From Photography to CGI: An Interview With Ethan Davis

As we prepare to launch a brand-new series of CGI classes, now's a great time to introduce our latest guest instructor, Ethan Davis.

Ethan is a professional photographer, retoucher and CGI artist based in Manchester, England. He specialises in creating vivid, detailed and impactful imagery for top brands.

Ethan’s combination of photography expertise and CGI skill makes him an ideal teacher for photographers looking to make the leap into the exciting world of 3D.

Welcome, Ethan! 

Lighting the shot

Ethan Davis

When and why did you first become interested in photography?

When I was 13, before I even had a camera, I started watching YouTube videos on my iPad. Seeing so many creatives taking cool-looking images soon got me pretty obsessed.

That year, I got my first camera for Christmas – a Fujifilm Finepix HS20EXR. I started as most people do, shooting anything and everything. I eventually started focusing on landscapes, which were my main focus for a long time. I particularly liked shooting rivers as I found the meandering banks so interesting for composition.

Eventually I dived into product photography, which is where I feel most excited today. Product work allows you 100 percent control when it comes to composition, lighting and storytelling. For most other genres, that’s just not the case.

Apple Watch CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

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What was the first image you captured that really made you excited about being a photographer?

It was a long-exposure river photo I took at Ingleton Falls in summer 2015. The first photo I ever printed, and it’s still hanging in my house today!

I was shooting on a kit lens, with a 70D and awful quality ND filter that made everything blue. But besides the equipment, I managed to get one of my favourite images ever. The summer feeling coupled with the leading lines that lead you from the bottom to the top, was everything I wanted for that photo. It was also the first photo I won a competition with.

I still like that image, but I don’t consider myself anywhere near the peak of my career. Hopefully there are more images that wow or excite me to come.

Ingleton Falls by Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

How did CGI first grab your attention?

In movies full of extremely realistic cinematic shots made entirely on a computer (though of course that’s understating the amount of work that goes into them). I was hooked, but had no idea how to get into it!

Eventually, when I was 19, I got a job as a retoucher and photographer at a CGI production company. That was my way in. The company produces high-quality CGI images of interiors. Being around my colleagues and talking to everyone on the team, I started learning day by day.

Though they all use 3DS Max (the industry-standard CGI software), I started using some free software called Blender. It’s come a long way in the past couple of years, and now a lot of people in the company are beginning to experiment with it.

Hugo Deep Red CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

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What was the first CGI project you attempted?

It’s still in my portfolio – a simple red lipstick on a black background. It was quite a unique first project as lipsticks have very complicated textures, imperfections and curves.

I didn’t understand how to optimise the shot, so it took me a few days to complete and then took forever to render the final image. It was also where I discovered how to mimic product photography lighting, as evidenced by the smooth gradients you see in the image (below).

Red lipstick CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

What kind of professional CGI work do you do?

A wide range. I’ve done ecommerce product 360 spin-arounds, hero advertising shots, and lots of other stuff. I recently started an animation for a client which will be using a lot of simulations, including water.

Which of the commercial CGI projects you’ve worked on so far has been your favourite? Why?

This is a tricky question as every project I’ve worked on has been fun, unique, and challenging. But I would have to say a project for an electric charger company was my favourite so far.

They sent me the product in real life and I recreated the entire thing in 3D. It was the most detailed model of a product I’d ever done and I was super-pleased with the result.

Lighting the shot

© Ethan Davis

What tools do you consider essential for CGI work?

The key tools aren’t even hardware- or software-related – things like patience, determination and curiosity. 

The world of CGI is enormous and complex, and there’s a neverending stream of new things to learn, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see your skills improve. Anyone can create anything and everything, though often not in the way you first think – hence patience being essential! 

Now, kit. Since everything is being created by the computer, the faster your machine, the smoother the whole process will be. That doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great results on a normal computer or laptop, but it does mean things will be slower.

Essentially all you need to begin making CGI is a computer, some 3D software (I recommend Blender, which I mentioned above) and a healthy amount of patience.

Lipstick CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

How has your knowledge of photography and lighting helped you as a CGI artist?

It has helped me tremendously. In my CGI work, I’m trying to replicate real life, so I try to apply the same techniques involving the subject, the camera and the lighting that I would in my studio. I position my lights in the same way, making sure that they are the correct size, brightness and so on. I even make diffusers for them!

