Unwanted: Photographers And Models?

Imagine that instead of setting up for weeks’ worth of fashion photography, complete with models, hundreds of outfits, hair stylists, and makeup artists, you create a virtual catalogue based on computer generated models, photos of body parts, and photographs of clothing items and accessories that customers can interact with. No glamorous models. No famous photographers. No make-up artists. No hair stylists. No expensive studios. Sound surreal? It is already a reality – a virtual one – but a reality nonetheless. Looklet is a company that has developed and delivered the technology that makes this scenario possible.

Svetlana

Technology – A Walk Back In Time

Ever since my days of working in an engineering software company, I have been keenly interested in seeing how fast CAD and imaging innovations would develop and how far they would progress. First came 2D wireframe modeling, which rapidly progressed to 3D surface and solid models. Eventually, integrated CAD modeling software enabled mechanical engineers to provide detailed “walk throughs” of ships, buildings, and car designs. The process of “rendering” further enabled engineers to create much more realistic looks for their designs. The associated rendering software, which blended realistic surfaces, textures, shading, and light reflections on the engineering models, required very expensive computer software and servers – often costing upwards of $150,000 or more. The rendering process could easily take a few days before the software completed its magic. And while impressive in their day, the resultant animated “walk throughs” of the objects could be rather slow and amateurish compared to the simplest of today’s video games.

Crude “working” models of machinery depicting the movement of parts soon followed on the heels of rendered CAD models. Eventually, such technology became available on lower-priced PCs via the ever-improving AutoCad software, which caused quite a disruption in the CAD software and engineering workstation marketplace.
Also arriving onto the scene in the early 90s was a new program designed for the Macintosh which some of us were experimenting with called… “Photoshop.” It promised to do for raster images (pixels), what CAD had done for vector data. While Photoshop became an immediate hit with graphics designers, those dabbling with early digital photography were rumored to have a keen interest in the application as well.

When CAD and imaging technology progressed enough in 1993, we witnessed the ground-breaking Jurassic Park movie that caused most of us to doubt our senses and significantly strained our ability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It gave the general public some insights into the myriad of technology advances that had been occurring behind the scenes in the engineering and imaging software fields.

Fast Forward

Increases in computer processing power and storage capacity, rapidly falling prices, combined with improvements in software technology, have created an ideal environment for computer generated images to rapidly approach their real world equivalents. The movie Avatar took a tremendous leap forward in improving the ability to make the virtual appear real. With each new high tech Hollywood film, we see the technology improve and the animated creatures, people, and scenes become more lifelike. At some juncture, much of what is virtual will likely be indistinguishable from what we consider real. Scary but true. I would suggest that this has profound implications for the world of photography that many of us have not fully comprehended.

The High Tech World Of Fashion Merchandising

We are now seeing a variety of similar CAD and imaging technologies making inroads in the world of fashion merchandising, an area that has traditionally provided good incomes to both photographers and models. Looklet’s LookCreator technology enables fashion merchandisers to create an extensive online clothing catalog based on a factory-type approach, reducing costs and time, while also improving customer’s flexibility of viewing the clothing on models of their choosing. Vente-Privee and H&M are two companies making extensive use of Looklet’s technology.

Looklet’s approach has significant appeal to clothing retailers, since the creation of a catalogue – either online or paper based – has traditionally represented a huge investment of both dollars and time. Not only is the creation of the catalog costly, but the time associated with the process can also be a gaiting factor for new clothing line introductions, since the traditional process would require a myriad of photo shoots. Looklet also enables clothing retailers to bring new items to market and refresh their catalogs faster and at lower costs.

