Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf).
Laced With Wax spoke to several talented screenshot creators about the practise of ‘virtual photography’: what drives them, the tools and techniques, and the history and future of the medium.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Video games are art. Usually, there’s a ton of artistry involved in their creation. Games are also often overflowing vessels of visual art, including graphic design, illustration, modelling, animation, and lighting design.
Take Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a blockbuster worked on by an army of exceptional artists. Arguably, it’s still the high watermark for big budget game visuals. But players can hurtle through Uncharted 4’s visually sumptuous environments without a second look.
Despite wanting people to be swept up in the cinematic action, developer Naughty Dog shipped the game with a ‘photo mode’ that permits players to freeze the game at any point and investigate the immediate scene ad nauseum. Perhaps devs are comfortable with photo modes because the resulting user-generated content (some say free marketing) serves to highlight all of that composite artistry.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End shot ham-fistedly by your author.
True, photo mode camera tools allow users to look up Nathan Drake’s nose or in any old nook and cranny. But their increasing inclusion in games has also enabled the expansion of the field of ‘virtual photography’ — a practise that, under various names, has been going for well over a decade.
Virtual photographers (you might see them referred to below as VPs, screenshotters or even Screenarchers) largely sit outside of game development, an army of hobbyists dedicated to celebrating the visual art of games through the creation of their own digital art.
Given a virtual camera in a virtual space with virtual subjects, there’s an infinite number of possibilities for these creators — and video games of course provide a rich seam of interesting spaces and subjects. VPs often draw on the compositional principles of traditional photography, painting and illustration, and graphic design, and use a range of tools to achieve their artistic ends.
It’s also simply a fun hobby — being a snap-happy virtual tourist. Taking screenshots can be a soothing, engrossing and rewarding way to enjoy a game beyond its core play experience. But, as with speedrunning, competitive gaming and creative platforms (Roblox, Minecraft, etc.) there are pioneering individuals who have poured many thousands of hours into hacking game code, developing new software, starting communities, and iterating on a visual language for framing virtual landscapes, portraits, wildlife, still life, and architecture.
We spoke to nine talented people working in this space (some of whom eschew the label of ‘virtual photographer’, while others embrace it.) Contributors include:
- Frans Bouma aka Otis_Inf
- Mik Bromley, owner of TheFourthFocus.com and organiser of the Virtual Photography Awards
- Andy Cull
- Duncan Harris aka Dead End Thrills aka TheOctagon
- Petri Levälahti aka Berdu
- Ángel Rivas aka Ichisake
- James Snook aka Jim2point0
- Chris Taljaard aka CHRISinSESSION
Why we shoot
“Signal - California” – Watch Dogs 2 shot by PulseZET.
As with many creative arts, virtual photography often starts as an amateur’s hobby. As with pursuits like photography or illustration, it can become a consuming activity that fires people’s passion and leads them to more serious semi-pro and professional work.
“Consider [virtual photography] just an act of creativity, with all the accompanying moments,” muses PulseZET.
For Andy Cull — already a filmmaker and writer — the appeal of virtual photography lies in the source material. “I love video games, the worlds they take place in, the characters they depict, and the stories they tell. There’s no more immediate and potentially affecting form of storytelling.”
“Sparks Will Fly” – Batman: Arkham Knight shot by Andy Cull.
Similar to Cull, Chris Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) has a background in real world videography and photography, and started down the path of virtual photography by creating his own cinematics in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 back in 2010. “Shooting video games allows you to explore different techniques, angles, locations, scenarios and environments not normally possible in real life — or at least not always feasible. There's a huge amount of freedom that comes with shooting in a virtual world.”
A recent video of his was shot in Horizon Zero Dawn:
Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) has also moved more and more towards speedier titles: “I absolutely love shooting racing games, as I've always been involved in racing in real life to some degree. Shooting racing games gives you the ability to try shots you can only dream of getting in the real world.”
“Team Ferrari” – F1 2020 shot by CHRISinSESSION.
Professional screenshotter Petri Levälahti (Berdu) explains: “[Like any hobby] it's fun, it's something you can better at, and it has a community around it. Of course, there are personal goals and demons — chasing the high of getting a good shot and rarely being happy with the results.
“This hobby… has changed my life in so many ways. I'm fortunate to be able to do it for a living. Very rarely is your work also your hobby.”
Steep shot by Berdu.
Pioneer of the ‘artful screenshot’ scene Duncan Harris (Dead End Thrills/DET) says that screenshotting was a “rarified pursuit” for quite some time because of how time consuming it can be. “I’d imagine the old-timers have all gone through the same phase of questioning whether the hobby is worth their time. There’s something compulsive about it that results in getting little sleep and taking it all very seriously — or maybe it’s just the sunk cost fallacy at play.”
He also points to a current ennui among those veterans who are heavily invested in the practise, brought on by — in the opinion of some — an over-saturated virtual photography social media scene. He jokes: “That’s the purist in me talking. I’m aware I come across as the old man shouting at clouds…”
“All Falls Down” – Super Mario Galaxy shot by Dead End Thrills.
“In the past,” recalls Harris (DET), “I’d often get asked to respond to accusations that ‘playing games for screenshots’ was a boneheaded thing to be doing. I responded by pointing out that since you’re spending £50+ on a game there was no better way [than taking screenshots] to ‘eat the whole cow’.
“In my zeal, what I wasn’t considering was that playing games for screenshots absolutely ruins traditional enjoyment of them, as you never relax into the intended flow, you inevitably break progression, and fret so much about injecting your own creativity into the mix that you forget to appreciate the developer’s. So, let’s update that to: ‘If you want to eat the whole cow, expect indigestion.’”
