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.

  • philhoyt

    80% of people who comment didn’t read the entire post.

  • Yomomma

    You still have to model, texture, light your CG subject – which would take several hours or even days depending on what you’re modeling. Whereas if you have a studio with lights and a camera, you simply set up and shoot.

  • Jceinwechter

     As a note from a photographer and CG artist, frequently CGI isn’t much cheaper, and many times is far more expensive than a photographer. It is a creative decision as to what medium or combination of mediums is the best for your creative vision.

  • Miles Hall

    Oil painting is still the best. So just calm down!

  • Osmosisstudios

    I won’t, thanks.  I’ve done 3D modelling.  It’s a ton of fun, but it’s HARD to get done right.  Textures are a whole other animal, and rendering/lighting is another one as well.  There is no way (as others have pointed out in other comments below) that this is something that, as the author claims, a NOVICE made.  This is not novice material; this is the work of someone who likely does this very seriously (if not for a living).

    The claim from the author that the product/still life photography world is going to be replaced by a bunch of kids with free software all of a sudden is patently false and downright stupid.  Product renderings have been in use alongside photography for years, but it’s not suddenly going to supplant it entirely.

    Again, as others have commented below, CGI has been used in place of or along side photography for a decade.  This isn’t new.  This sudden THE SKY IS FALLING is just sensationalism; the title of the article compounds this, implying that it’s entirely software.  Making 3D models, and making them look good, isn’t something that software does all by itself: it takes skill, time, and education.  Just like photography.

    This article is misleading at best, just plain dumb at worst.

  • Cory Dobak

    This is going to make photographers obsolete the same way that movies like Up!, WALL-E, Toy Story, etc etc, are making actors obsolete.

  • Cory Dobak

    By HDR, do you mean actual HDR, or that colored pastel shit people put out with all sliders put at 10, and call it HDR.

    Also, photoshop isn’t “photography”, it’s image editing software.  Coming up with a photograph is EXTREMELY hard to create in photoshop from scratch.  Hard, but no difficult.

  • Chill

    Chillax broseph.  You sound like a photographer who takes being a photographer too seriously.  You’re still cool even if the world won’t need photographers anymore soon.

  • Sol_Invictus

    He included the word “it” in the link.  “It” is the start of the next sentence.  Take it off the link and viola!  

  • Cochese

    There are a few problems with that rendering and they mostly stem from the nut in the upper-right hand corner of the pile. It’s partially bisecting the nut below it and proper physics wouldn’t allow it to stand like that due to the fact that it is barely supported on the side. That was just the first glaring flaw I saw before I even read the headline. That said, paying a person who does 3-D modelling well enough to know how to avoid simple mistakes like that are going to cost a lot more money than just picking up a stock photo of nuts and bolts.

  • Mark R

     Actually, for the customer it IS about the photograph.  If they like it, it doesn’t matter who took it.

  • Mark R

     Or Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen…

  • Mark Meyer

    Maybe we have different ideas of what it means to be a novice. It took some time—a few days in the off hours for modeling the phone—the rest really is quick. The phone would be quick for someone who knew what they were doing. It’s only a couple simple shapes. I have a background in illustrator and writing python scripts that generate geometry (and blender has a python API), so picking up a few tips from tutorials and diving in is not hard. 

    CGTalk is a good resource to see what people who really know what they’re doing are capable of. For instance:

  • the truth

    I think the author’s point is that with THIS software, even novices can produce work like the example of his above.

  • Fz82008

     And Chill, you sound like you’re half assed. This software won’t replace anything anytime– not the photographer, the camera or Adobe. If you ask me, the renderings are as half assed as your comment. No ad agency will buy this shit. The jokes on you brother…hahaha I’m surprised someone published this tripe.

  • Fz82008

     He’s not a novice but he’s not that great of a photographer either. The DoF in the first image has glaring flaws. If it were me– an amateur photographer, I’d trash it.

  • Lantos István Photography

    The real issue why CGI never replace photographers: maybe CGI can replace photographers in the fashion industry, but it’s never replace in the family portraits, portfolios for real models and movie actors, weddings and photojournalists. Photojournalists are replaced by social networks, but this is a different story. :)

    If you are a 19 year old girl, you not want a CG model from yourself, you want real pictures in real environment with real friends.

    Well done work, but a real like CGI can’t replace the people’s envy.

  • dreamfeed

    CGI won’t replace models until you can feel up CGI in the dressing room before the shoot.

  • Mansgame

     Yup, and somehow photography hasn’t gone away in the last 7 years and in fact there are many more people with access to high end cameras and are doing very well. 

