Is CGI Photography the Future?

Kronenbourg Beer Bottle Advertising Photo on blue background glow
Chanel No 5 Perfume Bottle with blue silk CGI

Every so often, an advance in technology, new equipment or new software can turn an industry on its head. Is this what is happening with “CGI photography”? Computer Generated Images (CGI) have been around for many years now. But, just recently they seem to be fuelling a change that is afoot in the photography world. The levels of photorealism achievable relatively easily with CGI these days can make it hard or even impossible to tell the difference between digital photography and CGI. So, is this the future? Are we on the cusp of a new revolution?

CGI photography - cosmetics with splash

The Next Photography Revolution?

Turning the world upside down (again)

Photography has been through at least one world-changing revolution already. Nowadays almost anyone can take digital photos in seconds and see the results instantly. But, this is a relatively new thing as digital photography didn’t really start to take off until the 1990s and beyond (around 30 years ago). Prototype digital cameras were around in the 1970s-1980s but they weren’t available to most people. For many it is now hard to imagine life without digital photography. Mobile phones are often sold on the basis of how good their cameras are! Will CGI photography soon be taking over from digital as digital replaced film? 

Flying Chocolates CGI festive banner

In its early days, digital was expensive and struggled to rival the image quality of film.  There was a great deal of resistance from some, wanting to keep to the traditional method of using film. As the technology developed, it became not only better but also cheaper and more widely accepted. It opened the door to the masses trying photography without the cost and hassle of developing film. Soon the tables had turned and film became the niche while digital went mainstream.

CGI bedroom 3d visualisation

The Next Logical Step?

Since going digital, images have been created using pixels. There are light sensitive pixels on a camera sensor that collect the light to make an image file. The files are viewed on screens made up of pixels. Art software had been around for many years and that was, in essence, all about manipulating pixels. So, it wasn’t a huge leap for people to start manipulating the image files to add to, remove or alter the pixels recorded. Photoshop was ground breaking and remains an industry standard for digital imaging.

Some said that this was no longer photography but “digital art”. But the distinction has been blurred and at least some editing is now largely normal. We have to remember that how a film was developed also allowed experts to “edit” their images. For the masses this wasn’t really possible due to the equipment needed, so we relied on laboratories doing it for us. However, developing our images in a digital world is easy for anyone to try. Professionals will often now rely on the capabilities of software such as Photoshop to create composite images out of several shots, such as the one below.

Creative Product Photography - Red Lipstick with smear & textured background

So, are we now taking a logical step forward by starting with the pixels in the computer? If we plan on manipulating the pixels anyway, why not only create the ones we need? Can’t we just save time on retouching by building our image perfect in the first place?

Is CGI Photography actually Photography?

You can’t have “photography” in “CGI photography”, can you? It isn’t “proper” photography is it? If photography is drawing with light (as its name suggests) then some would say that it is not applicable to CGI. 

If we were to jump from film straight to CGI then it would seem like a giant step. Indeed, at face value it might look like the two have nothing in common. One is around a key moment in time when all the elements are brought together to create an image. The other can take place gradually at a computer without having to build sets, travel or even see anyone else. However, if we dig beneath the surface a little, there are quite a lot of overlaps. 

CGI uses a camera. No, it might not be a physical object, but it still has to be set up with the right focal length, depth of field and in a location that makes a pleasing composition. CGI photography uses lights of different sizes and power outputs. The subject needs a scene that makes for an interesting image. So far these are all elements familiar to any photographer.

Technic Lipstick CGI product modelling with bubbles

But None of it is Real! It isn't even Real Light!

Light is at the heart of photography. The “photo” bit of photography comes from the Greek photos, meaning “light”. So, if there isn’t any light then it can’t be photography, can it?

CGI photography uses a virtual camera and virtual lights. They are not the real thing even if they can behave very much as if they were. Photorealistic renders are possible because the behaviour of light, lenses and objects can be simulated very accurately. But, they are still simulations. No real light is used.

The question is whether as an industry and as a society we will come to accept the simulations as being real enough. Perhaps we already do. Many advertising images are created using software. They look so real that we can’t tell the difference. So, does it matter? If we can accept it then can we accept calling it photography? 

