Are We in the Post-Photography Era?

When I look at product photography and video in the fashion and beauty product industry, many of the shots are now computer-generated. It might be at a steep cost initially to get the team to create the products in 3D space, but once that’s done, the product can be used in any scene you need for the client. Are we beyond photography?

With photography, each scene or idea will need to be planned and shot individually. It’s a long-term cost-saving approach. There’s also no retouching needed, where dust or fingerprints need to be removed.

With regards to setting up the scene, it’s possible to get exactly the same type of lights we’d use in the studio, and you can choose the focal lengths of the lenses, their aperture, and the shutter speed you’d like to shoot at. You can simulate water, textures, and shapes, and it’s now at a point that makes it very hard to distinguish between real and virtual spaces.

Once you’ve done the modeling and have your scene set up, adding motion is another part of the process, where a 3D graphics artist can provide a client with video, stills, and effects that we as photographers might not even be able to do in a real studio. They can set up multiple cameras and have the cameras move as they wish to get the shots needed to put a video together.

Photogrammetry is also now becoming more accessible, with us being able to use our phone’s cameras, walk around an object, and by using its LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, measures the size and shape and recreates it virtually, so modeling of the object is also almost not needed to be done anymore. It can be transferred to the 3D design application within a second.

Where I See It Affecting Us as Photographers

Furniture Design Photography

IKEA already does all its catalogs in 3D. They might look like photos, but they’re not. These pieces of furniture have been designed using 3D applications, so rendering them for publishing is a mere step in the process.

Food Photography

This is a tricky one to master, but if you can buy a stock 3D burger online, modify it to suit your client’s restaurant, and share the stills and video, it might be difficult to justify shooting the burger and hiring a team to help giving it a movement for a video. I’m not saying it’s going to be the only option, but 3D graphics can simulate food, so you might have some competition from non-photographers too.

Architectural Photography

Just like with furniture design, the buildings have been designed using AutoCAD, so flying over them and letting the clients move through them virtually is also just another step in the process.

Shoes, Fashion, and Beauty Product Photography

There is a photogrammetry-based mobile app that focuses only on shoes, so sellers can give their clients a 3D view of the shoes they’re interested in.

If the product is simple to model, it might be cheaper for the client to use a 3D team to generate the graphics and video-based media for their campaigns.

Where Will Photography Still Be Needed and Relevant?

It’s hard to say for now. Just like the artists using paint and pencil were threatened by the advent of photography, it’s now CGI that will come at photography and take on the industry we’ve crafted for the last century.

But it's not a zero-sum game. There are places photography will be the preferred medium. One of the spaces I believe photography will remain needed is when people are involved. I don’t know anyone who cannot distinguish between a computer-generated human simulation and a real person. And with that said, people respond better to people. We identify with each other, and it might be fun seeing a good 3D interpretation of a person, but it’s not the same thing, and I don’t think it will be soon. So, events like weddings, corporate gigs, sports, and shoots, where the person being photographed is of significance will allow photography to keep its relevance.

One of our writers has actually started a modeling agency consisting of computer-generated models. 

It will still be important for us to express ourselves in Abstract ways. When photography changed art, artists looked at expressing their ideas by moving away from realism. Cubism and abstractions are examples of this. It will be the same for photography compared to 3D graphics, although these applications can make abstractions quite easily. But, the idea of having an idea in your head and executing that idea with photography will certainly be of value to the art-loving communities across the world. 

And then, photography democratized art, and it did that with portraiture and documentation of the world. Being part of history and having your portrait taken was now possible, and this gave birth to the documentation of life in the streets. The cultural aspect of the people who give energy to the cities and world cannot be replaced virtually. 

Comparing the Jobs

Photography is almost a 50/50 split between desk work and shooting, so it’s well balanced in that sense. I’m not going to become a Cinema 4D specialist. I’ve played around with it, but in the end, you’re bound to your desk, and although you might see the shape visually, the enjoyment of color and beauty in the real world and photographing it is much more rewarding to me.

It might seem simple now, but learning what aperture does, what ISO means, what shutter speed does with regards to exposure are all quite technical. Then, you have composition, expression, being in the right place at the right time, and letting the viewer be calm and view the world through someone else’s eyes for a moment. And we can all agree that there is always something new to learn and try.

When compared to learning a 3D graphics application, you’ll need to model, build the scene, light, and color objects in your project, and each one of these parts is almost a specialty in itself and will take time to master.

Comparing the cost of each profession is also something worth looking at. We all buy our cameras, and it’s a once-off purchase for an average of five years. We invest in the lenses, and then, we subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud or Capture One monthly rental. With 3D, the application rental is almost $100 per month, and then you also need to rent the rendering engines and plugins, so we’re looking at about $150 per month. It’s not far apart, but the graphics artists don’t have to buy the cameras or lenses, and they don’t need a studio.

