What’s the most important lesson that shaped you as an artist? For me it’s this. If a photographer only looks at the work of other photographers, his artistic growth will eventually stagnate or even decline due to boredom. Instead we should direct our attention to a much broader spectrum of visual art. Drawing and painting, illustration, sculpture, animation, film, comics and even performance arts.
Some of these other fields help us by inspiring new ideas for photographic work. Others present us with new perspectives, like “how to see the world with the eyes of a landscape painter”. And finally there are some fields that can have a direct impact on our own skill set and portfolio. Today I’d like to talk about one of these fields, the world of 3D.
I’m still rather new to the 3D realm, so this article won’t be about me talking about myself. Instead I would like to show you exactly why diving into 3D could be interesting for YOU. I’ll try to be as honest about it as possible by pointing out advantages as well as disadvantages from a perspective of a photographer. My goal is to give you these insights so you can make an informed decision wether it will be worth your time (and money).
Let’s start by looking at the “plus points” first.
1. Complete creative freedom
Did you ever search for that one perfect location or prop you need for a project? Yet how hard you tried, you weren’t able to find it? Well, if you can’t find the real thing, why not create it! A lot can achieved with Photoshop and good stock images, but you’ll never have the freedom of actually creating the scene or object from scratch using 3D. And if you don’t have the time to build everything, you can buy 3D models, just as you would buy stock images if that’s your thing.
2. It’s not as hard to learn as you think
Sure there are some high-end software suites like Maya or 3D Studio Max, which are tough to learn and to master. Other 3D software packages are much better suited for beginners: Cinema 4D, Modo or even SketchUp. Very important for beginners is the availability of tutorials! As with Photoshop, there are a ton of Youtube tutorials for each of this software suites, but I would recommend purchasing a complete introduction course. These are usually 3-6 hours long and give you a guided and structured start. This will accelerate your learning process tremendously. It’s not just about learning what each button does, but also about getting used to a good, robust 3D workflow.
3. It’s fun (if somewhat addictive…)
“Yaaaay, building stuff!” – who wouldn’t enjoy that! But the fun is not just in the creation itself but also in learning 3D. Remember how we all loved to get into photography and learn all these new tricks, techniques, tools and gadgets? Well, I found myself experiencing the same rush of excitement while learning 3D all over again. And again, a good introductory course will make all the difference here.
4. Your photography know-how is a huge asset
Bringing your experiences as a photographer to the table will give you a huge starting advantage. In fact, all 3D artists are recommended to get into photography in order to gain a more intuitive understanding of composition, lighting, surface textures. You’ll come across many familiar technical terms, like the fact that virtual cameras operate much like real cameras.
5. Learning 3D software will have a positive affect on your photography too
Your hours in learning 3D will also affect your photography, especially your creative vision! I’d like to think of working with a 3D software as being in a simulator, where all of the compositional guidelines of photography apply as well. I find myself applying these guidelines in photography much more intuitively now – where as before I often had to remind myself of them.
6. Your understanding and appreciation of light will grow
You’ll learn a lot about how light interacts with different materials. How it reflects, refracts, scatters, creates shadows, occlusions, caustics, flares, etc. In short you’ll come to appreciate light in a whole new way.
7. Photography and 3D – the perfect match for creative thinkers
This is probably the most important point. The most obvious applications I already mentioned before, creating locations and props. But just as interesting is the opposite, like shooting a location and then creating objects or creatures that are part of the location. Last winter I shot a nice macro photo of some old tree bark and at home I felt like I was looking at an alien landscape. So I created two work-like robotic creatures rising from this landscape and fighting above it. There is so much to discover!
8. As a photographer AND 3D artist you’ll have a competitive advantage in commercial photography
It’s very simple, you can accomplish images, that neither a photographer nor a 3D artist can by themselves. And if the job is beyond your abilities and you’ll partner up with a dedicated 3D studio, at least you’ll have a good grasp on what they need in order to produce the best result possible that will blend perfectly with the photographic material you’ll provide.
9. Good with Photoshop? That will come in very handy when post-processing your renders.
Rendering an image isn’t the last step in a 3D workflow (at least not for still images). At lot of 3D artists use Photoshop to do a huge portion of the detailing work, like adding dirt and grunge to walls, adding fog, smoke, atmospheric particles, sun rays, birds, local contrast, etc. All of this can be done in 3D, but it does take much longer to do so.
Okay, enough praise! Now let’s look at some of the pitfalls of getting into 3D.
1. Learning 3D wont make you a better artist
I’m aware this one seems to contradict some of the statements from above. Let me again draw the analogy to photography here. Understanding the exposure triangle will make you a better technical photographer (whose pictures are more consistently lit). But it has no effect on your creative vision, your photographic style or your awareness of your surrounding. Likewise, it can be difficult not to fall into the technical pitfall of 3D software. As always, it’s not the tool that creates the image, it’s you!
2. In the beginning you’ll be slow and make a lot of mistakes
… which is perfectly okay, as long as you don’t expect too much from yourself.
