Does 3D visualization replace classic product photography?

Does 3D visualization replace classic product photography?

The imaging of products is becoming increasingly important. The only question is: how do you get high quality product images at a reasonable price? Are you accessing classical photography (classical means digital here) or do you dare to use 3D visualization ?

CGI: ubiquitous in advertising

We encounter images created on the computer through rendering (CGI) in advertising almost everywhere: in brochures, on posters, in brochures, catalogs, videos and commercials, in animations, e-mails, web shops, mobile apps, on websites and even in virtual reality applications.

The computer-generated images must satisfy an ever higher quality standard of the users. These also perceive small image defects attentively. In addition, they become more demanding: they want to look at products from different perspectives and get presented appropriately in each channel. This is a learned behavior from e-commerce: Online shoppers have developed a keen sense for product images and are looking closer before they strike.

3D visualization on the rise

A high-quality imaging helps the viewer to make a purchase decision. The fact that the proportion of CGI in product images is steadily increasing is primarily due to the permanent improvements in hardware and software. As a result, 3D rendering is better suited to developing complex and realistic environments. If you want to see what is "state of the art", have a look at the website of the English CGSociety . You will be amazed!

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The depiction of people is becoming ever more realistic

CGI or product photography? That is the question …

How do you get to high-quality product images? The "classic" way is product photography. The alternative is called 3D visualizations (CGI). Depending on how much time and budget you regularly put into product images, you have probably already wondered whether the classic product photography or CGI is cheaper and what are the advantages and disadvantages of both methods.

Product photography - advantages over CGI

What can photos do better than 3D visualizations?

People and textiles

Photographers are still hard to replace when people or fabrics are to be portrayed in many perspectives - as in fashion photography. Displaying garments in different views and combinations can be more complicated with CGI than with photography.

Especially in fashion photos, classical photography also allows more spontaneity . For example, garments can be presented in different ways on different pictures in a short time due to the different body postures of the model - 3D renderings can not do that at the moment.

Photography for shoe advertising by Steven Lüdtke for Heinrich Dinkelacker
© Steven Lüdtke for Heinrich Dinkelacker

The classic product photography is so far from endangered. However, CGI portraits are slowly catching up and getting better and better - see the example below. Spontaneity and the photographer's instinct for the right moment have not yet been developed by computers

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To represent a detailed landscape digitally is a huge amount of time and money. The photographer, however, can work with the given.

Great product variety

If you want to show many different variations or products of similar size in just one set , photography can be the more meaningful method. Because the products do not have to be re-modeled each time, and the photographer can photograph them in order, which is comparatively fast. As an example you can see plug connections of the company ODU, which created the mds.visual.

Product photography for ODU Product photography for ODU
Product photography for ODU Product photography for ODU

Product Photography - Disadvantages over CGI

But photographing products can also be a very costly and time consuming procedure . Here are some disadvantages of classic photo productions.

Location / Set

If the company does not have its own studio, a set and / or location must first be found. Even that can become a cost driver.

If a suitable location is found, it requires a team of specialists to optimally illuminate the set and position the items in a meaningful way. It may take a few hours until the perfect picture is taken.


Unfortunately, photographers have no influence on weather conditions. Nobody is immune to heavy rain, storms or changing light conditions. Since the long-planned photo shoot can quickly fall into the water, and the organization begins again.

Post Production

Once the image is in the box, the image processing is on. Weaknesses in the recording or the material properties of the product can still be retouched. However, only to a certain extent. If there are fundamental requests for change after the set has already been dismantled again, the whole effort has to be re-operated for new admissions.

Benefits of CGI

When do you have methodical advantages through CGI?

Lean logistics

In the medium term it often turns out that a professional 3D product imaging is cheaper. Because the logistical effort, which hides behind classic shootings - with the appropriate budgets for photographers, locations, postproduction etc. -, is completely eliminated.

Stop with prototypes and models

Let's hope that there is no vaporware in your company . In fact, a real benefit of CGI is that you can present products that do not exist yet .

How it works? Through 3D modeling, objects can be precisely visualized on the computer without them being physically present. For this purpose, certain software is used, which also allow adjustments to the lighting, reflections, perspective and the like.

This is done on the basis of CAD data (Computer Aided Design), which ideally already exist for the production. So you do not have to wait for the completion of a prototype to start media production.

