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what is better? Using an alpha image or modeling a leaf, flower, or other plant material. I've read a few places that using a modeled leaf has a faster render time. You also get more control and can add more variety if you model it yourself. But what do you guys think? This is for photorealistic renders.

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    $\begingroup$ The answer lies on the balance of your aspirations and the reality of your computing power. $\endgroup$ – user1853 Jan 7 '15 at 18:10
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For a close-up I would certainly model and texture the leaves, however, at a distance a simple alpha texture could get just as realistic of a result with much less computing power. For example if you are taking a closeup of some foliage and then zooming/focusing on a subject, modelling the extra detail would be worth the extra effort/render time. However if you just want some realistic shrubs/trees in the background, textures are the way to go. And if it is only for a very distant scene or the background is blurred, having textures for entire sections of foliage might help even more.

Basically, unless you can see the difference, there is no need for the extra polys in your scene.

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    $\begingroup$ Modeled leaves render faster; with, however, higher memory usage, if the polycount goes too high. $\endgroup$ – someonewithpc Feb 21 '15 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure of that? $\endgroup$ – VRM Apr 17 '15 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, pretty sure. It's the method used in "The third and the seventh". The premise is that for alpha masked leaves, a transmission ray as to be created, once the surface is hit; if you use a model, you can avoid a lot of these. $\endgroup$ – someonewithpc Apr 17 '15 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ So a low-poly repeated texture mesh leaf probably is the best way. Interesting! What if you are using glossy, translucent, and other complex shaders? $\endgroup$ – VRM Apr 17 '15 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ I would assume the same, but I'm not sure $\endgroup$ – someonewithpc Apr 17 '15 at 22:11
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If you use photorealistic renders, use model, because it will make it smoother and you will get exact leave as you want. Use alpha leaves for games or quixk renders used for movies and animations;)

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Especially for BGE (blender game engine) alpha textures would be the best due to limits on vertex count.

Just make sure if you're using an masked image that you didn't create, that you have the proper licensing if you go public.

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