Best Practices
Min. reading time
Profilbild des Autors
Daniel Erning
Content Marketing Manager

3D product visualization or product photography

Photography versus 3D rendering - DSLR camera next to laptop with 3D program
July 24, 2023

Overview and latest developments

One thing in advance: Photography and 3D production (CGI) are fundamentally no opponents. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the two disciplines even work closely together.

However, this article explains when one or the other really makes sense — with a particular focus on product marketing.

Stärken Schwächen
Produktfotografie - Niedrigschwelliger Einstieg
- Günstig für Einzelbilder
- Bilder mit Menschen
- Landschaftsbilder und Umgebungen
- Hoher manueller Aufwand
- Limitierte Anwendungen
- Abhängigkeiten, z. B. Location und Wetter
- Schlecht auf große Produktmengen skalierbar
3D Rendering - Sehr hohe Flexibilität
- Kurze Amortisationszeit durch hohe Wiederverwendbarkeit
- Unsichtbares sichtbar machen
- Kaum Logistik
- Produkt muss initial einmalig digitalisiert werden
- Authentische Darstellung von Menschen schwierig
- Spezielle Software notwendig

Whether online shops, manufacturers or large retailers: If you want to sell your products, you have to present them perfectly.

Competition in product marketing has become ever greater, and unique selling points are becoming increasingly difficult. Practically everything can be ordered and bought from anywhere; a product from Germany is often available in many versions from Asia.

Through dropshipping and platforms such as TEMU or Aliexpress, many low-quality products at competitive prices have further diluted the market.

Fierce competition from global providers in the low-price segment

The good news: sellers and product marketers of quality products have also gained ever better and new opportunities in recent years.

What shop windows and catalogs were in the 20th century are now moving and stationary pixels. Whether it's AR product demos or virtual trade fairs. Especially 360 degree product images and 3D views are for some product segments, such as shoes, furniture or Fashion It has become a new standard.

Show what you have: With visual content that makes the difference

Making the high quality of your own products virtually visible can be a major competitive advantage.

Physical products that are presented digitally as they really are before they are purchased stand out from the flood of offers and have been proven to result in fewer returns.

Professional product photography on the one hand and 3D visualizations on the other hand offer exactly the options for this.

The demand for digital, visual content in retail is also not abating. The Online share of total retail sales Germany has been growing for years. Although it declined in 2022, according to experts, this is particularly due to the corona effect with above-average growth in 2020 and 2021.

One thing is clear: Anyone who creates digital and multifunctional product visuals is in very good hands for all applications in the digital world.

Product marketing standards are shifting

An essential keyword for success in eCommerce: user experience. Parallel to the boom in online shopping and the decline in brick-and-mortar retail, smartphones have become a place with thousands of virtual shop windows from countless retailers. And the easier and better the customer finds his desired product in this oversupply and is able to fully examine it, the more likely he or she is stuck and makes the last click.

Surveys and studies show the great importance of product images and visualizations for product marketing: For 87%, clear product images are the The most important element of the online shopping experience. The number of returns is also directly related to the quality of product visualizations, such as Survey by market research company GWI shows. According to this, 42% of respondents would recommend using better product images to reduce the number of returns — only the optimization of product descriptions is even more important to customers.

The development of sales in both sectors of the economy is also interesting: While the turnover of photography and photo laboratories according to Statista surveys was declining to stagnating in the 2010s, see Market observer for CGI services significant growth is ahead.

A new aid for product visualization

Traditional photography — with staging, shooting and post-production — is often used to present products. Even in photography, developments have not stopped here; for example, 360 degree views can be suggested in this way: A product is placed on a turntable and illuminated from various perspectives to create the impression of an all-round image.

Example of a simple 360 degree view through photography, as found in many online shops. The shoe can be seen all around, but the view stutters because it consists of a few individual images:

And as already mentioned, the point is not that one technology is fundamentally better than another. It is rather the case that the 3D revolution offers fundamentally new opportunities. Photography will continue to be the tool of choice for some manufacturers and shops.

