SketchUp and Photorealistic Rendering


The following is a resource page for Photorealistic rendering software used with SketchUp. The post is not comprehensive and I will add information to it over time. Please add your comments on the listed software as well as include any rendering programs I might have missed.


A list of rendering programs is provided at the end of this post.


Also please note that this post is in DRAFT format and needs editing for spelling and grammar.




If you start to use SketchUp you will inevitably come across and become curious about 3D rendering your model. What does it mean to render a model and what is the difference between rendering software and SketchUp?


SketchUp is used to MODEL


SketchUp is a modeling program. You can use SketchUp to create and arrange 3D objects to create an expression; a streetscape, park, building or any other object. SketchUp is unique in the sense that it partially renders the models you make. SketchUp produces a NON-Photorealistic render, also known as NPR.


To create photorealism from your model you need to use a different type of software. These are called Rendering programs.


To provide a real-world example – when you go and see one of the blockbuster 3D movies like Avatar or Star Trek the special affects are created using high-end rendering programs. In essence the 3D objects are MODELED in one software and then RENDERED in another.


Photorealistic Rendering Programs


There are many programs you can choose from to create Photorealistic renderings. In most cases these programs have a sharper learning curve in comparison to SketchUp. Many rendering programs try and minimize or streamline the learning process but to produce excellent quality Photorealism is an art form and will take some time.


Most rendering programs function around the same basic principle: the surfaces of your 3D model receive a texture. This texture is then “baked” in the rendering program. The baked texture can then reflect sunlight, have bumps added or adjusted to give the impression of texture depth and grain, lights can be added to illuminate a model from different directions and environmental and atmospheric affects (like sunlight) can be added.


There are many different software rendering programs available. Some of these programs double as modeling programs as well (for example 3D Max) while others are exclusive to just creating renderings (Maxwell, I-Render, Podium to name some).


It is strongly suggested that before you learn to render, take your time and learn how to model efficiently in SketchUp. More importantly, learn how to apply textures in SketchUp as this becomes important in adjusting, editing and adding textures once you import the model into the rendering program.




Many rendering programs have plug-ins that directly interface into SketchUp. For example, the recent V-Ray SketchUp plug-in provides the ability to add and adjust textures and start your RENDER in SketchUp.




It is very common for people to Render SketchUp models and adjust the rendered scene in Photoshop. In fact, most professional photorealistic renderers use Photoshop to adjust a rendered image. For example, one the best ways to add vegetation to a rendered scene is using entourage 2D trees in Photoshop.


As an aside, an excellent resource page on using Photoshop to create graphics is

SketchUp  -





There are many nuances in learning to use Photorealistic rendering software. Many people take classes or go to school. The most talented have been using the programs for years.


It is suggested that you find a trial that you think might suite you and make sure to download any tutorials that might be available. Start with small, simple models and work your way up in complexity.


Rendering is a time-intensive process and depending on your hardware can take minutes or hours (or longer) to complete.


Not all rendering programs are created equal. The more complex ones tend to produce crisper and more photo-real affects.


Mastering and producing photorealistic renderings is an art form.



Getting Started


If you are serious about trying out Photorealistic Rendering, I recommend you try RenderPlus, Podium or LightUp for SketchUp to get a taste. Try the trials and see how it goes. Each has tutorials readily available online on their sites or on YouTube.


Check them out below





Below is a general list of rendering programs that are actively being used with SketchUp. Many of them (all of them?) have free trial versions. If I missed any, please post other programs that you use.  


SU Podium


Podium is a favorite with the SketchUp community. Podium was one of the first rendering programs to be designed around SketchUp. Like SketchUp, those who use Podium swear by it.  It boasts an easy learning curve, a great on-line community and many tutorials. This is a must to check out:





VUE is not an easy (but not to hard either) program to learn. However, VUE it is one of the best rendering programs you can find to render landscapes, ecology and the outdoor environment. This program was made for landscape architecture. If you can master the learning curve you will have the ability to render unprecedented landscape scenes. VUE is owned by Industrial Light and Magic, the special affects company started and owned by George Lucas of Star Wars fame.




3D Max


3D Max is an Autodesk product and the heavy work horse for many photorealistic artists. You can model and render in 3D max. It does have a steep learning curve but if you are used to AutoCAD then this might be worth checking out.





V-Ray was created by a company called Chaos Group. It’s a powerful 3D rendering program. Chaos Group recently released a SketchUp Plug-in created in tandem by ASGVIS. This Plug-in has become very popular.  A trial version is available.





Render Plus is a recent addition to the rendering world. Like Podium, it was designed to work specifically with and for SketchUp. This is a great program to try out if it’s your first time out with photorealistic rendering.





Aside from the strange name, Kerkythea is another relative newcomer to the world of 3D rendering. It has a SketchUp exporter and other lighting elements. Kerkythea, like RenderPlus and Podium has a steady but easy to conquer learning curve.



Maxwell Render


Maxwell is a powerful but relatively simple 3D rendering program. It offers the ability to generate professional grade photorealistic effects without the complexity found with similar rendering programs.






Piranesi, like SketchUp, is a NON-photorealistic rendering program. However, where SketchUp can be limited in the affects it produces Piranesi can take a SketchUp model and add beautiful, hand-drawn quality affects. In essence it’s a 3D version of Photoshop for SketchUp. The program does have a good learning curve but comes with excellent tutorials.




LightUp for SketchUp


LightUp for SketchUp is a direct plug-in that allows you to create photorealistic affects and lighting sources within SketchUp. LightUp is a bit more limited then most of the rendering programs listed here. However, its one the quickest to get started with, is not demanding on your computer, it’s affordable (there is a free trial) and is constantly being updated.



