You Might Want To Start Learning CGI, Wired.Com Explains Why.

You Might Want To Start Learning CGI, Wired.Com Explains Why.

It is quite fascinating to think just over 20 years ago we were introduced to the digital camera. What is in store for us 20 years from now? In this article talks about how CGI may be our future. I'm sure this is a thought that may concern a lot of us since we may be still trying to run a photography business, and who has time to master CGI? Half of the image above is a photo and the other half is CGI, can you tell which is which?

"Computer-generated images are moving out of theaters and onto store shelves and catalog pages, thanks to software that makes it nearly impossible to distinguish the real from the photorealistic.

Encroaching upon what was once the domain of sci-fi filmmakers, product designers have started employing CGI and utilizing a program called KeyShot to give their digital models lighting effects that makes them appear to be actual items photographed in a studio or out in the wild.

You’ve likely seen KeyShot’s output, although you may not have realized it. That ultra-perfect computer image, with dead-on lighting that highlights all its critical features? The sweatsuit with the fabric that clings together where the seams stretch? The uber-clean Jeep deep in the hills on a gravely trail? All done in KeyShot, a program that enhances CAD creations to the point that they become indistinguishable from the real thing.



KeyShot has a huge user base among designers at car companies who enjoy the ability to create high quality renders, quickly.

“The entire Microsoft Surface marketing campaign was done in KeyShot, and if you go out and buy any Microsoft product, the picture on the box is made with KeyShot,” says Henrik Wann Jensen, an Academy Award-winning computer graphics professor who founded KeyShot’s parent company, Luxion. ”The same goes for pretty much every smartphone, tablet, even the Nook was made in KeyShot.”

Dave Vogt, an industrial designer who uses KeyShot in his work for Skullcandy, says that the speed that the software creates its output is a huge advantage. “Being able to pull in 3-D and have a juicy render sub 5 minutes is pretty impressive,” he says. “It’s a huge visualization asset for us to be able to instantaneously reroute a colorway mid-meeting and work through ideas.”

KeyShot can render multiple materials on one object — plastic housings, bead blasted guards, and a steel blade in this case.


Other designers echo Vogt’s sentiment about the pace of work that KeyShot offers, making it stand out above other packages that try to produce similar effects. Tim Feher, who generates images for some of the top automakers, notes, “I have real, artistic-grade paints and I can see the impact of my work instantly. For me, speed is key. And KeyShot allows me to demonstrate multiple iterations quickly.”

Despite its tech pedigree, the product has humble roots — it was originally designed to help window manufacturers preview lighting solutions. Now, it’s used to render Unilever shampoo bottles, Luis Vuitton leather bags, and even parts for the Millenium Falcon. Marco Di Lucca says that while he can’t reveal the projects he’s currently working on at Industrial Light & Magic, his work with KeyShot, especially its ability to generate realistic skin, have made him a believer.



“Rendering human skin has always been a huge challenge to get right,” he explains. “Skin rendering is a very complex matter, scientifically speaking, and what it makes even harder is the fact that we look at ourselves every day and it becomes very easy to spot a fake computer-generated imagery.”

For product shots, KeyShot is a control freak’s dream. Unlike photographs, the images it produces show no greasy fingerprints and are unmarred by dust. “If someone puts their heart and soul to a product, they want the images to be perfect,” says Jensen.

Technically, KeyShot works by simulating the scattering of photons as they bounce around in a scene and interact with the different materials. According to Jensen, “The rendering engine in KeyShot is the only one that has been verified by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) as computing the scattering of light correctly (CIE 171:2006). We have been careful in ensuring that the physics is correct and this is one of the main reasons why we can simplify the interface and focus on the key parameters such as the color of the materials.”

KeyShot leverages Jensen’s scientific research, but he’s always excited to collaborate with artists to improve the product. “I was developing this paint that I thought was really good,” he says. “The physics made sense, but when I showed it to a famous car photographer he pointed out some details I missed.” Far from being deflated by the criticism, Jensen enjoys working with demanding professionals to help improve the product.

The renderings produced by KeyShot are also being used in development. The team at Luxion has spent a great deal of timing making sure their renderings are as close to photorealistic as possible. Chemical giant DuPont was so impressed with the verisimilitude of the renderings that car designers can actually spec their virtual paints in a CAD model and order real paints for a physical model, all in the same interface.

After conquering the world of product rendering, Jensen is leveraging advances in Moore’s law to tackle some of the most intractable challenges in computer graphics. First up is utilizing his technology, capable of rendering the face of a watch, to do the same for the human face — a technological challenge that Jensen attributes to the complexity of subcutaneous hair and blood.

The latest KeyShot release adds some impressive features, like stereoscopic viewing of models — a demo Jensen will be presenting at Siggraph this summer. With increasingly realistic images being produced in 3-D on MacBooks, Jensen thinks a real virtual-reality revolution — without the clunky Lawnmower Man look — could be within sight. “If we can raise the fidelity of the images, present them in 3-D and we can fool the eyes, I think it’s possible.”'

