Delving Into Dimension: A Photo Pro Riffs on His Experiences With Adobe’s Powerful New 3D Tool
We still remember the first time we saw a set of natively shot images on a high-end digital camera—and how blown away we were by the tech and the results.
Well, not long ago, we saw what Adobe Dimension is capable of—how it blends the art and craft of photography with the art and craft of 3D design in all-new stunning ways—and decades on, we got goosebumps once again that we might be looking at the next game-changer.
Brooklyn-based photographer Greg Comollo has long wowed us with his multi-varied talents, from his stellar product shots to his powerful profiles. He recently completed a virtual photography campaign for Ben & Jerry’s using Adobe Dimension—his first time experimenting with the tool.
In this article, brought to you by our friends at Adobe Dimension, Adobe 3D&I Creative Director Vladimir Petkovic and Comollo have a candid discussion about the tech—how it works in symphony with a photographer’s core skillset, its many potential uses, and just what role, exactly, it might play in the future of the craft and beyond.
Petkovic: Greg, before we go into Dimension and technical details, can you tell me a little bit more about your career as a photographer?
Comollo: When I was younger, I was just into photography, and when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to do something with visuals. I didn’t know that photography was a real job—it seemed like something that was on TV, or something like that. So I ended up on a path as a designer, which was really where I learned that photography was a thing, and how they worked together.
My own self-interest found me assisting the photographer at the studio I was working at; I had some mentorship through that, and that gave me my footing for photography as a professional. After it got to the point where my design career was me trying to do as much photography for design as possible, I realized it was time for me to transition full time to doing photography.
What would you say is your photographic philosophy?
Man, that’s tough, because one day it’s like, “Don’t get caught up in the pixel peeping and looking at all the details,” and then the next day, it’s like, “Look at the big picture. Nothing matters. Everything should feel natural and of the moment.” And then the next day I’m taking mirrors to perfectly bend light in the way that I want to light some minuscule macro object, and I’m using as much technology as I can to make sure that the final result works, and works as best as I can make it work. So I think it’s just creating whatever’s right for the project, or what tells the story or shares the idea.
Yeah. I can definitely relate. I call that creative anarchy.
Yeah, exactly. Two weeks ago I was shooting a model on a field putting makeup on, and it’s a whole different thing than last week, [when] I was shooting super-detailed maximum resolution for print ice cream that was scrutinized at a millimeter level, or below a millimeter level.
Let’s talk about 3D. It seems like you’ve used 3D before in your career. This hybrid work of using photography, but also 3D, is what we essentially call “virtual photography.” When you first heard the term "virtual photography,” what did you think?
My approach or attempts at 3D have always been very related to the real world. One technical example that maybe you can appreciate is that I needed to make an image that was 56 inches long at 300 DPI. … It needed to be shot in one photograph for a wide-angle lens perspective, and I wanted to know exactly the height. I had to rent a Phase One—some crazy high-end camera. This was 15 years ago, so technology was a lot different then.
And so what I ended up doing is I used 3D to get an exact sense of the height and graphic that I was going to create with the camera. So it was used as a planning tool for me in the beginning. … Before virtual photography, it was never this thing that I could do a final image with. It was always like, I could approach 3D, I could do some cartoon-style rendering, [but] because I’m not a 3D professional, it was limited to what my exploration led me to.
And then when I got to the virtual photography end of things, it was a whole new level of being able to achieve something at a level that I never really had access to before. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of it, having done what we did together. It’s really exciting.
Yeah, it’s really obvious that you’re super comfortable implementing this hybrid model of not just photography but also 3D techniques. I’m curious, when you first learned about Dimension, how did you feel when you tried it? Was it intuitive, easy, hard?
I think seeing how it takes a space or a scene or just overall the information, and creates something from that that is both based in the traditional version of photography, and then using that in addition to the virtual aspect of it—it all made sense right away. It’s like taking a plate for a photograph, when you just can’t get these things together, and not to simplify what’s there, but it’s layering in Photoshop—and when you understand how that works, all of a sudden you’re like, “Damn, I see what can happen here. I see how this can be used.”
