All About Normal Maps

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Rendering is all about Light; light intensity, light falloff, light refraction, and light reflection. To create a realistic 3D object (or space), you basically control a bunch of 3D masses, textures, and how light reacts to all of them. It may sound a complicated process, but modern technology is making this easier every day. VRay Next is a prime example!

This is where Normal Maps come to play, they’re a way to control how light reacts to a certain mass or object and create a more realistic 3D render.


What is a Normal Map

Normal Map vs. Bump Map

To understand Normal Maps, we first need to understand how Bump Maps work.

Bump Maps are a way to create the illusion of details to a texture. They create fake dimensions, patterns, and/or reflections to an otherwise flat image applied to a smooth 3D object.

Same Texture Image with and Without a Bump Map

The thing about Bump Maps, though, is that they’re Greyscale. To a Render Engine they translate to Up and Down (White is Up, Black is Down, Greys are In-between Heights). So they’re basically 2D.

Normal Maps on the other hand are 3D; they’re a colorful map of different shades of Reds, Greens, and Blues (RGB). The RGB values correspond to the XYZ Axes of a 3D space; so a Render Engine doesn’t just read ‘Up and Down’ dimensions from that map, hence they create a more detailed surface.

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How to Create a Normal Map

Example of a Normal Map created by me!

When I first heard about how awesome Normal Maps are and how Realistic they make Render Scenes, I wanted to create my own. I have a habit of creating my own Texture Maps.

After a lot of Google search and too many frustrated attempts on Photoshop I was ready to give up (Apparently CS6 Extended doesn’t have all the 3D tools anymore, and I’m not changing my version anytime soon!).

One very lucky day I stumbled on this website. IT’S A FREE ONLINE NORMAL MAP GENERATOR. And it’s AMAZING. Excuse the excited caps..

Whoever created this website, god bless your kind heart!

The process was fairly easy. I just uploaded my Texture Map of choice and used all the default settings.

You can also create a Displacement Map, a Specular Map (Reflection), and an Ambient Occlusion Map (which I never met anyone who uses it in VRay for Sketchup). Go ahead and give this site a try, it’s worth it!

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Rendering with a Normal Map vs Bump Map

If you don’t know how to create a Custom Material, go here.

I gave rendering with a Normal Map a try a few times before (whenever they were available) but I never really paid attention to the difference between using a Normal Map vs Bump Map.

So I made a small test for the benefit of this post and for my own benefit. First, I rendered an object with a rough wood texture using the Specular, Bump, Displacement Map that came with it.

The result of using a Regular Bump Map + Displacement Map

The results are pretty decent; the details and reflections look good.

I went to the website above and tinkered a bit to produce my own Normal, Displacement & Specular Maps. I added them to my Texture the usual way.

The result of using a Normal Map + Displacement Map + Specular Map generated by the website.

while testing out my render, at first I thought there isn’t any difference between using a Bump vs using a Normal Map. But with a closer look, the material has a better shadow distribution and the details just look more “real” or “3D”. You can easily believe that the object has been modeled with these details and that it isn’t a texture map because of how the light falls on the surface.

I started using a Normal Map whenever I created a new custom material, or whenever I had the chance to update an old one; I download the Texture Map I want and just drag & drop it in the Online Generator, then click ‘All’ to download everything. Sometimes I do little tweaks to the maps vie the sliders, but it’s rare.

Verdict:

It may seem like a bit of work, but it’s worth it.

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Hope this article has helped you with figuring our Normal Maps & in creating your own.

Have you ever used a Normal Map? Do you prefer Bump Maps or Normal Maps? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

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2 thoughts on “All About Normal Maps

  1. Hello, you used to write magnificent, but the last several posts have been kinda boring?I miss your super writings. Past several posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

    Like

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