Is Virtual Photography the Next Great Artform?
Talented virtual photographers are capturing the beauty inside video games like Death Stranding, Cyberpunk 2077, and The Last of Us Part II through the power of photo mode.
2020 saw the release of highly-anticipated games like The Last of Us Part II, Death Stranding on PC, Ghost of Tsushima, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. What do all of these games have in common? Stellar in-game photo modes that allow a growing online community of virtual photographers to capture the beauty and complexity of these game worlds.
Fans have been taking screenshots of their favorite games for almost as long as they’ve been playing them. Photo modes themselves have existed at least as far back as 1999’s Metal Gear Solid: Integral, which featured a bare bones “photoshoot mode” as bonus content. And even back when most games didn’t have in-game photo modes, the most avid photographers created their own camera mods on PC or used third-party software like NVIDIA’s Ansel camera tool.
Photo modes have only grown more sophisticated since then, and a new generation of virtual photographers have honed their craft and are sharing their unique perspectives on social media to thousands of followers. You can now find dedicated virtual photography communities, hashtags, and aggregators on social media platforms as well as online magazines dedicated to the craft and even an app called Captis that’s pitching itself as the social home for the medium.
“I think the biggest benefit [of a photo mode] comes from having the ability to capture precious in-game moments that one can also share with others. It works as a sort of connection between the game world and the real world,” says Hiroaki Yoshiike, a lead level designer at Kojima Productions who worked on the stellar photo mode for Death Stranding, a game full of moody, detail-rich environments that serve as a particular paradise for photographers who love to capture stunning landscapes.
In fact, from the moment Kojima Productions decided to integrate a photo mode for the PC release, its main goal was to provide a user-friendly camera tool that also provided advanced features for more seasoned photographers. Yoshiike’s team worked alongside the Lighting and Cinematics teams on iterations of the mode.
“We created a prototype, but they told us it was too basic,” says Yoshiike of testing an early version of the photo mode with members of the team. “So we went back and started adding more features, adjusting until we arrived at the specs that you see in-game today. One part we got caught up on was figuring out how to provide the right tools for making pictures better, from lighting adjustments to stylized filters.”
These tools are very important to virtual photographers, who aren’t just taking pictures of “what looks cool” but are considering elements of real-world photography like composition, framing, and the rule of thirds. They’re thinking about depth of field, lighting, and filters. Virtual photographers take their craft seriously, and there’s a sense that their community of followers — many of which aren’t gamers at all — are doing so as well, following handles for the photographs themselves and not just because they’re fans of the subjects being captured. Could this mean that virtual photography is on the rise as the next great artform?
We talked to a group of photographers about their process, what they look for in a photo mode, and why they think virtual photography is becoming more popular.
Sindy JB has photographed many games, but her haunting shots of Death Stranding on PC are among her best as they capture the phases of a long, Odyssean journey through a post-apocalyptic America. Shots of photorealistic mountainscapes and war-torn cities have earned her almost 20,000 followers across Twitter and Instagram, where she posts under the handle @mesopotamian_meow.
“Landscape pictures are probably my favorite subject to capture,” Sindy says of her technique. “I almost never plan my shots. I wait for the right place and moment. I don’t use filters a lot because I like my pictures to look as natural as possible.”
Rockstar’s award-winning Old West action game Red Dead Redemption 2 was the game that originally got her into virtual photography, and she’s gotten to know many photo modes since then. There are a few things she looks for when picking up a game’s camera component.
“The most important thing for me is the camera movements. Without free camera control it’s very hard for us to take the pictures we want to take. Some games restrict the camera with an orbital control only in their photo mode and it’s just terrible. I know I speak for many virtual photographers when I say it’s by far the most disappointing thing to see in a photo mode.”
Sindy’s following has grown quickly since her debut in 2018, and she posits that a lot of that has to do with the game makers themselves.
“I think there are many factors that led to the increased popularity of virtual photography, the first being the support we are getting from the game developers these days on social media sites. We often get likes, retweets, and comments from them, and it’s very encouraging.”
Petri Levälahti, who goes by Berduu on Twitter, is one of the most popular virtual photographers in the community with over 40,000 followers. In fact, Levälahti has turned virtual photography into a career. He works as a Screen Capture Artist for Swedish game studio EA DICE, best known for the Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront games.
Interestingly enough, the Battlefield 4 pictures taken by virtual photography legend Jim2point0 are what first enticed Levälahti to get involved with the community.
“Jim and other members of the screenshot community showed me the ropes. This was back when there really were no photo modes in games, outside of a few racing titles, so all the free cameras were created by fans. Most of the actually good game cameras are still created by fans, by people like Frans Bouma, for example.”
Levälahti does it all — portraits, landscapes, action shots. He needs to be multifaceted and have a keen eye for what will catch the viewer’s attention, a key element of his day job. At DICE, he takes marketing screenshots as well as the images you see on their games’ menus and loading screens.
