There was a time when this question would have been laughable. Now, if you laugh it off, you're either in a a specific niche that dodges renders or computer generated imagery (CGI), or you don't understand the problem.
For new readers and that one guy who has me pegged completely wrongly, I'm a nerd. My Dad was a computer programmer, so growing up I was playing computer games on an Atari as soon as I was compos mentis enough to hold the controller. So before I took my first photo, I was a gamer. Much like was the case first picking up a camera, it was a profound moment that would shape my future, and I've had a foot in each camp — both photography and computing — for a long time now. Throughout this period, I've kept them as non-overlapping magisteria, not seeing how they would ever interract. Diminishing returns was slowing down the rate at which graphics were increasing in quality and cameras were still increasing reasonably quickly, but it didn't stay that way. In fact, as far back as a decade ago, CGI began encroaching on photography, almost undetected.
Well, it's been detected now, and photography has been ceding territory for some time. I know there'll be a lot of scepticism over this, so I'll point out some concrete cases. One subsect of photography which has seen a large impact is commercial photography. Many of you will know that I work regularly with watch brands as a photographer and a consultant. One small area of this tiny niche has been completely replaced with CGI, and that's those white background shots of the products, similar to those you'd see on Amazon. That's not the sort of work I do, but I did it for a few brands as a favor if we were already working together, but now it's easier to use a high resolution version of the design render. Perhaps more concerning, a lot of the larger and more famous brands are using renders for their commercial and advertising imagery. I'm not entirely sure how ethical and intellectually honest that is, but that's a topic for another day. This practice hasn't affected me as far as I can tell, but I know of photographers in other niches whom have suffered.
Two other areas that have been impacted have been automotive and real estate. Automotive photography, particularly interior shots and images for use in the car's brochures and manual, have been computer renders for a while now. They can achieve that luxury perfection and be so photo realistic that almost no one would be able to tell. Similarly, some real estate agencies have replaced photographers in slightly less linear ways. For example, there are cameras and software that allow anyone to walk around a house and create an accurate 3D model and render. Higher end properties — particularly those freshly built — are advertised on anything from billboards to brochures using CGI mock-ups. The number of photographers directly affected by this shift is small enough that it hasn't become a mainstream problem discussed throughout the community, but the question ought not to be on whether its impacting the industry at large now, but whether it will imminently.
The above video is a breathtaking look at photo realistic rendering through the graphical engine Unreal Engine 4. As a gamer, it's exciting to see what we're on the verge of; scenes almost indistinguishable from real life. The quizzes of "real life or screenshot?" have done the rounds for a while, but that's soon to be evolving to video, too. As with technological advancements in other industries where tasks get outsourced, the benefit of automation is ease and financial viability. So could CGI replace something as difficult as human models? Gut reaction says "no way", but the evidence says otherwise. A study by Oxford University predicted models (fashion and ecommerce etc.) to have a "98% chance" of being replaced by "robots", that is, CGI.
Need I remind people of the viral "model" from a few years back claiming to be the "world's first digital supermodel"?
For ecommerce and fashion, you can design a model to fit your perfect aesthetic and dimensions, you can be effortlessly diverse and inclusive with ethnicities and genders, and you don't need to pay models' day rates, deal with them signing relevant forms, potentially not showing up, and all the other human risks. For companies where the wearer is unimportant or they cannot afford anyone significant to don their creations, this is an attractive proposition.
My next concern would be landscape photography, and frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. I fully expect a viral Instagram landscape "photographer" to emerge in the near future who is creating his or her shots via renders through game engines like Unreal Engine 4. Making money as a landscape photographer is difficult as it is, so to have the prints and tourism work potentially replaced with CGI is a disconcerting concept.
Honestly, it's hard to imagine many photographic niches that aren't under threat, particularly if some of portraiture is fair game (though a lot is admittedly resistant; it hinges on whether the subject of the photos is relevant to the shot). Providing Uncanny Valley can be avoided — and I believe it both can be and is already — then it's hard to imagine many areas that won't be touched. There are a few examples, however. Events of any kind would presumably see no benefit from CGI, and that's a broad category. Weddings, sports, and any other populated and significant occasion would avoid this problem for the most part. That said, photography of the wedding rings could slip through the net! Similarly, any photography that attempts to document a place, time, or moment would — one hopes — hold more value than an attempt to create a computer render of the same scene, such as capturing the Great Barrier Reef and its health.
What are your thoughts on this area? Is your speciality at risk at all? Which areas are impervious to advances in CGI?