3D modelling for photographers

Get started with 3D modelling using Cinema 4D

3D modelling and CGI are incredibly relevant to photography nowadays and many photographers are questioning whether it’s worth their time to learn this new skill. I’ve put together a basic guide to getting started with CGI and how it can be used hand in hand with photography.
3D modeling with Viktor Fejes and Karl Taylor

Our 3D modeling & CGI class, presented with Viktor Fejes, provide an introduction to creating 3D images using Cinema 4D.

CGI and 3D modeling are no longer alternatives to photography and as technology progresses it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish between what’s a photograph and what’s computer generated.

CGI dates back to 1968, when a group of Russian mathematicians and physicists devised a mathematical model that allowed them to move a cat across a screen. Since then, CGI technology has developed in leaps and bounds and is being used in all areas of visual art.

    3D Modeling vs Photography

    Photography is one area where CGI is proving to be particularly powerful. From car photography to architectural photography, we’re seeing more and more examples of CGI being used hand in hand with photography, and part of the reason for this is that it allows artists to realise visions that would have been unobtainable with just a camera alone.

    Photography is often limited by physics, and we can't break these laws. In my live whisky photography workshop I had to shoot two different shots to get the lighting on the bottle and glass exactly how I wanted and I had to do a focus stack for this rings image because I couldn't get sufficient depth of field, even though I was shooting at f11. With CGI, these factors aren't a concern.

      Other benefits of CGI include reduced shipping costs — products that need to be shot don’t need to be sourced or sent to the photographer. Retouching is quicker and easier than if it were photographed — it’s a case of opening a file, making changes or adding/removing items rather than recreating a whole shoot.

      These two images by retouch artist Matthieu Robert (who recently joined us for our ‘A Visual Journey’ workshop) are a great example of how you can completely change the look and feel of an image far easier than you could if you were photographing it. The image on the right is a close up version of the image on the left, but notice how the lighting, background and perspective are completely different.

        CGI cosmetic pyramid image by Matthieu Robert.
        CGI Cosmetic Doir image by Matthieu Robert.
        CGI images of Dior products by retouch artist Matthieu Robert.

        There’s also the added benefit of being able to create work wherever and whenever — CGI work can be done from a single location and, unlike photography, isn’t weather dependant.

        A good example of this last point is this car image created by professional retoucher and 3D artist Viktor Fejes, who presents our 3D Modeling & CGI classes (Viktor is also the founder of GILD Studios - a boutique retouching studio). Here, a reflection of Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, can be seen in the metalwork of the car. This was done using HDRI, which meant there was no need to find a car, get it to the location or even rely on good weather to get the final result.

          3D render of a car by Viktor Fejes, HDRI available from HDRI Haven

          CGI can save you time and money, especially when it comes to working on location. This 3D render of a car by Viktor Fejes features a reflection of Piazza San Marco, but everything was created in studio without having to source a car or travel to Italy.

          HDRI image of Piazza San Marco in Italy, available from HDRI Haven

          HDRI Haven provides HDRIs that you can use in your 3D images, such as this one of Piazza San Marco in Italy.

          Having said that, you might now be wondering if there’s still a place for photography. The answer to this, in my opinion, is yes.

          When it comes to product photography, it is often quicker (and cheaper) to photograph numerous items in the same way than it is to create and render them. When photographing pack shots, for example, once you’ve got your lighting set up, it’s simply a case of switching products, which is far quicker than creating a new 3D model. Images with lots of small details (for example food shots) are also easier to photograph. This berry image, for example, may have taken a few hours to style, but the simple lighting setup meant once the styling was done it really didn’t take that long to complete the shot. It’s also easier to photograph organic items such as liquids as it’s easier to try different options or effects.

            Tom Ford product photography by Karl Taylor
            Items such as this Tom Ford product in water can be difficult to do with CGI. Often it's easier and more time efficient to photograph it.

            What 3D modeling software should you use to get started?

            Many people are put off by the apparent complexity of 3D modeling, but there’s really no need to be. There’s a variety of 3D modeling software options available, though for our 3D Modeling & CGI course, Viktor chose to use Cinema 4D. I’ve outlined some of the other options below, to help you decide which might be best for you:

            • Maxon Cinema 4D — A user-friendly 3D animation solution used for 3D modeling, animation and rendering.
            • Blender — A free, open source 3D creation suite that allows you to create, transform and edit 3D models.
            • Autodesk 3Ds Max — A 3D modeling, animation and rendering software that can be used to create 3D and virtual reality content.
            • Autodesk Maya —Autodesk Maya is a 3D modeling animation, simulation and rendering software often used for animation, environments, motion graphics, virtual reality and character creation.
            • SideFX Houdini — A 3D animation and visual effects software that features a node-based workflow.

              How much does 3D design software cost?

              The cost of 3D software can vary significantly. If you're reluctant to spend thousands of pounds or commit to a yearly subscription, it's worth having a look at pricing plans and package options. Many 3D softwares offer free trials, which means you can try the software without buying it. This is definitely a good option if you’re just getting started and want to find an option that works best for you.

              Viktor chose Cinema 4D for its user-friendly interface and powerful tool set, though the skills taught throughout our classes can easily be transferred to other software options. You can watch our full series of Cinema 4D tutorials here.

              Cinema 4D interface showing wireframe of a bottle.
              Cinema 4D's clean interface features powerful tools that are easy to use.
              Cinema 4D interface & object tools
              Cinema 4D offers a number of preset objects that can be used to quickly create and build your own 3D models.
              Cinema 4D interface & object tools showing rendering of a bottle product.
              Using tools such as the Lathe tool, it's possible to create accurate models based on real photographs.
              Adding texture in Cinema 4D
              A plastic surface material preset was chosen to create the glass texture of the bottle while the metal preset was used for the cap.
              Lighting objects in Cinema 4D
              The lighting 'setup' for this 3D image was based on the original photograph and included light on either side of the bottle and on the background.

              In addition to 3D modeling software, you’ll need a render engine to finalise your creations. Render engines are what render (or, in photographic terms, ‘export’) the 3D image created. For our courses we used Arnold renderer, but again, I’ve outlined a few other options below:

              • Arnold — Arnold is a ray tracing renderer available as a standalone renderer on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X, with supported plug-ins for Maya, 3ds Max, Houdini, Cinema 4D, and Katana.
              • Redshift — Redshift is a GPU-accelerated renderer available on Microsoft, Linux and MacOS that supports 3D applications such as Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, SideFX Houdini, Katana.
              • OctaneRender — An unbiased render engine that supports Microsoft, Linux and MacOS.
              • V-Ray — A powerful render engine with high quality output that runs on all platforms with plugins for numerous 3D softwares.
                Arnold renderer for Cinema 4D
                Render engines allow for control over factors such as depth of field, focal length and sensor size as well as lighting and texture.
                Arnold render settings for Cinema 4D
                Many render engines can be fully integrated with the various 3D software options.

                Other things you’ll need to get started include a decent computer (Viktor recommended a desktop PC) and Photoshop (you’ll be able to use Photoshop to add more detail and realism to your images using techniques such as burn and dodge).

                Once you’ve got everything, it’s simply of case of experimenting, trying out the different tools and effects and seeing the results.

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                    1. In 10 years from now it will likely have more of an impact, it needs easier software, quicker completion of the processing to make it more affordable, also currently modelling organics such as liquids etc is more difficult whereas photography can give you more options and realism. But I’d imagine in 10 years it will certainly have more impact.

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