[It’s like] when I was 13 in middle school and saw Photoshop and said, “This is awesome. I can do everything.”
And so as far as Dimension goes, there wasn’t a debugging code script running down the side, and all these other things. It was just so much more user-friendly than anything I’d done. The front end of it is not like Maya 3D Studio Max; when I’ve seen 3D artists working in those things, it’s so deep and rich and I know that there’s good reason when you’re a full-time professional doing that, to have control over everything, but sometimes having control over everything is a problem.
Sometimes you’re just lost in those options, right?
Yeah, so I think the cool part about the virtual photography thing is those options are decided by real-world factors. It was cool when I sent the renders to you that I had [created by combining the regular backplate photo with the 360-degree HDR panorama of the environment], and the way that you can analyze and put those two things together to marry those two worlds. It’s really difficult, and I think that’s what this does so well. Because it uses so much of the analog world around it in order to create the final piece.
Yeah, with our 3D tools, we are hoping to simplify these processes intelligently to where we’re using a lot of machine learning to analyze the photo, and just solve the compositing problems for you. All that had been possible before, but it took a lot of time. And this next question, this is something that I’m really curious about: You being a very experienced photographer, do you feel like your existing knowledge can be somehow translated into 3D environments? Are you able to use that knowledge in a way for the lighting or just compositing?
Whenever I’ve dabbled in the 3D world, you have your light figured out and you step in and then you say, “This goes here, this goes here, that goes there.” And you don’t have to worry about shadows from light stands or any of this other weird stuff. But when you marry those two worlds, you definitely use the lighting.
… And it’s the next level between what I was saying about going fully analog input to the fully digital input, where you can, along the way—if you don’t have these resources—you can use your imagination to create certain parts of it that wouldn’t be accessible in a studio or things like that. It just allows more control over what—
What I’m looking for, too, yeah.
Do you think that having that additional flexibility, so to speak, using Dimension and 3D, can be a cost-saving solution or more efficient compared to a 100 percent traditional workflow?
I want to say yes. I come from the world of being like, “There’s something about that moment, and perfection matters.” And to have the same noise pattern across these things, and all this super deepness, and sometimes I have to step back and remember that not everything is going to be a 48" x 48" print on a wall in gallery quality, and that takes me back to my design side, where sometimes getting the idea across the most efficient way makes sense. And I think, yes, it is a cost-efficient way for sure to create certain things. I think there’s still the magic of photography for certain elements—
The certain magic of that. But to do like we’ve been doing—settings with scenes with rendering in different products—it’s amazing how quick [the] turnaround time [is]. Within a day you can do what would take pre-production, shooting, post-production—you can do that all in one fell swoop. You can make editing changes on the fly.
I have a situation where we shot some product recently, and I need to replace some of the text on the product, and in the past, the retoucher can go in and bend and warp, but now what we’ll do is we’ll render out these plates in Dimension.
Yeah, those are great examples. We are not aiming to replace the photography, but provide a tool which is natural extension of it.
Exactly, yeah. It’s the same way that Hollywood’s done it for years, where they don’t have to blow up as much stuff in the background. You have to blow up a little bit of stuff to make it feel real. And then you can fill in the gaps with this, and I think it also has places where photography was lackluster in some of these things, when you get in these close-up details, you can do a better job with rendering. I know that makeup companies, for years they’ve been rendering their products because photography has physical limitations, so I think this opens us up to a new world too of creating images with photography that go beyond what our capabilities were.
Yeah, exactly. Can you tell me some of the features in Dimension that you especially liked? And if there was anything that’s missing that you wished was there?
Well, A, it’s so user-friendly to replace the textures; to replace the graphic files on pieces is so easy. It seemed to render really fast for me. There are things that I would like to see added in there, like to mimic exact camera settings.
Nice. Like the physical camera settings—maybe exposure, shutter speeds?
That would be cool. … And this is where it’s the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s switch gears and talk about our campaign with Ben and Jerry’s. I would love to hear about your experience there.