KeyShot is a “camera for data” that is used to render cameras and other consumer electronics

KeyShot can convincingly render stone, plastic, steel, and even a fabric sweatsuit.

Why not shoot photos of small objects like smartphones? Avoiding fingerprints, dust, and troublesome reflection all make it easier to choose rendering.

Many use KeyShot to render mundane products, but some apply it's powerful rendering engine to sci-fi projects.

Marble is actually a tricky material to render because of the way light penetrates the surface. KeyShot employs a technique called "subsurface scattering" to replicate the effect.

Some people even use these advanced tools to replicate old school products.

“The entire Microsoft Surface marketing campaign was done in KeyShot, and if you go out and buy any Microsoft product, the picture on the box is made with KeyShot,” says Henrik Wann Jensen.

High-end products require high end images for sales purposes.

A CAD-generated wristwatch (top) gets the KeyShot makeover (bottom).

KeyShot is rocketing CG artists out of the uncanny valley, providing a glimpse of the future. Photo: Marco Di Lucca



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Kevin Pedersen's picture

Any input on what modelling program to dive into; from what i can gather keyshot comes after the modelling fase

When you wanna get fast into CGI try Cinema4D its good to start. When you wanna render the results the renderer from Cinema4D is good but there is a better one: V-Ray for Cinema4D or there is also Renderman (from Pixar). I use Cinema4D and Maya and i think Maya is one of the most powerful 3D Application out there but every 3D program has it own advantage. Maya is more for cinema and movie CGI, 3D Max goes more in the architect direction and softimage aims on the game industry and Lightwave delivers many innovations aswel.

If you've never even once cracked open a 3D modeling program, download sketch up and play around getting used to the 3D environment (then drop that program because its awful for anything more than that..its only good as training wheels). Blender is a great open source program for the serious hobbyist but has a steep learning curve..but its free.
If you want to spend just a few dollars, buy Cheetah3D. Its a good cheap program for concept and non organic work and very simple to learn. You'll pick that up pretty quickly. If you want to get serious, Modo is great! Cinema4D and the rest of the pro line up are good too. If you want to get serious about 3D its a major time investment and almost warrants leaving your core competency and jumping to 3D for it to be profitable. But as a hobby it can be fun.

i think the big diffrence between photographed and rendered product shots is the path you're approaching a final image. when photographing stilllifes, you're mainly cleaning your object and retouching structures to get a really clean image. so it's from imperfect to perfect. when rendering you're generating an ultra clean image as a start and you have to make it unperfect to look real. so the first image is often too clean to be real.

when looking at the dead flat & boring looking watch above it get's obvious that in the end it is the lighting that makes an image and the atmosphere. (btw, the satinage textures are really bad)
you have to know the light to make great images. too often you see great renderings with boring light. photographers will still be needed in the age of cg, at least for setting the light ;)

good call, my bad

no worries, man...happens :).

This is a great article, however it is totally balanced towards only one product (Keyshot) and completely forgets about many other great software capable of pretty much the same thing.

If you consider that advertising photography encompasses maybe, 1% of all paid photographic work throughout the world, I'd say don't sell your camera just yet :-)

This was a pretty painful article to read through, knowing a thing or two about CGI.

KeyShot sounds like a nice simple program if you want quick and easy results or even pretty powerful in the right hands, but it is hardly anything new and there are many other programs on the market that are capable of the same or (judging by the lack luster sample images) better results.

If anyone is interested in learning CGI to enhance or substitute their photography, look into 3ds max, maya, cinema 4d, softimage, or blender if you want something free. As tools they are all capable of creating incredibly life like images in the right hands and with the right training and unlike KeyShot are complete packages from modeling to rendering and animation. And if anyone wished to get a real time unbiased rendering solution there are many available for each of the above as plug ins or add on's.

The big problem with CGI is that it takes time, Sure it might seem easier to create that picture of that phone you need for an advertising campaign in 3d and not have to worry about retouching the photo, but in reality you need to model not just the product, but also the environment, photograph HDRI lighting solutions, unwrap you model, texture it, build physically accurate materials and then set up lights and cameras to render. Anyone of these steps could take a person years to master, to be able to create life like images.

I wouldn't be stressing too much just yet, but it can be pretty fun to play around with if you are interested, and actually a very good way to learn lighting :D

*PS, sorry for the rant :S

i totally agree with Robert McNair, im working with Cinema4D, Maya and SolidThinking and to model objects including all the Steps (poly modeling, UVW mapping, material creation etc.) it takes much more time than the most people think. I studied Digital Film & Animation and our motto at the university was "never fake it when you can make it". I think when the product is not already produced than its a good thing to create it in 3D but that means a lot of work, specially when it must be super realistic.

in one of my latest work i combinet photography a little bit with 3D and my next project will be with more 3D mixed with photography. You can see one compositing here: and here the background and the light was done in maya. The next project will have more 3D.

thanks for the insight robert

Don't forget the expense of a machine that can handle such tasks. Depending on your machine (as well as all above factors, skills, and techniques) could mean a 15 minutes render or 15 day.