How does Looklet accomplish its magic? While the company is loath to disclose the secrets of its intellectual property, it appears to be using a combination of the following:
• Photos of people’s body parts (eyes, ears, mouths, etc.)
• 3D CAD models of mannequins
• Various layering software that enables you to combine the above to create various looks
• Some image editing and rendering software that blend the various parts together to look more realistic
• Photos of clothing items
• A user interface that enables customers to select models by look or body style, and mix and match clothing items and accessories on them

Photos of clothing items are matched to the physiques and poses of the various models. Looklet provides an inventory of models to the clothing retailers, along with software that will enable shoppers to customize both the models and their clothing outfits. Thus shoppers can select a body shape – idealistic or perhaps closer to their own appearance – and create a myriad of looks and styles quickly and easily in ways that would be cost-prohibitive with traditional static photography catalogs. Don’t like the model’s hair style or color? Select another. Want a different pair of pants to go with the shirt? Drag them onto the model. While Looklet doesn’t completely eliminate the need for photographers and models, it drastically reduces their role and importance in the process.

While shoppers may give up a bit relative to some of the more artistic catalog photography backdrops, they ultimately gain through lower costs and more flexibility to see the clothing they are considering outfitted on models of their choice. Some catalogs even offer the opportunity for people to upload their own photos and better understand how an article of clothing might look on their frames, vs. that of a model which bears little resemblance to themselves. Despite some of the more sophisticated computer technologies that may be behind Looklet’s product offerings, the concept is actually borrowed from a very old and extremely low-tech concept very familiar to children – paper dolls that can have multiple clothing outfits attached and detached by merely bending some paper tabs.

What Are Some Of The Criticisms Of Looklet Technology?

Artificiality of the models
Some describe the look the models as being fake. This applies both to the models’ faces and body parts. I have seen a number of Looklet models that span the gamut from the “I can’t tell that this is not a real person” to some which appear cartoonish. Much of this depends on the scale of the model and how each was constructed. If you are looking at a full body shot of a model, you are much more likely not to focus as much on the details of the eyes or the skin. I suspect some people, unless told, might not even notice that they are observing a Looklet model. If you are examining a photo of a model from only the waist-up and zoomed in a bit closer, you may have an easier time determining that it is a virtual model. Clearly there is room to improve the technology. But you can bet that it will get better with time.

Boring Scenes
One of the most appealing aspects of traditional clothing catalogues has been their artistic photography. With Looklet, gone are the smiling skiers on the sunny slopes, the adoring couple walking hand-in-hand down a colorful trail in autumn, and the attractive model attending an elegant cocktail party surrounded by a handful of admiring suitors. Catalogs may still feature a few of these stylish photos, but the vast majority will be replaced by Looklet models.

Looklet foregoes the usual appealing artistic scenery and perhaps the visceral appeal such imagery may have upon our impulse to buy clothing. How much this may detract from a customer’s purchasing desires is difficult to measure. What Looklet lacks in its virtual approach must be weighed against the lower costs, increased flexibility, and control it places in the hands of the customer. Some clients are obviously betting that the lower costs and flexibility provided by Looklet technology outweigh the loss of the artistic aspects of catalog production.

What Does The Future Hold?

For clothing companies that rely heavily on catalog sales and seeking to provide a better buying experience to their customers, Looklet offers a very intriguing solution. Given what I have seen relative to the improvements in CAD and imaging technology, I think that reliance on technologies such as those provided by Looklet will only increase.
Now this may strike some as being too mechanical and running against the “art” of photography. I don’t think high-end glamor photography that relies on name brand models and photographers will disappear completely, but one merely needs to look at the meteoric rise of stock photo agencies to realize how much businesses are willing to forego expensive, time consuming private photo shoots in favor of quality, low-cost stock images. Each potential client will have to carefully evaluate its needs as well as the costs and benefits of traditional photo shoots vs. those provided by Looklet’s technology.

I believe Looklet will continue to benefit from cost containment concerns, improving software technology, and falling technology prices. The ability to select models, body shapes, and outfit ensembles also offers customers many new opportunities not possible with traditional online or paper-based catalogs. And the same technology improvements that produced stunningly realistic 10 foot blue characters in the movie Avatar, will eventually enable Looklet and other companies to create virtual models indistinguishable from their human counterparts.

What do you think? Do you struggle with the concept of some photographers and models being replaced by virtual reality software technology?