“I get a request for a specific screenshot, let’s say an Action Shot in place X, with focus on Game Feature Y,” Levälahti says of his normal day-to-day at DICE. “Then I start to look for a good location or two and play around with ideas. I’ll do a handful of iterations before settling on one or two, consult an art director for notes, get approvals, do final captures, and ship it.”
Levälahti loves to shoot other games outside of DICE, too. Standouts include stylish portraits of characters from Control and Cyberpunk 2077 you could easily imagine as magazine covers. How does he do it?
“I always check that my shots work at small size — that there’s a clear subject, and that the shot is easy to read and you can tell what’s going on. I [also] check that my shots work at large size — are there ugly textures or assets shown too close and thus causing eyesore? Does the character’s leg clip through the floor, is there anything ruining the immersion? Awkward poses, non-existent shadows, aliasing? Always look for good light! Shadows and light make or break your shot.”
Soulsurrender, who also works as a freelance graphic designer and photographer in Sweden, got into virtual photography thanks to the seminal fantasy RPG The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game often celebrated for its beautiful vistas, lively settings, and cavernous depths.
“Mods made the game pretty and I just wanted to capture that. I didn’t really call it virtual photography or share any of my shots back then. That came much later, after realizing there was a whole amazing community out there.”
Soulsurrender has captured many subjects, including those within the worlds of Fallout 4, Mad Max, and Cyberpunk 2077, and she has a real eye for finding the majesty in dystopian settings. Her awe-inspiring shots of Mad Max’s endless deserts don’t even look like they’re from a video game despite the fact that she took up virtual photography after growing bored with shooting her real-world surroundings.
“I’m currently on a break after getting kind of burned out, getting frustrated with gear, and living in a small town of which nothing feels left to explore and shoot. Which naturally led me to find other ways to express my creativity: I started shooting virtual worlds instead, where the possibilities are nearly endless.”
Soulsurrender mainly likes to shoot vast landscapes, characters standing far off in the distance, colorful skies as backdrops. She says her approach to virtual photography is the same as in real-life: “go explore and find something interesting.”
“I’ve been a hobby photographer for a few years, so when I discovered that there was this feature where you can literally just stop the whole game to take pictures, that was when I became addicted to it.”
Danish photographer Voldsby has made a name for herself in the community with her portraits of The Last of Us Part II’s main characters. On her Twitter page, you’ll find pictures of Ellie and Abby, their faces half shrouded in thick shadow, as if to hide something in their expressions, while one eye looks straight at the camera. The gaze is so piercing it might make you cower.
“I like to really get close to my subjects and make them feel like they’re looking into the camera, [that] they’re aware that I’m taking the picture,” Voldsby says. “I know it sounds silly because it’s a video game, but it makes the photo come alive.”
Why has she spent so much time photographing TLOU2 specifically? Well, first off, she loves the series, but it also has a lot to do with the game’s incredible lighting. So much of the game takes place in creepy, enclosed areas like hallways and underground tunnels, and Voldsby finds it particularly exciting when she discovers “beautiful little light beams just sitting there in a window” to light her shots.
After Voldsby takes a picture, it goes through a “rigorous procedure” before she shares it online. She transfers the picture over as a PNG to a USB drive (pro tip: never use PlayStation’s Share function to upload your high quality photographs) and then she touches it up a little on Adobe Lightroom, mostly to add a bit more lighting or shadow to make sure things are popping. But when it comes to capturing the picture itself, Voldsby prefers a simple photo mode.
“It’s all about simplicity. Less is more, you know? I don’t really need any of those fancy features that a lot of photo modes have,” Voldsby says. “It’s just like real photography. Buying an expensive camera with loads of features doesn’t automatically make you a good photographer.”
Kayne, whose Instagram handle @firstpersonshutter boasts almost 20,000 followers, dreamed of traveling the world as a freelance photographer for outlets like National Geographic, but soon found that he couldn’t afford it due to the cost of lenses and other equipment necessary for the job. But that hasn’t stopped him from practicing his craft in the video game world.
His favorite games to photograph are Insomniac’s Spider-Man series, and it’s easy to see why. Kayne can get a lot out of the high-flying web-swinging mechanics in the game as well as Spidey’s superheroic poses and myriad suits.
“In Spider-Man‘s case, arranging Spider-Man to where he’s looking at something that’s well-lit puts those reflections in the eye lenses so that you can actually get all those details on the face masks,” Kayne explains.
With photo mode, Kayne has found a new way to think about photography, and hopes that other artists will start to think of virtual photography as an artform, too. Will we one day see one of the pictures in this article hanging in a museum?
“I am very hopeful that it takes off into something bigger. And I feel like we’re on the ground floor.”