What's Cheaper, Rendering or Photography?
Marketing Imagery Expenses Compared
Products advertisements are made using photography, computer-generated imagery (CGI) or a combination of both. Both can achieve great results, but which is most cost-effective, CGI or photography? To compare the costs of commercial photography and CGI, I identified eight expense categories and highlighted how these will differ with photography (and videography) and CGI.
Models, Prototypes & Props
The subject of an image or video is the product being advertised or highlighted. This can be displayed on its own, (often referred to a studio shot), or in context/use (often referred to a situational shot).
Photography requires physical products to be available. If the product has already been manufactured, then a sample will be available. If the product hasn't been manufactured yet, or is still under development, then physical prototypes will need to be fabricated when using photography. While these range greatly in price, it's not uncommon for prototypes small enough to fit on a small desk to cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Prototypes are expensive because they're created before manufacturing tooling (which is normally more expensive than prototypes) is built. Prototypes are typically made by a skilled model maker. In addition to the product, if the imagery will be showing a product in-use, you'll need to factor in purchasing or renting additional props like models, actors, furniture and more. Assembling all the props for a photo shoot can be a costly and time-consuming part of creating product imagery.
Because CGI usually relies on software and digital assets alone, it tends to be cheaper and faster than assembling all the assets needed for a traditional photo shoot. For a CGI scene, a digital 3D model will need to be created in a 3D application. If a company is developing a product and has preliminary CAD models, this will expedite the process and reduce cost. Sometimes models need to be optimized for 3D rendering, but this can be done quickly depending on the skills of the 3D artist. Assuming a rate of $150/hr (on the upper end for 3D modeling contractor), it would take more than 2 weeks of full-time modeling to approach the $15,000 mark mentioned above. For reference, it's not common for me to spend more than a couple days creating a model for rendering. Additional props such as furniture, people, food and more can be purchased from online repositories for just a few hundred dollars (on the high end).
It's safe to say that the CGI method comes out ahead in this section unless the product being advertised is already in production. It's also a faster method as prototypes can take weeks to create.
While everyone has a smartphone with a decent camera these days, it takes much more to create a compelling product photo. Here, we'll compare the cost of equipment required to create high-end product images.
Unless you are a large company that owns all necessary photo equipment and has a full-time photographer on staff, you'll be looking to hire a photographer for your imagery. If you're shooting a video commercial, you'll be looking for a videographer with his or her specialized equipment. This photographer or videographer has an hourly rate and likely will rent specialized equipment such as lighting, lenses or other camera gear to get the shots needed. Some will pass the equipment rental costs on to their clients while others will make sure their hourly rate covers equipment rentals, computers and software.
Now, let's return to the digital world. Because CGI is all done in a digital environment, once hardware and software are purchased, the only thing that adds to the bottom line is if a 3D artist needs to outsource the rendering to a renderfarm. A renderfarm is a network of computers capable of rendering large amounts of images in very short periods of time. And since hardware has been developing so quickly the past ten years, compute power is cheap. This is akin to renting camera gear. That said, render farm time is quite cheap today. For example, 3D Off The Page, a US-based render farm only charges around $70 per hour. At this rate, a 30-second 1080p commercial could be rendered for as little as $750.
Because most 3D artists have adequately powerful machines, outsourcing rendering isn't too common. In most cases, CGI will win out in this category since it's not common to need to rent any equipment to complete a rendering job.
Environment refers to the setting of a set of images. If a product is shown in a studio setting, the environment is likely to be a solid color, subtle gradient or a seamless backdrop (like seen in a professional portrait photo). If a photo is shown in a situational setting, then the environment might show trees, an interior of a house, a commercial setting like an office, or even an aerial photo of somewhere on earth. These environments are vital to adding context to an image. Context lets an audience know where a product is typically used. It allows them to visualize themselves using and owning the product themselves.
When shooting a photo, scene complexity and environment doesn't have a huge impact on cost. Now, if you need to travel to a specific location on earth, that would certainly add to the bottom line. You'd need to factor in cost of airfare, hotels, per diem, car rental and photographers may choose to add a fee for having to travel to do their work. With the average domestic U.S. flight costing $400, lodging and per diem and car rental for 3 days costing another $1,000, (trust me, I traveled every other week for 3 years for work) you can expect to add another $2K to the bill minimum for someone having to travel for a photo shoot. And that's only for one person. Multiply this for everyone involved in the shoot for a more accurate figure.
The one benefit for photography in this category is that cameras can take a photo in a single second regardless of the complexity of the scene. In daylight, at night, indoors or outdoors, studio or situational, a photo only requires the press of a button and less than a second to be created.
This is one category where CGI gets to be a bit more involved than photography. Creating a fully-3D environment can take lots of time. With many props, textures, materials and details in an environment, scene setup takes a long time. And if you're after realism, not every 3D artist will be able to pull this off.
