How Much of a Threat is CGI to Photographers?

How Much of a Threat is CGI to Photographers?

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?

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33 Comments

Rob Davis's picture

Photography has a unique demand of realism associated with it unlike other mediums. In particular, consumers of landscape photography want minimal editing because it is considered documentary. Contests and magazines already employ authentication procedures in light of some high-profile editing controversies. We as a community can also help educate the public about the value of authentic content.

Jason Bonello's picture

CGI has been a threat to photography since the early 2000s. I am from Detroit originally and assisted in car studios. We did work for The Big Three. CGI started taking ad work away from photographers then and has increased and spread into other types of photo work. For product it will probably all be CGI in less than 10 years. They already have the 3D data from design.

http://www.themill.com/portfolio/3002/the-blackbird%C2%AE This shows what is being done with motion in the automotive world.
Last I heard, around 70% of car advertising (print) was heavily CGI whether the car, or the backgrounds or a combo.

Jason Bonello's picture

Yeah I'm familiar with blackbird. I have friends back home that have worked with those guys. The thing is many art directors would rather go traditional but the auto clients are against it for a good majority of the time.

I came from Detroit as well, assisted during the time when there were 20 car studios around town shooting 8x10 like crazy. I figure most art directors would also rather spend weeks on locations than looking at CGI screens. Back thenI had a friend who was an AD at JWT and he would always draw palm trees in the layouts to get out of town for shoot!

Jason Bonello's picture

I was on the tail end of the 8x10 days and in house labs. We probably worked for some of the same shooters.

Probably, at least we had some down time for 90 minutes for the E6 to be processed...now it's "got it!", next set up.

Xander Cesari's picture

Offline rendering of still images to photographic standards has been a reality for years now. The noise about Unreal Engine 4's quality is because it can be done live with user input, which is amazing but unnecessary for CGI to creep on photography. The limitation has always been the work that goes into building a detailed model and the lighting setup. Your examples where CGI is already encroaching on photography are areas where the models already exist. I think if CGI is going to take a bite out of photography that's the problem that actually needs to be solved. 3D scanning that's perfectly colored and meshed out of the gate or advances in AI-based automated model generation are what will actually threaten photography. The rendering hasn't been an issue for awhile now.

michaeljin's picture

In the long run, CGI will likely kill off all commercial photography that doesn't involve capturing actual events (photojournalism, documentary, etc.) or people (headshots/portraiture). Stock photography, fashion photography, product photography, landscape photography, etc. will likely all fall victim as rendering realistic imagery becomes far easier and more economical than hiring a photographer or setting up a shot. No need to wait for perfect weather, no need to figure out lighting for a particular product, no need to build a set or get permits to use a public location to shoot a model. As CGI gets easy, cheap, and fast, it's difficult to argue against it from a business standpoint.

Why is it likely? Is there any data to actually support that claim?

I think it will be POSSIBLE for cgi to "replace" photographers, but I don't think it will actually happen on a large scale.

Sure, there will be some areas that are just easier to use CGI, such as the automotive industry mentioned by other comments - standardised product, maybe 3-5 different vehicles that don't change for several years, and manufacturers want to show an interactive/360 view inside the vehicle that is difficult to produce in camera.

But can you say that you honestly think online retailers of clothes, food, consumables etc. will all rather show their consumers a cgi than a photo? Aside from the technical limitations of cgi regarding the ability to reproduce realistic textures of fabrics etc., there are other things to consider.

Will the law/advertising authorities allow for retailers to replace all imagery with cgi?

Will cgi be cheaper than hiring a photographer? What motivation does somebody with the ability to create a cgi of your product have to give it to you cheaper than a photographer? "Oh hi, I have this new technology here that is expensive and took me hours to master, I will offer my services to you cheaper than all the other folks in the market!"