Avatar of Bob Vishneski About Bob Vishneski

Bob Vishneski works in the media software industry and is an avid photographer. He has held management and technical positions during his career in such areas as computer manufacturing, imaging software and document management systems, enterprise systems development, and consulting. Bob rediscovered his love for photography in 2007, after picking up a Pentax K10D and realized that his background in the computer industry could prove useful in the age of digital photography. When he is not focusing on the challenges of the software development industry, he spends time traveling with his wife, Tanya, and family, golfing, and honing his photography and Photoshop skills. He is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers. Bob and his family reside in the Pittsburgh area. His work can be found at 500px.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Sawan Chittora

    Bob, fabulous article again! Thats kind of scary, because cost is what drives the market and technology brings it down. Future really has some unimagined stuff. I hope for the best for everyone in photography industry.

    • Thanks, Sawan. Of course, some people would look at this and think of the “loss of opportunity” for the traditional players. At the same time, new opportunities are opening up for photographers that are skilled in photoshop, in aerial photography, and other areas as well. No doubt that some decried the downturn in the horse and buggy market when the automobile was invented! :)
      Bob

      • 15
        ) Sawan Chittora

        So true.. :D

  2. Nice article. One area affected perhaps even more is interiour photography, including furniture. You used to shoot furnitures in model rooms. Recently I went to a furniture fair. Two of the major furniture companies already had brochures without a single real photo. And you couldn’t tell the difference actually – I had to look really closely to see that they are computer generated. Same goes for newly built serviced apartments – computer generated images have been overtaking real photos for quite some time.

    Personally, I’m not too worried about this, though I’m good at interiour photography (and had some paid gigs in the past). Photography is huge, we move on, there is always something new and exciting to explore :)

    • Molynarcs,
      Thanks for weighing in. Indeed – When one door closes, another opens.
      Bob

  3. 3
    ) MartinG

    I remain unconvinced that the technology is effective. The model LOOKS like a mannequin and therefore the clothes look sort of devalued. It will depend on sales. Will they sell less? I see it as less effective because it looks artificial. I cannot say that I like catalogs much anyway. For it to work it will have to work really well for customers. Advertising needs to look plausible and persuasive. Do you have any other more “lifelike” images?

    • 5
      ) Colin

      Problem for photographers is that the clothes company will look at the cost-benefit and decide on that basis. If the CGI version is 90 percent as good as a photograph but only costs 25 percent of having a ‘real’ photographer do the job, their decision will be easy. As photographers, we look at a sub-standard result and say it’s not as good, and we are probably right. But clients have a ‘good enough’ attitude. I saw this when I used to run high end portrait studios. Customers acknowledged that our work was superior to what Dad could do with his $600 DSLR, but what Dad produced was free and was ”good enough’.

      • 6
        ) MartinG

        It is nowhere near 90%. I agree that photographers may well find it necessary to move into a field with better customers, or where the skills they have are more likely to be appreciated. The ready availability of good quality DSLR equipment could also be considered a threat to photography professionals.

        Earning a living from photography is far from easy. I have a relative who specialises in high quality professional photography. It has taken her years to build her clientele. They appreciate her skill. At least half the reason for her success has been getting herself known to customers who see what she has to offer as worth paying for.

        I am just an enthusiastic onlooker. I admire anyone who has the courage to take on work as a professional photographer nowadays.

        That said I think the software is unlikely make any sort of a dint in the incomes of freelance photographers whose work appears in Vogue etc.

        • Martin,
          I indicated that the high end fashion photographer likely won’t see any effects from this technology, but many other arenas that do not require that level of expertise and results will indeed be drawn to this technology for many obvious reasons. The images will get better and better with time. If we believed that we were looking at a real 40 foot T-Rex or a living 10 foot tall blue creature called a “Navi,” in Jurassic Park and Avatar, you can bet that someday, you will struggle to tell the difference between a photo of a real person and one created with computer graphics. And as Collin indicated, it doesn’t have to be “perfect,” but rather “good enough” to do the job.
          Bob

        • 11
          ) Colin

          Martin,

          You may indeed be correct that the quality of the output is not close to 90% of that of an experienced photographer. As Bob says, for the kind of stuff that appears in Vogue or the Sunday Times (in the UK) this software will not be a threat. But the reality is that makes up a very small % of the work. It’s in the day to day high volume catalogue type stuff that makes up the majority of the income for working photographers that this will be felt.

