A Photographer’s Journey into Virtual Photography

Clément Bourcier details how 3D virtual photography can complement more conventional photography, when creating product marketing visuals.

Clément Bourcier has been working as a photographer since 2014, both for studios and on a freelance basis, creating product visuals for companies including Quechua, Millet, Tag Heuer, and Rossignol. More recently, Clément has increasingly adopted a 3D workflow in parallel with more traditional photographic methods. He kindly took the time to detail his transition across to 3D, and the advantages that a 3D workflow can provide.

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.

A 3D render; product visual for Dynastar.

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!

The majority of visuals are ‘packshots’ which are used to create content for e-commerce and catalogs. But you also have to juggle requests for advertising shoots for product launch campaigns. And so it can be difficult to have the time to be creative, or to find the budget to set up elaborate scenography.

Clément’s conventional photography work.

This is why I gradually started to integrate 3D into my creative process. It allowed me to explore new creative avenues and to eliminate the constraints of a ‘classic’ shoot. Working in 3D, I found it was suddenly possible to develop communication supports that were much more complex, and which allowed me to convey a message in a more visually striking way. This approach has opened up a universe of possibilities.

A collection of Clement’s 3D renders, from virtual ‘photo shoots’.

Learning 3D

I only came to 3D in 2018, with Cinema 4D R19. I’d tried C4D back in 2010, but that had been a frustrating, time-consuming experience; I ultimately focused solely on photography. Returning to 3D in 2018 was a completely different experience. Rendering engines now used the GPU, hardware had become much more affordable, material libraries had appeared online, and there were now a multitude of tutorials available that covered every possible question. Learning 3D had become much easier.

Concept shot test for Demetz brand.

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.

Texturing the Demetz glasses in Substance Painter.

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.

Given the quantity of visuals you need to produce for this kind of project, the overall goal is to work fairly quickly. It would impossible to be competitive (compared to the cost of a photo studio) if you were to model the glasses from scratch, especially for still images. Fortunately, Bollé was able to provide CAD files for all their products.

In eyewear, you have to distinguish between glasses made from injected plastic, and those made of acetate or metal. In the case of plastic injection, factories create the molds from CAD files, while for acetate and metal glasses everything is developed from 2D plans or diagrams. As the SS2021 collection is entirely made from plastic injection, without any soft parts, no additional modeling work was necessary.

Glasses from the Bollé Eyewear Collection SS2021. All images by Clément Bourcier.

Since version R20, C4D allows you to import files directly. Once the .step files have been provided, you only need to import them into the software and choose the density of the desired mesh. A frequent problem is their sharp edges; I always try to round them off to get a more realistic result. There are many ways to accomplish this. In the case of a still image I’m not too worried about the quantity of polygons required, and I generally use C4D’s integrated volume generator, or even 3D Coat to smooth out certain parts. Recently, for projects where it’s necessary to keep the number of polygons quite small, I’ve been using the ‘Round Edges’ node in Octane. It’s very practical, and the result is fine for a light rounding.

My first idea during the preliminary tests was to unwrap the UVs and texture each frame in Substance Painter. The process of UV unwrapping, no matter which software you’re using, can be quite time-consuming, however. And given the quantity of visuals I had to produce, I quickly realized that this method, while ensuring high-quality results, would take too long. As the products were somewhat small, I opted to project the surfaces directly in C4D without any UV unwrapping. This greatly accelerated the process.

For the texturing, at the start of each one of my projects I look through the Substance Source library to select materials that are interesting; that was my approach here. The advantage with the downloaded .sbsar files is that I only need to put them in one place, in Substance Painter’s ‘shelf’ folder, to be able to access them from both Substance Painter and Substance Alchemist. In fact, I use Alchemist to view downloaded Substance materials, and change presets if necessary. Exporting is fairly simple, and is carried out with automatically named folders, which is very practical.

I like to work with material samples in my hands in order to perfectly match the reality of the product. I think this is a very important step in the process, whether this process involves reproducing the surface grain or even the subtle variations of transparency or color in the frames. In the case of the Bollé collection, the materials involved were plastics for the frame, and rubber for the ‘nose pad’ and the ‘end tip pad’. In all, I only used three Substance Source materials for the whole collection, Plastic Skin Wrinkle Grain Thin, Plastic Leather Grain Large, and Insulation Plastic Foam. I modified these in Octane depending on the needs of the particular product.

Octane shader node using Substance Source bitmaps (above).

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. 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.

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.

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.

Now, with hindsight and after having used photography as well as 3D to create e-commerce and advertising visuals in the eyewear industry, when I’m able to choose between 3D and more classic photography, I systematically opt for 3D. I’m not saying that you can’t get great visuals in photos; far from it. I just think that, for an equivalent level of quality on the final visuals, 3D allows you to save a significant amount of time. For me, glasses are the type of product that really allows you to see the advantages of such an approach. And this is even before considering the expanded creative possibilities available in 3D. More and more e-commerce platforms intend to develop the user experience by moving away from packshot images on a classic white background. With 3D, it’s easily conceivable to imagine a range of scenographies for an entire collection, but also 360s and atmospheric shoots within their own graphic universe.

Test image for Bollé collection.

However, it’s difficult to replace photography when products are worn by models, or when creating large quantities of visuals consisting of flexible materials. This is especially true in terms of clothing. In the end, I think it’s a matter of choosing the right tool based on the issues related to the product.

Test image for Bollé collection.

Meet Clément

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.