Photographers: You’re Being Replaced by Software

The image above is one-hundred percent fake. It has no connection whatsoever to the world of things. I created the bolts, lights, textures, and everything else in a free, open-source, relatively easy-to-use software package called Blender. It’s easy enough that even a novice user like me is able to make a pretty convincing image. If you are a photographer that makes a living shooting still-life photos, this should scare you.

There are many aspects of this workflow that are superior to anything you can do with a camera. It is resolution independent; it is simple to manipulate any aspect of it (including composition and light) after the fact; it requires no physical space to create, and needs only inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware. And the subject doesn’t need to be present at the shoot, it doesn’t even need to exist. You can create imagery for advertising, public relations, and market testing before a prototype is built. The one thing it doesn’t have that a photograph does is a connection to the real world.

For the first time in history, photography is about to lose control of its monopoly on affordable, convincing realism and it’s time for us to understand that realism has never been the most important feature of the photograph. Although we rarely think about it, we understand this intuitively: a computer rendering of your daughter’s wedding will never be the same as a photograph even if both are equally realistic. The photograph is defined by its causal, mechanical connection to the real world. Academics have studied this aspect of photography for a long time (for a very clear overview see Kendall Walton’s Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism), but almost from the beginning photographers have stayed blissfully unaware of theory and have systematically ignored and even undermined their medium’s connection to the world.

Computer generated imagery and photography are on intersecting trajectories. While photographers employ tools like Portrait Professional that sanitize their portraits, making them look more like renderings, 3D artists are adding blemishes and developing tools like subsurface scattering to make their renderings look more like snapshots. Photographers are fighting to remove noise, CGI artists are adding it; photographers are using digital techniques like focus stacking to extend depth of field, while CGI artists begin with unlimited depth of field and artificially reduce it. At the moment photography is still the most affordable means to quickly create realism in most applications with notable exceptions in large scale cinema productions and car advertising. But the two worlds are about to merge and a large part of the photography industry will be replaced by software.

No water or iPhone needed. Even complex fluid dynamics are becoming relatively easy for someone like me to simulate.

The model as it appears on my screen in Blender.

Need a different angle? No problem, just re-render.

If your photography is primarily about creating visual fantasy, or showing a wished-for world—in short if it is fiction—then it is in danger of being consumed by CGI. Soon, perfectly realistic renderings, even of people, will be cheap and quick. If you are in a market like the fashion magazine industry, which is already indifferent to photography’s connection to the real world, why would you deal with the protestations of supermodels when you can just begin with a CGI model instead—the hyper-realistic version of a dressmaker’s mannequin who comes with an adjustable cup size and will never complain about her contract.

As a photographer, if the connection to reality is irrelevant to your work—like it is in a lot of advertising, product, and even landscape photography—there is a good chance that a sixteen-year-old in Bangladesh will be able to produce marketable imagery for a fraction of the cost. And he won’t need a 40-megapixel Hasselblad or studio full of lights. But if you traffic in non-fiction photography, if your work capitalizes on photography’s one distinguishing feature, then a rendering will never replace your work. While nobody really cares if the shampoo bottle in a print ad exists or ever did exist, people do care about the connection between an image from a war front and the action it presents. They can’t always explain why, but people understand the difference between a photograph and a rendering of the same subject even if the two are almost indistinguishable. It’s the same difference we feel (to borrow Kendall Walton’s example) when we look at Goya’s Tanto y mas and Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photographs of the Civil War.

It’s not about the realism, but rather the fact that renderings and drawing can’t bear witness in the way a photograph can. This is where photography distinguishes itself as a medium and it’s time for photographers to embrace it.

About the author: Mark Meyer is a photographer who creates images that help organizations tell their stories. He has been shooting commercial and editorial assignments for 14 years. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Osmosisstudios

    You are not a “novice”. This is NOT the work of a novice.  But whatever you think dude.

  • Melo

    This isn’t a new worry, however the saving graces: creativity and the moment of capture.  I could shoot the image faster than I could create it in 3D.  For example… is this a photo or CGI?:

  • Julien Gray


  • Julien Gray

    This may be true for product related photography, but this can never replace capturing moments in life.