Example of a 3D-generated, free-moving view that can be easily integrated into online shops. The tire can be seen smoothly from all sides, as it has been digitally and faithfully reproduced:

What can product photography do today?

Product photography — or rather: professional photographers and Photoshop designers — creates emotionally appealing images for product marketing.

Light, shadow, colors on the one hand and the environment and perspectives on the other must be well planned for a shoot in order to achieve the desired results. A few things can then be reworked on the computer, but if only one perspective is incorrect, it must be shot again in case of doubt. Photography therefore basically only captures a single moment with a very specific setup, which may have to be created again in order to produce comparable images.

Professionals for lifestyle and premium products are still working and will probably continue to do so. Landscapes and people in particular are much easier to capture in an authentic and emotional image with the camera.

The spontaneity of taking something unplanned during a photo shoot is also a particular advantage, which plays a role in product photography in interaction with people in the picture. However, CGI and 3D are also moving into the clothing industry. One of many examples is the Cooperation between Hugo Boss and Adobe, which was launched at the end of 2022.

If the visual content for the product is only to be shown for a short time, a sustainable and long-term strategy for the product images doesn't really matter, classic photography often comes out on top here.

In the middle segment of consumer products and especially in the lower segment (see dropshipping), so-called 360-degree photo boxes are now also being used. This is where additional technology for camera or product photography comes into play.

360 degree photo box

A 360-degree photo box is a device that is equipped with many cameras around a turntable and automatically photographs products in order to be able to display them from a wide variety of perspectives for the online shop.

Mass photography is used here to allow products to be photographed quickly and efficiently from the same perspectives and also to be able to offer all-round views, even if the result does not produce a smooth 360-degree view.

Unless the product doesn't even exist yet or should be shown from angles that are difficult or difficult to photograph. Just imagine the cross section of a car or a house.

This brings us to 3D rendering, whose origins are actually closely linked to the automotive and construction industries.

What can 3D rendering and CGI do?

In short, anything is possible with 3D rendering. Experienced 3D designers can implement anything you can imagine in 2D or 3D in the form of rendered images, animations or interactive applications. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has long since grown out of the film and real estate industries and has arrived in daily product marketing.

With 3D production, real sets are completely obsolete, just like a photo shoot — conception and production can be 100% digital. Products, environment, light and movement are virtually simulated, which means that these scenes can be retrieved again and again, in contrast to product photography. All of the above elements of the virtual product shoot can be replaced and reused for other scenarios.

3D technology in product marketing is also particularly useful for areas and solutions that many entrepreneurs and marketing managers are often not even aware of.

3D rendering, the realistic 3D visualization, offers companies an extensive range of options for product marketing.

What is 3D rendering exactly?
Rendering is generally the process of creating an image from a model or description. It is used for computer graphics, animations, and visual effects.
At its core, 3D rendering refers to the process of creating a two-dimensional image or a Animation based on a three-dimensional model. Special software and computer algorithms are used to calculate the interactions of light, textures and materials within a virtual scene and finally generate a realistic representation of the model. This technology enables designers, architects, and artists to better visualize and communicate their ideas.

3D rendering as an alternative to product photography

1. Independence

While the photographer and the product must meet in time and place, 3D rendering works regardless of location and does not have to take into account weather conditions and lighting conditions.

As a result, logistical effort and corresponding costs can be significantly reduced over the long term.

2. Flexibility

An example of particularly flexible product marketing through 3D visualizations: A furniture manufacturer wants to push the product launch for a new couch with images, videos and interactive product animations. But so far, the couch has only been available as a concept.

3D artists can use 3D data (e.g. STEP or CAD) to produce extensive digital assets in advance, which are already ready before the product launch. Special help: If something changes on the couch at short notice, it is simply adjusted in the 3D model and all produced assets can be re-rendered in a very short time, virtually at the push of a button. No new shooting or complex photo editing is necessary.

