Photography has been in a state of change since its inception, from Daguerreotypes to film, and film to digital. Each iteration has opened up new doors, changing the way we make photographs, and expanding what is possible. These advances have also affected who buys photos and why. With each change, photographers had to adjust their approach to the craft and the market, but a new disruptive change has already arrived and begun taking bites out of photographers paychecks. CGI could either be the largest obstacle photographers have ever had to hurdle, or our greatest tool.
For a long time, CGI was both very expensive and exclusive, and remained in the hands of big production houses for huge projects like films and high-budget commercials. But, much like photography, it is becoming democratized. More people have access to CGI programs than ever before, and entire communities have sprung up around it. It is now cheaper to learn to model and render imagery than ever before. It’s also highly flexible, and now that production cost has gone down, it has begun actively encroaching on what has traditionally been the realm of photography.
Product photographers are at the front line taking the hardest hit as brands like Crate&Barrel shift to using CGI for their catalogues. Instead of building sets and bringing in a photographer and their crew to shoot a catalogue over several days, they outsource to a CGI production Company. This has huge advantages for the client, because once an asset has been created, say a chair, it can be moved, altered, lit, and reused indefinitely. If the color of a product needs to be changed, or a scene needs to be lit differently, that can be done at any time up until going to print.
Gone are the days of re-shoots or paying for hours and days of retouching work to account for post-production changes. All of the production fees that used to accompany a catalogue shoot, from set building to craft services, are gone. That’s impossible for a photographer to compete with.
It won’t be long before CGI represents the lion’s share of commercial product photography, from cars to home decor. If photographers want to survive in this field, they need to learn CGI. Then they can offer their clients ultimate flexibility and the finesse that comes from years spent behind the camera. Photographers already have an advantage, as they understand what makes a compelling photograph, how images are used to sell, and how to manipulate angle, light, and form to bring out the best in a product. If photographers add CGI to their repertoire, they’ll be able to expand their influence and keep solid footing in a rapidly changing field.
Product Photographers aren’t the only ones with jobs in the crosshairs, though. As the use of CGI grows, more fields will start to feel the pressure. It might seem like computer generated images are about to swallow image making whole, but there is an incredibly bright side to this advance that photographers can take advantage of.
Many portrait photographers are working in their homes, with a small collection of lights and props that have to be stored when they’re not working. Imagine being able to photograph someone in your living room, and then hand them a finished image in a set that looks like the cover of a Vanity Fair magazine. Imagine dropping expensive props into your photo in post production rather than buying them, maintaining and storing them.
If portrait photographers learn to combine CGI with their portrait work, the sky is the literal limit in what they can create for their clients. Expensive sets, extravagant props, exotic locations, all of that can be created with a portrait and a computer. And once an asset is created, say a room that looks like a movie set, it can be reused indefinitely from different angles and with different light setups and props.
Because everything in a CGI environment is within the photographer’s control, they never have to worry about matching light, camera angle, or color. They can build that into their environment.
This not only saves photographers money on location rental and props, but allows them to offer a one-of-a-kind service that will blow their client’s mind.
It’s especially applicable to the kind of imaginative photography popular in children’s portraiture. Little ones can treasure images of themselves as fairy princesses, superheroes, or go on daring adventures without ever actually leaving your garage studio.
Composite artists also stand to make huge strides in their work if they harness the power of CGI. Rather than spending hours combing through thousands of stock images for the right assets, or traveling to different locations to create backplates, they can make everything they need from the comfort of their homes. Fairytale castles, cyberpunk cities, skyscrapers, or far-flung alien planets are all within the grasp of photographers who know how to use CGI.
There are even libraries of assets that can be used and reused, lit in infinite ways, and altered to fit any scene or idea.
Rather than flying a model and a crew out to an exotic location, fashion editorials can be shot in the comfort of the studio and composited into photorealistic locations designed to compliment the clothing or story down to the last detail. A photo shoot in a comfortable, inexpensive studio that still looks like it was taken at an exotic local means big savings for clients.
The photographer who can offer their client something new, perfectly suited to their brand, and at a lower cost, is likely to win the bidding process.
The idea of learning CGI can be intimidating. It requires an upfront investment of time, energy, and money. But the benefits of CGI for photographers are endless, and provide a bulwark against an advancing tide that promises to eat up photographer’s market share one bite at a time. It has the advantage of saving time and money in the long run, while opening countless doors of opportunity.
Rather than look at this oncoming change as a blow against photography, it would behoove us to look at it as a chance to expand our skill sets, flexibility, and what we can offer our clients. Lowering the cost of doing business while offering an incredible product is the goal of every business person, and right now CGI looks like a cost effective way photographers can do both while protecting their jobs.