Point and shoot: Bringing video game photo modes into focus

Laced With Wax Point and shoot: Bringing video game photo modes into focus

Photographer Gary Dutton, podcaster Jay Taylor and Laced With Wax editor Tom Quillfeldt chat about their favourite fad in video games: photo modes.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

Unless you’ve been playing with your eyes shut, you’ll have noticed that modern video games are bloody gorgeous. Open-world, action-adventure and driving games in particular take us to stunning virtual locales, packed with incredibly detailed character models and illuminated by mind-bogglingly sophisticated in-game lighting.

Some of us aren’t content just to briefly pass through these impressive environments that are the products of hundreds of game development man-hours — we want to stop and smell the roses (and take screenshots of them).

To that end, we gathered together three avid gaming shutterbugs to discuss video game photo modes: (real life and virtual) photojournalist Gary Dutton; core member of the Cane and Rinse podcast team, Jay Taylor; and yours truly, Laced With Wax editor Tom Q.

Photo modes are Go!

Giant Bomb has it that the first console photo mode appeared in Gran Turismo 4 in 2004, and provides a handy list of games with the feature. Prior to that, there were games with photography mechanics (e.g. Fatal Frame, Pokémon Snap) and modders/hackers have long been able to break into game code and muck around with game engines and assets.

Some Gran Turismo 4 photo mode shots courtesy of RX Hachi: 

Gran Turismo 4 photo mode shots courtesy of RX Hachi

Of late, it seems to be Sony/PlayStation pushing the photo mode trend the hardest by including a Share button on the PlayStation 4 pad, and fully featured pause-and-shoot photo modes appearing in numerous first party/exclusive titles such as DriveClub, RESOGUN, The Order: 1886, inFAMOUS Second Son, The Last of Us Remastered, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, WipEout Omega Collection and Horizon Zero Dawn.

That’s not to say these are the only titles with photo modes — recent Forza games have also included them, several Warner Bros games (Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Batman: Arkham Knight), 2016’s DOOM, No Man’s Sky and more.

Up close and personal

Tom Quillfeldt (TQ): “I’m stupidly excited to talk about photo modes with fellow obsessees. Over the last year, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time taking 1,000 or so screenshots in Horizon Zero Dawn and, before that, over 1,300 in Uncharted 4 — two exceptionally beautiful games.

“It’s just a nerdy side-pursuit. I love having having a large repository of arty game images that I’ve collected on my computer, as desktop backgrounds/screensavers.

“I got into photo modes with WipEout HD (2008) on the PS3 and became enraptured to the point that it would ruin the flow of most races for me. I’d try to pause at just the right moment as a weapon went off so I could swing the camera around for an arty shot.”

WipEout HD, shot by Tom Quillfeldt: 

WipEout HD, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

TQ: “I was always drawn to the idea of being able to capture images from games and get them onto my computer desktop, which led to me literally taking photos of the TV (which turned out pretty rubbish, of course). More recently, with beautiful games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that don’t have a photo mode, I’d switch off the HUD [head-up display i.e. functional things on screen like health bar, mini-map etc.] to be able to take screenshots with the PS4 Share button.”

Gareth Dutton (Gary D): “For me, it started when I was playing Wolfenstein: The New Order in 2014. There isn’t a photo mode in the game, but I was just inspired by the Resistance safe house, where you can wander round and talk to the survivors/refugees. It’s this really cool story device and is a space that changes over the course of the game with different characters appearing. The art direction was so good, everything so meticulously placed and the lighting was beautiful. There’s all these little stories going on.

“I successfully pitched Midnight Resistance an article idea as if I were an investigative photographer reporting on this secret hideout. I took loads of shots using the PS4 Share button, got them onto my computer and painstakingly photoshopped out the HUD — which took ages!”

