Why 3D Might Be the Future of Stock Imagery

Photography isn't going away, but it might get less important

Key Takeaways

  • Shutterstock is acquiring 3D marketplace TurboSquid for $75 million.
  • Some product catalogs—like Ikea’s—already use mostly computer-generated scenes.
  • Photography remains essential for small companies, and individuals.
An image of a virtual room.
Amr Taha / Unsplash

Stock photography site Shutterstock already sees a future where we won’t need cameras or even photographers. Instead, they will be replaced by 3D models.

Shutterstock is set to acquire TurboSquid, a marketplace for 3D assets and imagery. It’s paying $75 million, and the deal will make Shutterstock "the world’s largest 3D marketplace," according to the press release. The goal, presumably, is to completely own the stock imagery market, no matter how that imagery is created. 

"I believe that photography and 3D can and will co-exist as marketing tools in product photography," Eugenia Gangi, founder and CEO of NOLA Real Estate Marketing & Photography, told Lifewire via email.

"As we have learned from real estate, a photograph can convey a feeling, a lifestyle, or a mood, while 3D can carry an abundance of information."

3D Catalogs

3D imagery is already more pervasive than you might think. IKEA, for example, started to replace product photography for its catalog years ago. In 2014, its catalog contained 75% computer-generated images. Now, even some of IKEA’s "human" models are CGI.

Creating a product catalog like IKEA’s from scratch is a logistical challenge, and we don’t just mean the difficulty of putting all that furniture together. IKEA may have all the products at hand, but it needs to build and dress sets, both of which require photographers, assistants, stylists, and people to schlep the furniture.

A couple standing in an empty room with home interior decorations sketched in.
SDI Productions / Getty Images

Using 3D models, photographers can capture pictures of blank rooms, to be populated with furniture and accessories later. It’s also a lot easier to move a 3D model of a wardrobe an inch to the left than to reshoot a whole spread.

In IKEA’s case, it has its own set of 3D models, which it repurposes for use in a public app that lets you place Ikea furniture in your own home using augmented reality. 

Shutterstock’s acquisition includes TurboSquid’s Kraken, a software package "that companies use to manage their own libraries of models and streamline 3D asset management," according to Shutterstock’s press release.

This would let customers like IKEA combine their own 3D imagery with items purchased from Shutterstock. This could remove the need for photography almost entirely, perhaps just for adding people. 

Stock Everything

Adding 3D imagery to its catalog makes a lot of sense for Shutterstock in another way. Right now, the company doesn’t just sell stock photography.

Half draw sketch of a modern living room interior overlayed by a matching photograph.
asbe / Getty Images

It also provides music, video footage, editorial photography (pictures of celebrities, sports, news, and more), vector images, and illustrations. In short, if you need a visual or audio element of almost any kind, you can buy it from Shutterstock.

With the acquisition of TurboSquid’s 3D catalog, it comes one step closer to being the Amazon of stock imagery. That’s good news for buyers, who love the convenience of a one-stop shop, but perhaps it’s not so hot for creators, who may eventually only have one place to sell to. 

Photography and Emotion

Photography does more than just capture a representation of a scene, and for individual users, grabbing a pre-made photo is a lot easier than building a 3D environment from scratch. Then again, perhaps in the future there will be a market for pre-rendered 3D scenes made from Shutterstock’s library of objects.

"Photograph can convey a feeling, a lifestyle, or a mood, while 3D can carry an abundance of information."

Also, if you’re selling a home, you need to take photos of an actual location. And then there is the psychological factor. "Sales are largely emotional decisions that are justified after the fact," says Gangi, "so photography is not going away any time soon."

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