Conclusion

The idea of the article was not to be upsetting or tell everyone that their passion for photography is a waste of time. We all know the joys of going out shooting, bringing back some winning shots, and getting to enhance them in Lightroom, Photoshop, or Capture One. It’s one of the best jobs in the world. The aim was to inform you about what could change the landscape of our professions and how to be prepared for it.

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25 Comments

Matt Edwards's picture

I think the article title is misleading here, while the content has merit. Of course we are not in a "post-photography" era. However, professional photographers may find themselves in a more difficult and competitive market due to many of the reasons stated in the article.

I will also comment on one of the points above, about Architectural photography. Yes renderings are used frequently for vision and marketing purposes, but photography of finished work has never been supplanted by renderings.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I suspect that we may be approaching a "still" post-photography era. Magazine sales have slumped and video has taken over the internet.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Glad I'm retired. Now I can just shoot for myself.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Glad I'm retired. Now I just shoot for myself.

Charles Haacker's picture

This is upsetting, even frightening. I am long out of the racket but that doesn't mean I don't still care deeply. I was a beginner once. I made a living full-time once. The rapid onset of digital has pretty much totaled analog as a professional medium.

The only comfort I can offer is that once photography was touted and feared as the "death knell of artists," but there still seem (I think) to be careers for non-photographic artists. The times they are a'changin', but the younger photographers will find a way. We yumans adapt--somehow.

John Perhach's picture

Of course it is and it is because Instagram said they are no longer a photo sharing app.. Hahahah

Alex Yakimov's picture

Nice article, Wouter! Are we in the post-panting era? I suspect not, same about photography. Unless photography ceases to be a means of communication between human beings , it will have its merit.

Darryl De Wind's picture

I almost never photograph the finished product anymore. Once the design is complete you already have the 3D file to render, an hour later I have an image and never got up out of my chair. Transparency and cutaways are simple to do also, these are very difficult to do with real parts. This ship sailed years ago. As he said other areas of photography are alive and well.

Timothy Roper's picture

So, back to an era when illustration is used instead of photography? Since electric cars were invented in the 1800's, and are now making a come-back, sure, why not illustration (with the help of computers)? Old school is new school!

Brian Cover's picture

Photography, as we know it, is going the way of the local print shop. Few have survived. People order business cards online, banners online, etc. The local printer is gone in most areas. Everyone has a camera that makes phone calls. Over 90% of YouTubers are not professional videographers in it's truest sense or definition. Digital hardware sales are down in the industry. There is a lack of new customers because of the smart phone. Even Leica has jumped ship and announced a new smart phone with their 1" sensor. As soon as the profits are not worth the effort, Leica (and others) will cease to make cameras as we know them. They will just say it is an evolution of the technology.

Charles Haacker's picture

For what it's worth, Brian, I make a point of using local businesses as much as possible. I had my last box of business cards printed locally, family-owned. Guess it's whistling past the graveyard but it makes me feel like I am doing something.

Brian Cover's picture

The printer who made my last 2 boxes of cards closed recently. Building was sold quickly. I have 1/3 of the box left, looks like my choices are mail order or drive 45 miles each way to another printer...

Charles Haacker's picture

Oh, I hear you, Brian. I was just tooting my horn for *trying* to buy locally. No question that it is becoming harder to impossible. It's saddening, but all any of us can do is try. I order stuff online more than I would like since too often it's the only place I can find what I want. The local business that sold it is gone.

Timothy Roper's picture

Leica hasn't "jumped ship," they're attempting yet another brand extension. Which is never a good idea, as it dilutes a brand (anyone remember Porsche sunglasses?), but admittedly irresistible at times to executives. Meanwhile, Leica camera revenue grew 6% in 2020. Maybe in the long run, cameras will cease to be profitable and worth it. But as John Maynard Keynes noted, in the long run we'll all dead.

Brian Cover's picture

They left us hanging when they abandoned the R series. There are concerns among the S owners that they may also be abandoned. The SL users are concerned about the slow release of SL lenses; many are buying the L lenses from Sigma and Panasonic which will only add to the problem.

David tz's picture

3D rendering requires just the same creative and technical know how as photography. I learned far more in the last few years about photography by learning how to use all the different renderers such as V-Ray and Arnold. The settings actually use real world brand cameras to simulate the effects that make cameras unique, and the placement, strength and colour of good lighting is just as important, if not more so to make the scene look "real." Taking a photography course and learning how to use a camera and in-studio/outdoor settings is practically a mandatory requirement to learning how render quality 3D images.

Drazen Cavar's picture

For many years already photography cannot compete 3D renderings of buildings for the purposes they are made. And vice versa, not only for aesthetic reasons and promotions, photography is still unavoidable for progress tracking, so I can only assume that you speculate about something you don't have sufficient knowledge about.
Once building is finished, the owner can retain his 3D renders for promotion, of can send some clerk to take few photos with smartphone - or hire professional photographer. This is where quality, knowledge and talent comes in.