3. Adaptability

Another example can be seen in entire product portfolios. If, for example, a detail changes in an entire product series, this can easily be adjusted in the digitized product inventory. If your own assets are set up accordingly via a website, online shops or the company's own DAM (data asset management), such adjustments can even be synchronized in real time. No need for manual and tedious replacement of selective assets.

4. Reusability

If you look at the processes used for 3D rendering, another unique selling point becomes clear: Since a product creates a 3D model and becomes a realistic, “digital twin” with corresponding surfaces, it can be reused for all sorts of applications: further 3D images, new settings and presentations, 3D videos, animations or product configurators. The imagination really has no limits.

Take advantage of completely new opportunities with 3D visualization

Many companies that have worked with 3D visualizations for the first time have become aware of this because of a particular advantage of this technology: In order to make the invisible visible.

One example: industrial companies that develop highly specialized, technical products and are characterized by quality and finesse.

As a manufacturer or supplier of these products, it is particularly important to make the quality and technology visible, which is often incomprehensible from the outside or at first glance. It helps to make exactly the highlights of the products, every detail and every hidden function visible and practical for the customer to touch and experience.
3D animated insights into the product, a look behind the scenes, so to speak, creates exactly that — or even a 2D cross-section of the product created from a 3D design.

3D makes the invisible visible

The integration of 3D visualizations and 3D animations has also improved various aspects of healthcare. Medical education, patient education, diagnostic accuracy, surgical planning, and pharmaceutical research and development have already benefited from 3D applications.

The world is complex, and products and services have also become more complex. Companies that offer services that are difficult to understand can explain and convince more quickly with visualizations, particularly in 3D.

Pipeline management for product portfolios

Larger manufacturers and retailers must manage huge portfolios of products and the corresponding content (images, videos, product data). Yet there is often a great deal of and different content about a product that must be kept up to date and perhaps kept in sync with the corporate identity (CI).

Managed centrally in a management system as a 3D model, adjustments can be made very easily and of high quality. Different perspectives and variants of products are easy to digitally maintain the same look and feel.

Producing visual content alone can take up a great deal of time and logistical resources with product photography. Simple photo references may be sufficient for 3D visualization; it is even faster with existing 3D data, which is already available with some products.

Cost comparison: 3D rendering versus product photography

In general, the extensive options offered by 3D visualizations on the one hand and product photography on the other cannot be seriously compared.

But there are a few basic assumptions that are useful for classification when creating product visualizations:

  • The more images and applications you want to take for a product, the more efficient and cost-effective 3D solutions are.
  • The more flexibility required in product visualization (correction loops, new perspectives, different presentations), the cheaper 3D solutions are.
  • The more similar products are to be visually presented, the cheaper 3D solutions become.
  • Images with people and natural environments are produced more cheaply with product photography.
  • Individual short-lived products that barely change can be realized faster and cheaper with product photography.

Schematic diagram: Over the life cycle of a product, 3D visualization pays off very quickly and offers enormous flexibility.

Overview: Costs of product images for various scenarios

Product images as cutouts:

Suitors are product images without a background. They are the easiest way to present products and a popular content format for online shops. They are also the cheapest option in production. Similar to a Packshot Put the product (including packaging) in absolute focus.

In classic product photography, the effort required for a unique product image is basically comparable: A location is required, the product must be on site and a professional photographer creates a desired image on site using light and shadow. It is then edited in Photoshop, for example to correct errors or achieve effects that are difficult with conventional photography, such as that all products have the same look and feel even though they were shot in different settings.

For 3D rendering, a digital twin is created once, on the basis of which the images are rendered. To do this, this digital product twin is positioned in a virtual studio, camera perspectives are defined and the desired images are finally generated.

For every additional image (or other visualization) created by a product in the future, 3D rendering simply requires rendering a new image created on the computer; the cost of additional images decreases significantly.