Not surprisingly there will be those who say that CGI should never be called photography. But, it remains to be seen whether the convenience of using a familiar term outweighs our desire for physical and verbal precision. It is still a little early to say whether we will want photography to evolve its meaning or remain distinct. Certainly it is a useful way of making the link and showing the evolution from its roots in the “real world”. Time will tell if this is another photography revolution or a revolution taking us away from photography.

Pot of Cream with floating lid CGI product photography sample

The Benefits of CGI Photography

Clean & Cost Effective

What might make someone choose CGI photography over “regular” photography? One reason would be the very clean look that you can easily achieve. All real products have minor defects that can show up in images. So, detailed retouching can be needed to achieve a clean finish. When you are creating models they don’t need to have any flaws. In fact sometimes the problem with 3d models is that they don’t quite look realistic as they are too perfect! 

So, you don’t tend to need to pay for retouching with CGI as the image is already clean. This can make some projects cheaper. There are other potential savings with CGI too, such as minimising the need to hire space, props and lighting. If you miss a shot in a typical studio session it could mean getting everybody back and setting everything up again. With CGI you can open the file and make changes. So, it is possible to change the lighting, camera angle and scenery at any point. That can be very difficult and very costly with “real” photography.

CGI Close up of Nokia 6020 mobile phone

Removing Creative Limitations

There are limiting factors such as gravity and available space that make certain types of shots hard to achieve. This doesn’t apply with CGI. There is no gravity (unless you turn it on) so you can place anything wherever you want it at whatever angle suits you. This means no complicated rigging to hold a product floating in the air. There is no need for boom arms, lights dangling from ceilings or stepladders to take the camera to the desired location.

This freedom not only makes things easier, it also enhances your creative opportunities. You are freer to think of new approaches as the logistics of it don’t need to be a headache. Composite images also become far easier to achieve. It is not easy to match lighting perfectly across a set of images so that can then be blended to look as though they belong as one. With the 3d environment we can bring all of the elements in there and have the lighting affect them all. So, there is no complicated blending process afterwards.

CGI software allows you to simulate real world physics such as fluids. So, no more messy studios due to throwing paint around! Software can simulate splashes, smoke, explosions and more. You can also create thousands of copies of an object with just a few clicks. 

Chanel No 5 Perfume with background of blocks falling CGI

The Limits of CGI Photography

What might stop CGI photography from taking over completely? Or, are there no limits to what it will be able to do?

Computing Power

One of the key limitations for those wishing to start out with CGI is the computing power that you need to render images and animations. Your average home computer will render slowly, making it hard to create multiple images quickly. High capacity GPUs (graphics cards) are currently the key to unlocking speed. But, of course, they come at a cost – as do fast CPUs (your computer’s main processor).

However, it isn’t just CGI that makes use of this computing power. Computer games are a huge industry and they harness the latest technology for ever improving graphics. Given the huge demand worldwide for games, it seems unlikely that the high powered GPUs and CPUs will remain out of reach to your average computer user for much longer. The technology will no doubt continue to improve while also becoming more affordable.

So, although computing power may currently still be a barrier to entry for some, I would expect this to become less of an issue as time passes.

CGI Photography of an Ibanez electric guitar

CGI Software - Cost & Complexity

The Cost of CGI Software

Industry standard software for CGI can be expensive. Software such as Cinema4d or 3dsMax, for example, are available by a paid license that not everyone could afford if they wanted to test the waters. If you want a specialist render engine then that can be another subscription cost to factor in. So, the big news in the software world is Blender. This open source software is free to use, making it much more accessible for people wanting to try CGI.

Not only is Blender free to use; it also comes with its own render engines. Yes, you can buy additional add-ons from the community of Blender users, but these are not essential. You can tailor the software to your own needs through the wide variety of plugins out there but the software works fine without them. So, software no longer has a cost barrier to entry.

The Complexity of Learning CGI Photography

While you may be able to get hold of the software easily enough, are you going to be able to use it? Photographers who have been working with digital cameras for any length of time will have come across Photoshop by Adobe. Many find it a daunting task to learn how to use it. But, there are many courses, tutorials and free explainer videos out there to help you. Blender users have created many similar tutorials and share tips in forums. So, you aren’t left puzzling it all out for yourself. 

However, as with any new software, or learning to use a new camera, you get out what you put it. If you find learning software difficult or aren’t willing to put in the hours of practise then you will struggle with CGI photography. But, that is true of working with a digital camera too, at least to some extent. The difference being, with a camera you can just point and click and get some kind of image. CGI requires much more involvement to get a final image.

