First, let’s look at what Photoshop is not… PS is not going to replace existing, dedicated 3D packages. It is not trying to become the only imaging tool you ever need. And PS is not a true materials editor, meaning it’s not set up for editing normal or UV maps, nor is it capable of generating complex surfaces such as you’d need for translucent skin or solid glass. For that matter, you can’t even do atmospheric or volumetric renders.
So, what is PS to the 3D world? Well, it depends on how you currently use it. For 3D artists, it’s a way to use the world’s leading pixel-pusher to edit materials in place. For graphic artists and designers, simple models can be imported or created to use as design elements. And for photographers, objects can be added to photographic scenes for compositing and retouching.
There are a lot of people who look at the integration of these tools as adding bloat to a rather large application. I have to admit that I didn’t really see the benefit when I first tested these features in CS3. There was nothing really interesting to me as a non-3D user at first. And even in CS4, I couldn’t find too many excuses to use 3D. In order to do anything worth while, I used Daz|Studio or StrataCX to build and manipulate models. Then I’d go into PS and edit textures, add some lighting and composite into photographs. I also used these tools to help generate shadows on complex surfaces, but this was not always easy.
I also loved using 3DInvigorator for text and simple shapes. But this had the limitation of only bringing a flat layer into PS, so even this was a little cumbersome. When I saw that CS5 would essentially replace this capability, I was a little irritated on two fronts. I thought PS was going to try and compete in a world where other applications were already years ahead, and I felt that companies like Digital Anarchy were being pushed out and Adobe was ignoring the impact to these developers.
But, I’ve turned around. Not only do I love the new 3D tools, I am finding more use for the same applications and plugins that I thought were being made obsolete. I realized that it was up to me as a digital artist to figure out how to use these new capabilities. Each of the applications has strengths for different situations, just as Photoshop’s tools are appropriate for given users and needs. I still go to 3DInvigorator for precise control over bevels on text (and the great lighting capabilities), especially when I know the exact look I’m going for. I use Strata for working on more complex models and rendering layers back to PS. Daz|Studio is my default for posing and getting access to great, inexpensive models.
Add to these some new favorites like 3DVia for being able to browse easily from the PS plugin, and FilterForge for the absolutely amazing textures and maps you can coax out of it. These are not competing capabilities, but tools for different circumstances.
Perhaps most importantly for me, 3D in Photoshop is a gateway. I really wasn’t too interested in 3D before, and frankly figured that if I needed the capability, I’d just contract or outsource the work. With access to these capabilities, though, I find more and more reason to include 3D in my work, and not always in obvious ways. There are plenty of uses for simple 3D, including using rotated models as brushes (thanks to Greg from 3DVia for pointing this out), laying out elements in perspective, helping to pre-plan complex photoshoots, generating shadows for compositing, etc. The list goes on, and any Photoshop user owes it to themselves to discover what new talents they can uncover in themselves.
To the naysayers, all I have to say is that Adobe is not simply adding a non-value-added feature just to sell copies. If that were the case, they’d have included Repoussé and other 3D tools in the basic package. But they recognize that the tools are more in the professional realm, so you’ll only find them in Extended for CS5. These are not tools for creating crappy 3D Word Art, or just a gimmick for making 3D logos out of 2D versions. I’m certain that there will be a serious uptick in such things, but then Flash is not a poor tool because of so many bad websites. You are very likely to see some amazingly bad 3D stuff, and an absolute ton of cheap 3D text.
Keep in mind that the Lens Flare filter is still there, among others. And each of these can be used for powers of good. At least in the hands of skilled artists, anyway. Ask yourself if you are able to use these tools. They may just not be for you.
Over the next few months, I will highlight some of the more esoteric and unusual uses for 3D, and hopefully sway a few minds. Keep in mind that Adobe is not trying to replace anything in the 3D world; they are trying to be more useful to existing and nascent work flows, and to enable new users. This is not a fad or flash in the pan. This is a new tool. You can choose to learn it or not.