Wolfenstein: The New Order, shot by Gareth Dutton:

Wolfenstein: The New Order, shot by Gareth Dutton

Dutton has since produced several photo essays:

Gary D: “After that, I kept an eye out for photogenic games, whether they had photo modes or not. It was always a relief when you could choose to switch off the HUD in a game, as with Bloodborne — you can zoom in with the ‘Monocular’ item, make the player character sit down and the camera stays where it is but your avatar is out of shot. So you can fudge shots, it but it all takes a very long time.”

Bloodborne, shot by Gareth Dutton:

Bloodborne, shot by Gareth Dutton

Gary D: “When I actually got onto proper photo modes, like with The Last of Us Remastered, it was a playground for me — I was in heaven.”

Jay Taylor (Jay T): “Although I tinkered with Dragon’s Dogma (2012) on the PS3, photo modes only really became a thing for me when I moved onto the PS4. The second that I got that Share button, I thought: ‘this is awesome, this is what I’ve been waiting for’. I also ‘fudged’ shots in games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) where you’d have to pause the game, remove the HUD and then take the shot.

“Probably the game that I put the most time into in terms of taking pictures using photo mode was Mad Max (2015).”

Mad Max, shot by Jay Taylor:

Mad Max, shot by Jay Taylor

Games got gorgeous

TQ: “So why geek out about photo modes now? In the main, I think we three are all completely bowled over by the art direction in many video games these days, particularly during this console generation (none of us are PC-heads).”

Jay T: “I find myself constantly amazed by the detail in character models. Some of the close-ups of characters’ faces… [among the pics below] I’d never even realised there was that much detail to them. I’m constantly wowed, whether it’s skin imperfections, textures on fabric etc.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Gary D: “With The Last of Us, I used the photo mode [in the remastered PS4 edition] because I wanted to look closely at the characters and their relationships. I shot a portrait of Tess — she’s one of the most interesting, put-upon and strong characters and I wanted to capture that.”

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton

Gary D: “In the picture, she looks battered and mucky but the fact is, that detail was in there already [thanks to the Naughty Dog character artists]. You’re running around the game world and characters are constantly wearing these world-weary expressions, and you can very easily not notice it at all.

“I also did a series on the architecture and interiors in the game. There is plenty of storytelling going on in those aspects of games. We’re all familiar with the term ‘environmental storytelling’, but it’s so much more than BioShock-style audio logs. With a game like The Last of Us, you notice all these details whilst you slowly plod through the world taking photos — a tourist in the level.”

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton

Gary D: “There’s so much that artists and designers have packed in there that all makes sense and adds to the backstory. It must feel strange to work on those details and know that most players aren’t going to explicitly notice it, but that it will add to their experience without them necessarily being aware.”

TQ: “I imagine a environment or character artist might feel quite proud if they came across people praising those minute details. In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture [which doesn’t have a photo mode, but also has no HUD], I was very fond of the twee evidence of rural English life, like hopscotches, climbing frames, rugby pitches etc. At an event in recent years, I was waxing lyrical about the amazing frisbees and bicycles in the game to one of the artists responsible [Alex Grahame at The Chinese Room]. I might have come across a tad unhinged.”

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

TQ: “On the other hand, I can imagine a more senior creative director preferring that players enjoy the overall effect. If you were a chef and someone complimented only one ingredient rather than the whole dish, you might be a bit peeved. Photo modes give players the chance to pick things apart.”

Gary D: “Each person is probably different, but a senior art director might want you to notice the details but ultimately be won over by the overall atmosphere and sense of place.”

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Gareth Dutton:

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Gareth Dutton

Gary D: “It can be that way with other disciplines. I’ve been working with ustwo games on a photo documentary about Monument Valley 2’s development and the sound designer, Todd Baker, aimed to make the sound cohesive so that people don’t necessarily notice it but, at the same time, if you complimented him on individual bits, he’d definitely be very pleased about it! They want both…”

For anyone interested to learn more about the ins-and-outs of environment art, here’s an interesting Gamasutra piece by the lead environment artist working on Spider-Man at Insomniac.