Maybe cost is the reason why cgi is not widely used already. The automotive industry already have these super realistic 3D renders of their product because that is how they produce their designs. If you consider an industry or a company that doesn't have either a budget that big, or doesn't have a product that needs to be engineered in such precise detail, will they be producing such designs?

Whilst cgi is pretty realistic, and it makes you say "wow that looks so real FOR A CGI", you still know it is a cgi. Will society (and part of society includes the humans that are making the decision in a business to use cgi vs a photo) accept all photos being replaced with sort of realistic cgi?

There are so many technologies offered up to society, that are cutting edge and "set to replace the existing technology", but they just don't have the impact that they were hyped up to have.

3D television. 4K videos still are not the norm. Virtual Reality headsets are not an every day item. These things haven't replaced regular TV and Netflix, not because they are unavailable, but because consumers are happy with what is there already.

David T's picture

H&M has been using digital models for 8 years. A lot of food you see is fake.

The law will not forbid it because photographers have no union or lobby. At least none compared to big corps that want the most effective ads on the planet.

1. H&M has been using digital models for 8 years.

Unfortunately, they are digital arms and hands, not a digital garment. The garment, and in fact the face of the model, are both real photos. They CGI they are using is to make a uniform look across their product images, essentially an extreme form of airbrushing (more on that in my next point).

CGI has not removed the photographer in this scenario.

2. The law will not forbid it because photographers have no union or lobby.

I didn't mention photographers lobbying. I mentioned advertising authorities; the ASA, ESEA, FTC etc. depending on where in the world you are.

They are impartial and represent the interest of the consumer. The interest of the consumer is, and always will be, to be shown a true representation of a product so they can make an informed decision to purchase it or not.

If you follow the topic of CGI, airbrushing and realism in advertising over the last few years, you will that the consumer representatives actively enforce less airbrushing and fakery. Even certain companies e.g. ASOS, missguided, Dove etc. make a big point of using natural and non-airbrushed models.

In fact, on the topic of H&M, in 2018 they stopped using any airbrushing on their swimwear models!

3. A lot of food you see is fake.

"Fake" is not the same as CGI. Yes we all know the tricks of using mashed potatoes instead of ice cream, oil instead of syrup etc etc etc. The point is, it is still a photo, and to the average consumer it looks like the product they will be buying.

michaeljin's picture

"Why is it likely?"

Simple economics. Businesses like to make money and they don't like to spend money. CGI will eventually become cheap, quick, and realistic enough that it will no longer make sense to spend thousands of dollars to pay a model, build a set, risk cancellation due to weather, risk having the model gain a pound and the clothes no longer fitting propertly, pay a photographer, a retoucher, etc.

If you believe otherwise, you either don't understand how businesses operate or you're just extremely optimistic.

Building a shot in CGI is far more efficient than any photo shoot can possibly be because there is no such thing as an imperfection to repair or something going wrong on set.

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"Will the law/advertising authorities allow for retailers to replace all imagery with cgi?"

This is the most interesting point and I suspect that it will be solved with fine print like everything else in the advertising world. After all, we already have CGI renders regularly used for advertising products.

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"What motivation does somebody with the ability to create a cgi of your product have to give it to you cheaper than a photographer? "Oh hi, I have this new technology here that is expensive and took me hours to master, I will offer my services to you cheaper than all the other folks in the market!""

The same reason that I can pay somebody $1/image to retouch my photographs if I want to. Also the same reason photographers are practically giving away photos when before there was more or less set prices in the market for each type of photo shoot. When technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, it changes the marketplace for services involving that technology. At that point, CGI artists will not be competing with photographers. They will be competing with other CGI artists to undercut the competition and collectively, they will have already undercut photographers.

It used to be that you needed over $10,000 of software and around the same amount invested in hardware to render 3D objects with any degree of realism. Now you can do it with free software and your run-of-the-mill gaming computer, It's not efficient or timely, but it can be done. As technology gets better, not only will the technical requirements decrease, but software also tends to get better and more accessible with each iteration.

