HDRI lighting with 3ds max and mental ray

In this tutorial you can learn how you to set up and light a 3ds max exterior scene with a HDRI Skydome and mental ray. While hdri lighting is not very complicated it´s necessary to know some details in order to get a useful result.

The VP HDRI Skydomes have a very high dynamic range, which is best to create sharp sun shadows. Also they have an accurate white balance that will bring convincing and colorful lighting into your scene with a few clicks.

Basically you just need to follow 3 main steps: First to create a standard skydome light, then create background map and third the proper exposure settings.

(1) Create a skydome light

First you need to create a standard Skylight and place it anywhere in the scene. Then you need to add the hdri skydome to the texture map color slot of the Skylight so the skydome is used light up the scene. You can use a simple bitmap map for the moment. We will later see how you can adjust gamma and exposure within this slot, but for now, let´s keep it simple. Make sure that you set map amount to 100% and check “[√] Sky Color” in the Skylight.

Within the bitmap shader you need to set the mapping correctly, otherwise the lighting will look strange. Set the mapping to Environ and Mapping type to Spherical Environment.

(2) Use the same hdri for the background

You can skip this step if you want to use specific backplates for your background or if you add a background later in compositing / photoshop. If you want to use the same hdri skydome also for the background, here are some additional steps.

Within the Environment and Effects add a new map called Gamma & Gain. It´s a standard map that can be used to change the gamma and exposure on another map. Within this map in the input map slot create an INSTANCE of the original hdri skydome bitmap that you created before for the skylight. If you create a copy, you can later change the direction of the background independently from the skylight light direction. If you create an instance, both will be rotated in sync.

Now the skylight and the background are prepared. If you render now, you will probably get wrong lighting and over- or underexposed images. So we need to adjust the camera / exposure settings to match the lighting and background.

(3) Setup the photographic exposure

Within the Environment and Effects dialog, choose “mr photographic exposure”. This will give you access to color mapping, exposure and other parameters that need to be adjusted according to your light and background setup.

To match the exposure to the light you have to adjust the following parameters:

  • Skylight strength
  • Exposure Value (EV)
  • Gamma Settings

These are photographic parameters and work the same way like a normal camera. There are lots of tutorials on the web explaining photography and we don´t want to go into too much detail here. As the settings may vary strongly depending on the used hdri map, it´s not very useful to define specific settings here. But a good starting point for the EV would be something between 5.0 and 15.0 with a Skylight value of something between 1.0 to 10.0. Anyway it´s necessary to play around with these parameters in order to get a good result.

All of the VP HDRI Skydomes include 3ds max scenes with proper light and camera settings, so you can just go ahead and start rendering your own scene.


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6 thoughts on “HDRI lighting with 3ds max and mental ray

  1. FlashRaged says:

    I did as per the tutorial suggested with an HDRi, it lights up my scene that’s alright, but i see no shadows at all whereas i was supposed to get sharp sun shadows. Is there anything i could be doing wrong?

  2. VIZPARK says:

    Which type of HDRI are you using ? Did you use a VIZPARK hdri or a different one ? The sharpness of the shadows really depends on many factors, beginning with the hdri itself and the type of light (clear sky with strong sun or cloud covered sky with more indirect light). Next the shadows also depend on the gamma value and contrast of your hdri map. You can adjust this within the Gamma and Gain parameters of your map (see point 2).

  3. Stefan says:

    First off I would like to say thank you for your products. They are high quality and have improved my abilities greatly. Likewise for the tutorials you provide.

    To tag on to what Flash Raged said, here is an example image of using the HDR skydome 2, using the steps and settings provided in the tutorial.


    The bright sun is reflected on the teapot (using Arch&Design Polished concrete default) but a shadow is not cast. There are contact shadows on the plane below bc I have enabled AO for that material. So the question is, what is the default setting we should use to get the shadows to cast from the HDR skydome? Or can shadows be cast this way at all in mental ray?

    Thank you,


    • pixelsonic says:

      Thanks for your comment. The HDRI Skydomes from us include demo scenes for mental ray which are setup to work out of the box. Mental ray has some disadvantages with the skydome light, which works not as good as vray, but you can get shadows in a similar way with mr. Just open one of the scenes if you own the HDRI sky domes and see how they are set up. If you need further help, please get in touch via support form.


  4. Diederik says:

    When I render an image with the HDR skydome 17 everything works fine, except there are these yellow-ish light circles scattered on the ceiling of my interior, this also happened to me with the skydome 28. The set up is pretty close to what’s done in this tutorial, no extra lights added. Would you know the source of my problem?

    Thank you,


    • VIZPARK says:

      Hi, could you please send me your scene, so I can try here ? Our skies usually work fine, but I´m not sure with mental ray, since it´s difficult to handle with skydomes. I can look at your scene if you send it over via a support ticket (after Christmas).

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