Must. Resist. Taking. Photos.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

TQ: “In Uncharted 4, you get to be a tourist in these incredible locations that you will most likely never get to go to. Even if you did go to Madagascar, or the remote Scottish highlands, you wouldn’t necessarily get to take photos whilst hanging off a cliff or leaping around in a gunfight. With photo mode, you get to explore photo-realistic versions of these amazing places, at your leisure.

“However, the pacing of Uncharted 4 was somewhat ruined for me (or rather, by me) because I was spending so much time taking pictures! It’s such a beautiful game… every 5-10 seconds, I’d turn a corner and there’d be something stunning to look at, so I’d have to stop and turn on photo mode. I almost wish photo mode had been locked until completion of the story, as I spent hours and hours not actually playing the game.”

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton

Gary D: “I did the same. I totally ruined it — I can’t help it!

“I can’t help it in real life when I’m taking photos. I can’t put the camera down until the battery has run out. And that problem extends itself to photo modes in games, particularly with a game like Uncharted 4 that has a very deliberate flow. The only reason it was OK with The Last of Us was because it was my third playthrough and in that case, it did enhance my appreciation of the game.”

TQ: “In that way, by adding that value to the package, Naughty Dog has hooked you, me and other photo mode devotees — we’re now all guaranteed repeat customers (as if we weren’t already). But we’ll also play those games twice, three times just to see everything, and also keep the conversation about them going years later.”

Gary D: “Definitely. I presume there will be a photo mode in The Last of Us 2 but I’m going to have to really stop myself using it the first time through.”

Jay T: “It’s weird to hear you guys say that — I’ve never thought of photo mode as a negative like that. I’ve always seen it as having the ability to capture a moment that you might not be able to recreate, even on another playthrough. So I’ve never particularly been bothered about pausing… the only time I’ll admit that it has become an issue is when I’ve spent half an hour trying to perfect a shot before realising that it’s not very good!”

Gary D: “That’s also true of real life photography [wasting time on a dud shot].”

Jay T: “Another time-based aspect of using a photo mode is that you find yourself watching a character’s idle animations because you’re waiting for that one moment when they scratch the back of their head… In The Last of Us, Joel rubs his arms every so often so I sat there for something like five minutes until he repeated the animation.”

TQ: “I also had the reverse problem — with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I could never quite remember to pause in the middle of combat to take decent action shots, although I tried my best to deliberately get into exciting-looking fights.”

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Gary D: “There are a lot more parallels than people think between real life and in-game photography because they are essentially the same thing.

“That feeling that Jay describes: ‘this shot’s never going to come round again, what if I miss it?’ After a while, you learn that it’s madness to do that because there’s always going to be a shot that you miss because there are so many possible interesting photos you could take. Part of your development as a photographer is to know when to let it pass. Like the saying about jazz — that it’s about the notes you don’t play.”

As far as ‘the eye’ can see

Jay T: “Looking at Gary’s pics, it’s amazing how different [photos are when taken by] somebody who has that ‘photographic eye’, i.e. a better understanding of composition and light. I always think: ‘Damn! How have they achieved that?’”

Gary D: “I’ve been doing photography for so long in real life, working on photo documentaries… but even if I’m just doing an event, I’m mainly looking to answer the questions: ‘What story am I telling with this photo? What is this collection going to say when it’s finished? What sort of mood are these shots going to have overall?’”

The Evil Within, shot by Gareth Dutton:

The Evil Within, shot by Gareth Dutton

TQ: “With some of these games, if you’re not fussed about putting together your own collection, you can always wait for someone with ‘the eye’, like Gary, who is going to do the hard work for you! Then you just download their best shots (for your own personal enjoyment) instead of going to the trouble of taking great shots, putting them onto a USB drive in the PS4’s Capture Gallery, transferring it to your computer, sifting through, deleting the rubbish ones, cropping etc.

“Gary — you’ve got access to Photoshop and can use your professional photography skills to change these shots after the fact, of course...”

Gary D: “Yes, I usually put them through Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is what I use for my ‘real life’ work. Lightroom is more of a photographer’s tool because it’s about editing, selection and organisation. With the tools, you’re tweaking things like exposure, colour temperature, highlights and the darks, whites and blacks of a picture.