As a rule, nothing changes in product photography, the effort remains the same, another shoot is carried out here, the costs remain the same.

Products in the environment:

For product images that are staged in an environment, the cost ratio between 3D visualizations and product photography is similar to that of freelancers.

Once in a while, product photography is often cheaper. Compared to the freelancer, the effort involved with an environment is usually greater.

As soon as new images for the same product are involved, for example because the product is to be visualized in a different context and a new image idea, 3D visualization can draw on the existing 3D model and create new content for product marketing much more cost-effectively and often faster.

Lifestyle images with people:

In-context photography or lifestyle images means the presentation of products in the context of using the product, which often involves people or the user. Product photography is often the first choice here, as it is still very complex to authentically digitally visualize people.

Pictures for product portfolios:

As described above, the use of 3D visualizations increases significantly with the number of images that are to be created for a single product, making product images cheaper.

Consumer products such as furniture or shoes often have a variety of variants, thanks to designs in a wide variety of colors and materials or slight changes. Product images using 3D visualizations have an advantage here, as 3D models can be reused accordingly and only small adjustments must be made digitally.

Another case: Suppliers and manufacturers from industry continue to develop their systems, components and other products from time to time, with only components changing.

3D rendering offers great added value here, because it also only needs to be adjusted.

The situation is similar with products and different labels, be it varieties or translations for sales markets in foreign language countries. Even though adjustments can be made in the post-processing of product images in InDesign or Photoshop, this is more complex compared to adjustments to the 3D object in order to deliver similar quality.

The consistent quality of product images in a portfolio or across an online shop is another factor where 3D visualizations score points.

Compared to product photography, 3D renderings make it easy to guarantee the same lighting conditions, moods or presentations for an entire product range or shop. Especially since several photographers are involved in photography for extensive portfolios or the equipment can change over time.

Animation, product configurator and other applications:

Animations or interactive moving images in product marketing are becoming increasingly popular. On the one hand, because smartphones and larger data transmissions now make these content formats possible and on the other hand because users can view and experience products that are even more immersive and comprehensive.

For diverse product categories, such as furniture, so-called product configurators have become established in online shops. Here, the user virtually assembles their end product themselves, tests out various colors and materials, and even virtually presents the product in front of themselves in a room using an AR solution. 3D models make this possible in the first place. The assembled couch only moves virtually into the living room with just a few clicks — and with a few more clicks, it ends up in the shopping cart.

One advantage of these extended and immersive buying experiences is the positive user experience, but also the decline in returns.

Aquinos, European furniture manufacturer with brands such as Schlaraffia, about the collaboration with RenderThat: “Since 2017, RenderThat has been working in partnership with us to produce content faster with reduced logistics at more attractive prices. The quality of the 3D renderings is great and you don't see any difference to real photos.”

Costs of product photography

The costs of product photography are fundamentally dependent on the following factors:

  • number of pictures: Photographers often charge for packages of product images. Further, new images due to new shootings significantly increase costs.
  • Location: Access routes are just as much a cost factor as the type of location, whether there is challenging terrain or lighting conditions, for example.
  • Complexity: Is it just a freelancer or the presentation of a product in an environment or with performers.
  • Photographer quality: Experience and expertise, e.g. for a specific subject area, have a major influence on the prices for product images.
  • Quality of images: How high resolution should the images be? Out of home advertising images or print campaigns, for example, will also require extensive post-processing.
  • Post-production: Post-processing with Photoshop is standard. Depending on the goal, this can result in a large part of the costs.
  • Models and staff on site: Depending on the requirements and scope of the shoots, further personnel costs must be estimated by models in front of or behind the camera.

3D rendering costs

The costs for 3D visualizations — from modeling to so-called shading and staging to rendering — are fundamentally dependent on the following factors:

  • Complexity of a product: The nature of a product in terms of shape, color and surface.
  • Quality of references: Photos, 3D data or product samples — the quality of the references is the basis.
  • Virtual set-up: Digital environment that serves as a stage for a product for scenes and animations.
  • Output formats: Final usage format (image, animation, interactive application).
  • Synergy effects: Product quantity, prospects and variations have the greatest influence on the price.
  • Timeframe: Urgency and deadlines are decisive when calculating prices.