It’s also really helped me in the retouching phase. Sometimes, you assume something looks correct when rendered in CGI, only to find it looks ‘off’. Having the experience and the eye to know how something would look in a photograph can make all the difference.

There’s a saying in the CGI community: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’’. Inexperienced 3D artists often over-light, or else create unnatural lighting that goes against the laws of physics. Others will use the wrong lens, over and over again! Having a solid understanding of photography and lighting can really help you to avoid these pitfalls.

Perfume CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

Should photographers be worried about CGI? Or should they embrace it?

Both! Though it depends to some extent on the industry you’re in. For many genres, 3D won’t be taking over for some time. But for product work, I think it is already competing with photography.

With CGI, you can get similar results quicker than with photography, not to mention (in some circumstances, at least) more easily and affordably. A lot of people are also blending the two approaches, putting their photography on top of CGI backgrounds.

Certainly, I think photographers need to be aware of CGI. And those less established should plan to start learning and bringing something new, exciting and cost-effective to the market.

Gillette Razor CGI Ethan Davis

© Ethan Davis

What advice would you offer to photographers looking to begin their CGI journey?

Practice, practice, practice! When we start out as photographers, we shoot anything and everything. Why not do the same in CGI? 

Explore the tools and commands and learn how they work. Discover how to achieve certain results. If it seems difficult or overwhelming, don't lose heart. Big studios employ CGI professionals in a wide range of roles, so don’t feel you have to know absolutely everything.

Finally, if you want to achieve realism in your CGI work, pay attention to the real world. Nothing real is perfect – everything has that bend or scratch or speck. Embracing those little flaws and imperfections will make your images more real, more convincing, and more effective.

What do you hope to bring to Karl Taylor Education with your forthcoming series of Blender 3D CG classes?

I hope to add a new and exciting medium to Karl Taylor Education – a platform that has been absolutely integral to my growth as a visual artist. I want to get people excited about learning CGI.

My main aim is to encourage those who don't necessarily have the budget for a studio or lots of equipment to give CGI a try – especially because this software is free! I’m also keen to inspire younger folks who may find the CGI format more appealing than traditional photography.

I want to shatter the myth that CGI is a hard skill to learn, because that is definitely not true. As with any new skill, as long as you understand the key principles, the rest is just practice.

Finally, I’m excited to showcase the creative potential of CGI. People often assume CGI is boring and bland, but Blender is the complete opposite! That’s why so many photographers who make the move into CGI do so with Blender.

Learn more about Ethan’s work at ethandavis.co.uk

Download the latest version of Blender at blender.org

© Karl Taylor Education. All rights reserved. No content on this page may be used or shared by third parties.

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Comments

  1. Really looking forward to this content since photography is just “part” of what I do in my business. In fact. photography was the last element that I added to my skillset – so I am working from the opposite direction to most photographers. Most of my work since 1989 has been behind a computer (working with products like Photoshop before it was even “Photoshop”!).

    My past ventures into the world of 3D Modeling and Rendering have been plagued by software products going out of existence about the time I got the hang of them. I have used many products over the years not limited to Amapi, Carrara , Daz3D, Infini-D, Strata 3D CX, Dimensions, and several others I cannot even remember. I started to go the Maya, Cinema 4D or Solidworks route, but could not justify the expense unless making those my full-time careers. Also, working exclusively on Macs since day-one made things even more limiting and unpredictable. So when Adobe launched their latest (limited) 3D effort a couple years ago (Adobe Dimension), I could not make myself get that deep into it for fear of them abandoning the project (which they eventually did a few weeks ago) – so what few days I invested in learning that were wasted (just like the hundreds of hours I spent learning Adobe FLASH and ActionScript3).

    I recently downloaded “Blender”, but have not really had time to play with it yet, so this should be interesting!