After many years taking screenshots, he clearly still has affection for his website deadendthrills.com — a heaven for screenshot consumers over the years. “It’s like a garden, always being pruned and renewed.”
“Broken Fascia" – Ghost of Tsushima shot by TheFourthFocus.
While some might feel a bit worn down, others are bringing new energy into the space. For scientific researcher Mik Bromley (TheFourthFocus/VP Awards) it’s a case of a convergence of hobbies: “I've been an amateur photographer for over 15 years, and also a lifelong gamer with early memories of classic Atari and Amiga titles. It was probably inevitable that my interests would collide.
“The tipping point for me came when camera tools became more regularly available in console games. In-game photo modes give people the creative freedom to compose and capture unique shots without the need for additional hardware, or software code.
“Video games became ever more impressive looking, but it was this accessibility change that allowed me to engage with them on a different level, and capture images with real connections to the game's own art and characters.
“In terms of capturing compelling images, I see real and virtual photography as much the same thing.”
Resident Evil 2 (2019) shot by Ichisake.
For Ángel Rivas (Ichisake), “shooting video games is an act of appreciation, sending a love letter to all the [game development] artists that make these worlds. It’s all about finding that hidden corner with sharp lighting that most players ignore as they pass through.
“Those kinds of spots catch my eye because they might be perfect for that portrait shot I wanted to take. A virtual photographer’s work relies on work by other very talented people, even when we twist it with tons of ReShade effects. Ultimately, we’re basing our shots around their amazing work.”
Zeno Clash 2 shot by PulseZET.
Duncan Harris (Dead End Thrills) is widely credited with being a trailblazer of the medium. He asserts though that “something like [the wider screenshot/VP movement] was always going to happen. No one person can honestly claim to have ‘invented’ video game photography because elements of it were popping up everywhere, even in the mid-2000s.
“There was a photo mode in 2004’s Gran Turismo 4 that was born out of [lead producer] Kazunori Yamauchi’s love of photography; as well as photo modes in other Sony first-party racing games Wipeout HD (2008) and MotorStorm: Pacific Rift (2008). Sony has been a key player along the way.”
Gran Turismo 4 shot by user RX-Hachi via www.rx8club.com.
Harris (DET) continues: “[In the mid to late 2000s] there was the rise of shared experiences born of single-player games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, where people created ‘postcards’ from virtual worlds. Also, more and more complex in-game cameras were being developed that brought games ever closer to cinema.
“[I thought that] the art within games was underexposed by the quite linear gameplay that employed it, which is what gave rise to ‘artistic screenshots’ in the first place.
“Around 2006, I worked at [video game monthly] Edge magazine, and felt a desire to improve the screenshot quality. [That pursuit made me realise that] game technology had so much more to offer than what was exposed during gameplay.
“Things started to crystalise via a series of artistic screenshots threads on NeoGAF.” Some of these are still online — minus many free-hosted images — including The Multiformat Artshots Thread, where Harris posted as TheOctagon.
“Constitutional Crisis” - Half-Life 2 shot by Dead End Thrills.
“You can sense from the wording of the original post how formative this stuff was,” says Harris (DET). “I was suggesting people to turn off HUDs, diverge from gameplay, and experiment with higher resolutions. Those were anathema to what [marketing] screenshots were all about back then — the honest selling of the game to on-the-fence consumers.”
Other rules from the original post include “No disingenuous Photoshopping” and “All images have to be directly captured.”
The movement Flickrs into life
“Weathered” – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag shot by Andy Cull.
Duncan Harris (DET) explains that there were two distinct paths with screenshotting, both of which he followed.
First, there were screenshots taken by someone in-house at a development studio who has access to tools and workflows that allowed them to construct something in the same way a cutscene might be built. “[Around 2010] I started working for industry clients who wanted to improve the composition and image quality of their PR screenshots, having seen what was being published in Edge.”
Second, a hobbyist working on the outside had to reverse-engineer the finished product. So, as the NeoGAF threads started to die down, Harris’ screenshot moniker Dead End Thrills was born.
“Dead End Thrills is the reason why I and many others got into this hobby in the first place,” recalls James Snook (Jim2point0). “He opened my eyes to how good games can look, both in screenshots and in motion.”
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) was also among those who found Harris’ work inspiring: “He showed us how far beyond real photography this [medium] could go, raised the quality bar, and made a lot of us ambitious to take this beyond a hobby.”
The Undead End Thrills Flickr group was spawned, attracting some of the leading lights of virtual photography, including names that frequently come up: Natty Dread, PixieGirl4, Midhras, One3rd, Kputt, never047, Meep and Nic Clapper, as well as our interviewees Snook (Jim2point0) and PulseZET.
“A Fortress for Witchers” – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt shot by Jim2point0.
PulseZET recounts: “Around 2012, I stumbled across some amazing screenshots [from this community of creators] that seemed flawless. Unfortunately some of the people that inspired me then are no longer active.”
Andy Cull recalls: “I’d seen work by the likes of Midhras, Jim2point0 and Kputt on the Nexus (a Skyrim modding site) and found that they posted the bulk of their images on Flickr. I was blown away by the incredible shots I found there, back when Flickr was a much more active community than it is now. It had a large and enthusiastic community of ‘Screenarchers’ (as they were called then) and modders.”
Snook (Jim2point0) explains: “At that time, my sole motivation was simply to show off graphics and graphics mods. I don’t have a background in photography and have never owned a camera that wasn't built into a phone, so composition wasn't something that concerned me.