“Using those tools for video game screenshots is not the same as editing a real life photograph because the screenshots are lower resolution. That means even the tiniest tweaks can have quite a dramatic effect, so you have to be careful how you use it.

“[That said], in the end, there’s ostensibly no difference between a photograph you’ve taken in the real world and a photograph you’ve taken in a game with modelled lighting. You’re still adjusting what is a recording of light rather than real light, and the images end up in the same format. You can therefore apply many of the same principles regarding light, which is cool.”

The Last Guardian, shot by Gareth Dutton:

The Last Guardian, shot by Gareth Dutton

The name’s Swagger, Max Swagger

TQ: “To an extent, adding a photo mode feels like an act of pure swagger on the part of game developers.

“Certainly with Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog is saying: ‘we’ve got this unbelievable engine, we’ve got the best artists and lighting programmers in the whole world — so go nuts! Stick the camera wherever you want, we’re proud of every single blade of grass.’”

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Gary D: “I definitely agree. It stems from showing off and saying ‘look at what we’ve made’.

“The conversation around games often still comes down to how many polygons everything has, how good it looks technically. But there’s not necessarily a great interest in overall art direction [as opposed to raw graphics]. It’s still very much about GPU grunt — we’re all still a bit obsessed with that in gaming culture. To that end, photo modes are definitely a marketing tool. Hopefully it will evolve away from that.”

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton

TQ: “With Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4 (and other games), you can embed the game or developer logo into the image. That, coupled with the fact that photo modes are generally unlocked from the beginning of the game, means that game marketers have got this incredible user-generated content machine which pumps out images on social media every day.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Twitter’s @Williamjepma and @thesolitaryowl:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Twitter’s @Williamjepma and @thesolitaryowl

Jay T: “It does make me wonder with No Man’s Sky… If that photo mode had been in the game earlier, whether there might have been a bit less negativity around the launch.”

TQ: “Laced Records released the soundtrack to No Man’s Sky, so we follow the community fairly closely — there has been a steady stream of fantastic, colourful photo mode shots on social media, in part thanks to the @nomanspics Twitter handle, and @hellogames retweeting images. The people who love that game can now better promote its core appeal — to explore the universe, see some epic sights and encounter funky giraffe-dwarf-manimals.”

No Man’s Sky, shot by Twitter’s @giliaaan and @jamey_thomson — examples retweeted by @nomanspics:

No Man’s Sky, shot by Twitter’s @giliaaan and @jamey_thomson — examples retweeted by @nomanspics

TQ: “These aren’t marketing bullshots, they’re in-game screenshots, albeit with some image manipulation. It seems like a marketer’s dream to me, as long as players are using it to highlight how beautiful a game is rather than make fun of it and highlight weaknesses.”

Gary D: “That’s the danger isn’t it, the double-edged sword. Since the Share function has come along, you are potentially inviting [trouble].”

Jay T: “Assassin’s Creed Unity or the Ezio Collection springs to mind…”

TQ: “Kotaku’s Highlight Reel often includes videos of bugs and potentially embarrassing things. It can’t be helped.”

Gary D: “Some brands, like the Assassin’s Creed series, can survive that kind of derision — if anything, it gives it more publicity. It could be damaging for others… People sharing all the bugs and weird things in Mass Effect Andromeda — the conversation became about that instead of what’s good about the game. I know people that have played it and genuinely enjoyed it.”

TQ: “On the positive side, it can pique people’s interest about a game. I’ve seen Jay post a lot about Mad Max — I’m not hugely interested in that game in terms of gameplay, but I’m certainly more intrigued after seeing those beautiful vistas.”

Mad Max, shot by Jay Taylor:

Mad Max, shot by Jay Taylor

Sam White produced a Mad Max photo essay for Vice/Waypoint.