For a single product, which is first digitized (digital twin) by producing the structure as a 3D model with appropriate software (modeling), and then provided with the correct textures and surfaces (shading), prices start at 500€. In return, clients receive several realistic visualizations from different perspectives as freelancers.

For each additional view or even an additional presentation, the 3D model of the product can then be used and synergy effects can be used.

Product photography setup and process

In order to visualize an individual product for an online shop or an advertising motif, there are typical procedures in product photography: From the conception and preparation of the shoot to time and place to the appropriate equipment and lighting design, it's time and place to the appropriate equipment and lighting design. Post-production is then carried out using image processing software and possible changes can be made to the specific image.

If the product portfolio is extensive or if adjustments and new requirements have to be taken into account, these steps must be repeated more or less extensively.

That's why it's important to know right from the start what you actually want to achieve: Do I only need images for a one-off project? Am I setting up a digital warehouse? Should all my channels and publications be delivered? What is the role of suppliers? This production process in photography is linear. In order to edit or change previous steps, the following steps must be manually retouched.

If you want to create (have) product images created for online shops, you will also receive product images here basic tips and creative ideas for staging.

Product photography setup: The equipment makes the difference

Camera: The main tool used by photographers to take pictures. Professional photographers often use digital SLR (DSLR) or mirrorless cameras, which offer advanced features and better image quality.

Lenses: With different lenses, photographers can achieve different perspectives and focal lengths. These include wide-angle lenses for landscapes, telephoto lenses for faraway subjects, and fixed focal lengths for portraits or in low-light conditions.

Light: An external flash unit provides additional light when the available lighting conditions are insufficient. It helps control shadows, add brightening light, and improve overall exposure.

Light reflectors: Available in various sizes and shapes, these portable devices allow the photographer to manipulate and redirect natural or artificial light. Reflectors can be used to direct light to the subject, fill in shadows, or create specific lighting effects.

Editing software: Professional photographers use powerful editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, to post-process their images. These programs allow exposure adjustments, color corrections, retouching, and other enhancements.

3D rendering setup and process

Product images using 3D rendering offer significantly more flexibility, particularly as the product life cycle progresses and for product marketing.

Here, on the other hand, the initial effort is slightly higher, which is reflected in the process scheme compared to product photography.

A concept is first developed for an individual product image. Depending on the scope of the reference data (CAD, STEP or other digital specifications) or available product images, an exact 3D model of the product is created. The digital object, the digital twin of the product, can then be coated with realistic surfaces and presented in the right light to finally create the desired images from any perspective and scenery. In the last step, the desired product image is rendered from the very large data in the required file format.

3D rendering setup - find the right software

There are several options for the various work steps required to create 3D renderings or 3D visualizations.

In any case, the right software and, of course, the expertise to use it are a must.

There is a whole range of tools and software solutions for creating a pure 3D model. Further or all steps of further production are often possible even with a tool or provider.

The most well-known applications in the area of 3D modeling and 3D rendering are in this list:

  • Autodesk 3ds Max: This comprehensive 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software provides a wide range of features for creating high-quality renderings.
  • Blender: An open-source 3D creation suite that offers powerful rendering capabilities, including photorealistic rendering using the Cycles rendering engine.
  • Chaos Group V-Ray: V-Ray is a widely used rendering engine that integrates with various 3D modeling software and provides advanced lighting and shading options for realistic renderings.
  • Unreal Engine: The Unreal Engine is primarily used for real-time rendering in the gaming industry, but it also provides robust features for architectural visualization and product design.
  • Rhino: Rhino, also known as Rhino 3D or Rhinoceros, is popular software for 3D computer graphics and computer-aided design (CAD).
  • Maya: Maya, also known as Autodesk Maya, is a comprehensive 3D computer graphics software used for animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering. It is often used in the entertainment industry to create visual effects in movies, video games, and TV shows.
  • Cinema 4D: Cinema 4D is professional 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software developed by Maxon. It offers a wide range of features for creating realistic 3D graphics, visual effects, motion graphics, and simulations.