We have these flagship images and some of them are these giant, close-up textures of ice cream, but there are other times where we need to shoot hundreds of different flavors for different countries. Even just in managing the workflow of having five to 10 different flavors, with just these little, different details on there, it becomes, “Do we shoot everything? Do we do the food styling and shoot everything in place?” And then if we want to switch out one flavor with another one, it becomes a whole Photoshopping situation, and it’s just a lot of management on that end.
So what we were able to do with Ben and Jerry’s is we were able to create these scenarios—and we’re still using them currently—of different combinations of ice creams, or different flavors that are available in different places in the world, and as markets need. Because they have such a large reach, it would take days and days and days to shoot this packaging for all these different regions. … By creating the natural environment, that was something that I would natively shoot with my 35 millimeter camera, walk away and have a retoucher take care of it. We were able to shoot that environment and then save it and then—
Bring it into the 3D world.
Yeah. And there’s been a lot of positive response because people that aren’t at the production level, or aren’t able to be there when we’re making the decisions on what combinations are made, can then take these resources and create their asset request list, and then we can generate these things as needed without a full other shoot with many people—and especially right now when we’re minimizing the number of people we’re exposing ourselves to and working with.
Right. You kind of answered this, but I wanted to ask you what this workflow that you established for the project looked like.
To break it down for this one, because I’d never done anything like this before, I did some tests and tried to figure out how to use strobes with this and realized that there are certain aspects of this photography that required certain technical parameters, where it does need to be continuous lighting sources and there are reasons for that, and also I’ve always liked continuous lighting sources. But it’s really nice when you can see what it’s going to be and just click “capture.”
And so it’s fun to work in a new way. I had received the [360-degree] camera from you guys, and after being given the tutorial [about how to create spherical environment panoramas], I did my own testing of it, seeing what was possible, seeing what worked and what didn’t work. Like any creative process, you need a starting point; we couldn’t just say, “We’re going to capture environments and then film it later.” You still have to be thoughtful about this stuff. It’s still required. It doesn’t replace thinking. It’s not like we could just go in there and just have all these pieces and then click, “I want this, this, and this, and this.”
Yeah, that’s the key. The same way of thinking as a photographer still applies, I feel.
If I understand correctly, you first set up the real scene with an actual product, just to set up the lights in a proper way, but then you took away the object itself so you could take the empty back plates and the 360-degree environment image, and now you were able to bring all of that in Dimension. You then have this customizable 3D object where you can swap different materials, flavors. … What was the reaction to the beautiful results? I know that we were impressed.
I think we all were like, “Holy shit. This is amazing.” I was so—not doubtful, I knew that it would be good—but there was doubt that it would be impressive to me or impress me or blow me away. I remember doing the first one and I think I tried to explain to people what I was doing, and they were just like, “What are you talking about?” And then a visual of it would just blow everybody’s mind.
For you, what was the “Wow, that’s so cool” moment?
I don’t know if this is going to translate to the general public, but when I would have a fork in [a backplate photo], and then [when I render it with the 3D object of a pint next to it], I would see the slight double shadow. That’s sometimes frowned upon in lighting and video and photography, but it’s natural. And when it read the environment, it clicked and I saw what it was. I mean, OK, that goes beyond.
When you walked me through and showed me the [VFX trick of using a mirror ball object to reference the reflections of the 360-degree environment image], that was my first mind-blowing moment. Actually using it and setting it up and getting all the lighting in place and rendering out the first image. And I rendered it out at really high resolution.
The results are beautiful.
Yeah, if I was to try and approach something like that with 3D software with my knowledge, it’d be like 2024 by the time I had anything that was acceptable. To be able to throw that in there and then have it just output, it’s amazing. And then to have a layered file that came from it so I could still go in and mess and tweak with just little pieces that I wanted to customize and work from there …
Overall, we are in this COVID era—do you think this is something that’s going to be potentially important as we go forward, having this hybrid model?