“It wasn't until I joined DET’s Flickr group that I appreciated the process of taking screenshots as an art form. That group started as a way to get shots featured on DET's website, so I was quickly exposed to people that had a good eye for composition [that best showcased] the art of video games.
“There still weren't a ton of people that did this as a hobby back when I started. Even though I was more of an image quality enthusiast than a photographer, I was still able to stand out on forums of people mostly posting gameplay shots with HUDs and all.”
Reach for the Skyrim
“The Man Upstairs” – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shot by Dead End Thrills.
Snook (Jim2point0) continues: “[I was inspired by] one of Dead End Thrills’ screenshots posted on Reddit back in 2011. His version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim looked far better than the one I was playing. That's when I first discovered the magic of downsampling (basically what Nvidia DSR does today) and wanted to share its sorcery with as many people as I could.
“Also, we didn't have photo modes, Nvidia Ansel, or Otis tools back then, so when I wanted to take screenshots of games other than Skyrim, I had to learn to use a cheat engine in order to hide the HUD and wrangle the camera.”
“Shadow of the Colossus (old shot)” – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shot by Jim2point0.
Andy Cull came to the hobby in a similar way: “I started by taking shots simply to showcase the mods I was working on for Skyrim — just a means to an end.
“I posted shots of my work-in-progress follower mods, and didn’t expect the fantastic response they received. I got talking to other VPs, learned more from them, joined some groups, and the photography of my mods grew to become photography of Skyrim in general. Before long, I was completely addicted to virtual photography!”
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf).
Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) also came to the scene through Skyrim modding: “I've always been interested in graphics, image creation, and graphics programming. I was a member of various demoscene groups for a long time (Amiga 500, PC.)
“Around 2015, I was playing Skyrim and started implementing some shader effects for the ENB mod (which allows you to run post-processing effects, as well as tuning graphical aspects of the game) and discovered a whole community around taking screenshots in that game. I tried that myself and loved it, so I started taking screenshots in other games as well.”
Crack shot – “Tangled” (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) by Andy Cull
This Skyrim shot — one of Cull’s personal favourites — is from earlier on in his VP career. “Back then, I was less savvy about the tools available, so a shot like this might take me a whole day to get it just right. It was a much more organic experience, much more like real-world photography, involving a lot of waiting for the right moment. It was incredibly rewarding.”
Mods and monsters
Horizon Zero Dawn shot by Berdu.
It’s worth drawing a distinction between mods (i.e. software modifications) that affect how a game like Skyrim looks or behaves during gameplay; and mods and tools created specifically for the purpose of virtual photography. They’re arrived at in the same way of course: by changing a game’s code to achieve the desired results.
Harris (DET) points out: “There is a process of reverse-engineering games from their locked-down retail state to [create] something akin to development tools, where the artist has complete control over character position, animations, lighting, post-processing, etc.
“This… began with the more superficial properties of the game camera — position, depth of field, tonemapping, etc. — but has been encroaching deeper into code as time's gone on.
“In the rare event that I sit down with a game for fun, I'll usually have that mental list of essential hacks [such as] the positions of characters, bone rotation, and the game's lighting system.”
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla shot by Jim2point0.
Chris Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) says: “Having more control of things like tilt control and in-game weather is what pulled me towards virtual photography in the first place. The more control, the more creative freedom you have to express yourself.”
Petri Levälahti (Berdu) echoes this: “For screenshotters, it's all about having more camera control, and pushing the graphics beyond maximum settings.
“I'm too dumb to build anything myself, so I rely on the work of people like [fellow interviewee] Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf). If a pretty game gets released without a photo mode, he usually cooks one up in his lab in a matter of days. The basics of these are usually a free camera, timestop, field of view control, and the option to ‘hotsample’ i.e. change resolution to whatever you want (or what your computer can handle.)”
Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) remembers: “As my virtual photography hobby became more important to me, I started to feel the limitations of both the photo modes available (if any), and the hacks made to move the cameras around at the time. As a software engineer, I thought ‘why not try to create better ones myself?’ This turned out to be a fun challenge and also a lot of work, but in the end it paid off very well.”
Resident Evil Village shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf).
“As I had become part of the virtual photography community, I shared my work with others so they too could enjoy the hobby more. Nowadays I spend a few days a week full time on developing camera tools, and offer them for a small fee on my Patreon page. I sometimes share them for free (like the system I wrote for Unreal Engine games, which enables a camera system in over 300 Unreal Engine 4 games); but the Patreon route is a way to be able to build more cameras for new games.”
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) points out that his own use of mods will depend on the game. “For something like The Witcher 3 or Skyrim I would have tons of mods for clothing, textures, and whatever makes the game look different so you can bring something interesting to the table.
“In most cases I would use tools to manipulate the camera. That may sound simple, but a lot of the time it means having to deal with a lot of different tools: one to inject the free camera into the game; Cheat Engine to have control of time of the day; SRWE to resize the game to a bigger resolution; and I use [MSI] Afterburner to finally take the shot.”
A critical tool in the arsenal of some virtual photographers is ReShade — a “generic post-processing injector for games and video software developed by crosire.”
“I use ReShade on most of the PC games I shoot,” says Andy Cull. “It’s a suite of effects (including ambient occlusion, depth of field and colour correction) that can be added to change or improve the look of games. You can install ReShade and then tweak the effects as you like them, or go to a repository online and grab a profile which offers someone else’s settings.”
“Man On Fire” – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice shot by Andy Cull.
Duncan Harris (DET) cautions that powerful image editing software like ReShade can be a “double-edged sword.” Such tools give users artistic control and creative options, but potentially risk homogenisation of output and “rob the [source] games of their art style, technological signatures, and, by extension, their historical value.”