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CGI isn't perfect right now, but it's only getting better every year. This is not the type of thing that's going to happen overnight, but unless something major changes to stunt it, it's eventually going to happen.

The long term commercial future for creatives will likely not be in technical execution, but artistic vision. Some argue that even this will be encroached upon by AI, but while AI will undoubtedly be able to craft the "best" scenes in terms of popular impact, staying on top of algorithms, or mass appeal, it's far less adept (for now) at emulating the subtle nuances to any given solution that are added by our personal experiences or biases.

JetCity Ninja's picture

and yet, the proliferation of the inkjet printer hasn't managed to kill off painting.

photorealistic CGI is going to put the squeeze on photography as a product, for sure. as others have already alluded to, it'll be far cheaper and easier to create images for buyers that isn't subject to outside forces. but photography for things like events, photojournalism, or anything else that requires authenticity, will continue due to their very nature.

it may kill off cartographers, real estate and stock photographers, but even landscape photographers will continue to exist professionally because of an owner's desire for artwork with authenticity. for the lazy compositors out there, projects will get a lot easier. you'll see less photographers being commissioned for projects but you'll see a rise in photography sold as art.

i believe it's an opportunity, especially for post-paid photographers, to increase their value by marketing the authenticity and spontaneity of their photographic works, emphasizing that perfection can be subjective and is found in the imperfect. for those whose photography is limited to commissioned products, sure, it's gonna become far more competitive with certain types of photography.

I like your train of thought that photography would always be as something authentic, I don't reject the premise, but I think I am of a slightly different opinion.

In order for photographers to market their work as "authentic" as a USP, it implies that CGI becomes the norm in media, more commonplace than photography.

And it is CGI becoming the norm that I do not think will happen. I think consumers (and the laws and governing bodies mentioned in my last post) will prevent this from happening, as consumers want to see something that truly represents what they are going to buy.

Maybe if CGI is completely indistinguishable from a photo, and you literally cannot tell the difference, then it could be possible to replace a photograph with a CGI. But we are some way off of that I think.

And even then, the point of whether society accepts it is still an issue. Just because a technology exists, doesn't mean society welcomes it with open arms.

There are or were, regulations regarding food photos where the actual product had to be used. For example if you are selling ice cream, you can use motor oil as the caramel sauce and if you are selling toppings, you can use mashed potatoes for the ice cream. But you can't fake the product you are selling.
How this would work when there is no product but an illustration could be as easy as a * saying the image is an illustration.

We are pretty, pretty close to CGI and AI creating life like everything...

michaeljin's picture

Inkjet prints and painting are two completely different output mediums. CGI and digital photography are the same: pixels on a screen.

I have already accounted for things such as photojournalism in my opinion.

Rk K's picture

We've been able to create photoreal renders for quite a while now, it's just more challenging and expensive than taking a photo. Your question should be if ai is a threat to photographers (and pretty much every other job). Yes, it is, and I can't wait..

Kirk Darling's picture

When I first got into photography, commercial illustration was in its twilight. In fact, I had originally intended to go into fashion illustration, but by the time I got into high school, I had to admit that was dead.

To the extent that people had been morally satisfied with an illustration before, I suspect they will be morally satisfied with a photo-realistic illustration in the future.

Maybe at some point in the future, society could accept a CGI.

For now, we are in a period of over a decade where society has been subjected to fakery - Facebook, Instagram, click bait, viral videos, fake news etc.

I feel that society is starting to get fed up with fake, and starting to wake up to the idea that we need to live in the real world again.

I like your sentiment and I hope it plays out that way. Although in the commercial world it’s the bottom line which makes the ultimate decision and therefore cgi will most likely win in the commercial sector.

Kirk Darling's picture

I don't see any evidence that society at large is "fed up with the fake" or has any desire for the real world.

Photoshop already uses human-guided computer algorithms to alter photographs.

