CGI photography

Imagine being able to take a CAD model, drop it into a photo of a landscape or virtual studio, and have it rendered to look exactly real. We see this sort of thing often enough, in movies and computer games, so this isn't surprising, but in those contexts we expect such trickery.

According to my dear old friend Graham Ford, who has spent a lifetime shooting still-life on 10x8, that is how some car advertising photography is now being done. He says it is expected to become the standard method. The car never exists, it is rendered from the manufacturer's CAD model, the vectored design drawings used for making the thing.

It's not hard to see the appeal for Art Directors. 30years ago I assisted (well, made coffee and humped equipment) on a campaign shoot for Citroen. Back then Graham was senior assistant to the photographer David Thorpe. I recall David and Graham spent 3 days lighting one car before David concluded the reflections in the hubcaps were never going to come right, so broke the lighting setup and started again. Such obsessive attention to detail was required, and only rare and exceptional photographers like Graham and David were able to provide it. They, a large studio, lighting equipment, assistants, and above all else time, explained the cost of the shoot.

With CGI none of that is going to be necessary at all.

At present a photographer is still used to photograph the location in which the imaginary car is to appear. They also take a photo from the 'car' position, looking toward the camera, using a special camera with a 180deg fisheye and HDR sensor. This is used to generate the lighting map from which the illumination levels, surface reflections and shadows are rendered. The CAD model already contains all the information necessary about surface properties.

However there are already virtual landscape generation software tools, so using a photographer at all seems a bit retrograde.

Graham says he has closely inspected the resulting images and cannot tell the difference between the rendered ones and a real photo except where retouchers have decided they can improve on what nature would have done, and been a bit clumsy because they don't have a photographer's experience of how things really look.

Of course you can locate the 'car' in places you'd never be able to place a real car. You can change the wheels or interior trim or colour without having to leave your desk let alone reshoot. And you can have the ad campaign ready to roll long before the first car has come off the production line.

So there you have it : imaginary photographs of products that need not ever exist, in places they have never been. You can see some examples at

Is it photography? Well, it is drawing-with-light alright, or drawing-with-electrons, but it's fiction, or even a pack of lies. I can't help but wonder if it will leak poison, corroding the value of photographs of the real world.

Guys like Graham and David worked very much in the tradition of the photographer as insightful observer of reality. I remember looking at Ansel Adams and Edward Weston prints with them and their excitement and the inspiration they drew from the quality of seeing.

But the distinction between fibs and truth seldom matters to anyone who doesn't care, and by and large the public will not. In a few years, most people will have little awareness that Adams' 'Moonrise over Hernandez' was not comped up on a Mac, or that Weston spent days searching for the perfect pepper. In 2007 he could simply have knocked up a CAD capsicum in Autodesk.

CGI photography has nothing to say about the world or the beauty of nature, nor even the human spirit that observes it and says 'look at this!'. Instead it's fakery, illusory eye-candy, that can tell us only about the hall of mirrors that is human imagination.

I'm not sure the world needs more unreality, but it's going to get it anyway, driven by cost and ability to transfer control up the food chain, and flog stuff in new 'creative' ways.

For some years there have been CAD libraries which mostly exist to supply CAD images of engineering and architectural components for designers and architects to use, but here is a whole stock industry waiting to happen for CAD imagery of prosaic domestic objects which can be incorporated into CGI advertising stills. Why go to a photo stock library and buy not quite the image you want when you can buy the CAD file and create exactly what you want, placed and lit where and how you wish?

And of course, it is possible to derive CAD vector drawings from images using software like Adobe Illustrator, so anything or anyone can be transformed. What on earth will anyone need models for, when a CAD model can be tweaked to physical perfection without any danger of bulimia, works any time of the day or night for free and doesn't keep scampering off to the toilet for a line of coke.

So that's that. Henceforth the camera is just a clipart acquisition device for the electronic gestalt, spitting out aspirational vectored and raytraced hallucinations. As far as I can see it is hugely impressive and amazing, it is the future, and it is just not what photography is about.


Other examples of CGI and photography


Here are some other examples of CGI working very well with photography, this one is of a collaboration with award winning photographer John Offenbach:

There are other examples under the CGI tab and case studies.



i am interested in this new tech called cgi. could u name some titles of software that a photographer like me could use. could u give me links to sites that can educate me further on cgi and its prospects for photographer. thanks Gabriel

Another example

Thanks to Ben Roberts for pointing me at Taylor James. Their CGI showreel is well worth a look. And my apologies for forgetting to enable comments on this blog piece...

Regards, Tony Sleep

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