While PulseZET does use camera tools and ReShade, he prefers to shoot original games with only minor adjustments, including depth of field, grain, deband, and exposure.
Crack shot – Dark Souls 3 shot by Ángel Rivas (Ichisake)
Rivas confesses: “Most of my favourite shots come about because of random mistakes I make while using ReShade, which end up resulting in something cool. That’s certainly the case with this shot of [Dark Souls 3 DLC boss] Darkeater Midir.”
Modes of expression
Forza Horizon 4 shot by CHRISinSESSION.
As mentioned, photo modes have opened up virtual photography to a significantly larger number of players. Such democratisation of tools inevitably leads to a higher quantity of content spreading across the Internet, as has happened with music production and other creative endeavours.
Many delight at the sheer accessibility of photos modes, while others feel like the art of screenshotting has been diluted. However you view it, there’s no holding back the tide.
Thanks to photo modes, someone with a passing interest in virtual photography (such as your author) can revel in the sense of being a tourist with an OK camera. One can be travelling across Midgard and grab a quick shot of the World Serpent in God of War; or snap a cheeky portrait of Kassandra as she plunders the Acropolis in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
“Pining for more swords” – Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey shot by Thomas Quillfeldt.
Sony has been pushing this hard, with photo modes featuring in many of their marquee titles from launch, as well as a dedicated capture button built into the PS4 and PS5 controllers. Photo modes are also being retro-fitted into games. At the time of writing, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is about to be released with official camera tools being inserted into a 2007 title in the case of Mass Effect.
For the hardcore VPs, things seem to be moving in the right direction in terms of functionality.
“Virtual photography and [officially developed] photo modes have come a long way in the past few years,” says Andy Cull. “All games across all genres should come with photo modes.”
Petri Levälahti (Berdu) calls out several games doing things right: “In 2020 [we saw] poses and character positioning in Cyberpunk 2077; [additional positional] lights in Miles Morales; and environment controls in Ghost of Tsushima. I always appreciate when developers try out new things or put something extra in, for instance the motion blur slider in The Last of Us Part II, or the colour grading options in Days Gone.”
Mik Bromley (TheFourthFocus) adds: “More recent photo modes do a good job of emulating real-world photography by including the kinds of controls that you would find on an actual camera. Features like focal length, aperture value, exposure and colour grading enable photographers to use many of the same techniques and principles when composing images in-game as they would in the real world. I would definitely like to see developers continue to simulate the behaviour of real cameras and lenses.”
“Punch of Rage” – God of War (2018) shot by TheFourthFocus.
Whilst there’s some positivity among the community, the deeper into specialised modding software a VP is the less satisfied they tend to be with official photos modes — understandably so.
Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) says: “I can generally sum up developer-made photo modes in one word: limited.
“Sometimes they function fairly well, but most of the time they're restricting the user through either artificial limitations (e.g. camera distance) or design limitations (e.g. orbit cams.) I often wonder if [some of the developers responsible] have ever used a photo mode themselves!
“They sometimes include nice features, but then [disappoint with] atrocious depth of field effects, for instance. [I appreciate the] effort, but I wish they would ask some virtual photographers out there what is really needed in a photo mode.”
Chris Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) echoes this sentiment: “Some photo modes lack the most basic of features, although things have been improving. We’re not there yet: I would much rather have a basic set of features in place than 101 filters, for example.”
Since we happen to have a panel of dedicated VPs at our disposal, here are some of the (for them basic) features they would like to see become standardised…
Free camera movement
“Perimeter” – Death Stranding shot by PulseZET.
Cull points out: “The main gripe I have with almost every console photo mode is the camera itself. Orbit cams anchored to the playable character and only allowing the camera to be moved a short distance immediately restricts the kinds of shots you can take.
“When you look at the composition of an epic scene in a movie or game, or concept art, it’s very rare that the camera is only a few inches from the character’s nose! In various games, players can often fly a drone, or send their pet eagle soaring 100 feet into the air [such as in the later Assassin’s Creed games.] This is somewhat more useful than the selfie stick distance achievable in photo modes, where it’s hard to represent a true sense of grand scale.”
Bromley (TheFourthFocus) concurs wholeheartedly: “More freedom will always bring more creativity, so I would like to see more versatile camera positioning with larger bounding spheres — and absolutely no more character-tethered orbit cameras!”
PulseZET jokes that of course he wants an unlimited free camera in every case, but also cautions against too much freedom: “I could list many [desirable features] but developers are unlikely to fiddle with them. Let's leave a little creativity for the screenshotters. Fewer functions [equals] more imagination for interesting shots.”
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order shot by Ichisake.
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) looks forward to more control: “I would love it if photo modes trended towards giving more control over lighting, such as adding customisable spot- or point lights, as we saw with Miles Morales and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. These features create endless possibilities and fun.”
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales shot by Berdu.
Time of day control
Several interviewees mentioned this as a desirable control for all photo modes, currently most notably available in Horizon Zero Dawn.
The images on the left and right were taken in exactly the same position, but the time of day (and corresponding weather effects) were tweaked using the official photo mode time of day slider.
Horizon Zero Dawn shot by Thomas Quillfeldt.
Additional wish list
Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) suggests a two second replay roll-back would be helpful especially for action games.
Other suggestions for standardised features include:
- photo mode control within cutscenes,
- more customisable characters,
- motion blur,
- shutter control,
- console manufacturers to allow capture at higher than gameplay resolutions,
- and golden ratio and a ‘rule of thirds’ grid overlays.