You can use the result cross-media for various advertising materials and launch your campaign in good time with the product launch.

Consistency in the picture concept

As the product range expands, it is often difficult to photograph the new products in exactly the same environment or under the same criteria as the old ones.

If, on the other hand, CAD data is available - for example, from previous campaigns or product marketing - they can be used at any time for further visualization. This ensures firstly the uniformity of product communication permanently. On the other hand, it favors the flexible exchange of individual image modules in the places where they are needed.

Flexibility as a CGI advantage

With CGI, for example, the couch in a living room can be virtually moved until it has reached the optimum position. The graphic artist can decide spontaneously whether he prefers to drop the light from the left or rather from the right onto the piece of furniture and so on. Here are the imagination almost no limits.

Illustrate product variants

If, in addition, very many variations of a product with regard to shape, size and color are to be mapped in different environments, CGI comes as a possible ideal solution. Example: You want to illustrate a shoe model that offers six shoe parts in six possible color variants. That makes over 40,000 combinations. It is obvious that it would be a logistical nightmare to photograph them one after the other.

CGI is generally recommended as a method if a very large number of articles have to be prepared visually flexibly or images have to be created for a particularly large number of different advertising media and channels.

Disadvantages of CGI

CGI is not (fully) ready for action in every area.

facial expressions

Traditionally, CGI has difficulty displaying people. A "real" smile, a stunned expression or honest joy are hard to replicate on the computer. And as long as the computer is not perfect, photographers are still required to capture human emotions with the camera.


With textiles (upholstered furniture, clothing) it has long been considered that CGI sometimes gives the impression of artificiality and too smooth surfaces. Here photos often looked more natural. Due to the technical development, however, the photorealistic representation of textiles with CGI is no longer a problem.

A well-known proof for this development is the IKEA catalog: In 2012, the proportion of CGI images was still 25 percent. According to the Group, in 2017 the CGI share of the 33,000 product images created was already 26,000, which corresponds to a good 78 percent.

At that time: the IKEA catalog from 1974 Today: the IKEA catalog 2018

Everything was photographed in 1974: Title of the first German and current IKEA catalog, © Inter IKEA Systems BV 2017

Photography or CGI or both?

Whether an article should be photographed or visualized on the PC must be thought through thoroughly. We are happy to help you.

CGI and photos combine

Importantly, classic photography and CGI are not mutually exclusive in product marketing. Rather, both variants can be combined well with each other.

CGI fridge-Inhalt.jpg
For Liebherr: combination of photography and CGI

First, think about what should actually be imaged. For example, when you insert a portrait into a virtual environment, the combination of photography and CGI can come into play. On the one hand, you have the advantage of authentic portraits, on the other hand, the flexibility of CGI allows the environment to be adapted flexibly, without having to spend much effort and money on different sets. You can also turn the tables and put rendered products in a photographed scenery.

Photography and CGI at a glance

Advantages of photography

  • Images are more authentic and spontaneous
  • Photos convey emotions
  • Easier for backgrounds
  • More effective with many products in one set

Disadvantages photography

  • Costly and time consuming
  • High staff and logistical effort
  • Depending on weather conditions
  • Post-processing after the shoot

Advantages GCI

  • Makes photo shoots unnecessary
  • No assembly and disassembly of the set or products
  • Shorter production time
  • Faster changes possible
  • Photorealistic representations possible without the product exists
  • Flexible views can be generated based on CAD data
  • Unity of images
  • Suitable for imaging of different variations of a product
  • Time savings with visualization of a very large number of articles

Disadvantages CGI

  • Higher effort in imaging certain scenarios
  • Illustrations of humans and organic foods are still too artificial with CGI
  • Creating aesthetics difficult without post-processing
  • At the beginning partly higher investments than in the photography, since first all textures must be specified

Conclusion: 3D visualization and CGI vs. product Photography

There is still a high demand for "classic" digital product photography. However, this can be combined well with CGI.

So photography is by no means indispensable to product communication. But: CGI is on the rise. In film production, this method has been used for decades. As technology advances and the possibilities increase, computer-generated images are becoming increasingly important in advertising.

In marketing, those responsible can weigh up which measure is more effective in the medium and long term in order to systematically exploit the advantages of digital visualization.