Yeah, it totally opens up working with people in different places. I’m just scratching the surface of it. I’ve been thinking of ways to produce almost assets that I can provide—not stock images, but custom stock sets—where a client can come in and say, “I love the way that that’s lit and looks. And I want to see my product in there.” And then I’d be working with a 3D designer to create the actual object, and create something that works, and then have a texture and skin it. It just opens up a whole new collaboration field of people that we could make stuff with, and I’ve been trying to think of ways to just have fun.
And you are a visionary, Greg, I have to say—because we are thinking about a brand-new type of content, which is essentially what you just explained. So, I’m glad to hear from professional photographers thinking in the same direction.
You’re obviously super proficient in this hybrid model, as we say, and using virtual photography, but I’ve been talking to photographers who are not as open to this new technology. What would you say to your colleagues who are now maybe hesitant to try to use 3D?
Why would you not try something new and see if it works for you? I don’t think that this is going to work for live sports photographers. … [But] because it makes sense in this product photography world, for the project we’ve done, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for other things. I think breaking the rules of how it’s used is going to be what leads us to the next cool thing.
The next interesting use of it. So to those people that are rejecting it, reject it and use it at the same time. Break it to work for you, and make it work for you, and if you don’t want to do that, then don’t do it.
I think many people could be afraid of it because they don’t know where exactly to start. So do you have any advice for people like that? How do you dip your toe in?
I think you should start with—this goes back to creative director talk—start with your vision of what you want to make, and not that you’re going to get to what you want to make. Most of us have this vision and then we end up over here, but that’s what gets us there, and that’s what gets that process and that feeling going, and it’s reacting to those little results along the way that is going to get you there. It’s almost like, aim high and start with some crazy idea and expect nothing. And somewhere in the middle will be the results of reality, and sometimes they can blow your expectations away.
That’s great advice.
If I was going to be a design professor for a minute, I’d say, “Take Dimension and make something that’s super simple but pleasing and palatable.” Just find a color palette that you like and build yourself the simple geometric composition that we would do back in design school—cut out three squares of black paper and glue them onto the white paper, and then graduate on to cutting out three squares of colored paper and then gluing them onto the other colored paper and choosing the colors that you like.
Yeah, one step at a time.
One step at a time. And I think that’s a very elementary way of putting it, but once you do that, then also the brain’s going to click, and you’re going to go, “I see what I can do with this.” …
Whereas [with] photography in the past, you can tell a kid to go take the camera and you get your perspective right away. So [with Dimension] you have to start with your imagined perspective or what you want to see. And sometimes that can be the same exact thing that we would create with a traditional camera, or sometimes it can be a simple composition, or in my case it was doing typography in a 3D world.
Do you think this is going to be the future of photography? This hybrid model? Or do you think there’s going to be a definition which is different, traditional photography here, 3D, and then something being—
I would’ve never thought that this was going to be a thing, so I think it’s just, this is the beginning of virtual photography. I think how the hardware also is developed in coordination with this is going to influence a lot of what we can do and what’s able to be done. Things like capturing a 19-stop HDR image take time, and in years or days or hours, we might be able to capture that same HDR image instantaneously. Which all of a sudden will change the way that we can capture these scenes and sources. To say it’s the future—it’s obviously going to be incorporated in the future of it; just to imagine photography in a world where this is not implemented would be crazy.
Do you think it’s going to have a huge impact on commercial photography in general?
Yeah. It depends on how it’s picked up and how it’s utilized. I think if it’s done intelligently, yes. It’s going to have an impact. I want to see what other people are doing with it. I want to see this after the human mind has taken it and done 10 different experiments, and I want to do my own too at the same time.
To say how it’s going to affect it is beyond my view into the future. To say that it’s going to affect it and be part of it is without a doubt, because it allows us to do basically things that we’ve been trying to do for a long time of creating a perfect image.
Well, the results speak for themselves. Have you shared these results with your buddies?
Yeah. I can show them the before and after, and a lot of people are just like, “So, you just shot a plate in the background, and then shot the ice cream afterwards?” It’s so good that I have to explain that it’s not traditional photography.
I think that’s the best feedback ever.
For more information and inspiration, visit Adobe Dimension here.