Photo Journal

Nuts and Bolts, Blender

Photographers: you’re being replaced by software

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But the kind of realism most distinctive of photography is not an ordinary one. It has little to do either with the post-Renaissance quest for realism in painting or with standard theoretical accounts of realism. It is enormously important, however. Without a clear understanding of it, we cannot hope to explain the power and effectiveness of photography.
— Kendall Walton, Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism

The image above is one-hundred percent fake. It has no connection whatsoever to the world of things. I created the bolts, lights, textures, and everything else in a free, open-source, relatively easy-to-use software package called Blender. It's easy enough that even a novice user like me is able to make a pretty convincing image. If you are a photographer that makes a living shooting still-life photos, this should scare you. There are many aspects of this workflow that are superior to anything you can do with a camera. It is resolution independent; it is simple to manipulate any aspect of it (including composition and light) after the fact; it requires no physical space to create, and needs only inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware. And the subject doesn't need to be present at the shoot, it doesn't even need to exist. You can create imagery for advertising, public relations, and market testing before a prototype is built. The one thing it doesn't have that a photograph does is a connection to the real world.

For the first time in history, photography is about to lose control of its monopoly on affordable, convincing realism and it's time for us to understand that realism has never been the most important feature of the photograph. Although we rarely think about it, we understand this intuitively: a computer rendering of your daughter's wedding will never be the same as a photograph even if both are equally realistic. The photograph is defined by its causal, mechanical connection to the real world. Academics have studied this aspect of photography for a long time (for a very clear overview see Kendall Walton's Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism), but almost from the beginning photographers have stayed blissfully unaware of theory and have systematically ignored and even undermined their medium's connection to the world.

Computer generated imagery and photography are on intersecting trajectories. While photographers employ tools like Portrait Professional that sanitize their portraits, making them look more like renderings, 3D artists are adding blemishes and developing tools like subsurface scattering to make their renderings look more like snapshots. Photographers are fighting to remove noise, CGI artists are adding it; photographers are using digital techniques like focus stacking to extend depth of field, while CGI artists begin with unlimited depth of field and artificially reduce it. At the moment photography is still the most affordable means to quickly create realism in most applications with notable exceptions in large scale cinema productions and car advertising. But the two worlds are about to merge and a large part of the photography industry will be replaced by software.

iPhone Splash
No water or iPhone needed. Even complex fluid dynamics are becoming relatively easy for someone like me to simulate.

iPhone Splash
The model as it appears on my screen in Blender.

iPhone Splash
Need a different angle? No problem, just re-render.

If your photography is primarily about creating visual fantasy, or showing a wished-for world—in short if it is fiction—then it is in danger of being consumed by CGI. Soon, perfectly realistic renderings, even of people, will be cheap and quick. If you are in a market like the fashion magazine industry, which is already indifferent to photography's connection to the real world, why would you deal with the protestations of supermodels when you can just begin with a CGI model instead—the hyper-realistic version of a dressmaker's mannequin who comes with an adjustable cup size and will never complain about her contract. As a photographer, if the connection to reality is irrelevant to your work—like it is in a lot of advertising, product, and even landscape photography—there is a good chance that a sixteen-year-old in Bangladesh will be able to produce marketable imagery for a fraction of the cost. And he won't need a 40-megapixel Hasselblad or studio full of lights. But if you traffic in non-fiction photography, if your work capitalizes on photography's one distinguishing feature, then a rendering will never replace your work. While nobody really cares if the shampoo bottle in a print ad exists or ever did exist, people do care about the connection between an image from a war front and the action it presents. They can't always explain why, but people understand the difference between a photograph and a rendering of the same subject even if the two are almost indistinguishable. It's the same difference we feel (to borrow Kendall Walton's example) when we look at Goya's Tanto y mas and Timothy H. O'Sullivan's photographs of the Civil War. It's not about the realism, but rather the fact that renderings and drawing can't bear witness in the way a photograph can. This is where photography distinguishes itself as a medium and it's time for photographers to embrace it.

29 Reader Comments

Camilla

The posing of the nuts is a bit of a giveaway; my first assumption was that the article would discuss how to glue actual nuts and bolts together.

Jim G.

Great article! I played around with blender a few years ago but never got results like this. This really is a disruptive technology. I'm a little skeptical of the claim we'll be able to duplicate human models this easily, but I wouldn't bet against it.