          Another parallel that occurs to me. I was watching some internet videos yesterday about wet plate processes (Collodion, tintype etc.) I suspect that high end portrait photographers offering work in this area (heck, even just shooting medium/large format film) will probably always be able to charge premium prices to a small group of wealthy customers who appreciate the ‘hand made’ quality of the work. But the high volume/low end guys are the ones whose businesses will die because ‘anybody with a DSLR’ can take a decent photograph of the kids, so why bother with a professional?

  4. 4
    ) Colin

    Great article – I knew nothing about this before. Another example of the erosion of the ‘traditional’ photography business by technology. Yes, it’s sad, but it’s also inevitable. You can’t blame the consumers of photography for seizing every opportunity to cut costs, especially in the current economic environment. Photographers are going to have to find niches in areas that cannot be commoditised by technology or go out of business. It’s already happened in the low end of he portrait market with the death of th likes of Olan Mills thanks to the availability Of cheap, idiot-proof digital cameras.

    • Collin,
      Thank you. Change is part of life. I have been looking into some of the drone and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). There are some fascinating advances being made and great work being done by a number of talented people. That may be my next piece. Stay tuned… ;)
      Bob

      • 13
        ) Colin

        “drone and UAV”
        Drones give a whole new meaning to the word ‘shooting’. I hope you’re talking about ‘shooting’ photographs rather than missiles….

  5. 12
    ) JR

    I suppose we can blame Photoshop and its overuse by glamour and fashion photographers for the viewer’s inability to distinguish a computer generated model from the real thing. These photographers have been creating mannequins for the past 10 years or so. It’s no longer “fashionable” to show natural looking models with some freckles and blemishes. Today, the plastic, mannequin, “air-brushed”, Photoshopped look is what sells, anyway. So why not take the next step and make the whole thing fake.

    That said, I believe that this technology will actually make real models MORE valuable. The public will soon lean that what they’re looking at is not real and word will get around. Pretty soon we will catalogs with the disclaimer: This catalog was produced by using human models.

    • 14
      ) Colin

      I really wish that I could agree with you that ‘ this technology will actually make real models MORE valuable’. Those of us who care about photography and visual culture would certainly like this to be true. Unfortunately, Joe Public who comprise 99% of the world population won’t notice and won’t care that it’s all done with Photoshop / CGI computer trickery. Visual literacy is not top priority. All they’ll care about is getting their products cheap, and if using software rather than real models and real photography helps to keep prices of clothes down, that will win the day.

      • 24
        ) JR

        I believe there’s a distinction that needs to be made between “fashion” and “high fashion”. Those are two *VERY* different arenas. The former can include clothing found at Target/Walmart or your typical chain store at your local mall. The latter includes art-centric, designer-driven clothing and accessories where one-offs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For the high end, there is NO WAY that model/ing and photography will die off. I am convinced of that. These circles include people that have deep pockets, if not money to burn, and they’re not going to settle for CGI trickery.

        I can speak with first hand knowledge of the audio recording industry, having been involved in audio engineering and music production for the past 12 years. Everyone thought that high-end audiophile equipment would die off and that mp3s would drive the last nail into the CD market. But now we’re seeing the rebirth of vinyl; and for the first time in a good number of years CD sales have increased.

        There’s a chain of music stores in Colorado(where I live) that have turned several retail outlets into vinyl only shops. That is mind blowing, considering the doomsday predictions that were made by so-called “experts”. Folks are starting to care about audio quality again. Although the changes are not sweeping across the landscape, there are enough people listening to music through speakers that it’s giving hi-fi and audiophile equipment manufacturers reason to be optimistic.