Developing good relations

TQ: “Following on from that thought about Hello Games helping fans help No Man’s Sky utilising photo mode and social media… I hope developers and publishers continue to open up in this way and offer a simple, sanctioned way for players (who aren’t PC modders) to tinker — some might say ‘play’ — with the game engine and assets through a photo mode.

“I hope other developers take notes from PlayStation first-party approach with photo mode with somewhat standardised feature sets. Keep letting fans show off your game for you and don’t worry too much about people taking bad shots or trying to break the game — PC players are going to do that anyway and the console Share button is here to stay.”

Jay T: “I’d also love to see developers who have implemented a photo mode embrace it more warmly. I’ve seen it many times where you’ll be tweeting pictures of a game and even if you’re @‘ing a developer, there’s very little response from them. I get it, they’re busy, but these companies have got community people who should be on this.

“Certain developers — like Guerrilla Games with Horizon Zero Dawn — have done a blinding job. Not only did they create what I think is a benchmark version of a photo mode, but it’s the way in which they’ve continued to handle it and how they as a studio respond to people: constantly retweeting and commenting on people’s pictures. They’ve run a competition for nine solid weeks where they were taking two of their favourite shots every week and giving them prizes.”

TQ: “And they patched the photo mode to improve it too, adding different facial expressions and a range of quirky poses.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor — ‘Aftermath’ pose:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor — ‘Aftermath’ pos

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — ‘Serenity’ and ‘Victory’ poses:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom QuillfeldtHorizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Jay T: “With that patch, it took me two weeks to realise that when you press L3 in photo mode, Aloy’s gaze follows the camera.”

TQ: “NOOOOOO! Don’t tell me this now! I had no idea and I’ve just bloody well taken 1,000 screenshots.”

Gary D: “Presumably these new poses and expressions opened up a lot of room for comedy? It’s nice they let you do that.”

TQ: “Many of the poses are deliberately silly or ‘kawaii’. It’s some great fan service”

Horizon Zero Dawn — an uncredited image that’s been doing the rounds in articles about the new poses:

Horizon Zero Dawn

What makes a great photo mode?

TQ: “It seems to be that the consensus here is that Horizon Zero Dawn is the photo mode to emulate, in terms of delighting fans and breadth of feature set. I feel like we are approaching a standardised feature set, give or take one or two things per game:
  • Moving the camera on a boom anchored around the player character,
  • field of view and zoom,
  • depth of field (focus distance and aperture f-stops),
  • camera roll (spinning the image),
  • bokeh shape (that cool circular blurred effect around light sources),
  • remove player and/or other characters,
  • film grain,
  • motion blur,
  • change player character pose and expression,
  • filters (and filter intensity),
  • brightness, over-exposure and contrast,
  • time of day and weather,
  • borders and logos,
  • and vignettes.

“Are there any of those features that you guys particularly love or spend the most time tweaking?” 

Gary D: “The only thing I would use regularly is depth of field. From a photographer’s point of view, I rarely add filters to my real life work and if I do, I add subtle things. [Photo mode filters] feels gimmicky to me, but that’s just because I’ve spent so long doing this —it should definitely be in there because lots of people get a lot of enjoyment out of them.”

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton

Jay T: “In Horizon Zero Dawn and other games, in terms of depth of field, you’ve got focal length and aperture and you’ve got to work the two to get things looking right. I like the idea of having both focus distance and f-stop aperture settings rather than just one ‘depth of field’ slider. It’s more akin to actual photography and uses the correct terminology. With f-stops — f/1.4, f/2 etc. — if you’re somebody who’s not confident with real cameras, it gives you a basic understand of what these things do to a photograph.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor

Jay T: “I use the filters a lot in Horizon Zero Dawn, but I often alter the intensity. Sometimes it’s nice to use ‘cross process’ and maybe just apply 10%, so it has a subtle effect. Similarly with with the black and white filter, you can desaturate an image just a little bit.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — using the ‘Cross Process’ filters:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — using the ‘Cross Process’ filtersHorizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — using the ‘Cross Process’ filters

Gary D: “I think the photo modes we have now are going stay largely the same because the camera has to centre around a certain character or anchor point and you’ll always have to fight with geometry that you’re not allowed to clip through.