Computer-guided computer algorithms to alter photos and create photo-realistic images are the next logical step. Everything about digital photography will change.

And it's not just photography--in the coming decades AI-guided computer algorithms will change humanity as we know it. In the meantime, I am just going to enjoy taking photographs like I always have.

Real photography may end up being how we see film photography now i.e. personal as opposed to commercial usage.

I've been working with CG for a while now. 3DS Max and VRay have been a prime part of my photography workflow. It's rare I finish any image without it having at least some element of 3D rendering to it.

One point that I think is always overlooked when people talk about this is that all 3D artists are photographers. After the scene is built you've then got to take a photo of it. Lights need to be set and the camera controls are largely the same as a real camera. ISO, Shutterspeed and aperture all need to be understood and mastered in exactly the same way as you would with a real camera. True there is a little more latitude with a virtual camera. I doubt I'll ever be shooting at ISO 6 with a real camera but the basics are all the same. And actually the level of complexity is massively higher with a virtual camera than a real one. Any 3d artist worth their salt could pick up a camera and be great from day 1 because they aren't doing anything they haven't been doing for years anyway. Those Unreal Engine Images feature amazing 3d artists building scenes but they are also utilising an awesome photographic eye to capture those scenes at their best.

I don't see how a photographer couldn't be excited by it. It's exactly the same as real photography but you have a god like control over conditions.

Dan Banert's picture

For many, photography is easy, although, in reality, a photographer is hard work. Because sometimes it is really dangerous. I am wondering how the photo was made from this article: https://viabestbuys.com/brothers-killed-raping-crocodile/ ? After all, there is a wild animal and people .. naked people ...

JetCity Ninja's picture

really off topic, but there are 3 terms that people constantly confuse and mostly get it wrong: nerd, geek and dork. let's get it cleared up, shall we?

a nerd is someone who is passionate about something specific, usually niche, but on a level that far exceeds your typical fan. for example, a fan would buy and wear their favorite sports team's logo ballcap, or even a replica or "authentic" jersey. a superfan would buy the authentic jersey and wear it out to dinner on a day they weren't even going to see a game. a nerd, however, would not only have the authentic jersey, but they would have the matching pants, cleats, hat and glove of their favorite player and wear it while attending all 81 home games on their season ticket. used more specifically, "nerd culture" tends to revolve around gaming, comics and japanese comics, aka manga. nerds are the ones who attend comic conventions dressed in full costume of their favorite character... most of these costumes are handmade. "nerd" tends to be used for anyone who is simply passionate about something.

a geek is above the nerd in knowledge of their specialty. they're not just the person at a comic convention in costume... they're the one who handmade the costumes for others. geekdom is like a doctorate in nerdlife: they know a whole lot about very little. using the baseball fan analogy from above, the geek is the one who can rattle off every single stat for every player on the 25 man roster. and the 40 man roster. and usually the stats for those in the starting lineup on the opposing team, too.

a dork is quite simple to identify. they are someone who is familiar with all of the things dorks and geeks are into, but lacks the passion to be a nerd or the knowledge to be a geek. dorks are often mislabeled as nerds.

so, to recap, as it applies to gaming culture: gamers, or people who play video games to the detriment of most other things in life, are dorks. the gamers who are at the top of their field and manage to get paid as a professional and compete are nerds. geeks are the people who created that game.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

If it takes longer than setting up and it is prohibitively expensive to use, I see some success and some failure.

Simon Patterson's picture

CGI is costly and time consuming. It will continue to replace photography where it is less costly and time consuming than photography to achieve the desired outcome, but I can't see it getting to the point where it will be cheaper and quicker in every case.

Josh Thomas's picture

I'm not sure most of the people in here, especially the author, have more than minimal knowledge of CGI. The time it takes to create something like that alone makes it a non-threat, not to mention the cost. Until "CGI" becomes more accessible and systematic, your "jobs" are safe.

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