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When selling a model design on 3D printing websites such as Shapeways, I believe it's important to create both a beautiful and professional first impression for a customer when they land on your product page.

In this lesson, we are going to use Maya 2015 to build up a lighting stage, create a few materials, and render out the cover shot above using your own model.

Features discussed:

  • Mia_material_x shader
  • Color Management
  • Image-Based Lighting
  • Final Gathering / Ambient Occlusion

Required knowledge:

  • A very basic understanding of Maya

For this Instructable, I'm going to assume that you have a vanilla install of Maya 2015 with more or less default settings, either the student or retail edition, though this should work any version from 2011 and on.

Step 1: Create a New Project

First off, let's do a bit a of housekeeping so we can keep stuff organized. We'll create a project directory so we have a place to store all our files cleanly.

Let's start off by creating a new project

File -> Project Window

In the example screenshot, I created a new project folder called 3D_Printing_Render which will be stored in my /Google Drive/Instructables/ path. Feel free to put yours wherever you'd like. Whatever you set as your current project will be the new folder created that will contain all the folders listed below that. When Maya generates files for your project, such as renders, temp render storage, or the scenes files themselves, it will put them in the folders defined in your project window. Wooo, clean workspace! \o/

Step 2: Importing the 3D Model

For this tutorial, I'll be using the publicly available Stanford Dragon which you'll need to download. Feel free to use your own model in place of this.

Go to File -> Import and navigate to wherever you unzipped your dragon. Import the dragon.obj file

A wild Chinese dragon has appeared! It should be resting at the center of your scene (0,0,0) and will probably be quite small and, even though it has Maya's default grey lambert shader applied, should still be adorable. Zoom in a bit and you should see it sitting there.

Step 3: Common Grounds

Let's make sure we are using Maya's default Working Units of centimeters (cm).

Windows -> Settings/Preferences -> Preferences -> Settings category

Check to see that the Working Units - Linear is set to centimeter.

Step 4: Build a Stage That Woz Would Be Proud to Dance On

Your dragon needs a floor to sit on and roar, so let's create a new polygon plane and set the scale to 200.

To save time, we can run this MEL command in the script box at the bottom. Just paste it in and press enter:

polyPlane -w 200 -h 200;

This will create a Plane polygon with a width (-w) of 200 and a height (-h) of 200. A lot of things (in fact... ALL the things) can be done through MEL, which is Maya's embedded language, as well as Python, a powerful scripting language that works alongside MEL to do some powerful and complex things quickly where MEL gets too cumbersome.

For a unique intro to MEL, check out my crazy talented friend, Mr. Reza Ali's Instructable on scripting 3D fractals

Now that we have a properly scaled stage, let's scale up our model, too.

Step 5: Setting the Correct Scale and Position of Our Dragon

Why did we make the stage so huge while our dragon is so small?

Since we will be using Maya's built-in Mental Ray renderer to create our image, it's important to set up our scene's objects to a realistic scale. MR relies on these real world distances when performing the necessary lighting calculations. Simply put, if your stuff is way out of scale, you'll find yourself artistically compensating for it later. No one wants that :o


Aaaah, why is the plane cutting my dragon in half? (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Your model imports to the origin of your scene at (0,0,0). Let's move it and scale it up. 8 inches (20.32 cm) is a good realistic size to work with. For our scene, set the following value for the dragon:

If you're using the Stanford Dragon, setthe XYZ values in scale to {30, 30, 30} in the Attribute Editor


Using your own model?

You can use the Create -> Measure Tools -> Distance Tool to create two locators, measure the distance between the bottom and top-most vertices on your model, and scale it accordingly. Remember, each grid unit is set to 1 cm. You may need to move the locators into place so they align on a single axis. Make sure your model is Y up, aka, that the base of the object is resting on the plane as it would appear in real life.

Step 6: Here, Have an IBL Node to Light the Path Ahead

To light our scene, we will use Image Based Lighting (IBL) for a quick and and easy lighting setup. First thing's first, let's switch to Mental Ray.

Render Settings -> Render Using pull-down menu -> select mental ray

*If mental ray doesn't show up in the list of renders, we'll need to load it.

