Is automotive and product cinematography a dying art?

I was hired to shoot some promotional material for the new Mazda 3 but I have been hesitating to write about it because I didn’t want this to be a post about “how to shoot and light cars”. When I was pre-lighting for this job I remember having the thought, “boy this is a lot of work to shoot a car. Why isn’t this being done as computer generated images?”  This is not my first time doing cars, but while information about “lighting and shooting” cars is informative, there is enough technical material out there already. More importantly however, what came to mind on the pre-light day was “shooting cars is quickly becoming a lost art!” It has already become a history lesson for the stills photographer. At one time photographers could make up a decent part of their yearly wage shooting cars and trucks, but in today’s economy it has become the domain of the CGI artist who instead, build photo-realistic 3D computer generated models.  Like anything new, computer generated production was at one point cost prohibitive and not completely convincing in it’s intent. This is not the case any longer, and software, like camera technology, both share the same trajectory; cheaper, faster and better with each passing month. This might be obvious but it leads me to my next point.

Eventually, I believe all table top still and motion photography will eventually be replaced by computer generated imagery. Currently, anything that is non-organic, like tubes of toothpaste, cars, shampoo bottles, cookware, watches, bottles, perfume, etc. can be created simpler, and arguably cheaper than photographing it for real. However, I do think shooting fashion and food products the traditional way still has some longevity simply for the fact that people and food still don’t look photo-realistic enough. But as technology improves we will climb out of the uncanny valley and not think twice about human and food CGI as looking nothing but completely convincing. In fact, much of the stuff you see in magazines is already created virtually. The path is clear. We started with film cameras, which was replaced by capturing digitally and now digital cameras will be replaced for total CGI production. It is evolution at play, regardless of how disruptive.

We did our car shoot for real, so what gives?  The caveat with CGI is still motion. We had lots of moving interior and exterior shots to make. If you add movement to CGI the pricing suddenly sky-rockets.  A few simple motion set-ups can be more expensive to render than hiring an entire crew for the day. Case in point, we managed over 45 different moving camera shots on this day. It was an insane schedule that almost killed the crew but I wonder how much 45 motion CGI shots would cost in comparison?  I also think shooting a car blasting through the desert using a Russian Arm is still easier and cheaper than creating it in CGI.  But the price advantage of shooting moving shots still doesn’t erase the writing on the wall. CGI is the solution to a problem and it only takes a matter of time before prices drop to the point where the cost is more affordable than shooting it for real. When that day arrives, and it will, the days of trying to shoe-horn a large motion picture camera in the back seat of a car to photograph the dash will become a page for the history books.

alexa in car

Here is the finished video of what we shot that day. About 45 camera set-ups got us many interior and exterior assets. If you need lots of motion content, shooting the real thing is still the way to go. These videos were produced by Coolfire Productions in Toronto.

Now take a look at some amazing photo realistic work done by CGI automotive specialist, Tim Feher. He has an impressive body of work that proves how realistic CGI automotive work can be. Reflections and lighting are everything in product photography which takes lots of expertise, patience and time. In the computer, it is easy to do and you get exactly what you want. Look at the Charger below. It looks like the real thing photographed against a nice white studio back drop. The reflections and exposure work are perfect. Now imagine being able to dolly and crane and move the “camera” all over this model. You could pull out of the window of the car and reveal the whole exterior in one shot. That would be a very difficult and expensive move to replicate in real life but in CGI the possibilities are almost infinite.


Interior car

interor3 interior2


If you have read this far, you might be interested in seeing one of Tim’s tutorials. Just after the :38 minute mark it gets interesting because he shows you how to light the car through software! Amazing stuff.

Here are some samples of other products that are also all completely computer generated.



3G bottles rolex









































If you made it this far, you might be interested in seeing If you made it this far, you might 


4 thoughts on “Is automotive and product cinematography a dying art?

  1. Something that photographers tend to miss is the fact that they will still be need to oversee the creation of the CG image. They will become more creative directors than simply photographer.
    There is usually still the back plate that need to be shot as it is cheaper and quicker than creating a realistic background. The photographer experience and eye is always needed. So photographers will have to adapt but there should be still plenty of work for them.

  2. As a long-time CGI artist, I’ve been aware of this trend, but it just occurred to me to wonder why there have been no truth-in-advertising issues around the use of CGI in place of the “real” product. I remember a food photographer years ago telling me the hoops they had to go thru to use real food in advertisements. Even though watered-down white glue looks more like milk than milk does, but they had to use real milk or risk a truth-in-advertising lawsuit. Why no problems when a CGI car (or food, or watch) is used in place of the real thing? It seems perverse. Or just another case of the law lagging laughably behind the ever-increasing pace of technology.

  3. Pingback: Shooting the new 2015 ACURA TLX. Exteriors shots made with CGI. | Cinematography and Photography Production blog

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