Lights are always important in every scene. They tell us the time, season, weather and, of course, play a huge part in demonstrating the drama of the scene. Space is obviously always very dark, which means I had to use more lights and ambient GI in the scene. In general, a soft, gray, ambient GI is enough. As I had a specific idea for the background I used the nebula's color as the ambient light color. The other option is to use the environment as a HDRI.
Spaceships are usually made up of metal, cables and lights. The self-illumination settings are very useful when creating the individual lights. In game development, self-illumination is used a lot to create the smaller lights that don't play part in the overall lighting of the environment. The Cinema 4D version of 3DTotal's Celeritas eBook tells you how to set these up (Fig.04).
After I had rendered the raw image and an AO pass, I painted in some wearing and abrasion on the parts that are most likely to have been bumped around. This adds to the sense of realism. I also painted in some bright spots and glows on the surface of the ship.
If the image is going to big enough that people will be able to see the windows I suggest painting in some characters or machinery as it adds a human element to the cold machinery (Fig.05).
The next part was to see if I could paint the dust cloud in the background. To do this I used alpha brushes set to a soft opacity. This has to be done carefully by eye. I started right in the center, creating the bright, white light, and then moved on to the blueish cloud shapes around it. To do this I also used some photos of clouds.
After the main shape was created I added some faint dust over the top of the bright parts to add a sense of depth and added a lens flare to show how bright the light is. It is really important to paint the dust in carefully as it almost needs to look as if it is moving with the dust cloud (Fig.06).
The planets in the scene have a big impact on the overall scene. It is important to show the rim light on these and keep the actual face of the planet only very slightly lit. I used photos to add the craters and the damage on the surface of the planet. I used different blending modes to blend the pictures with the surface of the planet. In Fig.07 you can see all of the small elements in the scene.
This Making Of shows how I made the second image from my planned series of three images. I hope knowing my process is helpful (Fig.08).