        I think the same applies to modeling and fashion photography. Sure, you’ll have your run-of-the-mill stores/chains using CGI models(your mp3 listeners), but there will be plenty of work for models and photographers in mid to high fashion(audiophiles).

        • JR,
          I attempted to draw that distinction. However, one might say that after all the make-up and glitz, excessive photoshopping, and emaciated figures, it is hard to distinguish high end models from their computer counterparts! ;)
          There are always “retro” movements, whereby someone harkens back to an earlier technology, style, etc. They tend to be rather limited, however, and do little to swell the seas of change toward newer technologies. So while some people will dabble with vinyl records, such purchases will always be dwarfed by the move to digital media and the many benefits it provides.
          Thanks for writing.
          Bob

  6. 16
    ) Wouter

    I don’t think this technology will take over or replace photographer any time soon. In advertising there are rules too. And i’m not sure you can advertise entirely on rendered images. There were times that food photographers used mash potatoes to mimic ice cream or wood glue to mimic milk in cereal shots (wtihout making the ceraal get soggy) though some of these tricks are not allowed anymore. i’m not sure how the advertising world will react to entirely ficitive models and stuff. Alos we don’t know how the public will react. Would you buy a product based on an artificial image? or would you at least want a reap picture?

    • Wouter,
      Certainly not every photographer, but for clothing merchandisers, it is proving to be a viable option. Do customers care more about splashy photography or seeing clothing on models of their choosing, arranged as they want to assemble them? Does a redhead care more about seeing a human model with blonde hair wearing an outfit, or a Looklet model who also has red hair?
      There is no doubt that this type of technology places more control in the hands of customers. It also enables retailers to introduce new clothing items faster thus being more responsive to customers as well. Photographers may be enamored with high end fashion shoots, but the clothing merchandisers and their customers may feel differently. Time will tell how prevalent this technology will become.
      Bob

    • Wouter,
      I look at what Henry Fox Talbot, a struggling artist, predicted when he developed the early photography concept– the Calotype. He thought it would replace the need for traditional painters. Now the market for oil and paper art is greatly diminished but they still do exist. The clothing merchandisers and furniture photography will probably be greatly effected.

      In digital clothing advertising I imagine the ability to create an personal size account. When a size 10 or 20 logs in, the clothing advertisements adapt to show clothing on a Looklet replica of her body type. This, in a way, would be more “realistic” than the current viewing of real clothing on real human size 2 models.

  7. 18
    ) MartinG

    This is about change. I recall seeing Photoshop, PageMaker, Autocad etc. Software changes things. Some areas of work disappear, but in my experience the software also leads to other opportunities. It all depends on how close you are to the field staring at change. I find it hard to go down the doom and gloom road here. I know it is hard and people will have to deal with it. None of that is easy. My point is simply the same as my response to other innovative technologies, you can’t stop them. Wring your hands if you like but while you are doing it, look for the opportunities. Give Joe public a break, markets are markets.

    • 19
      ) Colin

      ‘Markets are markets’

      Absolutely right. Once the technology genie is out of the bottle there’s no putting it back. In the 21st century, practitioners in all area of work have to deal with change and photographers are no different. We need to find out how to make money in this new world rather than bury our heads in the sand and hope it all goes away.

  8. 20
    ) Julio Falcon

    Dear Bob,

    thank you very much for another well written article.

