Virtually reality: the rise and rise of CGI

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is here to stay, and the commercial photography industry is milking it for all it’s worth to accommodate budgets. Christopher Quyen investigates the impact on photographers.

The old adage, ‘adapt or perish’ seems to be a common theme in the world of photography. Whether it is going from film to digital, or simply upgrading your gear, photographers will always need to adapt to remain relevant in the industry. So, with CGI now reaching a standard where the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred, an interesting question arises. Will photographers have to learn, or learn how to work with CGI in order to survive? But perhaps this question is more immediate in the commercial photography industry where clients and creative agencies are trying to reduce costs at every turn.

Client: Goldfields. Agency: Publicis, Melb. 
Tower of paint cans was built for location. “Authenticity is a big part of my work, and this shot would have looked fake had we decided to use CGI.” © Simon Harsent.
Client: Goldfields. Agency: Publicis, Melb. Tower of paint cans was built for location. “Authenticity is a big part of my work, and this shot would have looked fake had we decided to use CGI.” © Simon Harsent.

Simply put, CGI means any imagery that is computer-generated or modelled in 3D, and these days it is being used to generate anything from backdrops to entire vehicles. CGI has become a tool in every commercial project’s arsenal and there have been concerns among professionals who fear that CGI may soon overshadow the value of their work. Is CGI the future of commercial photography or is it just a passing trend? Perhaps the answer isn’t so black and white.

Is CGI your greatest ally?

Whether a vehicle is too large to transport, an important prop is missing in the shot, or you want to turn people into water, CGI has you covered. Perhaps the greatest triumph of CGI so far is the ability to recreate reality well enough so that scenes that were previously impossible can now be created. The Sydney-based photographer, Andreas Smetana has found this to be a great asset to his work. “My first experience was surprise and amazement. I had a lot of curiosity, but I thought it wasn’t good enough. Then, technology changed a lot and the realism became so well produced that it’s now a valid option,” says Smetana. Tim Tadder, who’s based in California, has also found value in its ability to make visual content which would have been impossible to shoot in the past. “CGI makes the impossible possible,” he says. This is the strength of CGI that makes it your best ally on commercial jobs – creating something “realistic” where it would not otherwise be possible.

Time and money always come into the equation when considering CGI. Because CGI has evolved so much, doing large-scale commercial productions with a lower budget is now possible. “CGI is getting so good at achieving realism nowadays. I did a shoot once where we could have built a $50,000 set that wouldn’t look that real,” says Smetana, “but instead we went down the CGI route and it ended up being cheaper, and looking more realistic.”

Sydney-based retouching, CGI, and motion studio Limehouse Creative has produced ads completely with CGI, including cars, products, and bottles, with the items looking entirely realistic. However, their mantra remains, ‘If it can be photographed, then photograph it.’

“When asked by a client, even if CGI is their first choice, and despite it being more profitable for our studio, the majority of the time we advise clients to go with photography, and recommend a photographer. But, it always comes down to what is the best option for the project,” says Duncan Harriss, the owner/director of Limehouse Creative.

However, there are some instances where CGI is clearly a better choice than photography. Some examples of these include the requirement of a life-sized car made out of wire suspended in a huge room, details photographed on a scale not possible with today’s lenses, or something that doesn’t exist, or is logistically too difficult to shoot. “We had to make a print ad of these big 18-wheeler trucks that haven’t even been produced yet. This is where CGI made our job possible. Even if the trucks did exist, shipping them would be a mission, so using CGI was far more cost-effective,” says Tadder.

Art Direction: Ray Howard. Design: Ray Howard/Charlie Lougheed.
Post production: Luke Reade, Garen Robinson (Smoke and Mirrors).
Art Direction: Ray Howard. Design: Ray Howard/Charlie Lougheed. Post production: Luke Reade, Garen Robinson (Smoke and Mirrors).

Computer-generated enemy?

Is there a chance that photography may slowly become obsolete? The attitude to CGI is very much split amongst professional commercial photographers. Some will implement it into their workflow with great enthusiasm, while others tend to shy away from using it at all. Those opposed to it carry notions ranging from CGI overshadowing photography to losing one’s signature style to CGI. Advertising photographer, Simon Harsent who splits his time between New York and Sydney, is amongst those who have found CGI an unnecessary tool for their work. “With CGI, you can lose the individual voice and identity of the photographer; it looks generic. You have to be careful, if you use it a lot, to make sure you take the work in your own direction. Artists like Tim Tadder have made CGI a part of their signature style,” says Harsent.

