Having spent the past few weeks working on renderings in Blender makes me realize how little I knew before, and how important it is to have enough of an understanding of my software to get out the results that is is capable of. So I dialed back and watched the Blender 2.8 fundamental tutorials. They are extremely well done, and each point mentioned in them is relevant. I am sure we all have experiences with sitting through a 15 minute video looking for the 5 seconds that will help us.. I re-visited each step in the process and came out with a much more enjoyable experience working in the software, and a much better end result.
My original Googling seemed to indicate that I should be exporting my model out of Fusion as a .obj or .stl. It turns out that those were both not great options. By far the best for me is the .fbx export. Not only was the file size a third of the size of the other mesh formats, but my model component hierarchy and naming conventions were also carried over, making isolating and working on the model so much easier.
I predominantly use the supplied material library from Blender Kit. There are hundreds of materials and all very well done. many of them make use of the principled BSDF shader (PBR) which seems to be the current leader in the industry for creating realistic looking materials. (This has a lot to do with the fresnel effect, by the way.) These materials are also fully customizable though the node editor. By far my biggest stumbling block was in applying textures, mostly because the geometry of an imported mesh is broken up into a series of triangles, which is not initially interpreted as a continuous surface or face, but rather a collection of broken up triangles. After a lot of frustration the user forum came to my rescue, within a few minutes I had a beautiful answer. In a nutshell, any imported object that you are applying a texture to first needs to have the UV map reset and re-unwrapped. The results were huge, with my wood all of a sudden looking like wood.
I initially used Blenders built in dynamic sky to provide global lighting, but was then directed to the wonderful world of HDRI images for background and lighting. The result was immediate, and there is no going back! And best of all, one of my fellow South Africans has an incredible website with hundreds of free HDRI’s available for download and incredibly good resolutions.
Once again, so much to learn here. I used cycles (as it is the most realistic, although very resource intensive). There are so many settings that can be tweaked to dramatically speed up rendering times. The three biggest ones for me are GPU rendering, tile size and switching from Cuda to OptiX GPU rendering. As an example, switching from Cuda to OptiX cut my rendering time in half. Unfortunately not all GPUs have this capability, but luckily mine does!
In conclusion (for now) I am satisfied with the progress I have made in using Blender to create a realistic image of a boat in an outdoor setting, and I am really looking forward to taking this further. But first I want to get into Evee, Blenders real-time rendering engine. While the results are not quite as photorealistic, it has the capability to produce animations in an incredibly short space of time, and without locking my computer up for hours to render a few minutes of animation. So watch this space..