together in Photoshop

With your renders saved, head to Photoshop.

  1. Click File > Automate > HDR Pro, and click Browse to upload each of your PNGs.
  2. You’ll get an adjustment dialog box where you’ll click the EV option and tell Photoshop how overexposed and underexposed each image is. Leave your base image (the one where you didn’t adjust the exposure) as is. 

Note: If for one render, you did +2 to the exposure in Daz Studio, tell Photoshop -2. And if you did -2 for another, tell Photoshop +2. Essentially, you give the opposite.

  1. Press enter after you change the value for each image, and after you do each one, double check that the values are correct before hitting OK. 
  2. Under Mode, make sure 32-bit is selected.
  3. Click Image > Adjustments > HDR Toning and make sure it’s set to Local Adaption.
  4. Then, save it as an EXR, don’t compress, and try it out in Daz Studio!

stitching images together in photoshop

Faking an HDRI From a Regular Image

What if you have a render from a spherical camera that you want to turn into a bracketed HDRI, but you don’t have the other overexposed and underexposed versions? You can adjust the exposure in Photoshop and create similar results.

  1. In Photoshop, right click the circular icon in the bottom right corner, then click Exposure. This adds an exposure layer you can adjust.
  2. Once you alter the exposure, go to File > Export > Export As, and save the file as a PNG. Make sure the Transparency box is unchecked.
  3. Do this as many times as you want to have overexposed and underexposed versions of the original image. Then repeat the process in the section above for stitching exposures together.

There may be differences between this HDRI and one you create in Daz Studio, but if you don’t have any other option, it’s great to try out.

Of course, for more information and details, as well as a full Q&A with Jay, check out the full livestream on the Daz 3D YouTube channel.

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