  • Tim

    I can see now that people will simply deny that the results are photography, preferring “CGI” or “digital imaging” terminology instead.
    Like they did with HDR
    Like they did with photoshop
    Like they did with colour
    Like they did with film

    However, I can see the point about total detachment from reality.

    I’ve been trying to get “into” Blender of late, because I have one or two ideas for merging in exactly this way myself. As such, I seriously dispute that it is in any way “easy enough”. I’ve yet to produce anything at all after half an hour’s hacking! ;)

  • Albert

    It isn’t about the photograph. It’s about the photographer.

  • Tadeo -_- **

     one thing renderings may suffer compared to photography is the potential of surprising you. a photograph captures anything the camera sees no matter you want or not. if you look at photos you have always the chance of finding new things, new unexpected details.

  • Daniel Fealko

    Very true.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the outcome of my photography but in over 30 years of working with software the outcome has never surprised me.

  • axalon

    I’m sure at some point there will be a “surprise me” option that will have an  artificial intelligence randomly shake up a group of variables to produce a surprised effect.

  • Gunmanxxx

    Yeah, it looks realistic but it doesn’t make me go “WOWWW!”… manual photography makes my jaws drop not something like this.

  • Blochi

    Well …. that article is full of false assumptions. I happen to be a CG artist and photographer – these things go hand in hand, the “watch out you will be replaced by a computer” attitude is completely inappropriate. Because:

    It’s not the computer who makes the image. It’s an artist. A human being making the decisions. In that regard I find it very repelling to not credit the artist who made the images for this article, and instead claim it was all created by a computer. It was not. Your photo was not shot by your camera. It takes a fair amount of creativity to come up with an image like the ones pictured. If you don’t believe me and think it’s all so simple, then please do download Blender and attempt making that scene from scratch.

    After all, rendering existing things is not that interesting to a CG artist at all, simply because it would be much faster and easier to shoot a photograph.

  • Mark Meyer

    There are actually are a few surprises already. The water in blender is created by mimicking fluid dynamics. You give the water attributes like viscosity and drop the iphone into it. The water then does what water does. It’s just the beginning. 

  • bob cooley


    somewhat realistic, perhaps – but compelling imagery, notsomuch.

  • Alex Cruceru

    Try to look at Maxwell Render : 
    The menu of the software is made as it would be a real camera.You can pick your type , aperture , etc.

  • Mark Meyer

    Blochi, I made the scenes in this article myself. Modeled, textured, lit and rendered from the ground up.

    One thing I’m interested in exploring is the difference between a photograph and a rendering and which aspects of a photo—such as it’s connection to the real world—aren’t easily replaced in a rendering. I think moving forward photographers will need to understand this, but it’s a difficult subject. There has been a lot written about it, but it’s buried in the almost impenetrable thicket of C.S. Peirce, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, etc.

  • Matthew Neumann

    Blochi, he didn’t credit the artist who made the scene used for the article because he clearly states he made them all himself.  Try reading all the words next time instead of just the ones that offend you.  

  • Blochi

    Well, fair enough then.

    I agree that photographers need to have an understanding of CGI in the future. But I would really rather see a different angle – one that highlights at the creative opportunities instead of the panicky fear of getting replaced. The perfect symbiosis takes the best out of both.

    For example: What makes photographs unique is the element of natural chaos. Randomness is simply very hard to achieve. So I find the best CG artists are those who are also experienced photographers. And using photographic material for textures, that is shot in an optimal way, is the ticket to better results. In fact, when you look at all the new photogrammetry techniques, there is in fact an emerging market for photographers to shoot material for the purpose of getting remixed into CG projects.

  • Shane Godfrey

    CGI (blender) isn’t going to take over anything, it’s just another tool for companies to cheap out on making quality images. Please stop writing these bold claim articles, showing boring images, and telling the world that photography is dead. As image makers, I expect more from a blog with this many readers…

  • Blochi

    I did read the article, but from the wording it could have just as well been stock models. But yes, I do react strongly to the headline. 