KeS Engineering

I studied photography at school when we were still using chemicals. Made the jump to digital a few years later when the price went down. Went out of the business 3 years ago, photographers are already an endangered species and i dont see them having a bright future to be honest.

yianniy

So, this article is about 15 years late. From here on, the question is, what is the fastest/easiest/cheapest way to create exactly the image I want. Sometimes, this will be 3-D, sometimes it will be photography, sometimes it will be a mixture of both with Photoshop thrown in for good measure. This has been true in the digital art world for at least 15 years now.

Going forward, it will not be the technology you use, but the quality of image. (And quality includes composition, meaning, not just technical merits.)

John from Buffalo

Not sure you get the idea here, but you are trading one professional for another. The graphics / media designers (more or less specialized software programmers / designers) who do this on the OTHER side of the fence charge an even MORE insane rate per hour. I don't see this as photographers getting outsourced as more the transferance of responsibility of task from one industry to another. If I need something more "custom" when it comes to rendering its still going to cost me money for going outside scope of the design specification put forth. MANY photographers have already made the jump to digital work flow, and if it takes a bit more education so be it. Look at engineers that used to use slide rules. The generational change was just learning how to use a computer and the college programs that generate engjamaneers did that transition years ago. If you are planning on being a product photographer, ok. You are strictly talking about ONE PART of photography and its around product photography. I use 4x5, 35mm still and also own a 5D Mark II and a Sony system because of its size. So I'm all over the board. I'm also a software programmer. Take a look at Trey Radcliff and the trend setting HE does, and that will have a different slant on software "people" doing photography.

Rakesh Malik

yianniy, you hit it on the nose.

Creating believable characters is to a large extent the holy grail of CG animation. It requires a *lot* of effort... especially if the character is moving. If it's human, then the difficulty goes up drastically.

To wit, Gollum. Stunning piece of work, incredibly believable character, and entirely computer-rendered... it took an exemplary mocap actor, a team of character modelers, a team of texture artists, a team of character animators, and a lot of work to match the on-scene lighting with the CG lighting.

While it's true that Gollum's not entirely human proportions and appearance added some challenges to creating him, the amount of effort involved in creating a virtual character is still enormous... and I didn't even mention the part about adding the rendered CG into the actual footage...

david

How long did it take to create the model of the Iphone? Everything has a cost and a price. It is the difference between the two that clients are concerned with. If someone in China is prepared to reduce his price because he can live on a smaller margin, he will get the work if it undercuts the western pro. That is what we should be worried about. Even if you become proficient with Blender, you might still be outpriced.

Don

Kes, Just because you couldn't make it work doesn't mean others can't. Effective image makers look past the curve in the road ahead, anticipate and embrace new methods. To me, as a photojournalist, the most important part are the last two sentences. The photographers with a future are the journalists (who happen to work with cameras).

Levi Wallach

The title should be "Commercial Photographers:..." not "Photographers:" Guess what, a huge segment of photographers out there aren't commercial. They are photojournalists, and portrait photographers. As good as CG is, it's still not at the level that you can create a model of a person and elicit exactly the emotion you are after, if that were even desirable, which I'd argue it's not. Photographers still use software to make up for limitations and bad luck when the image was initially captured, it doesn't seem like it's necessary to completely replace everything with software unless it truly makes capturing a given image (like the iPhone water shot) much, much easier...

Frankf

@Don: And the journalist is being replaced by the bloggers or by twitter, isn't he?

grant sullivan

ive been saying it for years

Australian Alba

Photographers will still make portraits of people and babies.

Daniel

This article's title is pretty misleading. I can see how commercial and some fine art photographers may be replaced by CGI some day, but to use a blanket statement of photographers is not the case. A photographer will always have a place in this society. They are far from being endangered.

dwelch

The artist is still required be it film cameras, digital cameras with the art being created in camera. Or after in the dark room or photo editing software. Now some or all of the art doesnt require the base picture to be take the base picture can be created as desired the first time no need to use the darkroom or photo editing software tricks.

20 years ago when this starting becoming mainstream, there was a clear line between programmers and engineers creating the software and the artists that use it. The best work came from artists with the least computer skills, the more you knew about computers the less desirable you were. The more you know about what is underneath the mouse and screen the more your imagination is limited.

