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Essential Navigation in ZBrush

February 11th, 2009

This article by Zoltan Gyalog provides a tutorial for some of the basic navigational controls in ZBrush, a computer graphics program that allows its users to practice advanced digital sculpting techniques and create remarkable works of art in a digital format. For those wanting to fully master the ZBrush experience, there are a variety of full length tutorial books available, including ZBrush Character Creation: Advanced Digital Sculpting and Introducing ZBrush, both of which can be purchased through the Amazon.com portal to the left. Even if you’re not looking to buy either of these guides, however, you might want to click through to the Amazon page anyway because it contains an excellent review of the software by Scott Spencer that lists 11 useful tips for how to optimize your use of this particular application.


ZBrush is a unique application that also comes with a unique interface. New users of the software often experience difficulties concerning basic navigation, such as panning, rotating, or zooming the view. ZBrush deeply relies on the left Alt and left Shift modifier keys to give you access and fluent control of these essential interface maneuvers.

First and foremost though, it is important to address the most common issue new users seem to confront. Whenever you have a 3D entity selected in ZBrush, – let it be a ZTool, or an imported 3D model from a different application – clicking and dragging in the viewport will “drop” that particular model on the canvas upon button release. With a consecutive click and drag, you will place yet another version of the active tool. You could do that infinitely, regardless of how many polygons you create in the process. We will see the reason behind this in a second.

It is important to note that once your model hits the canvas, it will cease to be 3D geometry, and becomes a 2.5 dimensional object. What does that mean? ZBrush is primarily a powerful application that lets you add practically infinite detail to any surface or entity you dropped on the canvas. Thanks to ZBrush’s unique “pixol” technology though, the pixols of your dropped object will still have relevant depth information associated with them.

A common pixel, the one which is used by pretty much all image based applications, has two main attributes. It has its position, expressed in two spatial dimensions - X and Y - and a color value. On top of that, a ZBrush pixol keeps the depth information, stored as a value expressed on the third spatial dimension, Z. Hence the name: ZBrush. A side note: actually, a pixol remembers much more than these attributes. It remembers its material, and remains sensitive to the lighting you establish, reacting to it in real time.

Since we want to address all the basic navigational commands, we do not want to drop our model to the canvas. Instead, we want to edit it in three dimensions. Selecting an object should not pose a problem, as ZBrush comes with a variety of extremely useful default 3D meshes you could go infinite directions from. The default behavior of the software will give you quick access to these meshes at startup. If you choose to select a model of these defaults, ZBrush will automatically invoke the Edit mode that lets you manipulate the object in real 3D space. You can invoke or dismiss the Edit mode yourself by using the “t” hotkey.

There are multiple ways to make sure that you are in Edit mode. Most noticeably, your default cursor will change to red from white, and you will be able to rotate the active object by clicking and dragging on unoccupied space. Let us see the most important navigational commands. Alt + click on unoccupied space will center the active object on the screen. Holding the Alt button while you click and drag on unoccupied space will pan the view towards every direction you choose. Even zooming is reliant on the Alt button. To achieve a zoom maneuver, you need to press and hold Alt, then, you need to click and hold the mouse button. Now, release the Alt button, and you will find yourself in zoom mode. Move the mouse towards yourself to zoom on the desired part of the model, and move it away to zoom out.

A very useful aspect of ZBrush’s navigational methods is the ability to alter the active object’s orientation in orthographic increments. These are those so-called “perfect views” of the model. Two side views, the front view, the bottom view, back view, and finally, the top view. To rely on this feature, start to rotate the object towards the desired orthographic view, and press Shift when you are close to it. ZBrush automatically will recognize your intention, snapping the object to the orthographic view that is closest to the momentary orientation of the object.

On a final note, whenever you find yourself with a canvas full of redundant objects, use the “Ctrl+n” hotkey to clear the screen of all dropped pixols.



8 Responses to “Essential Navigation in ZBrush”

  1. comment number 1 by: rob

    zBrush relies on failed camera navigation methods, and uses an asinine original control layout. I will forever hate this program, unless the developers start caring about the user experience, and user opinions.

    Thank you for writing this.

    You need to include instructions on how to move the camera to focus on a specific location of the model (not tool, model. Get it right, pixilogical). The camera has an origin about which it rotates, but that origin is not always in the center of the camera’s view. This causes HUGE problems. How do I fix the stupid thing so I can zoom in on my character’s ear and get some work done? F*&$!

  2. comment number 2 by: Jim

    Rob there is a button on the right called local….

  3. comment number 3 by: flek

    The 3D navigation sucks. It’s counter-intuitive and should be made like all other 3 packages. Especially when painting 3 objects.
    Currently I’m doing a professional terrain, and painting it is nearly impossible in zbrush…I’m looking for alternatives. I don’t want ot have to fight a crappy interface.
    Maybe zbrush should make a 3D version for people painting and sculpting in 3D, and not just painting like a 2D paint package.
    I sur hope some of the major packages basicallly incorporate a 3d sculpt and paint internally. Mostly these 3r party developers implement the interface from the stone-age. How hard is it to have a camera and a interest. Just that would solve a plethora of problems.

  4. comment number 4 by: loumizhu

    i’m not the only one finding camera in zbrush crappy

    when you rotate, the camera rolls. and what’s this zoom shortcut ? it’s just STUPID (press ALT then mouse then release ALT) am i making a combo in Tekken ?
    Why don’t use the left middle right mouse button to achieve camera controls like any other 3d program.

    3D-coat has a wonderful camera control and brush/depth control.

  5. comment number 5 by: Anonymous

    @loumizhu

    ZBrush and 3D Coat pretty much have the same options for camera rotation you just have to know where to look!

    Your problem with camera rolling is because you have ‘XYZ’ activated on the main interface (just to the right of your canvas/viewport). Simply select the button that says ‘Y’ and it’ll be more like 3D Coat without the roll.

    It’s the simple stuff fellas!

  6. comment number 6 by: loumizhu

    thanks dude
    i was always pressing shift to snap to a view

    hope they’ll remoce that zoom shortcut (or at least make us choose)

  7. comment number 7 by: Freelance4

    Thanks for your help guys. These navigation controls were driving me crazy. This whole time I was trying to navigate like I was in 3dmax. But this program is like holding the clay in your hand, you navigate the object not the camera. The more I use the alt and shift shortcuts (Combos) :S the more I like the hassle free nature of them. I don’t have to find and click on anything, my hand just reacts and the thing moves. Still, sometimes I forget the xyz button or I try to mess with specifics while ignoring the local button. After a brief tantrum I come back to my senses.

    Now for those of you beginning just like me… hover over buttons and press the control key (Ctrl) and it gives you the basics uses and options of that tool…. er….. button…. drat…. in a floating window and it is really helpful. At least I have some of my sanity back. So ctrl+hover over that local button people.

    Thanks again.

  8. comment number 8 by: Ryan

    Thank you so much for this camera fix! Working in zbrush was so frustrating before, this has made my life a hundred times easier!

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