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High Dynamic Range Images (HDRIs) have been used for many years to light computer renderings. HDRIs are a mature technology with almost all 3D renderers now supporting fast and efficient rendering using image-based lighting. In fact, most real-time rendering software relies on HDRIs as the main source of lighting and reflections. But why have HDRIs become such an important part of the CG lighting toolkit? The answer is realism.
HDR lighting images capture a lot of useful information that is stored by each pixel as color and brightness values. Surrounding a 3D computer model with this data generates the brightness and color of the illumination coming from all directions and provides all the reflections seen by the 3D model. A bright light in a HDRI creates a bright reflection, and a bright reflection creates bright illumination from that direction. The lighting and reflections are therefore hard-wired together in a HDRI. This is why renderers using photo-real materials and HDRI lighting can create amazingly realistic results that are photographic and truly believable as real and not computer generated.