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Feb. 09, 2021, by Clément Bourcier
A Photographer’s Journey into Virtual Photography
Clément Bourcier details how 3D virtual photography can complement more conventional photography, when creating product marketing visuals.
A 3D render; product visual for Dynastar.
Clément: I’ve always been drawn to computer graphics, but it wasn’t until my last job with the multi-brand Rossignol group that I began to explore the possibilities that 3D can offer in image production. At that time, I joined Rossignol to create an in-house photo studio in order to meet the growing needs of the group in terms of creating visuals for both print and digital areas.
The first issue for an in-house studio is the ability to release a very large number of visuals while maintaining a high standard of quality. Photographers by nature tend to be highly creative professionals, but the active schedule of a studio can impose constraints when it comes to expressing that creativity. Essentially, all the processes that we put in place are intended to provide as much automation as possible, thereby increasing productivity. In short: it’s a factory!
Clément’s conventional photography work.
A collection of Clement’s 3D renders, from virtual ‘photo shoots’.
Texturing the Demetz glasses in Substance Painter.
When I was an in-house studio photographer I used Photoshop very intensively. And so when I started to become interested in texturing assets outside Cinema 4D one of the elements that drew me to Substance Painter was the fact that its layer system was very close to that of Photoshop, which I already knew. I also discovered Substance Source’s vast library of materials, and how these materials are easy to use in Substance Alchemist and Substance Painter. And it helped that the beginner tutorials in French by Vincent Gault were really enjoyable to follow.
Today, I use one or more of the Substance tools on all of my client projects. I often need to texture assets with relatively small surfaces and, in this case, I look for fine materials with microdetails that add to the realism of an image. To my mind, Substance Source is one of the libraries that best meets this need; it contains a really impressive number of materials intended for CMF designers and 3D artists.
The Bollé Collection
I was introduced to the Bollé brand by a former colleague of mine I’d worked with for the Tag Heuer brand, who’s now a product designer for Bollé. He contacted me because Bollé were curious to test out the possibility of working with 3D renders, and my former colleague was familiar with my experience in that sector.
I carried out some tests, and the results were sufficiently convincing to persuade Bollé’s marketing department to use 3D to meet their needs. The resulting project ‘Bollé Eyewear Collection SS2021’ was my first collaboration with the Bollé Group, but since then we’ve worked on other projects, particularly in 3D video.
Glasses from the Bollé Eyewear Collection SS2021. All images by Clément Bourcier.
I use the Octane and Redshift rendering engines in my daily workflow, but I confess I have a slight preference for Octane for simple projects, or projects where photorealism is important. Using the maps from Substance Source, the shaders remain clean and relatively simple. I only vary the albedo, depending on the colors of the models.
Octane shader node using Substance Source bitmaps (above).
For semi-transparent surfaces, I use a material with subsurface scattering properties, in addition to transmission.
A material with subsurface scattering properties, in addition to transmission (above).
The lens is a major part of the glasses, and it’s important to reproduce this as closely as possible to reality. This is frequently the part that requires the most back and forth with the designers, as the nuances are subtle. And so this is the only part where I unwrap the UVs, in order to have maximum control. As with the frames, I work with a sample book containing each type of lens. I use two different approaches, depending on whether the render will be a still image, or an image in movement. In the case of packshot visuals I use a gradient created in Photoshop, and connected to the transmission. Little more than this is needed; micro-adjustments are then carried out in Photoshop.
Node for static images.
For a moving image, some additional adjustments are required. Depending on the aesthetic treatment of a glass (mirrored, color gradation, classic), the colors of the lens change depending on which angle it’s viewed from, just as you’d find with a pearlescent material, or a pool of oil. To recreate this effect, I’ll experiment with the Thin Film Layer node to define the colors, and I’ll use the Coating Layer node to reinforce the effect. In the Thin Film Layer node, only the red slider in combination with the ‘IOR Film’ has any real effect on the colors. As a final note, the treatment of lenses is of course different on the inner face and the outer face. It’s therefore necessary to apply different materials.
Node for moving images (above); shifting colors on the glasses lens (below).
The final stage, which for me is the most interesting, is the lighting. At this point, I feel like I’m in a studio again moving around my light boxes and C-stands. I apply the same principles as in a ‘classic’ photoshoot, except that working in 3D everything goes faster, and the possibilities are limitless. I typically try out different lighting setups mostly using Octane’s area lights. The big advantage over a ‘real’ photoshoot is that you can choose which light affects which part of the glasses. So, with Octane’s ‘Light Linking’ system I can set my lights so that they illuminate only the frame, but don’t touch the lenses at all; this way, I can avoid undesirable reflections. Likewise, I can choose whether the light is visible only on the diffuse or specular of a material. In all, this provides enormous flexibility compared to a real studio shoot.
Lighting setup in Cinema 4D.
The Types of Use Case that Virtual Photography Handles Well
In certain cases, creating 3D images can provide advantages, in terms of efficiency. In the studio, the ‘still life’ shoots that impose most constraints are often those with highly reflective objects. Each reflection must be controlled with diffusion layers, which requires complex, heavy setups. The lenses of sunglasses, or of ski masks, are essentially as reflective as mirrors. Depending on the angle of the shot, the time spent touching up the photo can become significant. In 3D, as mentioned, that fact that you have total control over lights and reflections offers a huge advantage.
Management of depth of field
Another disadvantage of ‘classic’ photos is the management of depth of field. Glasses are small objects and, as you need to photograph them somewhat close up, it’s often difficult to have a perfectly sharp object even with a high aperture value. Typically, this would involve taking several images with differing focus points, and compositing them together in Photoshop. On top of this, you have to add time to clean and correct the products, as prototypes can sometimes contain flaws, such as poor surface finishes, badly integrated logos, or incorrect colors. Working in 3D, these issues disappear completely, and post-production becomes much more fluid.
Raw image from a product shoot before retouching.
Light studio setup for ski mask products.
Flexibility in scheduling
Here, I’m only talking about the advantages of 3D at the moment of creation of product visuals. For me, the real interest with creating product visuals in 3D, in comparison with a classic photo shoot, is in the flexibility it grants to companies, in terms of their schedule. The first visuals can be created immediately following the final validation of the product design, in parallel with the launch of the production tools. There’s no longer any need to wait around for prototypes – which might arrive late, causing you to rush a photoshoot. In the case of Bollé, for instance, this might have allowed them to advance their schedule by up to 5 months.
Based in Lyon, France, Clément has been working as a 3D artist on a freelance basis since July 2019. Prior to this, he worked extensively as an e-commerce advertising photographer, for a wide range of brands.