On the web site of Andrew Whitehurst, I found a very recommendable article on so-called ambient occlusion, which is basically a technique to achieve more realistic renderings using RenderMan® compliant renderers. Please, read the full article which contains a number of very good example renderings to illustrate this technique.
Images like the example above show what’s possible right now (the article is from 2000/2001, with an update from 2004), and they also show the inferiority of what I personally call “Photoshop realism”, where it’s quite apparent that the photograph in question has been manipulated and/or poorly rendered.
I think this one of the downsides to software such as Photoshop being available for the masses: certain rather mediocre quality standards (this “Photoshop look”) are being established, which is imho not a good thing, since people do not become aware of what’s technically really possible. Phtoshop definitely can be used to composite photo-realistic renderings, but this requires a certain technical expertise. Years ago, I stumbled upon a remarkable article entitled “Rendering with Photoshop” with some really outstanding examples, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find this article again.
As an inspiration and a glimpe at the frontier of state-of-the-art high-end graphics, I can strongly recommend the web site of Paul Debevec from California. Since I was lucky to get his permission to post low-res versions of the graphics displayed on his web site, articles about his work are likely to follow here. For those who are not familiar with the work of Paul Debevec: among the techniques he developed is the so-called Image-based Rendering, which was extensively used in “The Matrix” (1999).