3. 3D software can be expensive
Let’s quickly compare some prices. Cinema 4D Studio: 3695 $, Modo: 1799 $. And if you want to dive in a little deeper, you’ll probably buy a separate render engine like Octane, V-Ray or Arnold, each of which are between 500 to 1000$. And you probably want to buy a library of textures or materials to make your workflow faster. There is a free alternative however: Blender. Blender is very powerful and has its own render engine. But it also supports a couple of major render engines like V-Ray and Octane. It’s not quite as easy to learn as Cinema 4D, but it’s certainly a good alternative.
4. More hours in front of the screen
Let’s face it, I’m a geek and I’m perfectly happy in front of the screen. Which is exactly why it’s a good thing I have a reason to go outside and shoot stuff. Having to scout for a location not only gets me some fresh air, I often come home with a head full of fresh ideas.
5. You can get lost in details
This one’s easier said than done, but don’t waste time on an object in the scene that’s so small that most people won’t even see it. And believe me, you will find yourself going down that route without realising it. You might be modelling a doorknob and of course you are zoomed in to that object. So you do a test render and it doesn’t look good, so you start to add details, nuts and bolts, screws, some dirt maps, a rust layer underneath and scratches… And before you know it, you spent 3 hours on a door knob that will be 5 pixels high in the final scene.
6. You’ll spend a lot of time waiting for renders
Most render engines are still relying on the CPU, but that’s about to change. Octane, V-Ray, Maxwell and Redshift are the first engines that use the graphics card. This brings a staggering boost in render speed! But we are not quite at that point where rendering on the graphics card can do everything a CPU-based renderer can. So most likely you’ll have to rely on CPU renders in the beginning. And the thing is, you need to render a lot, because it’s the only way to see whether your lights and textures work as intended. Which also brings us to the next point…
7. You’ll need a fast computer
In CPU-based rendering, no computer is really “good enough”. In photography, you can get by with a 5-years old laptop if you have to. But for rendering purposes this computer would very likely drive you insane. You’ll need at least a 4-core processor, better yet a 8-core. And while rendering, all of these cores will run at max power often for hours. This means the machine will get very very hot, if it isn’t cooled properly.
8. Rentable render farms are a solution. But the rent is expensive…
A render farm is either a collection of computers you maintain yourself or more often a rent service where you buy processor hours off-site, you send your job and the finished render is returned to you. This works quite well, but it’s not surprising that it’s a service that’s only used by larger studios due to expense. However I’m hearing, that’s changing fast due to competition.
9. A 3D image is never 100% done
This one is a bit alarming, especially if you are somewhat of a perfectionist like me. But there is always something you can do to your 3D scene that will make it more realistic, more detailed, more believable. And since you basically can do everything, there is nothing to stop you from attempting something crazy, like modelling part of a city. I recently spent about 5 months doing just that. I did enjoy the process a lot and I like the resulting image, but 5 months for a single image does seem a little bit over the top.
The reason why it’s so easy to get drawn into a lengthy project can be best explained by comparing it with photography again. As photographers, we basically try to find some sort of order and balance in a chaotic reality. Retouching often means, removing elements or colors that are distracting. But in 3D it’s exactly the opposite. You start with something that is too perfect, to smooth, too regular and then we add more and more details, uneven surfaces, dirt, scratches, dust, etc. Some 3D artists even add chromatic aberration to their final renders to make it look more like a photograph!!! Realism is key, and in the attempt to get as close to it as possible, time flies by and still the artist isn’t 100% happy with it. Not everyone deals with this to the same degree though. Maybe you are a pragmatic person and it will be much easier for you
Here is a tutorial video about this project:
10. You’ll (probably) neglect your camera for a couple of months
Working on a 3D project (to me) feels a little bit like playing a computer game. One that you get better at the more you play it and one that rewards you almost constantly. So, yes, it can become addictive and before you know it, you’ve gained 50 pounds, your girlfriend left you and your apartment is being repossessed. I’m exaggerating of course! But truth be told, all of my photography friends who got into 3D eventually said “I need to get off the computer and shoot more photos again”.
So, will learning 3D bring me more business?
Will buying a new camera bring you more business? Most probably not. But you knew that already. Like I mentioned above, if you are into doing any kind of studio photography, like commercial, fine art or conceptual, even fashion, then 3D will be a tool in your tool bag that sets you apart from the vast majority of photographers in your field. As always, your portfolio will have to reflect what you can do with that tool that others can’t. For the duration of learning 3D and building that portfolio, you’ll likely have zero financial benefit from it. I’ve been very lucky this year and had a couple of paid projects where I had the complete freedom and all of my clients were very happy with the results and are likely to come back in the future.
There is one danger you should look out for when adding the new 3D work to your existing portfolio. Make sure your overall portfolio quality isn’t reduced by the new images! If that’s the case, don’t add these images. Because you won’t be hired for being “a little bit of a jack of all trades” with a lot of different work (at different levels of quality). This sends a dangerous message to the agencies: “This guy can’t reliably produce good work”. Try to focus on work that showcases your aptitude in both fields, ideally images where the viewer can’t be sure what’s real and what’s not.
About the author
John Flury (aka Obsoquasi) is a commercial photographer/photo designer living in Zurich, Switzerland. He also works part-time as an IT coordinator, which allows him to devote his free time to his passion for visual storytelling and conceptual photography. If you’d like to see more of his work, we ran an interview with John back in 2014. You can also follow him on facebook.