Google SketchUp (available at is a surprisingly advanced modelling program. Created in 2000 and bought by Google in 2006, it has since won many plaudits. A set of plug-ins enhance its capabilities; here, we look at Shaderlight.

Aimed primarily at architects, designers, students and enthusiasts, Shaderlight hastens and simplifies the task of creating photorealistic renders for your projects. It’s suitable for both professional and novice users.

Once installed, Shaderlight is accessed via a four-button toolbar within SketchUp. A range of render settings, material and lighting editors are available. Zoom and pan controls help you fine-tune the process, while a snapshot feature lets you capture work-in-progress renders.

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Shaderlight adds realism to renders with physically based lighting effects. It also brings images to life by making flat or dull objects appear more rounded. It automatically calculates the most suitable parameters for SketchUp’s library materials, and you can then adjust the type, finish and bump map. The choice of material types have a range of finishes to avoid everything looking the same.

Available as a free or paid-for plug-in, the latest version has a number of appealing new features. A parallel projection camera can create photorealistic images of elevations and plans that are compatible with Google Layout presentations. And a Chalk Render mode allows Shaderlight Pro users to produce simple but effective form studies, complete with ambient shadowing that highlights the form and structure of SketchUp models.

Several image-based lighting environments and backgrounds are supplied by Moofe, and Shaderlight also includes 90 professionally photographed custom backgrounds. ArtVPS has also improved handling of Google SketchUp’s components and groups.

Shaderlight for Google SketchUp

Step 1. Getting started: Google SketchUp is an intelligent 3D-modelling tool. It can be used to create sophisticated models of, for example, buildings, appliances, cars, landscape and people. The program offers a vast array of learning resources, including video tutorials and forums.

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Step 2. Resources: Compatible files are available for free at Google’s 3D warehouse. Here you can search using tags, share and download 3D models. Buildings can be viewed on Google Street View and Google Earth, and are part of wider collections such as those for London, Paris and New York.

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Step 3: Shaderlight plug-in: Shaderlight controls appear as a floating palette within SketchUp. Click the camera button to start a render. The ball button launches the Material Editor, and the lightbulb button activates the Light Placement Tool. The gear wheel button opens the Render Settings window.

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Step 4: Seeing the light: The Light Placement Tool provides control over lighting effects, but is available only on a 14-day free trial. Some advanced features will be disabled thereafter, although you can still render up to 640x480-pixel resolution and use Preset Lighting Images to illuminate your scenes.

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Step 5: Choosing an image: We’ve downloaded Rage’s ‘My Dream Bedroom 2011’ file for our workshop. Thousands more are available that are free to use and share. However, since Shaderlight’s purpose is to create a photorealistic image of your model, avoid any that already look photographic.

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Step 6: Rendering: Press the camera button in the floating palette to start a render in a new window. Depending on the size and complexity of the original image, this can take some time. Changes made to the camera position, geometry and materials in SketchUp will also update your rendered image.

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Step 7: Material Editor: Click the ball button to open the Material Editor and add different finishes to your image. A range of materials is available in the window that pops up. The Material Editor works with SketchUp’s similar tool by selecting the In Model or Pipette options in the SketchUp Material Editor.

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Step 8: Working together: When you apply a material from the standard SketchUp collection, Shaderlight uses the same properties so that it renders correctly. Bricks and ceramic tiles have the correct textures, for example. You can fine-tune these using the Type, Finish and Bump options or simply select your own.

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Step 9: Light Placement Tool: Click the lightbulb button to add artificial lighting and atmosphere to your image. You can choose between a number of lights to help you achieve your desired look, including Point Light, Spotlight, Area Light, IES Web Profile Light and Skylight Portal. See step 4 for availability details.

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Step 10: Choosing light: The Light Placement Tool and Google Light Editor work together, and the two should be open by default when working with light. Lights are placed by clicking in the scene. You can change your light source’s various settings, including the strength and colour.

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Step 11: Rendering settings: Click the gear wheel button to access the Render Settings. Here, you can adjust the quality of the image and how Shaderlight updates to changes made in SketchUp, and switch between natural and artificial lighting. Pro users can also control the output resolution beyond 640x480 pixels.

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Step 12: Tweaking settings: Pro users can also access a Chalk Render option in the Render Settings. As with other settings, you may need to tweak the effect to get the best results. However, we found that Shaderlight doesn’t have a particularly steep learning curve and the more you fine-tune the plug-in the better the results.

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Step 13: Saving images and help: Save your image by choosing File, Save As. This will prevent you overwriting different versions of your file. Shaderlight supports the bitmap, OpenEXR, HDR, Jpeg, PNG, Targa and TIF file types. Help is accessible from the main rendering window, while more information can be found online.

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Step 14: Hands-on and 3D options: If the combination of SketchUp and Shaderlight proves a hit, you might want to consider using a graphics tablet or 3D mouse. The 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator and SpaceExplorer simplifies workflow by reducing the number of clicks it takes to select, create or edit models.

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