    1. johnleigh

      wow john your history s very similar to mine! Same route from photoshop plus web design thru to photography and 3D – i went through trying all 3D software that was available back in 2004 even took an expensive 3dMax course and was mainly circling around Carrara 3D, Adobe Dimensions, Strata 3D and Blender – Blender was the one I kept coming back to and stuck with it but my lack of consistent work means I have to keep relearning things I forgot – Im hoping Karls new course with Ethan will help me get back into the flow as I find myself at a crossroads of trying to niche down the number of services Im providing

      1. Yeah, it would be great if I could just concentrate on one skill-set! When I started my business there was no Internet to speak of, no iPhones to contend with, no digital cameras, no PDFs for proofing and most of my clients had never used email. The only scanner in town was a 300ppi Ableton that sounded like a leaf-blower and they charged $15/scan. Most individuals did not even have a computer screen (except at work) and those that did had PC’s. I only knew a couple doctors that had Apple Mac SE’s with 9″ B&W screens (like me). So most of my business ranged from logo design to commercial printing press work (and most printers could not even accept a digital file).

        My Degree was in Architectural Design, but I never pursued that path – rather I went to work as an Industrial Design Engineer for the first 6 years out of college. Spent the next 10 years in marketing (self-employed) and ended up needing to write a book which led me to the Macintosh and Aldus PageMaker and an Apple software developer. Everything since then has been the tail wagging the dog – clients talking me in to special projects back to back. I have been doing what I do for over 25 years now and so far never spent a dollar on advertising – everything has been word of mouth and repeat clients. So I went from print, to web design, to photography and currently my revenue is pretty much 1/3 from each category. When people ask me what I do, I do not even have an answer!

        1. johnleigh

          amazing john great journey you have – and sounds like you have been able to make a success of it all – I was succesful in companies for years until layoffs and my freelance business skills are not my forte and at am crossroads of direction

    2. Hi John, that’s interesting to hear and I think you’ll be very pleased with Blender. It’s gone from strength to strength so I think it’s going to be around for a long time, although at some point it might get bought out by someone like Adobe? However it’s the one that we and the experts feel is fast becoming a serious contender and it’s free!

  2. johnleigh

    oh my gosh!
    I cant believe this – Ive been a big blender fan for years and had an on off affair dipping in and out depending on projects needs and I really wish I could get more consistent and I get pulled away with other work to keep the lights on –
    I know a lot of Blender and consider myself intermediate but would like to get advanced but a refresh and consolidation will be amazing to have this on karltaylor – this is such good timing for me

      1. johnleigh

        I really really cant wait for this!
        There are a lot of blender courses out there but this is super related and specific to a photography angle and around products its so perfect for me i cant believe.

        And timing is spot on as a goal and commitment for me to get ready for it as this may be the decider and make a difference in the direction I follow and where to focus all my energies. Currently I have been steered away from photography and 3D work by bread and butter projects work around web design,graphics, illustration, video and motion work to keep the lights on I would love to be able to niche down into somethin i can really call my solid direction and market myself much more specifically which as a generalist currently is really tough

  3. It really is wonderful seeing the Forward Thinking Approach of the KTE Platform to equip photographers further in their craft.
    I do look forward to seeing and practicing the CGI that would be demonstrating on this platform !!!

    1. Thank you, we are aiming to release a significant number of new classes in April and then continuing in the year.

  4. Karl
    Why do you insist on diluting you photography and lighting genius with corrupting influences and people hell bent on promoting fake news?
    Have the balls to make my comment public instead of moderating it and claim its too aggressive

    1. I’m quite happy to make this comment public as all it does is demonstrate your complete lack of foresight towards an area of image creation which will become more and more dominant in the world of product imagery. These are not corrupting influences and where you get the term ‘fake news’ from regarding the development of Computer Generated Imagery I have no idea? Maybe you have been convincing yourself that this doesn’t exist?

      Yes I consider myself a product photographer with a very high level of knowledge when it comes to studio lighting but what I’ve learnt from speaking to other CGI artists is that you still need those same skills in the CGI world to create realistic renders. They don’t just push a button and out pops an incredible image, this takes considerable skill and training and you will be very disappointed to hear that we will be right at the forefront of delivering those skills with a significant series of new classes on CGI.

  5. Aidan

    I must say the content that you have planned so far for this year is already very exciting. This new CGI course is the icing on top of a very big delicious cake!! Being familiar with Ethan’s work I have to say this may be the course I am most excited for! I can’t wait!

    1. Great to hear Aidan, you’ll also be pleased to hear that this new section is going to be feature packed starting from the very basics and up. We are also producing comparisons between photography and CGI versions.

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