Bump mapping: Realistic 3D texturing

Bump maps, also called height maps, project 2D textures on 3D model surfaces, producing realistic illusions without the work of altering the mesh’s geometry.

Applying a bump map in Autodesk Maya creates the illusion of texture on a 3D model. See the tutorial here. Model and image courtesy of Turbo Squid artist Michael Weisheim Woolfy.

What is bump mapping?

Bump mapping uses a 2D grayscale image to simulate fine details on a 3D model’s surface. The bump mapping software interprets the grayscale values as apparent depth and height, creating the illusion of texture without the need for additional geometry, leading to much faster render times.

3D creature model
Bump mapping is just one of many texture mapping techniques animators and VFX artists use to create stunning 3D models. Image courtesy of Nicolas Morel.

The ups and downs of bump mapping

Animators and 3D visual effects (VFX) artists use bump mapping and other types of texture mapping to simulate realistic details on the surfaces of 3D-modeled  objects and characters quickly and effectively. Bump maps are much more efficient than manually building every individual surface crevice, indentation, bump, wrinkle, or blemish into the 3D mesh.

In bump mapping, software projects a 2D grayscale image file onto the surface of a 3D object. This increases the illusion of reality by making 3D objects and characters appear to have bumps and indentations on their surfaces or skin. A bump map does not alter the shape of the 3D mesh. Rather, the degree of grayscale at each point determines the variation in the surface’s apparent depth, from black (down) to white (up).

Many texture mapping techniques within texture mapping software work in a similar way to bump mapping. For example, diffuse mapping applies basic textures, patterns, and colors to surfaces. Specular mapping uses 2D grayscale image maps to apply degrees of shininess/reflectivity to a surface.

Other texture mapping techniques accomplish essentially the same result as bump mapping but in different ways. For instance, normal mapping is like a newer and better version of bump mapping for complex and intricate surface textures. Instead of grayscale, normal maps use RGB data to vary the surface-normal depth information that tells the software how light should interact with the surface and to create the illusion of detailed textures through shading.

Neither normal maps nor bump maps alter the geometry of 3D models; instead, they create illusions. So, for example, their textures will not cast shadows. By contrast, displacement maps do physically displace the meshes they are applied to. That allows them to produce extraordinary results that also show up in silhouettes and shadows. On the other hand, displacement maps can be more difficult to work with and take much more computing power and time to render.

Benefits of bump mapping software

Discover how using bump maps can bump up the quality of your CGI textures.

Aesthetic presence

Bump maps imbue 3D models and materials with a greater sense of 3D depth without the hassle of manually creating many minor texture details.


More texture for less

Bump mapping grants a similar level of detail as displacement mapping, but is faster to perform and uses fewer resources because it does not change the geometry of the underlying 3D model.



For demanding texture jobs, the same asset could use a displacement map—which alters surface geometry—for the big changes and combine it with a bump map for the fine details. For example, the Autobump feature in Autodesk Arnold will automatically map the displacement details into a bump map, so you won’t need as much subdivision to see the fine details.


Autodesk software for bump mapping

3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software for film, games, and TV

Global illumination rendering software

3D modeling, animation, and rendering software for games and design visualization

Media & entertainment success stories

Scene from a Passion Pictures animation showing a large robot looking down on a woman


Inside a jack-of-all-trades production company

Whether taking on stop-motion animation for a department store, virtual reality (VR) work for Google, or projects for film and television, Passion Pictures always has a heavy and diverse animation and CGI workload. To complement its pipeline of tools like Autodesk Maya, the shop moved to cloud rendering using Autodesk Arnold and creative project management using Autodesk ShotGrid.


Image courtesy of Passion Pictures

Image of Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in Amazon Studios' The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power


Bringing cloud production down to Middle Earth

The landmark first series of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power required around 10,000 total VFX shots from 20 VFX houses working in the cloud from around the world. To rein in this ambitious pipeline, Amazon Studios turned to Autodesk Moxion for digital dailies and ShotGrid for production management software.


Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Scene from Cinzia Angelini's short animated movie Mila


The magic of remote collaboration

Independent filmmaker Cinzia Angelini started with no budget and a dream to create a short movie that showed the experience of a child in wartime. After 10 years, with the help of 350 volunteer artists and Autodesk Maya, Arnold, and Shotgrid animation and workflow software, the 3D-animated short Mila won awards and launched careers.


Image courtesy of Cinzia Angelini

Bump mapping resources

Learn all about 3D texture mapping techniques and software, including diffuse, normal, specular, and bump mapping.


Get tips and procedures for using bump maps in 3ds Max 3D modeling software from the updated product documentation.


Learn more about bump maps and how they’re used in Maya animation software from the latest product documentation.


Download 14 ready-made natural and finished wood texture files from this AREA blog post—just one of many assets, tutorials, courses, and articles available in this online community of 3D visual artists.


Watch this video tutorial explaining the differences between bump and displacement maps and how to create, apply, and work with them in Autodesk Maya.


Get started on learning 3D modeling and design, electronics, and coding with Tinkercad, the free online CAD app with an enormous user community and hands-on projects available for any skill level.


Frequently asked questions (FAQ) on bump mapping

What is bump mapping?

Bump mapping is a software CGI technique for simulating texture on the surface of a 3D model without having to create each crack, crevice, bump, and other blemish tediously by hand. The bump map is a grayscale image file that creates the illusion of the 3D model’s surface going up or down by the level of black (down) or white (up) in each pixel.


Bump mapping helps 3D models look more realistic while saving the graphic artist time. Also, because the bump map does not alter the geometry of a 3D model, it keeps the asset’s file size lower.

Is a bump map the same as a height map?

Though bump maps and height maps are similar, a height map is a sub-type of bump map. A height map computer graphics raster image is often used in bump mapping to provide surface displacement data. Height maps were the original form of bump mapping invented in 1978.


However, a newer and more common method uses a normal map, which directly modifies each surface point from the norm. Because a normal map is more direct than a height map, the normal map method of bump mapping provides more detail and more predictable results and is often easier for artists to use.

Can you convert a bump map to a normal map?

Yes, you can convert a bump map into a normal map using a tool like NormalMap Online.

What is a bump map vs. a specular map?

Bump maps and specular maps are texture mapping techniques using grayscale images to control aspects of a surface’s appearance in computer graphics. A bump map contains height data in each pixel, where black is the lowest point and white is the highest point. This data simulates the look of surface bumps and textures without changing an object’s actual geometry.


A specular map contains data on how reflective a surface is at various points to create surface highlights, reflections, and shininess. In specular map grayscale images, white is highly reflective, while black is non-reflective (matte).

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