Wii Controller - CGI Photography Sample Image
What Will You Need to Learn?

There are several key skillsets to learn if you want to work with CGI. Firstly, there is modelling. At this stage, you use a wide array of tools to create a model of your subject and the surrounding environment in 3d. Which toolset you use will depending on the type of thing you are modelling. Some artists are almost purely hard surface modellers, while others prefer sculpting. Each has its own tools and works better on particular types of subjects. For product CGI I mainly use hard surface modelling techniques, with just the occasional bit of sculpting.

CGI 3d modelling

Secondly, you need to set up a scene with a camera and lighting. This is easier for those with a photography background as things like focal length, light quality and composition techniques will already be familiar. However, in the 3d world with no gravity things can take a while to get used to.

3d lighting setup for CGI guitar in front of speakers

Thirdly, all objects need to have materials added to them. There are simpler and more complicated ways of doing this but whatever route you choose (procedural, image based, etc) you will need to learn the basics at least. Materials include information such as the texture of a surface, how reflective it is, whether light can pass through it or not, etc.

Node diagram for procedural CGI car paint material
Paint for a CGI Motorbike

Fourthly, you need some understanding of how to render and post-process your renders. This doesn’t have to be as involved as the earlier stages, at least to begin with. But, it does mean another set of options to understand and set correctly.

CGI Artist sample product render of an Ibanez guitar
Commitment of Time & Money

Even if you choose to use free software instead of paid, you will need a suitable computer and a willingness to learn and put in a lot of time. CGI isn’t a quick and easy thing to do, but you can learn the key skills quite rapidly if you are determined. There are add-ons that can help simplify the menus to make it more user-friendly. You can buy ready-made 3d models that can help speed up your scene creation. But, you will either need to learn the main skills yourself or work with others who specialise (e.g. a modeller, a materials expert, etc).

All of this assumes, of course, that you are creating still images. If you want to do 3d product animations then there is yet more to learn! Animations are made up of many individual images (around 30 per second), so there is a lot of rendering to do. This means that unless you are happy having your computer unusable for long periods of time you would need to invest in even more powerful computing upgrades. Rigging models and animating them is a whole new skillset in addition to those already mentioned. So, expect it to take longer for you to produce sequences you are really happy with and can sell.

CGI Sony Speaker with headphones on a desk with cacti

Impossible or Impractical for Some Subjects?

Is CGI photography going to replace photography altogether? Although with a skilled enough artist you can create anything including realistic people, I don’t think that this spells the end of photography. CGI is particularly useful when you are going to make a lot of renders of a model from various angles. Modelling your subject takes time, so that modelling is of the best value when it doesn’t need to be repeated. Some types of shots where we just want a one-off of someone, for example, wouldn’t currently be cost-effective. 

Genuine reactions from people help show their character. Yes, you can rig a 3d face for expressions. But, it can be hard work mimicking the nuances of an individual. Generic expressions may be no problem. But, for someone to be recognisable to those that know them the expressions would have to be true to life. Nevertheless, with motion capture software this is becoming easier to record and simulate, so the future is hard to predict.

Some other forms of photography that are unlikely to be threatened by CGI include live events and travel photography. Yes, you can build 3d landscapes and make them very like the real thing. But, in most cases it simply isn’t worth it. CGI landscape creation is of most use for devising fantasy worlds or scenes that don’t actually exist.

Arctic Landscape CGI

CGI Photography - Summary

It appears that we are in the middle of another image revolution. Just as the move from film to digital changed the way people worked, CGI photography is introducing new possibilities and disrupting previous workflows. Some photographers are turning to CGI as a tool for making their work easier and to open up more creative opportunities. Others don’t want it to be thought of as photography at all. No doubt it will continue to divide opinion.

New tools tend to have a divisive effect. There will be those that embrace them and those that don’t. There will be those that see it as the solution to everything and others that see it as just another tool to help achieve the final result. CGI has been around already in some form for many years so it isn’t a new flash in the pan. In some sense it has already bedded in to stay. However, will we be talking of CGI photography years from now or will things have taken a different course? Will we accept “fakes” or will the demand for “the real thing” stop CGI taking over?

© Joe Lenton, July 2021

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