The other downside is that more complex 3D environments take longer to render. They take longer to create and longer to render since the computer has to complete more calculations. Depending on how efficient the 3D artist is, this part may begin to add to the bottom line of an image or animation quite quickly.
There's no hiding that photography or videography is going to be favorable in this category. A realistic photo can be captured with the press of a button, makes it a winner. Now, if a photographer and a crew needs to travel for a photo shoot or a video, the costs may start to eclipse the costs a 3D artist will charge for a fully-3D environment.
When comparing images from a film, photo shoot or animation, lighting plays a vital role in establishing mood, focal point and atmosphere. Whether the lighting is colored, high-contrast, low-key or conservative, it'll be a determining factor in how well the image suits a company or brand. Lighting a product for photography differs from lighting a product for CGI.
We've already discussed equipment, and lighting certainly falls under that category. However, another consideration is whether the desired lighting can be accomplished through conventional methods of photography. The benefit of using photography is that light obeys the laws of physics. This means that any lighting produced in a physical setting will look 'normal' or 'natural'.
The disadvantage to using lighting is when large items need to be photographed, such as appliances or vehicles. These often require large lighting rigs that are specialized for large products and can only be set up in large studio environments like warehouses. This almost goes without saying, but renting specialized gear, coordinating many lights and having to physically move each light can become tedious and expensive.
Adding, removing or editing lights in CGI costs just a few clicks, and the time it takes to render a new image. It's often very easy to control lighting with some numerical input. The other benefit of CGI when it comes to lighting is that the laws of physics do not need to be observed. A 3D artist can have light only affect certain parts of a model or scene. This makes creative direction simpler and speeds up the iteration process.
When it comes to lighting, achieving natural lighting with photogrpahy will certainly be easier. Unfortunately, adding and adjusting more lights gets expensive and takes time. CGI makes editing lights quick and easy, assuming you're willing to wait for the render to process. CGI is typically cheaper when comparing the cost of lighting.
Color, Material, Finish Options
CMF is a vital part of the product development process in which colors, materials and finishes are are compared to offer versions or a product that fit unique preferences of consumers. It also allows designers and marketers to narrow down the configurations of the product that will be offered in respect to materials.
In order to photograph each CMF option, a photographer must go though painstaking processes to ensure exact angles and settings of each image. Each CMF option is another model that must be prototyped. Additionally, great care has to be taken when positioning each product to take another photograph. Human error can cause single-pixel differences that are easily noticed when clicking through CMF options in an online configurator or digital catalog.
In addition to having to worry about product placement, lighting will likely need to be adjusted for each CMF option. For example, white products on a black background tend to be too bright and dark products on a white background tend to become silhouettes unless lighting is adjusted for each shot. This becomes a tedious process when shooting CMF variations.
Rendering CMF variations is very simple. Most rendering applications have a feature that allows an artist to combine lighting scenarios with different material combinations. KeyShot, which is my go-to render solution makes this easy with Studios. I can set the appropriate amount of light for each CMF configuration and save it as a studio. This makes it easy to revise later on as needed.
You're probably noticing a trend at this point, but CGI wins in this category in my opinion. It makes achieving consistent materials, lighting and finish options very easy to control. It also saves time since no physical lights need to be moved or changed.
Physics encompasses both material properties and light. Those are the two characteristics responsible for why things look the way they do. Interestingly enough, software doesn't have to play by the law of physics. Is this a benefit or not? We'll look at that next.
The good news when it comes to photography is that photos and videos observe the laws of physics. That means that material, light and products will look quite natural and familiar to our eyes and brains. Achieving realism in photography is simple since we are photographing real objects.
A drawback of using photography is when you wish to bend physics. For example, an exploded view of a product disassembling itself while being suspended in air, is simply not possible with photography. So, if you wish to show a camera in a place it can not fit or a detail that is too small to be photographed, it's best to rely on CGI to do so.
Now, when trying to achieve realism in CGI, physics can get in the way. It takes both great intuition from the artist and a technical understanding of 3D applications to make digital models look truly real. We have to simulate physics in our software and that is expensive from a time and computation standpoint. Some software is good at simulations, others are not. The best CGI is achieved by using specialized software that focuses on simulating physical properties like fluids, fabrics, particles, wind, fur, etc.
A benefit of CGI is that the laws of physics don't need to be followed. If I wish to animate parts of a product self-assembling in space, that's not a problem. If I want to make an object fade into existence or dissolve into particles, that's no problem. This is a major benefit of CGI. We can create compelling images and animations of products doing things that photographers can't.
Physics are great for adding realism. CGI allows us to bend the laws of physics to add interest to an image or animation. Depending on the kind of imagery you're after, CGI may be the only way to achieve certain effects such as melting, dissolving, assembling, exploding, morphing, bending and more.
