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3D technology has become so good that it's now 'virtually' impossible to tell the difference between computer generated imagery (CGI) and a real photograph. And this simple fact has given rise to an explosion of exciting new possibilities that go beyond the limits of traditional photography.

In traditional photography, the world and its subjects are captured through the focal length of a lens. By comparison, with 3D virtual photography the world is anything you can imagine and create on a computer. 

In this blog, we first cover the basics of what 3D virtual photography is and see how it's different from traditional photography. Before jumping straight into our three examples of where 3D virtual photography is used to create product visuals when it’s not possible to photograph them.

What is 3D virtual photography?

This photorealistic living room scene is produced entirely with 3D virtual photography, also known as 3D rendering.

3D virtual photography is the art of using software to produce photorealistic imagery. While the process doesn't actually use any cameras or virtual photographers, the term was developed precisely because it can be so hard to tell computer-generated images (CGI) apart from real photography. 

Although the results look the same, 3D virtual photography (also known as 3D rendering) has many additional benefits. Topping the list, is the fact that 3D allows companies to create product visuals - even without the need for a physical product. And that’s pretty revolutionary.

What's the main difference between traditional and 3D virtual photography?

3D virtual photography requires far less time and resources than traditional photography, needing only a 3D designer, computer and software.

Imagine for a second that a company wants to take product photos. Using traditional photography, they have to decide if they want to shoot in a studio or another location, and make all sorts of decisions about props and lighting. 

Fast-forward to the post-production stage and once the photos are selected and edited, they’re final. It’s simply no longer possible to swap out a prop for another one, or make any changes at all. 

Old-school photography requires taking photos of something real. But with a 3D virtual photoshoot, all you really need are the 3D models, a designer and the software to do the rest. 

Taking the same product visualization example, you still need a few photos or CAD files to make a 3D model, but without any of the extra hassle of setting up a photoshoot. This offers a whole new level of flexibility. 

Even making it possible to capture things that traditional photography can't. For example, a team in the US can create product visuals of a product manufactured in Mexico - without any travel or transportation involved. Or perhaps the product doesn't even exist yet. 

With virtual photography, you don’t need to take photos of your product in every size or colour. And sometimes, it’s enough to create visuals from 3D designs instead of the finished product. 

Here’s a quick recap of the main differences:

  • Traditional photo shoots take a lot more time, organization, and manpower than virtual photography. Requiring photographers, a DSLR camera, studio access, and the necessary props, natural light or lighting equipment for styled shoots. It may also involve shipping or transporting a product to the photographer or photoshoot site, as well as product assembly, like with furniture or kitchens.
  • Virtual photography, by comparison, has everything you need right at your fingertips. After creating a 3D model, you can use it to produce as many high resolution 2D/3D product visuals as you require, and instantly add on AR/VR experiences. Place it in virtually any scene, real or imagined. And easily distribute it across all your channels - without ever needing the physical product as you would in a traditional photo shoot.

Next, let’s look at 3 example scenarios why you should choose 3D virtual photography to create product visuals.

Example 1. Using 3D to produce visuals for products on demand

It's not so unusual to sell something before it's been made. Think about any on-demand or custom solution. From customizing a new pair of kicks to designing your dream kitchen, the final image of what you want has to be created, not shot. 

In these cases, 3D is often used to create high quality images to help communicate the customer's idea before placing an order.

A similar scenario where 3D/AR is used is to A/B test ideas on the market and test the demand for different colors, patterns, or measurements before going into production.

Case Study: Nike

For companies like Nike that offer a lot of product variety using different materials or even 50+ colours, it is often not possible or cost effective to shoot the products in every available color or configuration. 

3D easily overcomes this type of problem. From a single 3D model, CGTrader can create all the product variations that you want to sell.

'Nike By You' uses 3D technology to allow customers to explore their product range and construct their own original sneakers directly on the website, enabling customization and orders at scale. 

At the same time, Nike also learns and collects data on which selections are the most popular among their users, and feeds that valuable information right back into the business.

Example 2. Using 3D to produce visual content for products with a long time to market

Companies like Apple use 3D virtual photography and all computer-generated imagery (CGI) to showcase their new products.

In our interconnected world, it's often the case that companies operate in many different parts of the world. In which case, it can take a long time to put everything together, adding pressure on the time available for producing visuals through photography. 

Products with a long time to market - the time it takes to bring a new concept to market - can be particularly challenging. Given the importance of advertising to product success, for example, it’s not always possible for marketing to wait for the finished product. 

That's where 3D virtual photography comes in and is already being used by big corporations like Apple and Sony for their regular product launches. 3D allows companies to get their product out to the public faster, and before anyone beats them to it. 

Case Study: Apple

Industry leader Apple uses 3D virtual photography for everything: from producing those highly anticipated sneak previews for pre-orders to keynote presentations, advertising campaigns, and more.

In fact, the entire Apple website no longer uses any product photography at all. In order to make each iPhone and iPad look absolutely crisp in pixel-perfect detail, Apple uses 3D renders of all their products. 

And this makes sense too, as the company is a pioneer in the 3D/AR space, making AR and 3D models available to every iPhone user via its native internet browser with ARKit 4.

Example 3. Using 3D in product prototyping

Before design and prototyping was fully digitized using software such as CAD and 3D modeling, everything was done by hand with drawings or using art materials like paper or clay.

Now, 3D modeling has completely changed how prototypes and new products are designed and manufactured across multiple industries. 

Designers or engineers can even 3D-print their prototypes as part of the R&D process, sparing buckets of time and resources compared to traditional prototyping methods. 

The drastic difference in the time it takes to iterate and work up digital prototypes from physical ones means that today’s designers can produce more accurate and scalable results for a fraction of the time and cost.

Case Study: Rollie Nation

A designer himself, Rollie Nation CEO Vince Lebanon still actively contributes to the creation of new collections. Leveraging 3D prototyping, he is able to accelerate product development and test out different materials directly in 3D. This not only helps to streamline a lot of the creative work but also gives his clients a better picture of the design limitations and end result.

Speaking of his own experience using 3D to launch a new sneakers category, Vince explains: 

I believe that 3D had a significant part to play because people thought it was super cool. They could spin it around, they could see it in their space. It’s a great way to showcase our new designs and amplify the new product offering.

Why companies are switching to virtual photography now

The social distancing and lockdowns that became synonymous with the global pandemic restricted a lot of traditional photography activity. Many photographers had little choice but to turn their focus to digital and virtual solutions. 

In eCommerce, the ability to produce product visuals without a physical product is ultimately what kept the lights on for a number of retailers. But even in normal times, there are several commercial instances when traditional photography simply won't work. 

In addition to the three examples we’ve already seen, virtual photography is used to overcome physical boundaries, produce visuals at scale, and support rich customization. 

Not only is 3D often a cheaper and easier way to produce and upload product visuals, it's also environmentally friendly, requiring far fewer resources. Are you ready to join the growing movement of companies switching from traditional eCommerce photography to virtual photoshoots? 

Get in touch to find out how you can get started with 3D virtual photography.

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3 scenarios where you need 3D virtual photography for product visuals

Lara Oliveira is a Content Writer at CGTrader ARsenal. A meticulous researcher and copywriter, Lara has over a decade of B2B experience writing for wildly different industries - now focused on 3D and AR in eCommerce. Thanks to an odd childhood growing up around the world, Lara speaks 5 languages, and in her remaining spare time, writes a food, travel, and lifestyle blog.

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