I’M NOT SURE I’M EVEN A PHOTOGRAPHER ANY MORE
Sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of bitter coffee as the rain pours down outside, I remember holding back the tears and saying to my wife “I’m not sure I’m even a photographer any more, I just can’t see a way out”. It was March 2020 and the covid pandemic had just thrown my photographic career under a bus, like someone just turned off a tap with commercial shoots cancelled, portraits illegal and marketing budgets put on ice. I honestly thought the lockdown was here to stay, the new normal was a phrase thrown around like cheap confetti at a crap wedding, but working out what normal looked like for a working full time photographer seemed like an impossible task when most of my work involved close contact with people and teams.
Keeping my mind occupied during the pandemic soon became paramount to my sanity, so in between the DIY marathon and countless banana bread baking sessions I started to explore the world of 3D after stumbling across blender on a photoshop YouTube channel. Insert something about donuts here but honestly I don’t follow tutorials all that well, I’m more hands on and trial & error about learning new things. I’m not sure if that’s a good approach as it can elongate building skills but I’d encourage you to think outside the well laid cgi highway that everyone seems to follow and do what works for you.
As a working commercial photographer with a love of interior design I soon made the “holy shit” connection I could use this 3d stuff to service my clients (and maybe some new ones) as lockdown raged with no end in sight. I mean how could I not have thought of this before? It’s been around since Elon Musk was in short trousers but I guess we all get stuck in our ways / comfort zone and sometimes it takes a tectonic shift to force us to try something new. A bit like moving from film to digital, you’ve really got to go with the flow of traffic. I was excited, like genuinely excited that I’d found a positive in the storm, the silver lining of the cloud… Let’s do this!
Unfortunately I soon lost enthusiasm as the excitement turned to frustration because true to form in my “I can do that” fashion I massively underestimated a) just how hard it is to make scenes look real and b) how time consuming it is to model and texture things like furniture. That coupled with the distractions of flexing your brain off piste to work out how vfx are made, a quick smoke simulation here, a green screen project there and omg did you know blender can simulate water! THIS IS SO COOL… I was hooked but CGI is so immersive and versatile that it’s easy to find yourself losing focus. In the words of Gold Leader “Stay on target”.
So after writing a proper business plan (yes remember those you creative luvies) I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to focus on interiors and product renders with some advertising creative thrown in to keep it sexy. I mean I’ve worked in those fields before so I know the drill but one huge problem with transitioning from photographer to 3D artist is that the two don’t really sit well together all in a portfolio…. If you get to the point where your renders are indistinguishable from real life photography how would a prospective client know the difference between real and fake? How would they know the advantages and disadvantages of 3D renders over traditional photography? To be continued.
No photographers were harmed in the making of this blog.
As I wrestled with the concept of 3D killing the photographic industry (and my business) I contemplated packing my bags and running off to join the CGi circus. The emotional rollercoaster and anxiety train ran riot. How do I even Segway this? Will I still get headshot gigs, will I remember how to use a camera when lockdown ends.. and what the hell is a normal map?
Realistically I had no choice but just as I started to think about how to pitch to some potential customers I got a call from a photography client in London… the cockney accent bellows down the phone “it’s all f@&ked mate”. Steve used to set-build and shoot his bespoke bathtubs in real life (at eyewatering cost) but because of lockdown we’d not been able to go ahead with the physical shoot we had booked. They’d seen me playing around with 3D work on social media (you never know who’s watching) and he asked if we could look doing something in 3D. Tingles of excitement and a looming sense of dread that “I don’t know how to do this yet” came over me and shot the muscles in my shoulders to weapons grade tension!! Then I remembered the mantra of many high flying entrepreneurs … say yes first, then find out how to do it afterwards.
Fight or flight mode engaged
Ok so this is an actual 3D gig, like paid for money and I’ve got to deliver. I scribble some rough sketches and pull together some reference images. Then I write a list of things I need to model for some simple bathroom scenes. As well as having to model and texture the bathtubs I naively thought that I needed to make everything myself! The tiles, the plants, the towel, faucet, mirror, soap, baskets. Jeesh this can’t be cost effective! Nevertheless, I embarked on the tedious task of 3d modeling using some node based textures, some image based textures and even learning how to 3D scan and bake down using photogrammetry. Pulling it all together and scraping through to delivery (taking fifty times longer than it should and probably earning around £2 per hour). However, creating those neural pathways of how modeling works, how textures react to light and finally understanding what a normal map does seriously laid the foundations for my next steps. Admittedly my almost 20 years experience as a photographer with a background in Engineering has helped springboard my 3D career. I’d encourage anyone starting out to learn about photography, depth of field, focal length, lighting etc and then follow the route of trying to create your own models so you know how it all works but as a business clients want their projects on budget. After speaking with a few clients this just wasn’t possible trying to model everything myself, I needed to find a solution to make it all run a little faster and cheaper.
Jump forward 12 months and I’m now pretty confident that given enough time I “could” model or scan pretty much anything into the 3D space. I’d seen other libraries online but they were mostly pay per model (which can be expensive if you’re just learning or building a portfolio) but then I discovered iMeshh via a Facebook group! Ok so these are professional models with great textures and a slick asset manager? WOW this is going to help massively in speeding things up (as well as adding realism) and the price point is just exceptional value for money! Like actually the per week the cost is less than a high street coffee… shut up and take my money! Seriously the economics of using ready made assets when quoting to clients makes it all way more competitive and feasible. Now I hear quite often in discussions around using assets that it’s some kind of “cheating” but I really don’t see it that way for two reasons. The first is that as I’ve furnished myself (pardon the pun) with the confidence to make whatever I need, could I make a sofa? Yes, so it’s just speeding things up right? Secondly if I were to photograph something in real life then I wouldn’t make the props / furniture either. I would buy them from a shop. iMeshh is my go to digital prop shop! I really can’t recommend them enough!
CGI vs Photography
So coming back to my dilemma, I keep asking myself if there are enough legs in this to warrant going for it full time and leaving photography behind? I mean there are a few factors that I won’t list but because I see the future of most commercial imaging in the 3D space then I think it would be silly to ignore progress. Studios that don’t embrace 3D will get left behind but I’m going all in here. You don’t have to but the main reason why I chose not to mix photography with my 3D portfolio is that it’s much easier to convey to a client / agency that you’re a 3D guy, I don’t want to have to explain what’s real and what’s not… it’s all CGI that’s it. The second is that the photography world is massively over-saturated, that’s not a reason in itself because there’s still work around but a shrinking market with more competition is a red flag for any business. Lastly I also feel like it’s so much easier to add value for clients who are working in real life, some don’t even know what can be done using Blender, even I didn’t click that a lot of these pinterest houses are actually not real until I got deeper into it all. So from a business perspective it seems to be a lot easier to sell.
So yes, my photography business is dead! I’ve been through the grieving process, I’ve said my goodbyes and buried my romantic attachment to my studio in the Garden with a little gold plaque “Here lies my photography career, died March 2020 due to the covid pandemic” We dressed in black, had a tasteful ceremony and released some doves! OK well not really but quite honestly I’m actually somewhat annoyed now if I have to get my camera out and set-up lights for a shoot. Of course there will always be circumstances where photography wins but my initial thought now is “Can I do this in Blender?”
Anyway so thanks to the lockdown and iMeshh I’m now a fully fledged CGI guy with actual real life paying clients (in-fact more clients than ever) and I’m eternally grateful for the support I’ve received from the team.
Viva la 3d revolution and I guess I was totally correct when I said to my wife that …
I’m not sure I’m even a photographer any more!!