It's no great secret that the key to creating beautiful images and animations lies with using great reference material. References come in all forms; drawings, sketches, videos, but the one area which is always very important is photography.
We all need direction, and it's often little use just relying on our own perception of something, or even using our memories. We are by nature, biased, and our memories can be hazy at best, and as such can't really be relied upon. So how can we be sure that what we are creating is correct if we only use our brain? Well to put it simply, we can't! This isn't to say that it's wrong to use your head and imagination, sometimes accuracy isn't important and we can create beautiful things without directly using reference materials at all.
However, as with many visualisations, including architecture and product based projects, accuracy is very important, and without accuracy often we find ourselves questioning each other as to what exactly is "right". One person's right might be another person's wrong, and all this leads to confusion, compromise and often wasting time. So this is where references are important.
Photographic references can be used for just about every part of a visualisation project, from how something should look in, to how a visualisation feels, is lit and graded. CAD drawings and sketches are great for accuracy, but sometimes can be very clinical, or perhaps missing the finer details, so using photographic references along side other material will generally result in a much nicer and more accurate finish.
When lighting, grading and trying to achieve a certain "feel" to a visualisation, photo references are still just as important. Traditional photography can be very straight-laced, or very creative and experimental. These varying styles used in traditional photography filter down to the CG industries and artists, and using these photo references for all styles of visualisations is important, not only for the creative, moody visualisations, but also the typical day-time shots too. Again it's all about seeing the finer details, as well as the whole picture, and not relying on memories and experiences to direct us.
I would say however, that photographic references are probably most important when it comes to working with other professions. Using references through-out a job can give clear direction to both clients and professionals. Both sides know what to expect and what to aim for. More often than not, the desired out-come will be achieved quicker and to a much better standard.
So what really prompted me to write this post? Well I initially thought I would share some references I recently found useful, and also possibly go through the best places to start looking for them for future projects, but then I thought that just showing others what I've found isn't overly useful, unless you understand where I'm coming from, and you might think I'm a bit strange posting links to random photos!
I came across this set of photo references of metal cladding when looking for references for an architectural project. These images are absolutely perfect for reference images, and well worth bookmarking, but why? When I'm looking for references, I want to see how the thing looks close-up, far away, in context, in different lighting situations, variations, and pretty much anything else that gives me a better understanding on how to recreate things in 3D. The resolution of the photographs isn't always that important, if you are using a reference for lighting or mood, then low resolution images are fine, but if you want to see every detail of something, then obviously the higher the resolution the better.
Flickr is great for reference images, the content is great, and often the photographs are of high resolution. Also Flickr supports the Creative Commons licencing, and user can choose to opt in if the wish, allowing their images to be used in commercial projects if the licence allows. Flickr is usually the first place I look and often does the trick.
Googling for photographs can also bring nice results, although it is very hit and miss, and often the images are of low resolution as these images are usually from webpages where they have been re-sized. Also anything gathered from Google will generally be under copyright, so you wont be able to use the images other than to look at.
Various other blogs exist that are useful for references. Just Google search for a blog, and one will surely come up, but here are a few I check regularly. Architecture Paste Book is almost like a digest of other blogs and websites, and provides you with a mix of subjects and styles. Although it isn't too useful if you have something specific you need to find, it can be great if you are looking for inspiration or new ideas. Design Boom is a mixed genre blog which I find inspiring to view. It can often lead you astray with interesting articles and fascinating designs, but that's half the fun with this blog, you are never sure what it'll take you too! Finally in this short list is Architonic. It nicely describes it's self as "The Independent Resource For Architecture And Design", and like Design Boom has a mixture of architecture and design, but Archit0nic is more structured and designed to be an aid to professionals, making it easy to search by manufacturer, designer, material to name a few.
I hope that gives an insight into why I think using photographic references in CG is so important, some of the on-line reference I find useful, and just a general overview too. This post has focused on what the web can bring to using photographic references, mainly because the web is so easy to use and will often give brilliant results, but don't also forget to surround your self with books and magazines and also pick up your camera and taking some pictures yourself!