There are two light sources, both coming from outside through the window. One of them is a strong sun light, the other is a weaker light that represents light coming from the outside environment. I set the angle and intensity of these light sources to make the scene have the look of a morning at 9am. The window blinds prevents much of the light to come in, thus a large part of the scene is lit by indirect light, giving it a soft, smoothing feel.
I used Blinn-Phong shading model with a Fresnel reflection term for all objects here. I tried normalizing the diffuse term but did not like what I saw. The decision to not include any reflective/refractive objects was deliberate. I wanted to aim for a "diffuse" look with this scene, and also adding reflective surfaces would increase the level of noise in the rendering. It was hard to freely modify the materials for objects in this scene, since some of them share the same material (e.g., the table top and the shelf both use the same "wood" texture). Even worse, after I cleaned up the scene with MeshLab, objects that share the same material got merged together in the .obj file, making the job of assigning each object in the group a different material impossible.
I used photon mapping with final gathering to render this scene. There are a couple of difficulties with the rendering. The area light outside the window is difficult to sample, so I stored the first bounce in the photon map and did not sample the light directly for the Monte Carlo bounce (the light is still sampled directly for the first primary-ray bounce though). The corners and creases of the scene make it hard for photons to get to, and those areas have the most noise in the final rendering.
I separated the direct and indirect lighting so that I didn't have to use 32 (Anti-Aliasing) x 512 (Monte Carlo) samples for each pixel. I also played a bit with pre-filtering the photon map but did not get very far with it. Pre-filtering didn't seem to help in my case (I used a hash grid instead of a kd-tree to store the photon map, so a nearest-point query is not quite cheaper than an intersecting sphere query, and is awkward to do).
Number of photons emitted: 3 million
Number of AA sub-pixels: 32 per pixel
Number of MC samples in final gathering: 384 for each sub-pixel, and 8 sub-pixels per pixel
Number of MC samples for the area light: 128 per sub-pixel, 32 sub-pixels per pixel
Reconstruction filter: a Gaussian filter (I found that Mitchell-Netravali tends to exaggerate the errors)
Time taken for building photon map: about two minutes
Time taken for rendering: about 4 hours
the left is the actual image that was used for the competition. After
the competition I discovered a bug in the photon gathering code that
ignores legitimate photons and makes certain areas darker. I have
fixed it and re-rendered the scene (this time in only 1.8 hours),
which is the image on the right. You can notice subtle differences at
places such as the parts under the U block, behind the chair on the
right, and under the study table. In a diffuse scene
like this the bug will not be very apparent, but it will be for scenes