Will CG Kill Photography?

I created the following images as an exercise in lighting and composition for still life pictures. I wanted to see what I could do with several of the tools and techniques most photographers aren’t familiar with. Careful attention was given to every detail of every object and its environment. The camera I used features an astounding array of focal lengths, total control of depth-of-field, and it even allows you to change the sensor size with a simple setting. The clarity and resolution are amazing.  Lighting?  How about total control and unlimited light sources!?

Best of all, the gear, as well as the training necessary to make use of it, is freely available to anyone. You can start working with it today. Like any image making, just having the tools and knowing how they work doesn’t necessarily make someone very good it at. In my case, as you’ll see, that’s more than obvious. I still have a lot of practice ahead of me.

The camera and lighting I’m talking about are, of course, virtual. They, along with a huge selection of sophisticated features, exist in an free and open-source 3D computer graphics application called, Blender. Commercial software of this type is also available, but I started experimenting with Blender several years ago, and it’s the only one I’ve ever used, so I wouldn’t be able to speak from personal experience on the others.

Blender and actual photo comparison
(Top) An imagined, slicker version of my Swiss Army pocket knife created using Blender (this object does not really exist outside of my computer). The model in the foreground was duplicated and the copy rotated and placed as shown to give the viewer a look at the knife from another angle. (Bottom) My photograph of the actual “real life” pocket knife.

Although I’ve used Blender to create several 3D animations for my video tutorials, and perspective diagrams for my website and publications, I made no attempt at photorealism in those cases. Illustrations like that are often more effective if they’re simple and rather generic. But when I saw how furniture seller, Ikea, was making use of CG for their catalogs, I became interested in how this might impact professional product photographers, or photography in general. To me, Ikea’s CG images of furniture and interiors were indistinguishable from well-crafted photographs. Same thing occurred to me when walking through the subway I noticed that all the iPhone billboards featured product shots that were so good, they might have been too good. I wondered if a photographer with limited illustration skills, like myself, could sit down and produce a photo-realistic rendering of a real or imagined object created from scratch.

Now, as someone who’s been working with digital photography for quite a few years, I’m very familiar with what is possible using software like Photoshop. Plain and simple, image (pixel) manipulation is part and parcel of what we do. Illustrators and CG artists do much the same. Sometimes, like us, they start off with a photograph as a base image to work from, sometimes they use other images as reference material. What I’m getting at is that pixels are pixels; if you’re manipulating things like colors, surface/skin textures, content (things that you place into, or remove from, an image), and contours (think, Liquify tool), you’re doing things that a computer graphics artist does. You might start off with a camera, but if you do a lot of retouching and image manipulation, you’re putting on the hat of a digital artist, don’t you think? I came to that realization rather reluctantly.

From plastic to metal with the click of a button.

Holga created in CG with Blender
The Holga camera in this scene was modeled after my own Holga.  I built the entire body of the camera using Blender.  The table and film box structure were also created (film box was copied to create multiples). The focus icons were hand-drawn in Adobe Illustrator, a film box was scanned and used to “wrap” the mesh of the boxes, and the background shown is from a wider shot (photograph) taken in my studio. That image was imported into my scene as an environment image that actually surrounds the 3D objects 360 degrees. Note the texture on the main body. It was created using procedural textures, not actual image textures. Also note the reflections, especially around the lens. This type of rendering of light, shadows, and reflections is very sophisticated and proved to be a game-changer for a lot of commercial applications.

Like I said, I’ve worked with Blender, but I knew I needed help with the features that I’ve never used before, so I jumped on YouTube and watched a few tutorials. I discovered that the Blender community of 3D artists are abundant and many have a surprising grasp of lighting theory and technique. In fact, many of the tutorials I viewed contain references to things like three-point lighting, as well as composition and other visual design concerns. Many photographers would do well to learn about lighting and the effect is has on shapes and contours the way other visual artists understand it.

Candle scene modeled with Blender
(Top) Candle modeled after one in my home. A stone texture was used as the “table top” and three panels were created to serve as light sources. (Bottom) A low-resolution render of the scene looks more like an illustration than a photo. I embedded a smoke stain into the top portion glass shape, and placed a virtual flame on the wick.

I’m pleased with my initial attempts at creating photo-realistic stills with 3D modeling software. But I realize I’m still not very good at this. I’ll probably keep experimenting and learning, and find out where it takes me.

What are the benefits of using 3D models for 2D images?

You might wonder if there’s any point to creating 3D graphics if they’ll only be used in 2D presentations. A model built in 3D virtual space can be viewed and rendered in any virtual 3D interior environment, at any angle, its colors and surface textures can be altered quickly, and its physical dimensions can be changed if the specs on the real object change. As a matter of fact, since the object doesn’t even have to exist in reality, 3D artists can work from designs provided by engineers, and have catalog art ready even before the actual products go into production.

Because objects and lighting in the virtual 3D environment can be manipulated similarly to how they are in the real world, you can set up a scene, find your camera and lighting angles, and render a 2D image from that perspective, just like you do in a studio. The potential for composites is obvious; create 3D objects and scenes that can be combined with real-world subjects.

Batteries modeled with Blender
I created one “eddieloop” battery and replicated it a few dozen times (simply by entering the number of copies wanted) for this image.  My name’s, Eddie.  So, I’m having some fun here.


Great. So, is photography obsolete?

Are we going to be outmoded by the new crop of young, talented 3D computer artists? Well, much of the imagery used in advertising is CG, made to look like photography. So, it’s replacing photography in a lot of places. But let’s keep this in perspective, 3D artists aren’t going to replace commercial portrait photographers anytime soon. And very often, for catalogs being put together on smaller budgets, it’s still going to be faster and more cost-effective to hire a photographer to shoot a line of products than to hire a couple of 3D artists to painstakingly create them in 3D space.

I see CG, digital artistry, and photography as being more closely linked moving forward; converging. In some of the images featured here, I’ve used a combination of materials that might include photographs, scans, hand-drawn 2D illustrations, textures, and 3D modeling to bring an image together.

Blender model using a portrait to map an etching
A simulated glass or acrylic etching created from one of my portrait photos (inset).

Photographs that look like digital art, CG that looks like photography. It’s been going on for awhile now. I don’t think that it’s worrisome that a photographer and a computer graphics artist can create similar images with different tools. It’s how photographers and other artists can express their personal vision and differentiate themselves from one another that creates value.

Another Holga image created in Blender
A second perspective made from the same Holga scene modeled above. Kind of ironic that DSLRs made film cameras all but obsolete. Here a film camera is the star of an image requiring no physical camera to produce.

The message here is that photography, and what it means to be a photographer, is constantly evolving. I don’t think everyone has to keep up with the next big trend or necessarily learn skills that fall outside of the realm of their specialties. But, it’s more important than ever to take what you do seriously, and to commit to getting very good at it.

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