Ride 4 shot by CHRISinSESSION.
Duncan Harris (DET) posits: “There will come a point where all of the [features included in community made tools have] been standardised and rolled into commercial photo modes. There’s a very specific end-point for where those photo modes are going.
“Now that we have ray-traced lighting — which is a very hard technology to market to consumers — the incentive to weaponise it with photo modes and social media is huge. [I predict] you're going to see a lot more lighting control and, soon enough, a lot more character control than just the cheesy poses you get now.”
“Blue²” – Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 shot by Andy Cull.
Bouma (Otis_Inf) agrees: “Photo modes will be improved in the future as more and more publishers realise [that it enables] free exposure of their game on social media and sites like Flickr — it also gives players an added incentive to keep playing. [I’m not sure] how far publishers will allow developers to improve their photo modes. I wish they would consult virtual photographers more so that they ship something that's actually worth using!”
Cull adds: “I’d like to see more developers and publishers actively supporting virtual photography. I think Ubisoft and Guerrilla Games are doing a great job of highlighting the fantastic work that’s being created in the VP community. They regularly engage with virtual photographers, showcase their work, and raise them up. I think other developers and publishers could do a lot more.”
Crack shot – “Isolation” (The Last of Us Remastered) by Mik Bromley (TheFourthFocus)
“My favourite [personal shots] change all the time,” admits Bromley, “but one that I always go back to is this shot of Ellie. It was taken during a particularly resonant part of the story, where she bears the sole weight of responsibility, and I really wanted to capture the sense of isolation I imagined she was feeling.
“With her hunting bow in hand as a reminder of the need to survive, I positioned her against a snowy hillside in order to get an almost entirely white frame. I then worked on capturing exactly the right direction of look and facial expression to transmit that feeling of concern and emotion to the viewer. It’s one of those shots that I feel conveys everything I had hoped it would, and that's why I love it!”
“Cross-eyed” - Dishonored shot by Dead End Thrills.
There are trends and countertrends within all artistic mediums down the millenia, for example Realism vs. Romanticism in visual art and Punk vs. Prog in music.
Within virtual photography, techniques, tools and technology have been adopted by some, and rejected by others. This article is a celebration of the medium and its practitioners, not an attempt to ‘stir the pot.’ That said, there are a few interesting differences of approach.
Game screenshots vs. photography vs. digital art
Duncan Harris (Dead End Thrills) has been fairly clear down the years that his work in screenshotting was about celebrating the technicality and artistic idiosyncrasies of video games. He’s examining only what is present in the game, with an eye to preserving and highlighting it.
He doesn’t think of himself as a photographer applying photographic principles, and also distances his work from what he calls “fan-art” i.e. digital art that is created with use of post-processing image software like Photoshop or Lightroom.
Mik Bromley (TheFourthFocus) is explicitly bringing a photographer’s eye, and is as much of a purist as Harris (DET), just along very different lines: “I don't use any mods in my virtual photography. One of the things I wanted to prove when I started out was that people don't need a host of software add-ons or expensive additional hardware to be able to create visually engaging and inspiring images.”
Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) responds: “I'm not feeling that distinction [screenshot vs. photography] that much. What we're working with are 3D artificial worlds where we can do whatever we can imagine, without restrictions enforced by physics (such as lens restrictions and sensor restrictions.)”
Immortals: Fenyx Rising shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf).
Bouma continues: “With the depth information provided by the 3D scene, we can apply effects not only to the 2D aspects of the shot, but also to the 3rd dimension, e.g. place a frame around it where the top/left edges are behind the subject and the bottom/right edges are not. Want two depth of field effects? A dark fog only on the left side? You can have it. So it enters the world of digital art.”
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shot by Pascal Grüner (ItsYFP).
“I still think that basic photography principles apply too: for example avoid double subjecting; use leading lines if possible; make sure your subject is well lit and in focus; and don't crop at joints. There are no hard rules in photography, but guidelines which have proven to lead to shots that people are willing to look at. That's the base. In virtual photography we can go further with little effort; in real life it would require dedicated effort to achieve the same results.
“With a world without restrictions we shouldn't limit ourselves.”
Au naturel vs. maximum control
Way back in 2017, Laced With Wax ran a discussion article about photo modes: “Point and shoot: Bringing video game photo modes into focus.” Photographer Gary Dutton, playing devil’s advocate, had this to say: “From a purist’s point of view, I’m not that keen on the idea of changing the time of day or the weather 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.”
Petri Levälahti (Berdu) — a professionally employed screenshot creator — goes both ways on this idea: “With PC games, I'd rather have quick access to whatever I can. I ain't got the time to wait for a full moon for my Geralt portrait — I'll just use cheats. The more tools I have to help with creativity, the better.”
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt shot by Berdu.
Levälahti points out though: “With consoles it's different: you need to use what is given to you. If you do this hobby a lot, you automatically spot little things that could help your screenshots, e.g. different light sources, animations, in-game effects or mechanics. You combine these elements and try to make something unique. It can be quite fun.”
Andy Cull’s preference is for realism: “I’ll often look around online to see if anyone’s created a ReShade profile that offers a realistic look first. I’ll tweak a few settings myself If I can’t find one, but I’m rubbish at tweaking to be honest.
“Being able to add lights is a nice touch, but I really enjoy hunting out good lighting spots — it’s part of the challenge of virtual photography.”
“Dig Two Graves” – The Last of Us Part II shot by Andy Cull.