Drew Pluta's picture

I guess this article has it's place but this isn't what I think of as a "post photography" problem. This really has to do with the nature of capitalism and tech. As such I really don't care and it probably won't be much of a bother to me anytime soon.

The real "Post Photography" conversation we should be having is about how photography has ceased to be a rarefied experience in culture, and thus has been rendered commonplace, at least in it's perception. If anything is killing us or making us less relevant, it's that. If "post photography" means something like "sans photographer" then yeah, we're already there. I've witnessed first hand major shoots being given to people with a camera who have not only no idea what to do with it to achieve the results for the client, but they don't have any idea how to run a set/shoot or manage a post production workflow. Because lets be honest, that's a big part of being a Photographer (with a capital "P".)

We should have ongoing examinations of how we become the ones who make the magic, AGAIN. It's not going to be easy and everyone won't be able to do it. But seriously, everyone can't even do it now.

mauricio r.'s picture

Just install Unreal Engine, last version has meta humans, pretty amazing, just need a good GPU and with so many tutorials in the web, takes no time to get into.. good luck!

Christian Santiago's picture

With regards to architectural photography: I can see 3D being practical where the purpose of the photography is to sell an experience: restaurants, hotels, cruise ships. Etc where the building itself is not the final product the consumer is paying for. I can definitely see 3D taking that industry over and never looking back. They’re selling a polished fantasy. One of my past clients was a major cruise line that I shot the spaces on the ship for. All spaces on cruise ships are almost identical across the fleet. At times they layouts are indistinguishable from ship to ship with exception. I often wondered why they hired me to shoot certain spaces when they could have just used the same photos I took for them from their previous location. With 3D, it’ll be much easier to design a space, make adjustments accordingly and not have to worry about the nightmare logistics of organizing productions at sea.

But when it comes to architects, builders, developers etc. I believe photography will still be the preferred form of documentation because renderings are a perfect ideal whereas photos show what you can actually deliver based on your designs. It’s your finished product given limits in budgets, supplies, geography, other buildings etc. someone who is hiring an architect isn’t just interested in what you can dream up but also what you can execute. The photographs are your portfolio. Your most crucial marketing materials. Nobody is going to trust them if they’re renderings.

Construction companies will still also likely need photographs to shoot progress on a buildings completion or to document new, exclusive or proprietary techniques.

Nigel Voak's picture

A finished building never looks much like the 3D architects renderings. A project passes through many hands before completion.

During the first passage the Structural Engineer has to alter things to make the building actually stand up.
Builders want to use different products for things like the curtain walling.

Stuff might get altered or even deleted due to cost overruns.

After a whole lot of compromises we get the actual finished building. The only way to record it is to photograph it.

jim hughes's picture

"Renderings" wiped out a lot of stock photography years ago - mainly objects, like chairs, fruit, tools. Now we're at the point of being able to generate images of people that are good enough for many advertising purposes. Food, I think, is different; not just because it has to look real, but because it's expected to be WYSIWYG.

If it's a photo that basically any photographer could do, software can probably do it too.

Vito V's picture

I disagree. Clients want images not renderings. When I am hired for a client they want to advertise there product through video or photos (my degree is in digital filmmaking but I was a photographer long before college). They don't want a 3d rendering, they want there product or service shown for REAL. Same goes for my real estate clients. People don't want 3d animation of a house they are looking to buy. They want to see it for real. Are we going 3d render portfolio and wedding shots as well? So no it's not dead. Computerized models? Let me know when one is on the cover of Vogue.

Eric Robinson's picture

This has been coming for a long long time. Making photorealistic models within a scene which can then be animated is far from new. I was using Cinema 4D, though I hate to admit it, twenty five years ago to produce concept models both still and animated. The improvements to both the software and hardware since then have been nothing short short of a quantum leap. However while I think product photography may have stiff competition for specific shot types other areas of photography will remain less affected.

Showing a product in a setting no problem for the 3D/4D designer. However showing the product interacting with multiple people in a dynamic setting then that’s more problematic.

Each method live photography or 3D/4D has its advantages, in the end it’s about end use, style and the desired aesthetics.

I don’t see it as a problem the two existing side by side for many years to come. People always think new technologies will kill the old ones. Film, vinyl are both making comebacks. While digital is king there will always be a need or want for a slice of the analogue.

Doug Blake's picture

This article may apply to commercial photography but not necessarily fine art photography, although digital rendering and AI have intruded into the field. So the definition of what constitutes photography is being challenged. But there is still room for “traditional” photography, be it analog or digital, in the gallery/museum world. I have known excellent photographers who engaged in both markets simultaneously, although they changed their approach for the art world.
I remember in grad school the old school photographers didn’t consider color to be photography. Of course I asked them if they only watched silent black and white films. The art world which can have it’s own market fashions and trends is still a possibility if you are willing to contemplate the switch. There is room there for personal style and idiosyncratic approaches. There are no rules, only the art of persuasion.