Still need the artists to make the art, doesnt matter if it comes from paint on a canvas or pixels on a screen.

Yair Haim

This is getting crazy with all the new softwares out there and all the creative designers who know how to create things like this!

Eric Hatch

You've touched on a a subject that drives me nuts, to wit, the relationship between artist's vision and output, or, the difference between a camera and a computer.

I think you're right, that the fundamental difference between created art and captured imagery is the sensibility of the photographer. Computer-generated images follow mathematical formulae, while the vision of the artist may or may not comply with the "rules."

I like to think that I capture a real but filtered version of the world. I then enhance that image in the computer. But somewhere along the line you can't cheat; if you do, you wind up with HDR and it's nasty cousins.

David R. Dolezsar

I agree with that thought. In a few years or sooner a camera will not be required to capture an image. I wonder just how many pro's are making any real money without selling how to DVD'S, classes , seminars. Just a thought !!!!!!

Chris Darrow

Ad Reinhardt had a saying, "Art is Art and everything else is everything else!" That's the same with photography. In my mind it's not about the final image, it's about being there. There is air around the subject and it exists in space. I loved Photoshop when I first used it and was up for 36 hours. Got rid of my darkroom, but I miss the smell of developer and the total involvement in the creation of a print. We are evolving in the realm of photography, but when software takes over for location, it's not photography any more, it's image making. I am a recording artist and have a similar feeling about "virtual" instruments and music. It's what you have to know and intuit that separates the the image from the rendering. Different tasks for different jobs or intentions. Who cares about the real world, anyway. Just do it, and have a good time doing it.

pat

the screws and also the iphone don´t seem to be very photorealistic. the screws habve to less polygon-count in small details.

Matt

But it would have been a lot quicker just to arrange some real-life bolts and photo them than spend hours with CGI. Lots of film companies don't bother with CGI because making real-life props is quicker and cheaper.

Martin

man, if you use only a few elements it might get true, but rendering is far away from realisim if you think of a stonefloor, because you would need to rebuild every stone, no stone is like the other.

it comes close but not realistic.

Asian Wedding Photography

I think what you have created looks very real and all with free software, amazing. Whilst these fantasy photos can be created with software you still need a real person to capture real life moments like at events.

Antonio

The biggest threat to photographers are sites like Flickr, where I quality Photos can be bought almost for nothing. Photographers have to find a new Business model, namely to consider moving to professional movies, which cameras like the Canon 5D make Possible.

daniel

The question, if Photography is replaceable by CGI isn't easy to answer. I wrote my Diploma-Thesis about this specific topic.

The Research Question was: Is it possible to entirely replace studiophotography by 3D-visualization?

The result of my research was, that there are a some things which may make it easier to visualize something using software or taking a Photo.

Here are some pros and cons:

studio photography
+ images with many details
- reflective objects hard to light
- costs rise with size of object

3D-visualization
+ reusable
+ objects do not have to exist
- rendertime


Here are some practical recommendations:

- If 3D-data already exists you should give 3D-visualization a try.
- If you try to visualize handcrafted objects with many details photography is the better choice.
- Complex exploited-view (image of example a machine where the parts seem to floate in air) are easier in CG.
- Portraits of existing People in 3D does make sense only under artistic aspects
- To make a choice if 3D or photography is better the final usage of the image is important.
- A precise idea of the final image is really important to save time in the production of CGI.

Fact is, that CGI will NEVER replace Photography entirely. There will always be need for Photos to be used with CGI for textures, references, lighting (HDRI) etc.

The entire Thesis (in German) can be found here: http://studioastic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/uebleis_diplomarbeit_cg-studiofotografie.pdf

Mark

Thanks for the insight Daniel. That sounds like a really interesting research topic.

Winston

For me the difference is capturing a
moment vs. creating one. I always hope to capture a moment and, if needed, make it even better with existing technology.
But, I'm not a commercial photographer.

everard williams

If we as photographers can loose the title of " photographer" and learn to work under the umbrella of " content creator" we will never go out of business. we must learn how to "pivot"

Joseph Francis

Just Blender? Or Blender / Real Flow / Maxwell Render?

Just Blender? Maybe I should take a closer look at Blender.

Ken

Photography didn't replace oil painting.

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