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Lighting for Dummies

Prophet's Mapping Tutorials


One of the hardest things for budding mappers to get down is the art of lighting. Even some of the greatest map packs (and some maps from Unreal no less) have some questionably placed lighting schemes. There are lots of tutorials out there that cover advanced lighting, but the purpose of this tutorial is to break it down for the newbie mappers. This tutorial will make advanced lighting simple, and is made for those mappers who know next to nothing about lighting application. Here are the steps we will cover:

  1. Sources, Themes, and the Basics
  2. Art Of The Tech Light
  3. Art Of The Torch
  4. Alternate Light Sources

1. Sources And Themes

The first rule of Light Club is, you need to have sources. There HAS to be a source for the lighting, no matter where it comes from. If you have an enclosed room that is lit up like a Christmas tree... but no windows, torches, bulbs, or anything that would cast an illumination are present... well then you fail. Light needs a source, in any form. Furthermore, the size and harshness of that source, as well as the theme it's built into, are all important things you need to keep in mind.

I'm going on the assumption that you know next to nothing about light application other than right clicking on a surface and selecting "add light here". The default light actor, the way all lights look the moment you add them (unless you're duplicating), is practically unusable. I'll assume you've given a look through the basic properties of light actors, and I'll also assume the only slots you really know much about are radius, brightness, hue, and saturation. Luckily, that's all you really need to get some form of decent lighting down. So we’ll start there.

Radius is important. The default setting is 64, and that's almost always way too large to be used effectively for most lights. You have to look at it in context; will a light bulb really illuminate an entire cargo hold? Unlikely. In fact, it will barely completely light a bathroom. But daylight? That's a different matter altogether and doesn't necessarily rely on placing light actors with huge radii. But I'll cover that in a later section, for now we're working on small room lighting. In this regard, the radius of a single light does not have to be huge. As you'll find out soon, a single light source is more than just placing a light texture and a single light actor next to it. Proven mappers tend to use multiple light actors to convey a single light source, like a lightbulb or a torch. Even smart use of zone lighting can help.

Brightness, Hue, and Saturation all determine the intensity and color of your light. This is where you have to be mindful of your map's overall theme. Theme is the general tone you want your map to achieve, and color directly sets this. So does the intensity of your lighting scheme. Look at the two comparative shots below of the same room.


Obviously one looks better than the other. One lighting plan makes use of the cold, icy textures and frigid environment. And one does not. In a moment I'm gonna teach you how to solidify your light plan to a more professional look, but right now I want you to see and evaluate for yourself the difference between color use in a planned lighting scheme. Two different color palettes give the impression of two different tones of atmosphere. One has an almost arid, warm feel that seems opposite of how it should while the other is the same room but at a cool, comfortable temperature that feels correct. This is all done through color.

Simply put, your color selection will be important. Colors give off there own heat, or lack thereof. But you have to realize that one color suite on its own doesn't always work to do this. Often, you need to use two different temperaments in combination; two opposing types can work together to convey a better theme. Now, let's learn how.

2. Art of the Tech Light

The only way to get used to constructing the best single light source is to use the most typical form of illumination found in Unreal mapping. The tech light. For the sake of this tutorial, I would suggest you construct your own version to go along with what I do to the sample version used in the following screenshots. Please forgive the crudeness of the levels shown in this example, as I designed them strictly for educational purposes. Now here's something you probably already know: all light sources need a texture and a light actor. What most of you have already probably experimented with is adding a light texture, setting it to unlit, and placing a colored light actor underneath. Like in the picture below.

The hanging light's texture is set to unlit and the light actor has its default hue and radius in place. For a lot of people reading this tutorial, this is as far as you need to go before moving on. Right? WRONG! Now I'm going to teach you a better way to do it.

First and foremost, the tech light fixture represented in the pic can best be set using 4 or 5 light actors, not 1 or 2. That might surprise you. To begin with, you should never rely on setting the texture property to unlit. Instead, try Special Lit. Every light actor has a true/false slot for this. Special Lit lights ONLY illuminate textures that have this option checked off. This is perfect for light textures because, unlike setting them to unlit, you can completely control the color of their tone. For this reason, you should always try to use a texture that is basically white. Now, by adding a light actor set to special lit under the texture, you'll see it will take on the color of the light actor. But that's far from it. Light actors with the special lit function checked should always have small radii so that they don’t touch nearby light textures also using the function, so you don't muck up all the lights in a room. Keep it small, like in the 3-5 range. Next, you need to alter the brightness. The special lit light will be the brightest actor you'll be setting up for your tech fixture. Always use a value higher than 200, especially if you’re going to add a corona. But don't put it much higher, or you risk the greening effect (it's what happens when you make lights too bright or use too many lights in the same radius; the resulting glare causes the textures of the surrounding level to go green with decay) So, our special lit light has brightness set to 225, hue set to 25, and saturation set somewhere between 66-88.

