Whether you like it or not, our current understanding of what it means to be a commercial product photographer is changing, and we photographers better get on board if we want to stay relevant.
It is now, technically speaking, easier than ever to create hyper-real 3D rendered images that are indistinguishable from photographs using 3D rendering software such as MODO, Cinema 4D and 3DS Max. In fact a large proportion of advertising imagery is already created using 3D software but you probably wouldn't even know. For example IKEA has now replaced over 75% of its traditional 'photography' with CGI and virtually all high-end automotive imagery is, at least in part, created in 3D software. This makes commercial sense when you consider some of the advantages that 3D rendering offers. Products don’t have to ‘physically exist’ anymore as visualisations of a product can be realised prior to manufacture, using just the initial CAD drawings. For larger shoots, CGI considerably reduces photographic production costs, as it means sets, backgrounds and locations can be created using software, which is one of the main reasons automotive photography now relies heavily on CGI. Additionally, 3D renders can be revisited later and adapted as many times as required which has many obvious practicalities. And finally, in my opinion CGI just has a certain 'look', which works great for certain products such as cars, jewellery, drinks and cosmetics. When used in conjunction with photography and Photoshop the creative possibilities are endless.
So should photographers be fearful of these changes? Far from it, in my opinion. I am certain that talented, motivated and open minded photographers will make the best 3D artists if they are willing to embrace it. For example, understanding how light reacts to different objects, surfaces and environments, and how to use lighting to create the right mood and atmosphere, is vital to create great looking renders. You still need a great eye, a creative vision and an understanding of what works visually, which all good photographers should have. After all, CGI software (like a camera) is just a tool. For me, utilising CGI is just another string to my artistic bow, which allows me more scope to realise my creative ideas. I don't see it as something to fear or as something to replace photography, but as a tool that allows me to push my creative boundaries and offer the best service to my clients, as part of a more integrated workflow.
Of course this only relates to commercial advertising photography, as CGI will never replace social photography or any kind of photography where authenticity gives the work its power and meaning (e.g. journalistic, wildlife, landscape etc.).
What's really exciting are the new creative possibilities that are now open to digital artists and photographers, as almost anything imaginable can be created in a virtual real-world environment. Concepts that would have been extremely costly/difficult, if not impossible, to realise in a studio, can now be modelled and rendered in 3D software and reworked as much as required. The creative process involved in photography will always play an important part in the industry; CGI will never replace the way an image or concept can develop organically through 'problem-solving' and 'happy accidents'. But the combination of the two will allow still-life photographers' creativity to be enhanced and expressed at its best.