    The subject is touching a nerve. CG artists are very often dismissed as “buttonpusher”, and it is about as offensive as crediting a photograph to the camera that was used. 

  • Scott Gant

    Not sure where the author has been, but we’ve been doing this for years. This isn’t new, at all.

  • johneve

    Hi guys,
    Interesting discussion. I did an image using only free software (like blender) I used sketchup for modeling and kerkythea for the rendering. The point of the exercise was to see if it could be made believable. CGI has its uses for sure. It is used a lot in car advertising where the cost of building the sets would be astronomical, and most of the 3d models of the cars already exist. To do a convincing CGI you need to know lighting just as a photographer does. You need materials (textures) for your renderings. A lot of cpu power etc etc. It is not as easy as it sounds. In the end it is all a matter of cost and speed.

    If the CGI route is more (cost) efficient take that road otherwise just photograph the scene.

    Anyways here is my CGI image. A cure for the Euro crisis headache :)

  • Seriesrover2

    For the last 10 years I’ve heard CGI will replace .  When Final Fantasy came out actors were on strike at the time were soon to be replaced by virtual actors…

    The problem is, there is skill and time needed to do this sort of thing.  Its not whether you take a photograph or are able to create the 3D rendering that imitates life…its the artist behind the tool that matters.

    Yes CG will have an ever increasing roll to play but for now and the forseeable future each have their strengths and weaknesses – the world is not about to collapse in pro photography anytime soon.  If anything, any demise of pro photography will be due to an increase of digital imaging brought to the masses, rather than CG.

  • Moffy

    Im sure the time its takes to shoot a product shot far out ways the time spent on a mac to do the same thing. As a photographer I’m not too worried as yet but cool software. When can I avoid having any communication with anyone through some new software I love the where the world is heading!!! :)

  • Libby Stack

    I’ve been dong modeling product rendering using various programs since 2005. And consumers have been looking at product renderings for at least that long. No need to sound any alarm bells here.

    Now to the author – tell me all of the modeling is crafted by yourself from the ground up and maybe I’ll be impressed. Did you do all of the subdivision, insets, bevels, chamfers yourself? Pretty farfetched for someone who just started using Blender.

  • Jose

    I can see how this is a concern for commercial photography. Which is what the author probably wanted to convey.

  • Formerphotographer

    It’s only a matter of time before they fabricate reality… or maybe they already have

  • Silvergel6

    More human than human…

  • Jesse Shotland

    Ok, why don’t you simulate a portrait of me. Or better yet, a long exposure of a small stream. 

  • Billy Paragon Mangino

    I’ve seen artists recreate scenes such as these in far less advanced software such as adobe illustrator. Photo-realism has been around for a while and is growing easier to use with software advancements. With that being said congratulations on creating a fantastic 3d render. . . but in the time it took you to render that scene i could have filled up a tank with water, dropped a phone in it, snapped a high speed image with my dslr , edited and added stock splashes to make it more grand and gone out to dinner and a movie.

  • Billy Paragon Mangino

    Also until you can get an amazing photo-realistic portrait of one of my models in less than 1/120th of a second I’ll stick with my Canon. But the point here is to showcase this software which I am downloading now. It looks fantastic and I’m eager to try it as a user friendly alternative to my 3DS Max.

  • Dan Howard

    Great article.

    As well as being a photographer I also worked as a 3D artist for a kitchens Manufacturer. Instead of spending a ton of money on setting up photography shoots for the kitchen sets I was employed to render them out in 3D using VRAY.Here’s my work; is very much a cheaper alternative to a photographic shoot, but does utilise photographic techniques within the software such as DOF, shutter speed, camera angles and lighting.

  • photojournalist

    I’ve seen way better commercial photography. If this is a threat, you’re not that good of a photographer. Look at the images, really look at them. They’re fake.

  • Ignatius

    I got started in photography by using maxwell render…

  • Tianlechen

    thats what he said too. really. 

  • Ron G.

    I total agree with Sur. I could’nt say it any better.

    Ron G. / Photographer.

