I have had this problem for years now. I know what I want for my fictional planet or moon, and yet when it comes to creating an image of it, I continue to fail.

How can I break down the task of creating a realistic-looking planet or moon?

Assume I don't have any kind of artistic talent at all, so I need this task to be broken down into steps.

What I'm looking for in an answer:

  • Break the task down into steps.
  • Provide tips and strategies for executing its design
  • Answers should demonstrate some experience designing planets or moon or other environmental or astronomical art
  • Please be detailed

The problems I continue to have:

  • Sometimes I think it's too colorful, but then I reference real-life moons with even more color, so I know that color is not my problem
  • Sometimes I have a pretty good map for my world, but it looks flat because I haven't added surface detail
  • I have problems making realistic-looking craters, valleys, mountains, and just topology in general
  • I've tried using different filters in Photoshop and GIMP; I've tried using lighting and shadow effects to make realistic-looking gashes or scratches in a moon's surface; I've tried using the blur tool or smudge tool to make a realistic-looking gas giant; I've tried using layers upon layers to make the features look like they have history; etc. Nothing I do seems to get the job done right, though.

For example, below I have a map for my moon (click to enlarge):

And here is a bump map that shows the detail of the moon (click to enlarge):

But here is the final appearance (click to enlarge):

  • 2
    Your result doesn't look too bad, but what's up with the line around equator?
    – Wolff
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 17:40
  • There are tutorials on youtube for doing this, if you are looking for steps to follow.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 18:07
  • 1
    Flaming Pear plug ins, specifically SolarCell and LunarCell : flamingpear.com/lunarcell.html
    – Scott
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 20:23
  • @Wolff There's a "gash" the runs around the equator. In this example it doesn't really appear to have any depth to it, so it's not a very good representation of what I'm trying to achieve. Not to mention, this moon is supposed to be a very newly created moon, and I want it to have much less rough-looking features.
    – overlord
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 20:36
  • 2
    If you want more realism such as a bumpy moon surface, then perhaps it would be better to have a look at the possibilities in Blender or another similar 3D modelling application. Raster image editors such as Photoshop/GIMP are too basic for this kind of work I think - all they can really do is wrap an image to sphere - which is ultimately why it looks so flat.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 10:24

2 Answers 2

  1. Stop using Photoshop for the 3D part. There are better options out there, and free. I will dive into it later.

  2. Study the wonderful and profound paper I made about projections. https://www.otake.com.mx/Apuntes/Imagen/EnviromentMaps/ The basic idea is that you need to understand that putting a 2D image into a 3D sphere is a bit complicated and you need to deform the 2D image to project it correctly into the sphere, and the type of deformations depends on the projection you choose. **

  3. Not only you need a specific deformation but you need a specific proportion of the texture. This is why a 3D program is a better option because you have better control over the projection. Use Blender https://www.blender.org/ for that.

  4. Make a seamless texture. I don't know why you have a humungous line in the middle of your texture, that basically will cut your planet like a hamburger.

  5. Make it with the right proportion, and with a good enough resolution and size. (Your diffuse map is TOO SMALL. Make it bigger than the final image you need. If your final render will measure 1000px, make the texture lets say 1500px height.

  6. Apply the deformations. This is where the extra resolution will be handy.

  7. Make a bump map, and understand it, do not simply throw a texture there. Look how the height map of earth looks like, https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/images/73934/topography yes you can identify your country, but what you are actually seeing are the mountains. Even better, use a displacement map (bump on steroids).

  8. Use noisy textures and fractal ones. There are different fractal noise types that will make an interesting texture.

  9. Make an interesting planet, add different zones, ad ice to the poles, ad an extra layer for the atmosphere.

  10. Put those on a texture on Blender, put a light and render. Actually you can make the textures using internal fractal textures generators and nodes.

  11. There are some other programs that can be handy, like Terragen. It has a free version: https://planetside.co.uk/terragen-image-gallery/

  12. Some more: https://blender.stackexchange.com/questions/31424/planet-texture-generator

**I must say I do not address a specific deformation on the poles. It needs additional steps, like transforming a spherical projection into a cubical one and reconverting it to a spherical one, but the program I used for that is not available anymore. I'll try to find something for those transformations. Probably Hugin http://hugin.sourceforge.net/ could be an option.


Too long for a comment, so daring an answer, even though I'm not an expert in planet design. I see several problems with your moon, if its surface is not flat:

  1. If there is relief, the edges of the moon against deep space must be somewhat jaggy (and of course match the relief near the edge).
  2. Shadows cannot be the same everywhere. There are almost no shadows where the light source is right above, and long shadows near the terminator. The shadows of course aren't all parallel, but somehow converge towards the point directly under the light source (maybe create a bump map with a light right above and fairly low before the result it is wrapped on a sphere)
  3. As in 1) the terminator itself should be jaggy, and in an atmosphere-less moon it should be quite sharp. On our own moon, the two main light sources (Sun and Earth) are both about a half-degree across in the sky, this means that the transition between full light and full darkness from the main light source is also about one half degree of longitude, or about 1/720 the equator (so roughly 1/100 of a diameter).
  4. All the moons I have seen (I'm a sucker for NASA/ESA photos) have features: some big craters, mountains, plains, valleys.
  • About the edge: The mountains cannot be very high because the pressure could melt the bottom and the top would sink until the pressure cannot break the molecules. Mnt Everest in the Moon would be about 0,2% of the diameter of the Moon. That's 2 pixels if the moon was shown as 1000 px high. That doesn't give very good possibilities to show details.
    – user82991
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 3:22
  • No details, but your eyes still notice the uneven edge. It happens that on my own moon shots, the moon is about 1000px in diameter, and the dents on the edges are 2-3pixels.
    – xenoid
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 7:35
  • The problem is that Photoshop doesn't apply the bump map as a proper 3D software would, like Blender or 3DSMax, so there's no jagged edges or shadows for the features. It can't be done with Photoshop 3D tool alone.
    – Luciano
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 13:05

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