Thomas, thanks for the interesting article.

I don't intend to go too far off topic, but this is somewhat related to the difference between film and digital. Theoretically, film is always tied to it's object (what photographers call subject matter) while digital is not. Yes, today much of what passes for digital "photography" is dependent on a physical object. But, obviously the situation is quickly changing and future audiences may not believe that any digital image is connected to an actual physical object. It's very possible that future audiences will consider ALL digital to be fantasy.

What does this mean for photographers? It means that people interested in reality and photographing actual physical objects need to think seriously about working with film. Meanwhile, people that want to escape reality and create fictions & fantasies should be totally at home with the coming changes in digital and will probably move beyond photography itself into some new medium (like 3D etc)

did wired get payed to promote keyshot?
what about 3dmax, mental ray, vray, finalrender, maya, etc. etc?
the whole article reads as if someone got a few buck to write about keyshot.

As Bond has said regarding computer tech in the movie, Skyfall, "Well everybody needs a hobby."

Nick Busato's picture

These are not even great examples, go search maxwell render.

Yeah maxwell is really great but it render so long :-(

"Light is quicksilver. Magic. It is here, then it is there. Then it is gone." [...] "light careens around the room, bounces off the ceiling, clips off a mirror, comes back, hits your subject, and looks ... beautiful." (Dave McNally, The Hot Shoe Diaries)

Spy Black's picture

Although this is the first time I've heard of this particular program, and I'll need to look further in it, I'm under the impression that this application appears to be aimed at speed rendering of ready-made model and CAD databases, not modeling. Most product manufacturers have ready-made CAD references of products that can be brought right in and rendered in a photographic fashion. I think that's the angle they're going for here. While you can do that with the likes of Maxwell Render, et al, I think they're coming at this from a photographic standpoint, not a modeling one.

As for the simplistic models, less is more in advertising. As a photographic retoucher I've spend countless hours silo'ing studio product shots. This bypasses even the third-world production houses! I wouldn't be too dismissive of this. Remember, it's all in the marketing. If this app evolves to the point where any schmuck can bring in a ready-made model, add a prefab background, and press a button, McDonald's won't be the only minimum-wage fast-production business.

BTW, something very similar, and already closer to home hitting the bottom line of photographers is this:

Surrey Weddings's picture

wow.. keyshot sounds great

Adam T's picture

keyshot is mostly used like a plugin, models imported, for its fast rendering output. It really has substandard SSS surfacing compared to other packages. Whenever I'm hired on to create a product in 3d it's mostly because the client doesn't want to pay for more than one photo shoot when they want the product in multiple situations.

Once the product is modeled textured and placed in the environment the client only has to pay for output and Vr camera setups for other renders. A lot of the time product rendering is complimented with an animation or commercial campaign for brand consistency.

Most clients, with brains, would not pay for a CGI human to be modeled with their product only for a print campaign. The time and production for that would be 10x that of hiring a photographer.

KeyShot is by no means any type of threat to the photo industry.

Sorry but this article falls very short of giving a good overview of 3D and photography and where each stand in the advertising marketplace. Where imagery is concerned, our design agency uses our in-house photographers for 99% of our final images (lifestyle and product). And that's with our 3D designer producing images that are far more correct than the image showcased in this KeyShot advertisement. Having used 3D programs extensively for concept-oriented work, this KeyShot program is a simple plug-in that is very clunky to work with (I downloaded the trial) and I have already passed it over as a viable solution for our agency. This article also completely overlooks the origination of the model itself. This is just a "paint (with limited presets) and render" plug-in. Great for concept and hobby work, awful (in my opinion) for producing the quality of work our agency would send to a client.

I'm afraid the author either got caught up in "imagine if" when he stumbled across the example gallery of the website or he is just using this as a point of controversy to stir conversation. Whatever his experience and knowledge of the 3D world, it comes across as being somewhat uneducated in 3D modeling.

3D has its place. I use it for maybe 30% of all design projects I work on because it helps the client visualize the end result and can also sell them on the idea of justifying paying for studio shots. 3D has and will replace some studio photography especially where speed to market is concerned, but for our agency, if we have the product in hand it is far faster to light, shoot and retouch than it would ever be to generate a single photorealistic 3D rendering...especially with with program!

Jason Terrell's picture

The whole idea of using 3D rendered objects vs photography is an interesting philosophical discussion to have, but as others have indicated, the current expense and steep learning curve make the practical applications of this type of software for everyday product photography pretty limited. Having dabbled in it a bit myself, I think that the best use of 3D now is to illustrate objects that don't yet exist and therefore can't be photographed.

Keyshot provides a quick solution to get mediocre results. It provides a great service to those who are not equipped to use actual production software (Maya, 3DS, Modo, C4D, etc.... with Vray or similar).

It's almost like the creation of safety scissors for children. Great idea because kids can now use scissors with less worry of hurting themselves, but give an adult the small, hard to use safety scissors and they'd get frustrated.