Obviously, we need to add more lights. The "core" light is a light actor that I typically use close to the light fixture itself, next to the special lit light and the corona, which you have not added yet and we will go over in a moment. Duplicate the first light you made and disable the special lit function of the new one, making sure not to disturb the original light. The core does not need to be very big as far as radius is concerned, but it should have a decent brightness. Make the radius between 5-8, unless you made a freakishly big sample room. For tech lights, the brightness of the core will vary. But typically, a brightness between 65-90 is recommended. For the sake of the example, use 80. Knowing when to use a core is important. With hanging, or ceiling light fixtures, the presence of the core will be less obvious to the player. With a wall light, the player will distinctly see the core, and in the case of a wall mounted fixture the presence of a core is always a good idea.

Next, and this is especially good in the case of overhead lights, you will make a "cast" light. A cast light is the farthest surface that is touched by your light fixture's sphere of influence, and it goes hand in hand with the core. This means that it usually should be the second brightest light actor in your formation and that it always is pressed close against an opposing surface (floor, wall or otherwise). Now you do not ALWAYS need one, and in the case of side mounted fixtures you almost always won't (it's excessive). But for this sake of this tutorial, we're gonna add one. Make another duplicate of the special lit light, disable the special lit function, and focus on the brightness. Take it down a notch to 115-125. Next, go into its radius and place the numerical value on 3. Lastly, you're going to change the light type. If you click the slot you’ll get a scroll down list. Select Non-Incidence. Non-Incidence basically rounds your light radius into a orb, and is a softer variation of the cylinder light. Non-Incidence light have many uses, but for tech lights, especially overhanging ones, they are ideal for cast lighting. Now all you need to do is move the actor close to the ground level, directly under the fixture.

Now, we're going to need to do something a bit different. You see, all lights need contrast. And since our tech light has a tepid color, the contrasting tone needs to be cooler. In the middle of the light actor setup, above the cast and below the core, add a new light actor. Make the radius about 16. Set it up so brightness=25, hue=156, sat=166. Now, if you are experimenting with zone lighting, you may not have a need to use this feature. But we're not doing that for this tutorial. Rebuild Geometry and behold. Your own version should look something like this so far:

In that pic you can distinctly see the special lit light taking effect, but not to the degree we want it to yet. Besides, the Core, the Contrastor, and the Cast all working together.

We may as well go with the corona next. The light corona is the thing you see glowing from a light when you walk towards it, the bright center of the fixture. You don't always need them, and often many mappers overdo them to excess. But for tech lights they generally work very well, so let's learn how. To utilize this asset, duplicate either the special lit, the Cast, or the Core. The reason why it's easier to duplicate lights inside your fixture scheme is because you always keep the hue and saturation values constant. The first thing you need to do is go into brightness properties and reduce the numerical value to zero. All coronas should have brightness set to zero. Always. Next, disable the special lit value in your duplicate if that's where you copied it from and instead check the corona value to true. Never mind the lens flare option, that doesn't do anything. Next, you need to set a radius, because the radius will decide the visual range of the corona. Like for example, if it's set at twenty, player outside the twenty unit radius will not see the corona. That sucks. For this reason, it's a good idea to typically set it high. Use 90 for this example. Next, you need to prepare the corona itself. This is the most confusing part of light making. Go into the light actor's display properties and go to where it says Drawscale. Drawscale default is 1, and that's way too big for what you need. Set it somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 for the sake of this example. You're almost done, but now you need to select the corona texture. If you open the texture package GenFX, you'll see a bunch of appropriate corona textures under the lens flare section. Now, and this is important, but just like you did selecting the texture for the light fixture when you were constructing your special lit actor, you'll need to select a white corona. This way the color hue does not conflict. There are several white ones you can try out, but for the sake of this tutorial use the texture "1". You need to apply this texture in the display property called "skin". Then you a need to move the light actor, which will look miniaturized in UED, into position just on the center of the fixture. If you did it right, and you rebuilt geometry, then you should see it glowing in UED. If not, either the corona is placed too far into the geometry itself or you do not have coronas enabled for UED. To fix that, check coronas=true in advanced options, under software rendering. If you see the corona, then you did it. But like I said, the corona texture choice makes a big difference. Look at these comparative shots.

