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Erik Selin
Erik Selin

3D artist & all that other stuff

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How to set up background reference images in Blender

In earlier versions of Blender there was a system for setting up backgrounds in your 3D from the right side properties panel in the 3D view. However, in 2.80 and beyond this system has been removed. Instead, we use objects in our scene to act as the background reference image.

How to set up a background image in Blender? Go to front view with number pad 5 or press the green dot without the Y in the navigation widget in the top right corner of the 3D viewport. Then drag and drop your reference image into your scene from your file browser.

Now you are ready to start modeling from reference. But there is a lot more settings and features that can make your background reference life so much easier, and that is what we will further explore in the rest of the article.

Get your background reference image into the 3D viewport

I am always a bit quick to bring in my reference images. Therefore, they mostly end up at the wrong angle. Instead of deleting them, go to the right view and drag them in again we can reset the rotation with “alt+r”. 

We can transform the reference image object just like any other object in our scene. The usual G, R and S hotkeys will move, rotate and scale. 

We can hover any corner to scale the image while conserving the ratio of the image. We can also grab the middle of the background image and drag to move it. This operation will constrain the movement to the local X and Y axis so that the image won’t come closer or end up further away from us. 

The background image will come into the scene as an empty object. This means that it is an object like any other in our scene. It also means that it is a dummy object that won’t be seen in our final scene.

Most of the settings we will touch on are located in the object data tab. This icon looks different for every type of object. But for an empty with an image attached it looks like this in the properties panel.

We have two sections. The lower one is called image and is where we see what image is attached to this object. The “Empty” section is where the settings we are mostly interested in lives.

Let’s start from the top. Like we said before, background images are now empty objects in 2.80 and beyond. So much that you can create an empty object, set it to display as image, browse for your background image and you get exactly the same thing as if you would drag and drop.

There are multiple benefits of this new background image system. For instance, we can now place images where we want, and we are no longer restricted by predefined view angles.

A drawback however is that it can be easy to accidentally select, move and change the background image. To prevent this go to the outliner and press the filer icon. Among the “restriction toggles” Press the mouse icon. This will give you an icon for every object that looks like a mouse. Press it for any object that you want to disable selection for. This includes empty objects with background images attached.

Here you can also toggle visibility for the background images using the eye icon. A little hint if you have a lot of objects that you want to enable or disable these icons for, in the outliner. You can click and drag across multiple icons to enable or disable them.

What settings are available for the reference images

Background images are luckily still pretty simple. The new system is just more flexible. This section of the article will run you through the settings one by one and give an overview of what they do.

The empty section is where we continue. The “display as” is set to image. So far so good. Then we come to the size parameter. This is a good place to change the size of our background image. This is the same as using the widget handles. Note that the user interface is a bit slow to update these parameters.

Another way to resize the image is to press “S” to scale. But they are not the same. The scale of an empty object can be used to drive parameters of other objects and therefore size and scale are separate things.

Same thing if you change the position of the image with the widget, we do not move the origin of the object. For that we will have to press “G” and use the grab tool.

After size, we have “use alpha”. We can check it and adjust the “transparency” slider to get a see through effect. 

Next we have depth. This will determine if we can see objects that we either behind or in front of the reference image. Set to default, this will act like any other object in the scene.

The front and back settings can be thought of as “bring this image to front” or “bring this image to back”. Other objects will then be displayed in front or behind the image.

The side settings are similar. But instead of draw order, this setting determines if the image will be visible from the front, back or both ways.

These next two settings are crucial. They are named “Display orthographic” and “Display perspective” and they make the image visible in orthographic and perspective view respectively. If you can’t see your background image as expected, this is a good place to check for troubleshooting. 

How to set up the background image from camera view

So what if you want to attach your reference image as the camera view background? This was possible in the previous background image system. 

Now this is part of the camera properties. Select your camera and go to the object data tab.

You will notice that we have a “background images” section. Check the box to enable it and press “add image”.

If you previously drag and dropped the image into your scene it will be available from the drop-down menu to the left of the “open” button. If not, press open and browse. 

Much like the background image system with empties, the properties panel will be populated with settings on how your image is displayed.

We will just cover another quick rundown of settings.

AlphaDetermine transparency of the image
DepthRender image behind or in front of objects in camera view. Can be combined with alpha or image with transparency.
Frame methodMethod to display image if it does not fit the aspect ratio of the camera
Offset X/YOffset the image to the left/right or up/down
RotationRotates the image
ScaleScales the image
Flip horizontally/VerticallyFlip image

If we want to have the camera with the background image attached to follow our viewport, we can press “n” in the 3D viewport. On the right side panel that pops out, we can go to the view tab and find the “view” section followed by the “view lock” subsection. This should be open by default. Then check “Lock Camera to View”.

Can I use a movie as reference image?

The answer is yes. This can be useful when you are working with animation or simulation that you have to match to preexisting footage. For animation, you may have recorded yourself doing some action for example. Then you can just import the video and use it in the background as you create a similar movement for your animated characters.

This works with both empties and the camera. For empties, when importing your footage just pick a movie file instead of an image and Blender will detect it and setup the correct parameters for you.

If the movie is not playing, make sure that the frames number match the number of frames in the imported movie clip. You can have Blender fetch the correct number using the button to the right of the frame field. Also, make sure that “Auto Refresh” is ticked. Then press “shift+space” to run the movie, or just space if you have space setup for playback.

For camera, it is slightly different. You have to select “Movie Clip” as the “Background source” before you press open. Then you don’t have to worry about frames or “auto refresh” it will work out of the box and you can adjust the settings the same way as for images.

A note on performance. If the playback isn’t fast enough, you probably have to use a “Proxy render size” to downscale the resolution of the movie clip. This however is not easy to find information about. But my take on it is this:

You need a pre-rendered proxy in the same folder as your movie clip. This proxy can be generated using a script from GDQuest or within Blender as shown by Mikeycal Meyers. I have not been able to verify that this is the case though. But don’t count on a performance boost just by changing this setting.

Related questions

How to import images as planes?

There is an add-on that comes with Blender. Go to user preferences and find the add-on section. Search for “images as planes” and it should be filtered in the list. Check the checkbox to enable it. Go to File->Import->”Import images as planes”. Browse for your image.

I am still on Blender 2.79 or earlier, where can I find background images?

In the 3D viewport, press “n” to bring up the right side panel. Here you should have a section called “Background images”. Click the check mark and then “open” to browse for your image. You can add multiple images this way and enable them from different views.

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