But the truth is that CGI is prevalent and demand is only growing. Yet Harsent has found that going against the grain has been beneficial to him as a photographer. “CGI is not typical in my work. The power I gain from doing this is that it gives my work uniqueness,” he says. As a result, having a niche style and approach to photography once again shines above the rest. Harsent has found that by producing and focusing on a style he is passionate about, agencies and clients only approach him with jobs that require his raw approach to commercial photography. “Some photographers lose their style and signature by working with CGI, which negates all the hard work they put in to achieve that at the start of their career,” says Harsent.

Photography isn’t the only industry being affected by CGI though. Smetana has also seen CGI kill some existing industries that have worked alongside photography. “Twenty five years ago, there were numerous model makers in the industry, but CGI is killing that industry because it is not cost-effective anymore,” says Smetana. But despite all this, it seems like this is just a natural progression of technology in the industry. CGI, like it or not, is here to stay and it is up to photographers to adopt it, or let it be.

Shot for Commonwealth Bank. 3D by Cream Studios. © Andreas Smetana.
Shot for Commonwealth Bank. 3D by Cream Studios. © Andreas Smetana.

The same language

Industry-leading studios such as Limehouse Creative, and Smoke and Mirrors, which is based in London with offices in New York and Shanghai, are urging photographers to not see CGI as the enemy of photography. Instead, CGI and photography should join forces in order to overcome the challenges and difficulties of creating visual content. “People are becoming more aware and open to CGI as a solution to multiple challenges. What they see less though is the way we use it in still imagery, as both a replacement and accompaniment for photography,” says Tom Gibson from Smoke and Mirrors.

© Tim Tadder.
© Tim Tadder.

Although some photographers still feel as though having a CGI artist would cause a loss in their work’s identity, Harriss believes that the opposite is true. “You don’t have to lose your identity. Instead, collaborate and work with a CGI studio who will understand your style and add value to the work you do,” he suggests. “If asked who was behind the new Star Wars movie, most will say J.J. Abrams, the director, and not Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the special effects studio, and quite rightly,” Harriss says. “He used physical models, real actors, and CGI, each to their strength, to create something more than the sum of the parts. CGI and traditional cinematography directed by an expert in composing scenes in real life and working with those who know tools that can extend what is ‘real’.”

It is also important to note that both CGI artists and photographer speak the same language in that their process of thinking is similar. “When we render an image in CGI, we position the camera and the lights, and choose what apertures, shutter speeds and lenses to use in the image. CGI could even be called virtual photography,” says Harriss. “However, it is the photographer’s experience of composing and capturing a scene that is as relevant as ever. In CGI, it is just done in software, so the photographer’s role just changes to that of a director.”

All of the best work that is a combination of CGI and photography has involved the photographer working closely with a CGI artist who knows the software inside out. If done well, the photographer’s style will still shine through and one might not even know CGI has been used. A great example of this is Droga5’s Qantas Frequent Flyer campaign photographed by Michael Corridore. “Even the ECD at the agency thought that the Mars Rover, “Curiosity”, was real, and not CGI created by Limehouse,” says Harriss.

While CGI may look like the ultimate solution to all visual obstacles, there are some limitations to the art. “Like listening to music in person versus a recording, there are lots of details that are present that are impossible, or very difficult and time-consuming to reproduce in CGI. Realistic CGI is often about adding the imperfections that exist in real life, and some things are much better in photography, including organics such as plants, fur, liquids (with condensation and refracting light), and people,” says Harriss.

Even Tadder agrees with these limitations of CGI. “There are too many nuances and details of the human condition that are difficult to replicate in CGI. Sometimes it is too perfect and you lose the illusion of reality.” Therefore, retouching houses like Smoke and Mirrors and Limehouse Creative urge creative agencies and clients to consider their options about whether to approach a job using CGI or photography. “If a job lands on my desk and there is no real reason to take a CGI route, I would never push it. If something can be captured in camera, with a similar budget and retouched to the same end as a CGI render, then why not?” says Gibson.