  • Mansgame

    Wasn’t photography supposed to be the end for all artists?  Wasn’t video supposed to be the end of photography?    Weren’t virtual worlds going to be the end of human interactions and the end of mankind?   It’s a cute article and all but Cmon. It’s kind of a pointless story.

    As for “just picking this up in a few hours”…ok.  Sure.  Every now and then on flickr I see a guy who’s been doing photography for years and has the best gear and talent take a great picture, erase the EXIF info and post it as “my little brother took this picture with just his iphone!  Who needs high end gear anymore?” just to troll the group.   This sounds similar.

  • Chaos

    All of you missed some vital points in this never ending arguments.
    I strongly feel this is what is going to happen and what should be done , a rough analysis of a broader picture :

    — A photographer is most often than not, a traveller first and then a photographer. So if you are travelling to a variety of places, and accumulate about 10,000 nos. of pictures in a span of 1 month, that means you can have atleast 500 unique pictures (your best ones). Given that same amount of time one can’t create same nos of pictures using CGI pr whatsoever, even if he has a team of 20 software professionals.

    — Second thing, thw writer is right. People should take more of candid / Live and action photography, and that involves the joy of “human expressions” and its vividness, not just to capture blank nature and its elements (this is where CGI beats the realism hands down).

    — A photographer will not vanish, he will just have added responsibilities. Leisure photography will be there, but he might just make a cgood areer out of it only if he tells a story involving humans, current issues, and have a backup team to modify according to ad agencies’ interests while he is at his work (photographing).

    — So CGI can NEVER replace a photographer, only assist him. Its like 3ds max can never replace a good design done by an architect, but assists him to make it “presentable”. (I am an architect and i know since how long rendering softwares like 3ds max has been around and they have NEVER BEEN ABLE to replace a good design drafted by hand or autocad.) The same dilema is now before a photographer.

    Finally, a personal opinion
    “A good software can beat a good camera, but not a good eye”
    Like Darwin’s theory, its a phase in natural selection of photographers in the evolution of photography of sort – to filter out(kill) novice self-proclaimed-photographers who fiddle with a high end SLRs to produce so called effects , but don’t have a good eye.

  • Wagner Brenner

    Novice is not the point. If this is not a novice job, it will be soon. It’s a matter of time. The article is deeper than this. And he is right.

  • guest

     ‘actual’ hdr or not, they’re both terribly ugly

  • bob cooley

    Next Article – Photographers: You’re Being Replaced by Painters Who Follow a Style Prominent in the 1850s Called “Realism”!

  • Will Capellaro

     Blender interface is f’n impossible. Makes me want to force quite immediately.

  • Will Capellaro

    p1: It’s tabletop or product photography, not still life photography, and never a hyphen.

  • Blender Beginner

    It really is the work of a novice.

    Not only is Blender freeware, there are also hundreds of free tutorials–more created each and every day–that show you step by step how to achieve the professional looking effects in these images.

    I have only been using Blender casually for a couple of months and I know for a fact that I could perfectly recreate the cell phone image in this post. It’s not that I have quickly acquired an in-depth understanding of modeling, fluid simulation, lighting, textures, color correction etc… It’s just that I know where to find the tutorials that will get me 99.99% of the way to the finished product that you see in that image.

  • Wall Art

     Nothing can replace the work done by an photographer, as the skills needed for such kind of work cant be found in a software.

  • Durand

    I wouldn’t say that those images were made by a novice but I don’t think they’re very difficult to make. The material is probably just glass at IOR=1.333 to make it look like water, and then rendered with Cycles. The water sim is part of blender and iphone models are abundant and they’re not exactly difficult to model yourself. All you need is patience but it’s still a hell of a lot easier to do something like this than to photograph it in the real world.

  • Durand

    Blender does that too with its Cycles Renderer. As does LuxRender and a number of other open source unbiased renderers. You need those details to figure out how to render the scene.

  • Brendan61

    It’s always interesting how the conversations wrap around and around the actual point. The way that images are created will constantly evolve but we will always be making images. Think cave paintings.  Technicians get caught up in the how, artists only care about the result. Content is what people care about. Stop being photographers and start being artists and none of this will matter. Nobody gives a s**t how a picture of hardware for a catalog was created. It’s just so much bird cage liner, or electronic trash if you prefer. 

  • SargentManuela

    my buddy’s sister-in-law made $18108 a month ago. she worrks on the internet and bought a $525400 condo. All she did was get blessed and put into action the instructions given on this website ===>> ⇛⇛⇛⇛►

  • F_luzzi

    Sometimes I feel that digital cameras really killed photography. Simply because now there is too much of it…everybody is a photographer, add this to the social media software… we are constantly bombarded my images…

  • Tim Sassoon

    Cars, at least in motion, are mostly CGI now. Watches, another one.