On the spontaneity point, Cull says: “Time-of-day control, on the other hand, is something I’d like to see in all photo modes. This is mainly because game time moves so much faster than real world time. By the time you’ve set your shot up, you’ve often missed the lighting conditions that inspired you to stop and attempt that shot in the first place.
“Spontaneity is nice, but when I shoot a sunset in the real world I might have 30 minutes or more to capture it. In a game that might translate to a minute or two. I’m not that spontaneous!”
NieR:Automata shot by Ichisake.
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) has also reached the same conclusion: “There is a beauty to spending hours and hours wandering around a game world looking for a well lit spot — I've done it, I enjoy it — but I prefer having tools that help me to bring the composition and lightning I have in my head into the game.”
PulseZET is similarly practical: “I prefer control, but I also take ‘natural’ shots very often because there are no other options.”
A Plague Tale: Innocence shot by PulseZET.
“This screenshot from A Plague Tale: Innocence is built on timing,” explains PulseZET. “[That includes] the crow taking off, the fight, and the position of girl and boy.
“It took a lot of time and attempts to create the composition using these dynamic elements. I observed the possible animations and adjusted the rest of the elements to the time the crow took off, as that was scripted. That was the starting point. I used free camera and timestop [mods] so it’s not a ‘natural' shot. In any case, I always ‘study’ the game before shooting.”
Crack shot – Rise of the Tomb Raider shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf)
“It was hard to pick one but this one moves me the most,” says Bouma. “It's taken just in normal gameplay, with a depth effect applied to create the feeling that Lara is peeking at you from the darkness having only briefly stepped into the light. I like it a lot because the look in her eyes and on her face is one of vulnerability, perhaps even fear — something you don’t expect from a tough-as-nails character like Lara Croft.”
Lights on the horizon (and virtual realities)
“This is Bat Country” – Cyberpunk 2077 shot by Jim2point0.
Petri Levälahti (Berdu) insists that the fundamentals of composition will stay the same, whatever the future holds for virtual photography. “There will be less effort required to take good-looking screenshots. That will probably make the hobby more appealing to an even wider audience.”
With a tongue-in-cheek cynicism, PulseZET agrees: “Creating screenshots will be easier — and more boring — in future. You won’t have to worry about bad textures, clipping, ugly shadows, or poor draw distance. Everything will be cool out-of-the-box. Find a beautiful light, take care of the composition, and you are on top. I'm exaggerating a little, but nevertheless we are moving towards this, slowly but surely.”
Mik Bromley (TheFourthFocus) is measured in his positivity towards the ever-closer photorealism of video games: “There’s a natural tendency to assume that as games become more detailed and visually impressive, then virtual photography will do the same. There’s probably some truth to that; the incredible levels of detail we see in character models and facial capture go a long way to enabling people to capture feelings and emotion in their shots for example.
“What will make the difference though is authenticity. The human eye is uncannily good at recognising what ‘looks real’ and, as one of the most crucial factors in any form of photography, lighting is a massive part of that.”
“Late Rain” – inFAMOUS First Light shot by TheFourthFocus.
“Although we do already see some great lighting in games, that often comes as a result of the work of skilled artists and developers making each scene look just right. Advancements such as ray-tracing will bring a more natural lighting behaviour that will not only make the already wonderful in-game environments appear more authentic, but also able to adapt realistically to changes in light and object positioning.
“Add into that the freedom of a photo mode camera and I think it becomes a whole new world of virtual light to explore.”
Hitman 3 shot by CHRISinSESSION.
Andy Cull runs a Flickr group called Reality Bytes, showcasing some brain-bewitchingly photorealistic shots. “We’re already at the stage where good virtual photography can be mistaken for real-world photography,” he says. “As the worlds we can shoot become bigger and more defined, the opportunities to shoot will increase — less hiding bad textures or hunting for the right light!”
Arguably, virtual photography has matured just in time to help some people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on travel and tourism. As Cull points out, “virtual photography will become more and more like real-world photography, but with the huge advantage of being able to visit places you could never possibly visit in real life.”
“Mercedes AMG F1 W08 EQ Power+” - Gran Turismo SPORT shot by CHRISinSESSION.
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) is looking past photorealism: “I don't think better graphics would change the actual workflow of taking a screenshot, but I'm curious how this could change if virtual reality finally becomes a mainstream thing. Imagine playing around in Half Life: Alyx with your virtual camera as if you were in the real world. That could be awesome.”
Having come from a premium magazine background with Edge, Duncan Harris (Dead End Thrills) has returned to thinking about screenshots in print media. “In terms of higher fidelity [graphics], the one major change you'll see — probably mid-gen with the PS5/Xbox Series X or the generation after — is that games will cross a threshold into something suitable for print.
“People were talking about this ten years ago: the idea of players or studios setting up print shops for screenshots. But the fidelity was never there for something that could feasibly hang on a wall. The moment you spy a polygonal mesh, low-res particle effect or upscaled texture, the lustre is simply gone.
“Games are rapidly closing in on Hollywood-grade assets and rendering though, and when that coincides with the achievement of the [hypothetical fully featured] photo mode, you’ll have an explosive combination of technical and artistic potential. That might very well evaporate the line between, say, the artwork commissioned by a vinyl record label like Laced, and what players create on consoles or PC.”
“Killing Time” – Cyberpunk 2077 shot by Dead End Thrills.
“That's been my hobby this year: books,” continues Harris. “It's been on my bucket list for years and years, but the rendering has always been an issue; plain-old artistic merit another issue; and a massive one is the legality of it [in terms of publisher-owned IP.] There’s a lot of talented and motivated people on the industry side who want to help, so we're getting there.