The sword and the shield

But when the conflict simmers down and we are able to look at the battlefield clearly, photography and CGI are clearly fighting on the same side – both of them tools of visual communication. Therefore, it is up to the creative to decide whether it is right for the job, true to their style, and whether they need CGI to execute it. “I’m a big believer in preparation, and you have to first decide whether CGI is necessary,” says Smetana. So should photographers pursue CGI and learn a new skill set? The general consensus seems to be negative with most professionals holding the belief that you should do your best to get it all in camera first. But that’s not to say that you should ignore it entirely. As a minimum, understand what its practical applications are just in case one day it can be of beneficial to an assignment.

Photographers should also not feel like they have to do everything themselves – collaboration is key. That’s when finding the right CGI artist or retouching house becomes an important step in the process. “I don’t have the time to learn another skill set, so I have to research CGI artists and learn to collaborate with them,” says Tadder. CGI really is just another tool in the visual arsenal and it is up to the artists to use it accordingly. “For me, I’m not a purist in any stretch of imagination – it’s my job to create something dynamic and inspiring using whatever is necessary,” says Tadder.

© Tim Tadder.
© Tim Tadder.

The future for CGI

As we move forward, one can imagine that the trend of using both CGI and photography elements in commercial works will continue, especially as new forms of advertising media, like digital billboards, emerge. But as with any movement, there will always be a counter-movement, and a number of professionals have witnessed a recent attitude shift towards CGI in the industry. Smetana has found that even though the market demanded CGI in their commercials, it has all become somewhat sterile. Water splashes from bottles have become the cliché, and now the market is begging for something different. “Ten years ago, we did a lot of highly retouched and illustrative work, but people don’t want that anymore. People now want to get it all right in-camera,” says Smetana.

Harsent also believes that CGI’s future may lie in a different avenue – animation. “Animated CGI is the way to go. With the way that ads are being developed and the increase of digital billboards, the future of CGI is in animation,” he says. But regardless of what you use – photography or CGI with photography – Harsent urges photographers to never lose their voice in their work. In the end, photographers, visual artists, CGI artists, and graphic designers are all a part of this beast that is visual communication, and must think about their voices, and how they can visually tell their stories. “There’s too much visual appetite to live in a world of extremes,” says Tadder, and in a world where we can make the impossible possible, that comes as a great advantage to satisfy that appetite. 

Shot for Qantas. CGI (rover) and retouching by Limehouse Creative. © Michael Corridore.
Shot for Qantas. CGI (rover) and retouching by Limehouse Creative. © Michael Corridore.

Approaching CGI

For newcomers, working with CGI or a CGI artist may seem daunting at first, but there are a few things to keep in mind to make the journey smoother. You don’t have to know how rendering CGI works, but educate yourself on the basics in order to know how to collaborate with CGI artists.


  • Be prepared – spend a lot of time completing treatments before a project.
  • Choose a CGI studio that shares your values.
  • Clearly communicate your requirements with your CGI artist.
  • If you don’t communicate with your CGI artist, then you won’t feel like you have a partner to work with, and they may take over the job.
  • If needed, your CGI artist can help you visualise and prepare for your shoot by creating a 3D map of the location/set so you can see where everything is placed, where the reflections are, and how the lighting might behave in the environment.

The shoot

  • During the shoot, you won’t need
    a CGI artist on set, however there are some things they will want recorded or captured from set –from a 360 HDRI dome which can be used to map lighting
    and reflections on an object
    to the lighting and camera set
    up on the day.
  • If you have done the pre-production prior to a CGI shoot, then you should have greater confidence that the CGI artist will be more comfortable working with the scene that you have visualised together.

 Post production

  • Be in the mindset of a director when you are working with CGI. Don’t let the CGI artist run the show; you should be able to collaborate.
  • A CGI artist will be able to expand upon your ideas and make it work in the digital realm. Work with them to tease out all the possibilities in your project.
For soccer calendar commissioned by Tecate. Digital imaging, compositing: Mike Campau. © Tim Tadder.
For soccer calendar commissioned by Tecate. Digital imaging, compositing: Mike Campau. © Tim Tadder.


Simon Harsent –

Andreas Smetana –

Tim Tadder –

Limehouse Creative –

Smoke and Mirrors –

Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.
Courtesy Limehouse Creative.