“Having the ability to use real camera controls is a great trend that more games should take note of, especially to serve fans who might be interested in photography but are slightly intimidated by it. Being able to play with f-stops and shutter speed and see how that affects a picture in real time without any consequences… that’s a nice way to encourage interest in photography in general.”

Jay T: “It has become ‘a thing’ for me now. When I’m looking for games to buy, especially in the sales, I’ll check to see if they have a photo mode, as it puts them above those that don’t.

“I recently dove into Batman: Arkham Knight based on the [patched-in] photo mode. Sadly, it was a disappointing experience which is real shame because if a game screamed out for moody shots, it was this one. It doesn’t quite have the functionality that I’ve come to expect — there were so many shots of the Joker that I was really happy with, apart from the fact that I couldn’t toggle ‘hide player character’ and remove Batman from the shot.”

Batman: Arkham Knight, shot by Jay Taylor:

Batman: Arkham Knight, shot by Jay Taylor

Jay T: “I’d like to see a standardised feature set across photo modes in general. Sometimes I like taking pictures of NPCs, making them the focus, so I need to be able to hide the player character.”

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Jay Taylor:

The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Jay Taylor

Guerrilla Games gives you the time of day

Jay T: “That time of day slider in Horizon Zero Dawn is the thing! That one feature really sucked me in — to have the ability to totally change how a photograph looks based on where the position of the sun is in the sky.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — showing how the different times of day affect the lighting model (filters can also affect weather effects):

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

TQ: “You can usually tell an early-game Horizon ‘time of day’ shot because people go straight for that magical sunshine lense flare! It’s very much a magic trick. 100% pure swagger on the part of Guerrilla Games.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeld

Gary D: “To play devil’s advocate… From a purist’s point of view, I’m not that keen on the idea of changing the time of day or the weather [as in DriveClub] because I like the idea of recording a moment in time; a virtual moment where some things have come together that are out of your control. That’s what I love about photography. I do everything I can to set up something with the intention of creating a certain kind of image, but then the random factors are the thing that make it special. Something just happens to cast a particular shadow which creates a composition that you weren’t 100% anticipating…

“Imagine playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and pausing at the perfect moment… then you’d just make it perfect ‘High Noon’ every time.”

Jay T: “I’m completely the opposite! I want that time of day slider in there! [in Red Dead 2]”

Gary D: “But what if you had a gun fight and it just so happened to be noon when you shot someone [with a gun]... I appreciate that it’s very much my preference though.”

All mod cons

TQ: “I guess that photo mode-esque tools have existed for decades in terms of taking in-game marketing shots. And obviously the industry is fairly notorious for touching up so-called screenshots — colloquially known as ‘bullshots’.”

PC Gamer covered some of the worst bullshots in PC gaming, including this from Far Cry 4:

PC Gamer covered some of the worst bullshots in PC gaming, including this from Far Cry 4

Gary D: “[I remember] back in the heyday of gaming magazines where they would claim that they were showing screenshots from the PS2, but you knew it wasn’t the actual game running. I’d always assumed that to achieve those shots, they would unlock the camera during development and be able to add/remove characters — as modders often do with PC titles.

“A lot of what we’re getting now [with official photo modes] feels like it stems more from the modding community than from the marketing side of things. That’s how I’ve always thought of photo mode — the modders got people’s attention with this stuff.”

TQ: “Which brings us nicely to my favourite modder/game photographer and my inspiration for getting so heavily into photo modes — Duncan Harris, AKA Dead End Thrills. Deadendthrills.com is just a brilliant website full of beautiful, classy video game images. He has a fantastic eye and can make you look at games in a different way — especially ones that you might not have thought too hard about but that clearly have impeccable art direction, like Mirror’s Edge or Spec Ops: The Line.”


Here’s an interview with Duncan Harris AKA Dead End Thrills on Killscreen.com.