    I think that the biggest obstacle for this technology will be the Uncanny Valley:

    “…The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics[1] and 3D computer animation,[2][3] which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot’s human likeness…”

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley)

    Best regards,

    Julio Falcon

    • Julio,
      Interesting theory, but I suspect that Vente-Privee and HSM might disagree.
      Bob

  9. 21
    ) Milo Ryder

    What will they think of next? Kind of scarry honestly, I hope my body parts don’t manage their way to the internet and start doing unimaginable things. Time to dig the bunker……

    • Milo,
      What you suggest is tame compared to what the internet has already become… :)
      Bob

  10. Thanks for that article Bob.

    I’ve been working for many years in the CGI industry, mostly together with professionl photographers to combine 3D and real environments with 3D cars. The industry will use whatever is possible. At first it seemed to offer mayn new capabilities for the car manufacturer. Less costs and more creativity. Meanwhile (my opinion) the industriy drives mad, especially when it comes to advertising (not the car catalogs). Most ads in Germany look so artificial that the original idea of CGI as a “helper” tool has gone nowhere. In my mind the real photo still has to be the main part of the image. All cgi stuff should support the whole thing, but nothing more. Everything is possible so I assume the photo industry will face much more challenges in the future …

    Best regards

    Martin

  11. 27
    ) Roman

    Nice read, I had no clue about the existence of this software.
    In a response to some of the comments here – I’d put it this way: does the picture look artificial? It certainly does. Does the normal magazine/catalogue picture look non-artificial? No way! So how do they differ? I suggest demoing out the software on their website, and in that scale you’ll have to agree, that they do not [differ].
    Now, does that mean there will be less work for human photographers in this area? No doubt it does. Jobs and businesses lost. Is that bad though? For some individuals, it surely is. Personally, I find these pictures mostly disgusting anyway (not because they are unnatural, but because they create this modern dogma of human body, its appearance and the significance thereof). My 2 cents.
    Regards,
    Roman

    • Roman,
      The success (or failure) of Looklet and others in this arena will depend upon customer acceptance – those buying the software and those buying the clothing. There is nothing wrong with people admiring an ideal of beauty or physique. The good thing is that with this software, people will eventually be able to model the clothing on any type of frame, perhaps even their own. And if they would rather see it on some computer generated Venus or Adonis? That is their choice as well.
      Bob

      • 29
        ) Roman

        Hi Bob,
        Actually, I’m not judging the software, I think it’s doing an amazingly good job and is bound to success (whether in the area of catalogues or elsewhere). I was merely pointing out that if people think the images are artificial, it’s no different than what the public is buying into already – the Photoshopped pictures of models look nothing like real people. I will not go into a debate whether admiring bodily physique is good or wrong, that could go a long way, but I truly believe people should be concerned about their views on that ideal being shaped mainly by the media and marketing.
        Regards,
        Roman

        • 31
          ) Colin

          Your concerns about views on ideal bodies being shaped by the media and marketing are certainly valid. I think that this kind of technology will accelerate the move away from ‘normal’ body shapes. No need now to bother looking for a real human model with the ideal shape. Just go to the database and construct your idea. Worrying, I agree but ‘the market’ will ensure that a cheap computer programme will get the job of generating image for a clothes catalogue rather than an old fashioned photographer in future. Why? Because the customer cares only about price and convenience, not aesthetics and debates about body image. That’s why 99.9% of people listen to CDs or downloads even if vinyl records are actually superior. We now live in an age of ‘good enough’.

        • 32
          ) Colin

          Your concerns about views on ideal bodies being shaped by the media and marketing are certainly valid. I think that this kind of technology will accelerate the move away from ‘normal’ body shapes. No need now to bother looking for a real human model with the ideal shape. Just go to the database and construct your ideal. Worrying, I agree but ‘the market’ will ensure that a cheap computer programme will get the job of generating image for a clothes catalogue rather than an old fashioned photographer in future. Why? Because the customer cares only about price and convenience, not aesthetics and debates about body image. That’s why 99.9% of people listen to CDs or downloads even if vinyl records are actually superior. We now live in an age of ‘good enough’.

  12. 33
    ) Spy Black

    This is unfortunately inevitable. It will only be a matter of time before the system will also be able to create the environments as well, so the “smiling skiers on the sunny slopes, the adoring couple walking hand-in-hand down a colorful trail in autumn, and the attractive model attending an elegant cocktail party surrounded by a handful of admiring suitors” will all be there.

    You can always get a job as a waiter…

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