Window -> Settings/Preferences -> Plug-in Manager -> Mayatomr.mll - Check Loaded and Auto load

Next, let's create an IBL node to surround our scene:

Indirect Lighting tab -> Environment -> Image Based Lighting -> Create

This will create a spherical representation of your IBL node which will act as our lighting and background.

The IBL node will come in pretty small, though you can scale it up if you'd like. The scale doesn't matter as it's always infinitely far away, though the translation and rotation does. Normally, you would opt to attach an HDR image to this node which would act as the world around our scene. This provides a good simulation of the light and color intensity in addition to providing an environment map for any reflections.

For now, we are going to stick with a perfect studio white to blend in with the white background. With the "mentalrayIbl" shape node already selected in the attribute editor on the right

Change Type to Texture
Set Texture to White

Step 7: Enable Final Gathering / Disable Default Light / Wow

If you render out a shot now, we are going to get a pretty crappy looking shot. Ew. To make proper use of IBL, let's do a few things first.

Enable Final Gathering

Render Settings -> Features -> Check Final Gathering

The settings to FG (Final Gathering) are in the Indirect Lighting tab under your Render Settings, but for now, we'll use all the defaults to get our shot. Final Gathering will take the IBL's color information, firing rays from

By default, Maya enables a directional light that will light the scene. Let's get rid of default lighting as our IBL node and FG will be doing the job of lighting our scene.

Render Settings -> Common -> Render Options -> Uncheck Enable Default Lighting

If you render, you should get a pretty decent looking image, but there's one more step we need to do before we can make pretty things :3

Step 8: Color Management - a Linear Mind Can Be Beautiful!

Most imaging professionals have adopted a linear workflow. To help achieve this, Autodesk introduced native support of Color Management in Maya 2011. To keep this tutorial quick, you can learn more about the importance of a Linear Workflow and Color Management in a great article written by Leif Pedersen.

To get the best looking render, we'll need to enable Color Management and set your view color profiles.

Render Settings -> Common tab -> Color Management category -> Check Enable Color Management

  • Set Default Input Profile to sRGB
  • Set Default Output Profile to Linear sRGB
Open your Render View window and go to Display -> click Color Management... and look at your attribute editor on the right where the "defaultViewColorManager" node's attributes are displayed

  • Set Image Color Profile to Linear sRGB
  • Set Display Color Profile to sRGB

What we've done is ensure that all incoming sRGB color space content with a gamma of 2.2 is being linearized before rendertime to a gamma of 1.0, or a Linear sRGB color space. Once Mental Ray has rendered out an image in Linear sRGB, Maya will then set the gamma back to 2.2 so it's properly displayed on your sRGB monitor. Now let's get to fun the stuff \o/

Step 9: Creating the Look for the Stage

To get that slightly reflective look, we are going to apply a mia_material_x shader to the stage.

Select the stage "pPlane1", right click and hold, and select Apply New Material

Under the mental ray Materials category, select mia_material_x

mia_material_x is a powerful shader made for mental ray which allows us to do a whole lot more than what the basic shaders in Maya are capable of. If you render now, you'll see we're getting a whole new look for our stage, complete with a soft reflection of our dragon. We are getting a lot closer to a final product. To match my render's stage, let's change a few things in the attribute editor with this material selected.

Under Diffuse, set the Color to white
Under Reflection,set both the Reflection and Glossiness to 0.500 and the Glossy Samples to 32
Under Ambient Occlusion, Check Use Ambient Occlusion and set Samples to 32

Hit Render the current frame and let's see what we have! Since we changed our scene scale to a realistic size, we really don't have to tweak much of anything for the lighting to work. Feel free, however, to play around with settings, re-render, and see what changes. Generally if you up the samples on anything, you'll get a higher quality at the cost of render time. For a simple shot like this, you'll reach a point of diminishing returns if you set the samples too much higher.

Step 10: New Model, Same Shader... Now With Gamma Correction!

Now that we have a cool stage to display our models from, let's coat the dragon in sexy, too.