“That's always been kind of the final frontier for me: being able to use the format and tactility of books to add something meaningful to all of this. It all started in print through magazines, so there's a nice symmetry to it ending up some place similar.”
Speaking of dystopian futures, he wonders what will happen to the identity of the screenshot scene if things veer towards the creation of digital art using extracted assets rather than in-game shooting. “People might get frustrated with the same shots of the same characters in the big games, take the models out of the game entirely and put them into a ‘lightbox’ in order to take high-spec, ever more glamorous renders in 3DS Max, Blender, etc.”
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt shot by Jim2point0.
James Snook (Jim2point0) suggests: “The relationship between developers and screenshotters could potentially be explored further.
“A lofty ‘stretch goal’ might be to see screenshots/virtual photography recognised as a legitimate form of content creation. YouTube videos and Twitch streams are great for showing how games play, but streaming puts a lot of constraints on resolution, not to mention compression, which really hinders the ability to show off a game's graphical presentation and artistry.
“There are a lot of talented screenshot artists that, if given the opportunity, would love to work with developers to help show off their games to their audiences, although I'm sure there's a heap of caveats and complications.
“I don't often think about the direction that virtual photography is going in general — I'm quite content doing this as a fun hobby for now. I continue to see more impressive images being created by screenshotters, and that's pretty great.”
Crack shot – "God Bless Science" (Prey) by PulseZET
“I like how the screenshot content and title fit into the context of the game,” says PulseZET. “The pose was obtained completely by accident during the search for a composition, and it took me a split second to come up with the title.”
There are several independent or smaller budget AAA games worth shouting out.
- Morels: The Hunt is “a relaxing adventure game about mushroom hunting and wildlife photography”.
- Umurangi Generation is a critically lauded first-person photography game set “in the shitty future”, made by Māori developer, Naphtali Faulkne.
- Observer: System Redux has been praised for its photo mode and lighting.
- There have been some great shots taken in the clean and colourful art of rally, including by CHRISinSESSION.
- Mýrdalssandur, Iceland is an Unreal Engine 4 recreation of Iceland’s southern coast, where the only interactions are to walk and take photos.
Far from indie, but still notable, is the release of New Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo Switch, all about capturing shots of the creatures “in their natural habitats.” The game has seen some criticism for its lack of player freedom in terms of photography.
Crack shot – "Paint the Town Red” (Red Dead Redemption 2) by Petri Levälahti (Berdu)
There’s a grisly story behind this shot, says Levälahti: “It's not the prettiest picture out there, but I have fond memories of taking this.
“I used a mod to play as Sadie instead of Arthur, spawned a bunch of dudes, killed those dudes, and then used a mod to trigger an animation where she checks herself out with the pocket mirror. This took a few hours to get right: including dragging bodies around; adjusting the weather and time of day; using melee kills to get the blood on her; and finding the right animation frame before the blood disappeared from her body.
“The picture tells a story that doesn't happen in the game, but if you know Sadie, you could see this being the cover art of her own DLC. Characters and storytelling intrigue me the most in screenshotting, and this picture combines both.”
Hitman 3 shot by Bibpanana.
James Snook (Jim2point0) is a co-founder of the Framed Screenshot Community Discord Server, and he also credits Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) with laying the groundwork.
Snook (Jim2point0) says: “Ever since I started creating screenshots, I've tried to find online communities where I could engage with other people in the hobby. There are a number of things you need to research when starting out in a new (usually non-photo mode PC) game, including: ‘can I hide the HUD?’; ‘is there some kind of hidden debug mode?’; ‘has someone created camera tools for the game in cheat engine?’; and so on.
“[Duncan Harris (Dead End Thrills)] had previously opened up forums and there was the Flickr group, but sadly those couldn’t be maintained. Because of that lack of a place to share knowledge within the community, I tweeted out the idea of creating a Discord server, and the feedback was pretty positive.
“We started out with a focus on PC, but there's still a lot of people that like to take screenshots on console as well — some exclusively, which is also cool. We're up to about 240 members now. As far as how people engage with it, we like to make sure that people who join are genuinely interested in the hobby, so it's not a public Discord.
No Man’s Sky shot by Jim2point0.
“Getting an invite is pretty easy though — if anyone wants to join, they just need to flag me down or anyone else in the Discord and ask.
“We created the Framed website as a compendium of the collective knowledge we have for shooting various games, as well as guides for things like ReShade, DSR, etc. Any member can contribute to the site by creating these guides, though it's very much a volunteer effort.
“The Framed discord server recently launched the Hall of Framed site, which is a curated gallery of the most popular shots from our screenshots channel. I think it's a great overall showcase for what can be achieved in video game screenshots/virtual photography. The goal was to have a way to share the best shots externally for people not in the Discord, and it has caught the attention of a few people outside of the community.
“The Framed Discord server is a place for aspiring screenshotters to feel right at home.”
The Fourth Focus and The Virtual Photography Awards
Mik Bromley explains that TheFourthFocus.com “is a website dedicated entirely to virtual photography that I created around four years ago, initially as a personal portfolio. Although it remains a solo project, and something that I do alongside my full-time job, it has developed into a more complete site that includes feature articles about the art, guides to help people get the most out of their creativity, and in-depth photo mode reviews that are essentially a blend of camera and game reviews aimed at the virtual photography audience.”
“Framing Arch” – Horizon Zero Dawn shot by TheFourthFocus.
Bromley continues: “I've also been able to host a number of photo mode contests in collaboration with studios such as Guerrilla Games, Santa Monica Studio and Sony XDev, and I think the experience from those is what helped me take the next step to establish the inaugural Virtual Photography Awards.”
