Meet Philippe Graindorge, 3D aerial photographer

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Philippe Graindorge (a.k.a. Gerpho on Sketchfab) is a 3D aerial photographer, and a Sketchfab serial user, pushing our technology to the limits and making good use of our new multi-resolution feature. He kindly accepted to take part in our interview series to share some of his knowledge.

Could you introduce yourself to our readers: Who are you and where are you from?

I’m French, and I live in one of the most beautiful regions of France, Dordogne. (All the models but one that are displayed on my Sketchfab page are close to where I live) It’s a region of prehistoric caves and paintings, beautiful rivers and “chateaux”, but it’s also almost a suburb of London, since there are daily flights to London and other major UK cities.

I started my professional life as a R&D scientist in a high-tech startup company specialized in telecom instruments, at a time where the amount of memory in a computer was measured in Kbytes rather that Gbytes ! At that time, 3D was almost science fiction.


How did you first get started in aerial photography?

As a child I always dreamt of flying, and I was very fond of photography. In the years 2000, it got difficult for telecom companies, and I decided to take a new professional start ; I  got a professional pilot license, and became an aerial photographer.
Do you have any academic training or are you self-taught in this field ?

I started as a professional photographer when the first digital cameras appeared. I completed my photographic know-how by reading books, but also through trial and error. Aerial photography is not “traditional” photo. Everything’s different, and there aren’t that many textbooks on that subject, so that I had to develop my own digital tools to correct for the optical effects of the atmospheric haze, which causes aerial photos to look pale and washed out.

Besides, with the development of the digital world, I kept looking for technologies better suited to the internet than the classical “2D” printed photo. I designed a few interactive aerial virtual tours. When the 3D aerotriangulation softwares were introduced, it appeared to me as the obvious way to go.

Can you tell us about what aspects of 3D you specialize in?

I specialize in 3D aerial photography only. We aren’t that many, and I only know of a couple of photographers working the way I do. My customers are actual 3D designers, such as architects, urbanists, or road planners, who want to embed their models in realistic environments, for planning and communication purposes. Presenting a project within a photographic 3D environment gives a feeling of familiarity which benefits to the project.


Castle of Hautefort 3D printed by our friends from Adobe on a Mcor printer, and the 3D model below:

What would you recommend for someone who wants to get started in 3D aerial photography (or wants to learn more)?

It’s a very new field, lots of new softwares appear all the time, but I’d suggest to concentrate on the shooting first. It’s most important to obtain photos with the best quality available, as this will determine the quality of the 3D model. The old saying : “garbage in – garbage out” applies here also. Some people say you can use photos from your iPhone to make 3D models. It’s true, but the quality of the 3D model will be in line with the quality of the photos.

Therefore, the planning must be done carefully, pixel count, flight plan, field of view, exposure, sharpness and so on. Once the shooting is over, the post-processing of the photos also has a strong influence on the result. There is no rule, each photographer must determine his/her parameters which yields the best results. And only then will the selection of the right software become a question worth asking.

After all, 3D aerial photography relies heavily on… photography !

How did you come across Sketchfab and how does it help you with your business?

3D aerial photography is a very new process indeed, which means that potential users must first see what it’s all about to understand the great potentialities of this technique. So I was looking for a way to display my work on the internet without using a clumsy 3D viewer. Eventually, I discovered Sketchfab, and instantly my 3D photos became available on the web. It was a huge change in exposure for my work, and I’ve already been contacted several times by potential customers who saw my models on Sketchfab.

I’m very grateful to the Sketchfab team, both for the wonderful product they created, and for their support to my work specifically.
Can you describe us the work process of a 3D aerial photographer?

The most important part is the initial planning : I must define all the shooting parameter, altitude, distance, focal length, flight plan very carefully in advance. This will determine the quality of the resulting 3D model. Then the actual shooting can take place. I usually fly a small Cessna and use high pixel-count camera, with very good optics, so that I can capture the smallest details of the scene. Once I’m back in the office, I process all the photos, load them into the wonderful aerotriangulation software developed by a small French company, Acute3D, and wait…. a very long time, even though I use a powerful computer ! At last the result is displayed on my screen.

On average how long does it take you to finish a project? Are you working alone?

It can be as short as a few days from the initial planning to the display of the 3D model on my computer. I work mainly alone. However, when flying I must concentrate on shooting, and I ask a professional pilot who now is also a friend, to fly the plane. We’re used to flying together and he knows exactly how I want him to fly the plane, it’s a great advantage.
Of all your current models on Sketchfab, which one was the hardest to achieve?

The Montignac village was really a challenge : the model on sketchfab is only a small part (less than 2%) of the whole scene. The flight plan was rather tricky to establish, to be sure not to miss any part of the scene, especially in the town itself, since the streets are narrow and “deep”. But once we got there, there was a strong, gusty and turbulent wind, and things didn’t exactly work out as planned. I had to make a second flight to “fill in the gaps”, and re-process the whole thing.

What place in the world you’d really like to photograph and render in 3D?

I love cliffs, such as the one in the model of La Roche Gageac. The 3D rendering of the rocks, overhangs, holes, caves and faults is beautiful to see. There are a few at hand in France, such as Etretat or Bonifaccio ; the white cliffs of Dover would be very impressive indeed. But above all, the Norwegian cliffs of Preikestolen towering the fjord would make a fantastic 3D scene.


Preikestolen cliff in Norway, photo under CC license by kanelstrand

What’s the “best” part of your job? The “worst” part?

What I like best is wandering with the plane, eyes wide open and discovering the landscapes from above. There are many surprises, unexpected views, things that would go unnoticed when seen from the ground, and that become abstract pictures from above. I always keep my camera at hand for those occasions.

The worst part is when I have to wait for the computer to process the photos to generate the 3D scene. It can last tens of hours, and during all that time, I don’t know what the result will be : something might have gone wrong, and I’ll only discover it at the end.

But for me, the most difficult part is to go “hunting” for customers ; I believe this technology is absolutely fabulous, but I still have to convince potential users to think as I do ; it takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m much more efficient with technical matters. That’s why I’m now looking for a salesperson !
What’s the question you are asked most of the time by potential customers?

People are easily dazzled by a beautiful 3D demo. The question they ask next is “How can I use this thing?”. This sums up many unspoken questions : what for, with what tool, what human interface, what compatibility, what accuracy, and of course what format, among the tens of 3D formats. If you show a “traditional” 2D photo, everybody knows how to use it, and for what purpose. It is not so with 3D photo, this knowledge has to be created, and to some extend, several tools are missing ; thanks to sketchfab an important one is now available !

Thanks again to Philippe for taking part in our interview series. Be sure to check out Philippe’s profile on Sketchfab and his website for more info.

Want more interviews ? Check out our entire series here.

About the author

Bart Veldhuizen

Community Lead at Sketchfab. 3D Scanning enthusiast and Blenderhead.

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