Photos or renders: who wins?
You’ve probably heard that many advertisements use computer-generated images. This means that rather than relying on a camera to capture an image of an existing object, a computer creates a photo-realistic image of an object that may or may not exist in real-life. Whether a still image or animation, we refer to this as rendering. So, which is a better option today, rendering or photography?
KeyShot rendering photo comparison
How is rendering done? At a high level, the process of rendering is pretty straightforward.
3D Modeling: first, a 3D model of the object you wish to render must be made. This is usually done with a 3D modeling software such as PTC Creo. Typically, consumer products are created in a CAD program while characters, environments and more organic things are made with a polygonal modeling program.
Material Creation: after creating a model, it’s ready for rendering. First, material appearances are added to the model. Material details include surface color, transparency, translucency, roughness, textures, patterns, decals and even wear and imperfections.
Set Dressing: next, if the job calls for it, the model is placed in an environment to add context. This can include set dressing such as supporting props to tell more about how the product is used. Context plays an important role in both realism and narrative, such as who the product is for.
Lighting: after that, it’s time for lighting, which is one of the most transformative steps in the rendering process. It sets the mood, can make or break the realism and of course, brings the narrative to life.
Rendering: finally, after materials, context and lighting, it’s time to let the magic happen. Once all the render parameters are set, the render engine will get to work. Rendering software creates photo-realistic images by executing millions of calculations by literally tracing simulated rays of light throughout the scene and back to the camera. As each ray of light contacts an object in the scene, how it behaves will depend on the properties of the materials applied to each object.
If rendering feels like a time-consuming and tedious process, then how could it possibly be a better option than photography?
Challenges of product photography
Let’s look at five common challenges and drawbacks that come with commercial photography.
Product availability: in order to take a photo of something, that something needs to exist and you must be able to get your hands on it. With tight production schedules, waiting until the final product has been delivered to begin photographing can hold up product launches.
Logistics: sometimes a photoshoot calls for environments, props or scenarios that are impossible to create. Let’s say you want images of a car in the Swiss Alps during summertime, but it’s currently snowing there. Or maybe the lighting is only ideal for a few minutes a day in that location. Sometimes, the logistics of a photoshoot are not possible given the deadline or budget constraints of a project.
Budget: speaking of budget, more money means more options. However, every product launch has a limited budget. The cost of a photoshoot can include equipment rental, location rental, talent, props, retouching, shipping of product, transportation and more.
Space: longer focal lengths are commonly used in product photography since they produce less distortion. Longer focal lengths require the photographer to be further away from the subject. The larger a product is, such as an appliance or furniture, the larger of a studio space is required. The same goes for light sources for larger objects.
Benefits of product rendering over photography
While both photography and rendering come with their own challenges, let’s look at the benefits of using CGI for product visualization.
Cost savings: there are lots of ways CGI can reduce the cost of bringing a product to market. Design decisions can be made faster and without producing as many physical samples. Ecommerce and advertising images can be produced before physical samples are available. Variations of a product such as size, color and configuration can also be rendered with little additional cost or effort. Finally, if a revision or additional images need to be created, the process is as simple as opening the project file, making some changes and rendering.
Revisions: if additional images need to be created for a new product launch or campaign, it’s easy to pick up where the last render artist left off by reusing old project files. Maybe the product changes over the years, but you wish to recreate the same successful launch campaign. Simply update the 3D model and re-render the final imagery. This is far more efficient and cost-effective than trying to recreate past photoshoots.
Creativity: the last and most important benefit of CGI I’d like to mention is creativity. Rendering products in a digital space gives artists the freedom to create the visuals they want without the constraints of physics or photography. Exploded views are a great example of this. It’s difficult to try to create a photo of a product suspended in air, with each part evenly spaced and disassembled. Yet, that’s easy enough to do with CGI. From odd camera placements and difficult animations to controlling how light interacts with each surface in the scene, CGI offers the ultimate flexibility.
So, which is better rendering or photography?
While each project is unique, in our experience, about 75-80% of the time, CGI is the way to go.
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