  • Emilymunnphotography

    Yes, we can tell they are fake, but to the general public, flipping through a magazine, they are as good as the real thing! Now if only Apple WAS running an ad for a waterproof iphone….

  • Heinrich P Etsebeth

    I have heard that comment before, Long ago, ‘you will be replaced by a computer’…And I am in the computer industry since 1972, more people is working in a IT environment currently than in 1972, with the same output as in 1972, and also an amature photographer. The point is it will STILL need humans to operate the Computer, at what a cost. As someone mentioned, it might, just might, work for LARGE productions, where the cost factor will not be an issue, or it might be equal to a photography shoot. Even the timing will be a critical factor. It will defenatly take more time to get an CGI rendered image, that is the same OR better quallity, as a finnished photograph. SO do not be afraid NO photographer WILL ever be ousted by the thing called a computer, with or without CGI software!!

  • Dsdsdsds

    where ahev you lived tha past 10 years.. in a cave?

  • Darren Ward79

    the eye sees what it want to see, don’t mean you have too believe it dude!!
    aint no threat to me. 

  • Peterill

    most photographes strugle with the simple trinity of aperture, time and ISO.
    they are unable to use flash photography because they cant “see” the flash”.

    but they should use a 3D programm that needs even more technical skills and imagination?

    how many of them will be able to use a software that is as complex as blender, maya or 3D max?

    the article is written the way to make people think 3D is easy… well it´s not.
    it is still not easy to produce a photorealistic rendering today. not even when you use pre-made 3D models. 

    i have started with povray in 1995, have won an 1. place animago award in 2004 and 2005 (category cars) . im working with 3D max + vray today.
    and i can tell you that most people will be literally throwing blender and co. away because they are frustrated.

    anyway.. it is true (but that´s true for many years) that 3D rendering replace photography in ad campains. hell that´s how i make my money since 2006.
    everyone can see it in commecials. there is nothing new.

  • Peterill

    well when your have modeled it and have done the iphone pic completely yourself then you are not a novice.

    your either lying or you are a naturtalent!!

    look at dedicated websites for 3D renderings (CGTALK) and how novice images normaly look.

    tell us how long have your worked with blender and how long took it to create the scenes? 

  • Jez

     Link doesn’t work !

  • Peterill

    yeah that´s why i call it buls h i t.

    nobody installs blender, plays around for 5 hours and creates such models, texturing and final renderings.

    im doing 3D for over 17 years now and that would be a FIRST!! 

    alone the render settings of 3D programs take an awfull lot of time to master, not to mention HDRI, unwrapping for texturing, lighting settings and the modelling.


  • Jackie Wu

    Being a 3D motion graphics artist at a studio, and being a photographer on the side makes me think it’s good (or at least decent) photographers who make good renders, not the other way around. The 3D artists here who don’t take pictures rarely understand good lighting, composition etc.

    I believe photography goes hand in hand with 3D work.

  • Peterill

    blender…. usefriendly compared to 3d max?

    you own a ~3500$ program (3D Max) but you download blender?

    yeah…. im more and more suprised.

  • Jez

     Maybe I’m just naive and lacking confidence – your comment sure makes me think otherwise !

    I too have been using 3DS Max for many years (started 1998), but took a long break after burning myself out…twice.

    This author should be aware and slightly ashamed of himself. There are people out there whose confidence can get compromised through bs claims like his.

    I’ve produced photoreal images recently and even I can’t produce that nut/bolt image without looking in some textbook to figure stuff out first…..

    As for the phone in water splash…..

  • Robin

    An excellent article and a convincing take on what actually distinguishes photography from other visual media.

  • Gavin Stokes

    “sixteen-year-old in Bangladesh”…yep cause you need no creative input or years worth of training into what makes an image look photo realistic and what doesn’t, or any type of training in 3D modeling. What a pile of shite article, what is it with petapixel, they keep allowing these Trolls to publish articles, this is the third time in a month, that’s me done,  site is a waste of time.

  • Dennis Marciniak

    Way to scare this into site traffic. Enquirer tactics? Headlines become less trustworthy with such absurd article names.

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