Twilight Render


Another rendering program that is becoming a favorite among SketchUp users. It boasts an easy learning curve and online resources.



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Replies to This Discussion

I'm involved in the development of a new interactive, photorealistic renderer for Google SketchUp called Shaderlight.

Fully integrated in to SketchUp, and SketchUp Pro, Shaderlight lets you see your image “develop” as you work, interactively updating every time a change is made to any SketchUp scene. So whether you’re an experienced user or using SketchUp for the first time, Shaderlight gives you the tools to get to that final image with minimum fuss.

The beta release of Shaderlight for SketchUp is available to download now and the full release will be available later this year.
One can see a review of many of these renderers using the same scene with various components, materials and shadows at
Though I detest Autodesk, what about Maya? I have reason to believe that it merits serious consideration.

Are any of these rendering engines able to apply basic physics principles to their models. For example the ability simulate daily sunlight levels during the day over say a years time, the effects of gravity on the model. Can the renderers render a model thru time as in days, months, years? What about other properties such as wind, or rain?

Maya is a viable option. It does have some downsides. One of its primary uses is for character modeling, rendering and animations as well as environmental, outdoor scenes. It has a pretty steep learning curve.

For environmental, exterior modeling VUE is by far one of the best. They used VUE to create the planet of Pandora for the movie Avatar. Also, VUE just released a SketchUp ruby Exporter so you can now bring your SketchUp models into VUE:


Last, to just provide an update is Shaderlight by ARTVPS. I wrote an article on Shaderlight for Landscape Architecture Magazine that will be in the January 2011 issue.

My preferred render engine is Cinema 4D

Ive been trying quite a few rendering options for mac. my main issue has been finding a render software that will render 2.5d trees well without too much hassle.

thea render
and a few more i cant remember

ive ended up going with Thea Render.
If you are rendering landscapes Vue 9 Infinite performs the best for this type of rendering. If you are wanting to render in realtime in sketchUP they have a product in Beta now known as LumenRT.

I'm not sure what program would render the 2.5 trees well since the leaves are png-cutouts and will appear with an outline in a render engine. I have had some success using some of the 3D trees on 3D Warehouse.

If the images come through, they are Shaderlight renders. I plan on spending more time with Thea and VUE as well.

Thats pretty cool!! Is Cinema4D easy to learn?
Ive heard Vue is good for trees. Thea seems to be responding to requests from sketchup users to make importing 2.5d trees with pngs easy. the new thea sketchup importer supports alpha transparencies.

ive heard vue is also good for created ecosystems but I dont want to add trees in the render program because i do all my cost estimates in sketchup, so all the tree components need to be in the sketchup design to be counted. nice renders Daniel. I also have your book which is very informative.
Hi clayton,

I am working out a work flow where I start my design in BricsCAD (AutoCAD Clone) and LandFX. Do my design there with 2D symbols. I use LandFX for all my take offs, and CD's They have a SU plug-in that upon export from LandFX, prompts you to spec a replacement SU 3D symbol for the 2D symbol coming from LandFX. I want to specify a .obj plant model that was designed originally in xFrog (with texture maps) and saved and then run though xFrog xTune to reduce the file size and saved to a slightly different file name for placement in SU. The LandFX SU plug-in prompts you for the repalacement 3d file and also prompts you to size the new symbol in SketchUp at the original coordinates that the 2D symbol was placed in LandFX. When you have completed your model in SU you can send the SU model back to LandFX through their SU plug-in to pull any additional take-off info added in SU. The LandFX plug-in, once the symbols have been mapped to corresponding symbols in SU or LandFX, your model can move go back in forth between LandFX and SU automatically. When you are ready to Render I plan on using Vue 9 Infinite. They also have a SU plug-in that prepares a SU design for import into Vue. I am creating a Python script in Vue (scripting language for automating tasks in Vue) to select all of the lower res/polygon count trees made by xFrog xTune with the Hi res/High polygon count xFrog models that included the texture maps that were used to create the xTune files originally. The Python script uses the placement info of the lower res xTune file coming from SU to place the Hi-res file.

The quickest way to kill SU performace is with a lot of Hi-polygon count texture mapped plant models. You really don't need all of that Hi-res stuff till rendering time. The rendering engines are much more adept in dealing with HUGE files. The xFrog created models have the texture maps already mapped to them and they are in .obj file format. This is a format that SU and most any good rendering engine supports. (The .obj file format was originally developed by Wavefront Technologies for their Advanced Visualizer animation package and is for the most part a universally accepted format in the CG world. XFrog is number one in the plant modeling department. I have serious reservations in using a real time rendering engines inside SU as plug-ins. These engines require higher res/higher polgon count plant models be placed directly in SU. So you either reduce the polygon count of your plant models to improve SU performance and reduce the quality of the rendering being delivered by your rendering engine. Or, place the high-res/High-polygon count plant models that have texture maps included with them and reduce SU to a crawl while you are designing in order to render a really high quality rendering. I like my approach better-placing lower res/lower polygon count files in SU and maintaining excellent SU performance and swapping those low res/Low polygon count files out in Vue with the Hi res/Hi polygon count files with texture maps and producing the highest quality renderings possible.
Where I see the realtime rendering engines being potentially helpful in SU, (Vue has one in beta right now called LumenRT) is where you want to see what your SU design looks like rendered during the design phase -sort of a quick and dirty rendering. Come time for the final rendering you would still want to export out to Vue 9 Infinite for final rendering.



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