Bad. Good. Gooder. The first shot is awful because the texture skin used just does not work. The second one is decent and passable. The third one probably looks the best. Many mappers only dare to use two corona textures, ever. This is due to indoctrination from teh e-leets. But fuck them, they're wrong. It is true that in the case of stock packages like GenFX, texture "1" and "3" are generally considered the most satisfactory because they can be used easily for most situations. That does not mean they are the best. For tech lights, it is best to use more distinct "rays" and other coronas that typically have distinct streaks and hardness. But we'll get into this more when we go over torches.

Which we're gonna do right now! But before you go, this is a good final shot of how my sample turned out:

If you're curious as to the different tones you can try with your own tech lights, using the texture set you used in your own sample, experiment a bit. It's always good to see how different colors work on certain textures:

If you notice, the texture is a bit more distinctly colored, as is the corona. Sometimes this is necessary, making the color a bit harsher for the special lit actor and the corona as compared to the Core, Contrastor, and the Cast. But you'll get the hang of that through practice. If your sample looks anything like that, then bravo. If not, you flunked. Try it again.

3. Art of the Torch

Making a torch is a bit different than a tech light, but lots of the same concepts still apply. First things first, this is how my sample room looks with just a single light actor added with few changes to its defaults:

Some of you might look at that and say, "hey that ain't too bad. Maybe torches are easy to utilize." Is that what you think? Is it? Well if it is, prepare for some aggressive education. Firstly, construct your own torch, making sure to have a base and a flame as depicted in my sample. Like mentioned before, forgive crudeness. Here's some things you need to know before getting started: The core light is the brightest light actor this time, and it actually can be spread to bigger radii than you would typically use for a tech light. Also, you have little, or no need for a cast light. Unlike the tech light, there is no need to rely on a special lit light. Flames, if either using a mesh or a textured sheet, always should be set to unlit anyway. The main difference is that torches need lights that are packed a little more close to the heart. All the light actors you use will be within close proximity to the flame, since flames do not "project" like tech lights do. This is why it's pointless to use a Cast. What's really important is the placement of the corona. Lots of people make the mistake of putting it on the center of the flame:

That sucks monkey balls. Don't do that. The corona of a torch, if used, should be considered the real "source" of the light, which is always at the base in the case of torches.

Also, unlike tech coronas, the corona texture used are a little more restricted. You still want to use whites, but you always want to use "soft" textures. What I mean is, distinct rings or rays will dominate the torch in a way that's not necessarily effective. You see, with tech lights, the corona can be sharp and piercing. With torches, they work better as more of an ambient haze or glow, giving off the impression of heat. Like so.

Now you could go further and use dynamic lighting (opening the light types in properties and giving the core light a torch waver or something similar), but what you should not forget is the ambient contrast you need to give the rest of the room. While tech lights do not necessarily have to be hot, warm, or cold... torches do not have this alternative. Even if your torch flame is blue, it's still technically "hot". So in general, it's harder to make contrasting lights for torches, but not impossible. Our light is obviously typically lit, so like the tech light we’re going to with a cool blue for the Contrastor. But UNLIKE tech lights, torch contrasts should typically be much fainter, and less specific. This can be achieved with brightness, where it should never be higher than 15. Also, you can bypass the contrast lighting if you are using zone lighting, as mentioned in the tech tutorial. But what you need to really consider is the size of your room. If your room can be completely filled by the core light, you should lower it. If you do it improperly, it should look over-lit, like this:

If you did everything alright, it should look like these:

4. Alternate Lighting

Obviously not all your level light sources will be torches or tech lights. You might having irradiated crystals, acid pools, etc. etc. Generally you want to keep a good system to handle the different types of lighting you may have. For example, if your source is chemical based, like a gas or a liquid, use a derivative of the torch style. This works for most other alternatives. In the case of alien type light sources, where generally you'll use a sort of texture approach, go with the tech method as a base. Basically, if it uses a light texture that's supposed to project, go tech style. Otherwise, use the torch method.

Really, once you get the hang of it... the real trick to great lighting and passable lighting... is a simple matter of contrast. Using opposing sources together in a single frame to give your level complexity:

Concluding Tips

Here's a list of the composition of actors you'll need for each method:

Tech Lights (small to medium)

Special Lit Light:


Core Light:

Cast Light:
Type=Non Incidence

Contrast Light:
Hue=Opposite temp

Torch Lights (small to medium)

Corona Light:
Drawscale=Depends on Flame size

Core Light:

Contrast Light:
Radius=Twice Core
Hue=Opposite temp

These are more of a guideline that anything, and are the approaches I stick with. I suggest you play with lighting yourself and work your own method. But it doesn't hurt to use what's worked for others in the past as a base.


Tutorial Samples: Mister_Prophet
Residual Decay levels: Mister_Prophet, Derdak2rot, Darthweasel