Revisions refers to those last-minute changes requested by someone in upper-management who simply wants to feel like they contributed in some way (eyeroll). Those last-minute revisions are notorious for throwing an entire project off of a projected deadline.
Sometimes when a revision is called for, it's easily accomplished in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop. This includes things like color-changes, curves, adjustments or spot removal. However, compositional, camera or lighting changes can be too time-consuming or even impossible to achieve in software. In this case, it requires re-hiring the photographer, setting up the studio (maybe even renting the gear again) to re-shoot the photos. This is typically a worst-case scenario.
In the world of CGI, it's easy to save each shot or scene for easy revision. A decent 3D artist will keep track of all his shots and renderings so that if a revision is needed, it's a simple, iterative process. I save each revision throughout a project so that even if a client doesn't like a revision, it takes no extra labor to return to the previous version. Typically, revisions take minutes, rather than hours or days like they can when using photography.
This is one of the scenarios in which CGI proves to be far superior to photography. It's very quick to make incremental revisions on scenes and renderings until the desired effect is achieved, It also means that when the bossman throws a last-minute request into the mix, the whole project isn't necessarily off schedule.
Output Size and Format
What happens when an image that was originally made for social media is needed for a billboard ad? Can an image just be 'blown up' to work in all scenarios? Sometimes an image that was originally intended for small print or on a website is needed for a 10-foot trade show booth banner. Trust me, it happens.
When an image is photographed, the resolution is limited to the maximum size image the camera is capable of producing. The larger of an image a camera can capture, the more detail it'll have. This makes an image good for large-format printing or cropping in on a portion of the whole image. When an image has been scaled for a website or smaller format printing, it can't simply be made larger without degrading the image. When you need an image to be printed in a large format, it needs to be as high-resolution as possible to minimize pixelation or other forms of degradation. Cameras simply have size/frame limitations especially when it comes to video.
Here's another category where CGI shines. Resolution is not limited... in any way. Also, if you need an image to become an animation or vice-versa, it can be done. There will be a cost associated with this, but it's completely do-able. It also ensures a one-to-one likeness in camera angles, lighting and composition with significantly less labor than photography.
CGI enables one to turn photos into videos and videos into photos very quickly. It's also easy to render an image or video at various resolutions without limitations. CGI is the way to go in this category and wins when comparing cost and viability.
Let's not forget that everything takes time to produce. Some aspects of making product images are very time-consuming. Others pass in a flash. Let's see how CGI and photography compare here.
The act of pressing the shutter button on a camera only takes a second. However, setting up a photo shoot and studio is where the process becomes time-consuming. Making revisions, re-shooting, matching camera angles and lighting all become tedious operations. And if the final marketing images don't match what the designer had in mind, it can be a big letdown. While taking photos isn't inherently a time-consuming process, reaching the final deliverable likely will be. Finally, don't forget about touch-up. Every photo undergoes correction for lens distortion, dust/blemish removal, curves, lighting and grading. When creating situational photos, some degree of compositing can be required as well.
When working with digital scenes, the most time-consuming parts are scene-setup, animation and rendering. Once a scene is set up, creating additional views or images typically don't take too long. As previously mentioned, making incremental changes to a product image or scene usually don't take as long as they would with traditional photography.
It's too difficult to say whether the process of shooting or recording a product photo or animation will be faster with CGI, but the main purpose of this article was to compare overall cost.
This category may be a tie. The time involved in setting up a product photo shoot or animation will largely come down to complexity and whether the product has been manufactured or not. If a product already exists and is quite small, it can be faster to photograph, but if it's still under development or is large or expensive, it will likely be faster and cheaper to render.
I compared a whole bunch of factors that affect overall cost and time associated with producing product imagery, which includes stills and animations. Here's the summary:
Models, Prototypes & Props
CGI: Cheaper, maybe slower than phogoraphy
CGI: Cheaper than photography
Photography: Cheaper and faster with complex environments than CGI
CGI: Likely cheaper and faster than photography
Color, Material, Finish
CGI: Cheaper and faster than photography
CGI: Offers more freedom and cheaper than photography
CGI: Cheaper and faster than phogography
Depends largely on scene complexity. Both CGI and Photogrpahy-based approaches may take the same amount of time to conclude.
Based on my reasoning offered above, CGI offers more benefits than photography when it comes to product visualization. Whether producing high-quality stills or animations to show off a product's functions, CGI offers lots of flexibility, is easy to revise and quick to produce. It's also easy for a one-person team to pull off.
If you haven't tried using CGI for your product images or videos, it might be time. Please consider the benefits offered above when creating a marketing budget for your next product launch. Feel free to get in touch for a formal quote on any rendering or animation services.