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Transitioning From Traditional Photography to CGI

Years ago, Doug Kiley joined the TRG Reality team as a photographer and went on to do terrific work in that role for many years. But eventually Doug discovered the need for a greater challenge. He wanted to push himself. Challenge himself. Grow. And instead of ignoring these feelings, like so many of us do, Doug made the decision to pursue a new and difficult path. Doug decided to transition from working exclusively in traditional commercial photography to CGI (computer-generated imagery). Luckily for Doug, having a background in traditional photography is a huge advantage for someone working with CGI. Below, Doug shares what he’s learned following his transition.

Similarities Between Traditional Photography & CGI

Camera + Lenses

The basic principles of producing a “photographic” image are the same, whether you’re using traditional methods or CG software. Both avenues require a camera and a light source. A CG camera and its lenses operate and behave much the same as a real camera and lens.


The same can be said for lighting. I use the same methods now as a CG artist that I did as a photographer to light my subjects. And the way an artist uses light, be it to reveal shape, create a certain mood, hide imperfections or highlight important features, is similar in both CGI and traditional photography. Basically, light operates much the same in both realms.  

Differences Between Traditional Photography & CGI

Room Sets

Traditional photography requires a great deal of pre-production work, like building a room set, gathering and staging props and other styling concerns. These pre-production tasks aren’t typically the photographer’s responsibility. As a CGI artist, however, I am sometimes also a set stylist when necessary. Using CGI technology, I can build the props, the products, the room sets, the color palettes, and whatever else that needs to be created to make the final image work.


The major differences between traditional photography and CGI can be summed up succinctly with a single word: physics. With traditional photography, I am severely limited by the laws of physics. I can’t position my camera in the sky (easily, anyway) or behind a wall or in a microscopic space. Gravity acts upon objects regardless of whether or not it becomes inconvenient to me. Natural light can be modified to a degree, but its fundamental characteristics are unalterable. Light casts shadows. In addition, two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Physics, in this context, are constant. They cannot be changed. 

But with CGI, the laws of physics exist, but only to the extent that I allow them. Certain laws can be modified or just turned off entirely. There are no barriers. This can be wonderful, and the sky is literally the limit. The problem, though, is that an image needs limits to look real. We live in a world bound by physical laws. Our brains are accustomed to seeing things in a certain way. If a CGI artist completely disregards these laws, then it’s very likely that the final image will end up looking fake. As a CGI artist in the commercial space, I always approach image creation as realistically as I can. There must be limits, or else I’m just making cartoons (which might be kinda fun, but it’s not what our clients are paying us for here at TRG Reality). 

My Mindset

I spent about two years teaching myself CGI. I left work, where I spent all day as a traditional photographer, and spent my evenings watching free tutorials online, practicing, and learning. I didn’t realize at the time that not only did my photography background help me understand CGI better, but understanding CGI improved my abilities as a photographer. When I pick up a camera today, I notice things I would’ve never noticed years ago. I pay attention to surfaces, materials and textures. I am very aware of the physical properties of the subject I am shooting and how the light interacts with it. Now that I am proficient in CGI, I am a better photographer. 

Transitioning from Photography to CGI: My Advice

After going through this transition myself, I would advise any young photography student, particularly commercial photographers, to learn everything you can about CGI. Even if you have absolutely zero interest in CGI, even if you feel that traditional photography is your true-blue life-long calling and you would never ever in a million years dream of doing anything else, at the very least familiarize yourself with the process and the various tools available to you. The need for CGI artists in our industry is growing very, very rapidly (not unlike digital did years ago), and I believe that a working knowledge of CGI will be a must-have for traditional commercial photographers moving forward. There are so many free resources available online, you really don’t have a good excuse not to take advantage of them.

Have you made any similar career transitions? Was it difficult? Rewarding? What did you learn about your work? Or, more importantly, what did you learn about yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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