Gary D: “He does what the marketing teams of yesteryear did, but in reverse. When you make a bullshot, you’re taking a single shot so you can put all the high-poly models in there and stuff that isn’t going to make it into the final game because of frame rate and performance issues.

“Whereas Dead End Thrills does that in reverse — he takes the finished product, runs it on some crazy-ass powerful machine, mods it and adds things that wouldn’t be recommended when actually running the game because it would affect performance.”

TQ: “In that way, he makes you appreciate just how incredibly beautiful games can be and how we’re all completely spoiled!”

Gary D: “As we’ve mentioned, people often don’t think about the amount of work that has gone into a game. They have the expectation that it’s going to run perfectly and never leave them bored or disappointed. Those high expectations mean we all get brilliant games, but it also tends to mean the people don’t stop to appreciate how it all came together.”

Photo mode: The next generation

TQ: “On that point of expectations, the contract between game-maker and the product-purchasing player is something like: ‘give us money and we’ll give you a video game to play’. It doesn’t necessarily include a clause saying: ‘said video game will include painstakingly modelled pot plants that shine in the coastal Italian sunshine’. But those details are in there and people like Dead End Thrills and we three intrepid shutterbugs strive to highlight them.”

Hitman (2016), shot by Tom Quillfeldt:

Hitman (2016), shot by Tom Quillfeldt

TQ: “To stray from photo modes for a moment, it’s also worth shouting out Andy Kelly’s Other Places YouTube series (Otherplaces.co.uk; YouTube channel), which achieves something similar to Dead End Thrills but through video.”

Gary D: “When you look at all the intricate detail in, say, the Marrakesh level of Hitman, you realise that so, so much work has gone into it and Andy Kelly’s videos can help you look at that stuff from a different perspective.”

Like Gary, Andy Kelly has also produced gaming photo collections, including:

Shout out to Vice Video Games Editor Mike Diver for commissioning loads of this great stuff!

Jay T: “I wonder if the next evolution of console photo modes and Share functions will be the ability to direct videos, having the same level of granular control in terms of removing NPCs etc.”

There have been replay modes at least as far back as Driver (1999) and in sports games. Valve release Source Filmmaker in 2012 and on the PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of Grand Theft Auto V, there is the Rockstar Editor.

Jay T: “There are so many creative people, like @sunhilegend on Twitter — he was making short video clips of Horizon Zero Dawn that made it look like an action film. I couldn’t believe what he was doing — it’s stunning stuff. It generated so much word of mouth.”

Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Twitter’s @sunhilegend:

TQ: “It would even just be nice to be able to turn live weather/environmental effects like the wind, as well as ambient sound effects — so you could take a ‘living photo’, as it were.”

Gary D: “There’s a video series called Freeze Game by Kieran Galaska AKA BeardBurrito (YouTube channel). He’s married together photo mode and video techniques to make montages of these fly-bys of frozen moments. It’s a really smart use of it, a halfway house between the two mediums.”

Jay himself recently had a crack at a similar type of video, featuring Horizon Zero Dawn:

It’s in the game

There are, of course, more literal ‘photo modes’ in certain games. In Grand Theft Auto V/Online you can whip your in-game camera out — the Snapmatic — and similarly, you can take selfies in Watch Dogs 2:

GTA5 Watch Dogs 2

Whenever you rest for the night in Final Fantasy XV, you’ll get an auto-generated collection of photos from your travels, apparently ‘taken’ by your companion, Prompto. You can save and/or post them to social media.

Firewatch lets you take pictures with a virtual disposable camera and if you’re playing the PC version, pay $15 to have physical prints of those pics sent to you. It’s a nice touch for players, and scored a few extra news articles about the game.

Gary D: “I quite the difference between these two different approaches — ‘photo modes’ and in-game photo cameras. With photo modes in games like Uncharted 4, you are more like a director of photography on a film set: you can set up everything including the lighting; you can freeze everyone and have as much time as you need to slowly put people in place. If someone’s in your way, you can delete them. In real life that would be so useful sometimes, when someone’s ruining a really nice shot, you could just remove them!”