Beyerdynamic, manufacturer of high-quality audio products, about working with RenderThat: “For us, being able to use product videos, animations or cutouts with excellent quality and cool perspectives even before the actual sale means significant budget and time savings in marketing.”

The 10 advantages of 3D visualization over traditional product photography

Advanced 3D software and powerful computers make this possible. In addition to the comparatively simple generation of product images, 3D technology creates completely new options: product configurators with which customers can assemble their product in a playful way and directly in the shop. Or even the digitization of entire product portfolios, which makes it particularly easy to keep information and product specifications in sync.

Compared to product photography, 3D visualization has a whole range of advantages, which can also be significantly reflected in the overall costs.

1. Logistical costs are drastically reduced.

  • No product samples that have to be sent across the world.
  • No need to assemble and disassemble products.
  • No travel and resource commitment on the part of a large team consisting of marketing, product, photographers and managers, as in a photo shoot.
  • Digital production also makes it possible to visualize products without an existing product sample. 3D data, reference photos or technical drawings are sufficient.
  • Post-production is easier
  • Availability/Photograph prototypes before launch/creation

2. Changes or retouching to the product are made centrally to the virtually created product.

  • The retouching of individual details can be applied directly to all created content formats for the product.
  • Subsequent changes to the product can also be easily created again later on.
  • Digital production builds the perfect product as a basis for visualization.

3. Scaling, part 1: New perspectives at the push of a button.

  • Once digitized, further camera angles are digitally easy to produce.
  • For a uniform look and feel, perspective settings can simply be transferred to large portfolios as default settings.

4. Scaling, part 2: New variants without Photoshop.

  • Products in different colors or materials are easy to digitally implement; the product cover is easy to replace.
  • This also helps with products whose packaging or labels must change in parallel across countries.
  • Here, too, adjustments can easily be reflected across broad portfolios.

5. Scaling, part 3: New content formats without a new shoot.

  • Once digitized, the product is comparatively easy to expand to other formats, including interactive ones.
  • Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), animations or 360 degree images.
  • For a classic video shoot, completely different conditions must be created, and the effort is significantly increased.
  • More and more online shops and customers are demanding these more modern content formats, which have a positive effect on the user experience.

6. Reorders of visual content are easy to handle.

  • If the portfolio is expanded later, new visual content can be easily reproduced.
  • Camera perspectives or even virtual environments from previously generated product images, animations or videos can be reused and a new product can simply be inserted.
  • Existing digital twins can be easily adapted or used as a basis for a new product.

7. Flexible and reusable scenes and environments.

  • 3D models of products can be flexibly placed in various scenes, which in turn can be reused.
  • Once created, for example, you can easily create new ones from a single environment for product images, which in turn is scalable for larger portfolios.
  • Since setups and settings are 100% digital, classic, resource-intensive setups are omitted.

8. 100% digital processes enable standards for quality and high efficiency.

  • From the digitization of products to approval processes and resource distribution, visualization and post-production, standards can be implemented significantly better in the digital world.
  • This enables significantly increased efficiency and makes it easy to set standards.
  • We work directly in the digital world and don't always have to switch analog-digital-analog-digital.

9. Easy monitoring online at any time.

  • By working completely digitally, production can be better controlled in a data and content management tool.
  • Individual steps along the way from initial contact to final visual content take place digitally and can be easily understood.

10. Trending: Permanently more sustainable & cheaper.

  • Through scalable and reusable work steps and reduction of costs in logistics and analog, manual work, 3D visualization is significantly more sustainable.
  • The sum of all benefits ensures efficiency and cheaper implementation.

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