“Double Agent” – Tom Clancy’s The Division shot by Andy Cull won Virtual Urban Shot of the Year at the inaugural VP Awards 2020.
“The VP Awards are an annual recognition of the very best of consumer photo modes,” explains Bromley, “with both game industry and public entry categories that celebrate the best photo mode contributions from development studios, as well as the enormous creative talent that has emerged from gaming communities through virtual photography. The awards received a great response, you can see the nominees and winners at thefourthfocus.com/thevpawards-winners. I’m really looking forward to developing them in the future as this art form continues to grow.”
Cyberpunk 2077 shot by Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf).
For anyone keen on getting into artistic screenshotting / virtual photography, here are a few tips.
Frans Bouma (Otis_Inf) explains: “See virtual photography as any other form of photography. As soon as you realise that, you also understand that the same basics apply to both.
“An exception to this is knowing what lenses are, f-stop, aperture, etc., as in games we usually have a pin-hole camera that's always sharp, and artificially apply depth of field effects to emulate a longer lens / low aperture.
“As a beginner, you'll likely feel like a kid in a candy store: everywhere you go, things look amazing and you can snap pictures at every step. I think it's good to do just that: take a lot of shots of whatever you find easy on the eye or interesting to look at.”
James Snook (Jim2point0) advises: “Find a game you enjoy that also happens to have a photo mode and/or tools available (if on PC.) Personally, I find it far more challenging for shots to come to me organically if I'm playing a game I don't enjoy just for the sake of shooting. Navigating the world becomes more of a chore rather than something I want to experience for the joy of it. Keep it fun.”
Bouma (Otis_Inf) continues: “Get your technique in order first; the 'oh wow' shots will come later. More importantly: learn to see. Most people can look at something but not see the things that are there. A good photographer takes a picture of a scene and transforms it into something interesting, while others have run past without batting an eyelid.
“After you've become used to the ways game worlds work, how light affects what you want to show, and discover what you can do, it's time to read up a bit about composition, light and dark, foreground, middle and background, what to avoid, leading lines, etc.”
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla shot by Jim2point0.
Snook (Jim2point0) adds: “I also think it helps to look at other forms of art for inspiration as well. I follow a few concept artists and photographers on Twitter, which alway gives me interesting ideas for shots I want to try in-game.”
Bouma (Otis_Inf) says: “It’s so important to be fluent with the techniques and tools available: you can immediately put them to use in such a way to achieve what you want when you look at a scene you come across. They become second nature.
“It's a process, and you'll always be learning what works and doesn’t work. Don't be discouraged that what you initially produce isn't always of the same quality as that created by people who’ve done this for 5+ years (or longer as a real world photographer.) We've all been there, and we all have been through these stages.
“After a year or so, if you compare your shots to those you made in the beginning you'll see that you have made a lot of progress. Keep at it!”
Echoed by several other interviewees, Snook (Jim2point0) reminds people to “do whatever you enjoy the most, and don’t get bogged down in whether or not your images are getting a ton of likes on social media. Trying to figure out what pleases the masses will only make this a more clinical endeavor, and it will suck the life right out of your work. Chances are, if it's fun, you'll be able to inject a little of your own personal style into your work as well.”
Resident Evil 2 (2019) shot by Ichisake.
All interviewees recognise the hard work and artistry of the developers behind these games, with a few teams and titles coming in for special recognition.
“I really love the work of the teams at Ubisoft Massive (The Division) and Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin’s Creed),” says Andy Cull. “I’d love to visit their offices one day and see them at work. It would be a dream come true to one day create publicity shots for a new game in those series.”
Ángel Rivas (Ichisake) says: “There are a lot I’d want to mention, but the people working at FromSoftware (Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro) and CD Projekt RED (Witcher 3, Cyberpunk) are just something else because.
Petri Levälahti (Berdu) adds: “The DICE teams at Stockholm and Los Angeles are simply marvelous. Mirror's Edge, Battlefield and Battlefront are some of the games that made me fall in love with this hobby. Battlefield 3 was made in 2011 and still puts modern games to shame.”
Battlefield 3 shot by Berdu.
Levälahti (Berdu) continues: “Ubisoft's The Division will always have a special place in my heart — the atmosphere is unmatched. And then there's Red Dead Redemption 2, the best looking game ever made — and it will probably hold that crown til the next Rockstar game arrives!”
Red Dead Redemption 2 shot by Jim2point0.
Chris Taljaard (CHRISinSESSION) especially calls out Codemasters’ F1 games: “The F1 series still has one of my favourite photo modes.” He’s also very fond of the custom lights Insomniac added to the photo modes of Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered and Miles Morales.
PulseZET says: “[It’s all about] Arkane Studios. The Dishonored series and Prey (2017) are absolutely stunning games, and I’m very much looking forward to Deathloop.”
“Microstory” – Dishonored 2 shot by PulseZET.
All our interviewees have an assortment of social media and image hosting site accounts, as well as some personal websites. Here are a few handy links:
Frans Bouma aka Otis_Inf – fransbouma.com | Twitter | Github | Flickr
Mik Bromley – TheFourthFocus.com | Twitter | Instagram
Duncan Harris – deadendthrills.com | Twitter
Petri Levälahti – berdu.org | Twitter | Flickr
Ángel Rivas aka Ichisake – Twitter | Flickr
James Snook aka Jim2point0 – Framed | Twitter | Flickr
Chris Taljaard aka CHRISinSESSION – chrisinsession.com | Twitter | Flickr | Instagram
There’s also a free monthly virtual photography e-magazine called The PhotoMode.