TQ: “Or just remove them from existence altogether.”

Gary D: “Yeah! depending on how annoyed I am with them…

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — the same scene at a black market auction held at an Italian estate, with character models toggled on and off:

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt

Gary D: “With the in-game camera, rather than a pause-and-shoot photo mode, you can’t control every element and that adds a bit of chaos and interest — you could argue it’s closer to a real photography experience.

“Grand Theft Auto V/Online let’s you to play at being a photographer where you’re wandering around a virtual city and it becomes a simulation of street photography, essentially. You take on the role of opportunist, where you set yourself up in a place where it seems like something interesting could happen and find an interesting shot composition with nice lighting. You’ve picked a certain time of day to go there and then you wait for something to happen.

“It’s a metagame within GTA, which is a valid way of doing a ‘photo mode’. I remember getting together with the Midnight Resistance lot and seven or eight of us having a big multiplayer mess-around session in Grand Theft Auto Online, where I was sort of pretending to be a war/conflict photographer. I’d be running around chasing everybody else doing whatever they were doing, robbing places and causing trouble — and I was trying to take photos of the chaos and police fights. That was a really fun thing to do because I’m way too much of a coward to have a go at real conflict photography!

“It’s interesting to have those two sides of it. Are you taking in-game photos in order to present them somewhere else? e.g. as a genuine art project? Or is there also space for you to play at being a photographer as a game in and of itself, rather than with the intention to create some art from it.”

Grand Theft Auto Online seemingly enjoys an extremely active community of photographers, including Twitter’s @DrewBarnes85:

Grand Theft Auto Online seemingly enjoys an extremely active community of photographers, including Twitter’s @DrewBarnes85:

Gary D: “Unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto V’s implementation of photography felt a bit disappointing. It’s very much a marketing thing because you can only save photos at quite a small resolution and they get uploaded to the Rockstar Social Club, which you then have to log into to look at the pictures through their photo viewer. It’s not designed for you to go and create interesting things that you can take somewhere else, it’s designed to lock you into their stuff and drive traffic to the site.

“It’s not really in the spirit of ‘let’s see what you can make out of the world’. This feels like a bit of a missed opportunity because I very much wanted to do something meaningful in that game, but it’s difficult to do so.”

Jay T: “I did wonder initially if that restricted functionality was because the game was released on the previous generation. In the PS4 version of GTA5, if you use the Rockstar Editor, you can pause the game and remove the edit tools that are visible so you’ve just got the shot.”

Point and shoot

TQ: “As we wrap up, it’s worth quickly pointing out that in the past, there have been the numerous photography missions in games like Metal Gear Solid and Spider-Man 2…”


Jay T: “Gravity Rush 2 has photography as part of the gameplay — it’s a shame that it’s not a fully featured photo mode, especially given the art direction in that game.”

TQ: “In Life is Strange, you’re literally a budding photographer who is developing her ‘eye’ and attending photography lessons. You’re looking out for situations where the game will let you take a photo of as a kind of collectible — it’s a nice way of tying you to the character.

“And then there are dedicated photography games like Fatal Frame, Pokémon Snap etc.”

Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions; Life is Strange’s photo collectibles; Pokémon Snap:

Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions; Life is Strange’s photo collectibles; Pokémon Snap:

Gary D: “As a mechanic, it’s essentially replacing a sniper rifle, aiming down the sights. Dead Rising uses it as a way to earn Prestige Points. That’s very much a ‘gamey’ element, as opposed to an intention to implement photography. It’s an interesting distinction.”

Gareth Dutton AKA Gary AKA Gary Dooton is a professional photographer and games journalist – www.garethdutton.com | Twitter: @GaryDooton

Jay Taylor is one of the core Cane and Rinse podcasting team. Check out the show on iTunes and all good podcasting services – Caneandrinse.com | Twitter: @JaySevenZero & @caneandrinse

The Order: 1886, shot by Jay Taylor:

The Order: 1886, shot by Jay Taylor