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Sep 16, 2019


Product Photography vs CGI

By: Tony Melino

Two powerful forces are responsible for an accelerating medium divide in our industry; advancements in computer graphics and our never-ending pursuit of creating crave-worthy products. With neither trend slowing, we examine why marketers would choose one over the other, and whether or not CGI will be the end of traditional product photography.

Since the birth of modern advertising, we've used visuals (hand-drawn renderings and then photographic and video recordings) to sell consumer goods. The rule of thumb: the more a representation captures the product's allure (think: Ruffles' enlarged and perfectly ridgey, "I bet they're crunchtastic" potato chips), the better.

You can find a few examples of photography in advertising in the late 1800s, but it didn't become an industry standard until the 1950s. Why? Because photography was time-consuming, and illustrative renderings were faster and more cost- effective. Fast forward past the golden age of product photography to the stunning realism of CGI renderings in 2018, to discover if the history of product photography is repeating itself.

In its infancy, CGI was not able to effectively produce realistic product imagery. But today, modeling and 3D rendering software like Cinema 4D and KeyShot, produce ultra-realistic images that are (almost) too good to be the real thing.

Picture 1 - Architectural Render

In addition to their real product likeness, CGI- made images are faster and less expensive to produce than final digital photographs. If a client wants three rounds of revisions? CGI is a medium that can just as easily deliver thirteen rounds. It is infinitely editable without the need for a reshoot. With commercial photography, you have to worry about product shipment, travel expenses, studio or site rental and setup, lighting, product propping, and set takedown. Then there's post- production editing, which can only go so far, and a dependency on the right environmental conditions. Mistakes or misdirection can bring the disaster of a reshoot. Every additional round of revisions in photography is one round closer to serious ramifications.

CGI can be simpler, but it is not simple. Creating realistic CGI renders is far more than a push of the button. It requires a highly skilled individual or team that understands the limits of current technology, and in some instances, the need to create new technology to bring ideas to life. The necessary components of CGI are modeling, texturing and lighting, but the complexity and degree of realism at each step can vary and drive dramatic changes in costs and completion times. While CGI can be expensive initially, and may not fit every budget, the end result has clear advantages over commercial photography in the long run, one of which is the ability to manipulate, or even animate your images.

Picture 2 - Tony Render

A traditional photoshoot can cost the automotive industry $100,000, and in the end, the shoot's images are flat and final. Whereas a CGI model yields a faster turnaround time at less than half the cost and is incredibly versatile. With close up details and a plethora of angles, a near impossible task with photography, a CGI file can be adapted for use as a sales tool to showcase paint and trim options online, or animated and used in commercials.

The industry shift toward CGI is hitting mid-range photographers the hardest. Many have actually moved on to a career in CGI and others have just gone out of business. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, the bigger the budget, the more likely it is that traditional photography will be a primary consideration. There will always be a place for highly skilled photographers and product photography at the high end.

Some high-end luxury car manufacturers still insist on working with high-profile photographers. They believe only traditional photography will produce the authentic outcome they're looking for, and they're willing to pay for it in spite of the substantial post-production costs.

Here's an argument leveling secret: IKEA's computer-generated images are co-produced by their in-house photographers. IKEA had their CGI staff and Photographers swap roles to learn the art of one another's specialty, and that enlightened collaboration radiates from the warm and welcoming quality of their work.