  • Lauren Spencer

    haha! but wait…  there is a button for that in photoshop. i am going to claim to be an artist on canvas much like most people are now claiming to be photographers

  • Philip Han

    The very first thing I ever rendered in Blender was a Fluid Dynamics demo in cubes, spheres, and other geometric shapes for fun. It literally took me 5 minutes. I’m sure a few hours or a spare weekend would result in what you see in this article.

  • Pixelpot

    This is just another tool to help artists create images. Clients pay for pretty pictures, but the best pens or pencils in the world are no good without the talent and vision of a good artist.

  • Scott

    The bolts look fake to me…the nuts are tapered, some are not thick enough and others have the diameter/bolt size ratios wrong. (I’ve done a lot of wrench twisting, so it stands out to me.)

    Mark Meyer, you’re just another fear mongering jackass. As other commenters have pointed out, CGI has been around for ages, and yet the demand for good photographers has just increased. Digital couldn’t even kill off vinyl fcol.

    Third world sweatshoppers get a portion of the miscellaneous business, but you forgot one critical component in the pro photography biz: companies like to deal with pros they can trust and count on to deliver the best on important contracts.
    Professional relationships will always matter.

  • F_luzzi

    un-human, all too un-human..

  • lookout!

    I will convey how people should feel about this in two words:

    “So what?”

  • Matt

    This is not an attack, but I personally feel you’ve kind of missed the point of the article. 

    Reading between the lines, the author isn’t so much slamming photography so much as slamming “soulless” photography.  The feeling I got was that this is an article written by a passionate photographer, not a 3D artist, who is imploring his fellow photographers to remember what makes the medium great, and to not get lost in all the extra frills that may come with it.

  • M Cojan

    I agree it is spectacular… could be more related to painting though (sort of – thinking of hyper-realism for instance). I believe photography has more to do with capturing THE MOMENT in time… hardly difficult with any software (takes hours to create/render an image).

  • Photography Girl

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  • Robert Berdan

    Hi Mark – interesting article, but as I also use several 3D software programs, most of them make Photoshop look like a toy and they are certainly not easy to learn. I agree, software will augument photography more and more in the future, but it is still faster and easier to photograph a tree then model it from scratch. As a pro, I am not worried or scared of software, but I am looking at how computers can augument photography for sure. It’s tough to beat what nature offers and nature is a whole lot more complex – try modelling a flower, insect or evern a person from scratch, its far faster to take the photo then build it from scratch no matter what software you are using.  Either way software like a camera is just a tool, it still requires ideas and imagination to create good images regardless of how it is achieved. A lot of photographers were afraid of digital photography 10-15 years ago, now most of them have embraced it and images are more interesting today then ever before – and they have to be as clients and photographers set new standards.

    3D modelling software plays important role in movies but you still need a good story and good acting. In photography, it is the same, concepts and executuion,  however this is achieved,  will be what is important. You did a beautiful job of the iphone shot in water I like the effect – and I believe your article is simply trying to provoke photographers and judging from the response it was successful.  
    R. Berdan  

  • Craigadore

    Good post, Robert! Zooming-in on the future and what is found is still speculation until the future arrives. Did Jules Verne know that his ideas would actually become reality? In the Star Trek series, did we think we’d really see communicators as the everyday device it is today? Are Tricorders and Transporters just around the corner?  Futurist have all kinds of speculation about the future of humanity, but, as fast as change is taking place, I seriously doubt that any of us, today, can possibly understand how the world will be in 100 years. We are already moving in the direction of a virtual world . . . I, myself, prefer to spend much of my day here in the virtual world of the computer, rather than actually participating in reality. I’m good with that . . . I’m leaving more of the world less disturbed because of it. The reality of an apple, though, is essential . . . at least for now!

  • BigGym

    Really? Who cares. 

  • Art Hodges


  • NL

    If you’re a brand manager who’s got a new product ready to release to the world, surely you need a high quality image of your new prototype to work from?

  • Munroephoto

    You’ve completely missed the point.  It is not about software it’s about creativity and how it is accomplished.  Whether digital, software, film, or paint.  It’s all about creativity.  I like great design and original ideas however their accomplished.  When you lose connection to creativity you’ve lost your way.  You’ve become a freak.

  • Dick Head

    Wow, 1996 called and want their sensationalist “OMG COMPUTERS ARE GONNA DESTROY EVERYTHING!!” type article back.