Select the dragon and create a new mia_material_x shader using the same attributes as we did with our stage (Look back a step to make sure). Our new material will differ in a few ways. To start out, let's use a reflection model that emphasizes the dragon's silhouette a bit more. In the new "mia_material_x2" material's attributes:

Under BRDF-> Check Use Fresnel Reflection


Let's change the color, too. Rather than change the color here directly, we need to gamma correct it before we pass it through to the shader's diffuse color value. Click the checkerboard icon next to Color under Diffuse in the attribute editor, go under the Maya category in Utilities and select the Gamma Correct node

With the "gammaCorrect1" node selected, change your value to the color you'd like. In my case, I made it a strong saturated red. To do so, bring up the color picker for the "gammaCorrect1" node's Value by clicking on the color box.

Set the HSV values to {0.0, 0.8, 0.7}

We included this node in our shader, rather than just directly setting the color, since we are now working in a linear workflow. To account for this, we need to correct our color values by multiplying the gamma by the reciprocal of 2.2, or (1.0 / 2.2) which is .4545... repeating.

Change each value in the Gamma box to 0.454.

*If your own model has an sRGB texture map available for it, you can connect a 2D Texture File node to the Gamma Correct node's Value input. If you are going for a color sandstone or plastic look, you'll need to tweak the dragon's material a bit. Using the mia_material_x's Presets in the upper right is a good place to start.

Step 11: Render ALL the Things @( * O * )@

If we render the current frame, it's looking pretty good! At this point, all we need to do is change the render resolution, render, and save out a shot. First off, let's change the render resolution. You may render out whatever resolution you'd like or keep it as is. If you want to post this image on Shapeways:

Render Settings ->Common tab -> under Image Size

  • Uncheck Maintain width/height ratio
  • Set Width to 625
  • Set Height to 465

Next we want to set our Sampling Quality to high for a final render

Render Settings -> Quality tab -> under Sampling

  • Set Sampling Mode pull-down to Unified Sampling
  • Change Quality to 1.00

Position the camera as you wish. To get a better idea of how the shot will look when rendered through the "persp" camera as seen through the 3D perspective:

View -> Camera Settings -> select Resolution Gate

Once you're all ready, go ahead and render the current frame. Woooo, congrats! You've made a decent looking product shot in no time at all. To save this out:

In Render View -> File -> Save Image -> in Options... set the Save Mode: to Save Color-Managed Image
Save it outas a file of type JPEG


Done! You can now upload this and other images like it. Of course, don't forget to save the scene so you can re-use this set over and over with different models, materials, colors, etc.

Step 12: Bonus Stage & Ending Credits

Let's say you want to show off a few different materials and get a straight-on camera angle, too. With the "persp" camera active:

View -> Select Camera and in the attribute editor, set the following:
  • Translate XYZ: {90, 20, 0}
  • Rotate XYZ: {-6, 90, 0}

So you can return to this new view:

View -> Edit Bookmarks -> New Bookmark

Type in a name and hit Apply. Now you can move and tumble around your scene without losing that specific view by going into View -> Bookmarks and selecting your view.

You can duplicate your mia_material_x2 for use on other models.

Window -> Rendering Editors -> Hypershade

Select mia_material_x2 in the list and select:

Edit -> Duplicate -> Shading Network


This will create a new material_mia_x3 and so on as many times as you duplicate it, along with our custom gamma node connection. As these are copies of mia_material_x2, you can feel free to change the colors in their gamma correction node's Value input and apply the new materials to other models in the scene. You can duplicate a model by selecting it and hitting Ctrl + D or by going to Edit -> Duplicate.

While you can easily render out a great cover shot for your model on any platform, Shapeways now supports rendering out a realistic preview of your model automatically in all the available printable materials! </selfplug>

Thanks for following this tutorial. I'm really excited to see what everyone has to showcase and hope this helps you get a few more sales, too.

Model credits to:


Please leave comments and share your own renders with everyone!

<p>Amazing Tutorial, thanks!</p>
<p>Thank you very very much!!! </p>
<p>Very nice! Thanks for sharing this tutorial.</p>

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Bio: Creative Engineer, VFX Artist, traveler, and foodie
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