Image credit: Megan Reims / Ubisoft Montréal ™ (Assassin's Creed: Valhalla)
Do you ever have moments when you’re playing a game that is so visually stunning, you feel compelled to capture it? You might take a quick screenshot, or use a built-in camera mode, and post an image to social media. With modern consoles having dedicated share buttons, it’s easier than ever to snap our favourite gaming moments. But there’s actually a whole community of virtual photographers who are capturing in-game photos, with purpose and real creativity.
JAMES PARKINSON: Do you ever have moments when you’re playing a game that’s so visually stunning that you feel compelled to capture it? Like, if it was a landscape or something in real life you’d grab your phone to take a picture. Instead, maybe the game has a built-in camera function. You might post an image to social media or send it to your friends, and think nothing more of it. But there’s actually a whole community of people who are capturing in-game photos, with purpose and real creativity.
MEGAN REIMS: The opportunities you have in games are almost unlimited, because of how many games there are now, how many of them have a photo mode and the environments you can explore now, you have a lot of choices. So I guess, it’s really appealing to me to be able to do that from the comfort of my room, where I can explore different worlds without having to move myself.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Megan Reims, a passionate virtual photographer, and a community manager for GamerGram, an Instagram community for people who love taking in-game photos. Virtual Photography, or VP, has been around for a while, but it’s seen huge growth in recent years. The main factors in that trend being the increasing quality of graphics, in-game camera modes becoming a more common feature, and consoles including dedicated share buttons on their controllers, allowing you to take screenshots at any time during play.
MEGAN REIMS: With Sony adding the screenshot button to the DualShock, back on PS4, they did a great thing. Because even in games without a photo mode back then, there are ways you can get photos without any HUD showing, be it in third person or first person games. And I think that everyone, at some point has used that screenshot button, without even knowing what it was, what it did. And then they were like, “Oh, I might actually work on something with that”. And it might have started with the PC community, but I think with the console community adding to it, it has grown a lot over time. Now you have people coming from Xbox, PC, PlayStation, and has had a big explosion thanks to that.
JAMES PARKINSON: In-game photographers are sometimes called virtual tourists, and the community consists of many hobbyists who are finding a passion for the craft through their favourite game worlds. But there are also many professional photographers who are approaching in-game photos with the same technical and creative skills that they apply in the real world. Which has many people asking, is virtual photography a genuine artform in its own right?
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: Megan Reims began exploring virtual photography in 2018, and as a creative person, it was a natural step for her.
MEGAN REIMS: So in real life, I was already really interested in photography, I got my first camera back in 2014 for Christmas. And I wanted to learn about photography and wanted to be a photographer at the time. But being able to capture my favourite games, it was like pairing two of my favourite passions together.
MEGAN REIMS: And I had saved up for a PlayStation 4, back in 2017. And it was not until the end of 2018 that I pressed L3 and R3 in an Assassin's Creed game - it was Assassin's Creed: Origins. And the photo mode popped up, and I was like, “Wow, what's that thing?”. And I started playing around with it, and I saw that you could remove the HUD, and come up with your very own composition, and take a screenshot, thanks to the screenshot button back on the DualShock. So I was like, “oh that’s really amazing”, and I think like everyone in the virtual photography community, I was like, “this is absolutely amazing, I'm going to start sharing my photos on social media, I'm going to be the first one to do it”. And when I got onto Instagram, I saw that there was already a whole community for it, it was ongoing for years. And I was like, “oh wow, that's actually fascinating to know”. And at the time, if you weren't yourself interested in virtual photography, it was really hard to come across any in-game screenshots on social media.
JAMES PARKINSON: Megan’s father died that year, and having a new creative outlet helped her through that time. She says virtual photography also helped her reconnect with her passion for art, something her father had always supported.
MEGAN REIMS: When he passed away, I lost that motivation. I wasn't interested in doing any kind of art anymore. So when I used photo mode for the first time, I think it was really good timing, because I think it was three months after it happened. And I think it was the best time it could have happened basically, because it helped me take my feelings into the games I would play, and it was basically my way of expressing myself and to carry on. Now I am at peace with what happened, and I think I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today, if I didn't find out about virtual photography, and then keep on playing video games.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2 is considered one of the first games to feature a photo mode, and allows players to pause the action and control a virtual camera, with the ability to save a screenshot to USB. The game debuted in Japan in 2004, and since then, there’s been a steady increase in camera modes, with varying controls. Some games are very limited in their options, while others like Spider Man: Miles Morales, are more customisable.
MEGAN REIMS: So Spider Man: Miles Morales would be because you can add light sources to your shot. A bit like if you're in a studio, and you're adding lights around your subject, you can add light sources and I think that's a great feature because it helps you like tweak and play around with a lot of different perspectives and even locations because sometimes you have bad lighting in a certain spot, you can add a level spotlight behind or in front of your character and change the colour. And yeah, the details in that photo mine are really good as well, like you can zoom in quite a lot and still keep a lot of details. So I would say that for this one, it will be about the light sources. For Ghosts of Tsushima will be about the scene setting, where you have the particles, you can have a little animation as well. You can change weather, can change time of the day. It's just really well implemented in photo mode and works really well with the game itself and the time is setting and the place it is setting as well. For Death Stranding, it’s just a really advanced photo mode. Lots of lots of features in that one, a lot of freedom as well, you can change a lot of things with the main character. I think that's one of the best looking games as well, just because of the landscapes. And then for Days Gone, it will be kind of the same thing. Really advanced photo mode, really gorgeous environment, like they have a lot of time in this open world game. And it's a gorgeous want to capture as well, and their photo mode is really advanced as well. Like, you can tweak saturation, focusing on specific colours. So you have blue, green, red, and then you can change gamma, you can change a lot of things in the advanced settings of Days Gone. I was actually really surprised with that one because it was the first advanced one I tried out.
JAMES PARKINSON: With the kinds of features available on modern consoles, it’s so simple now to take a quick screenshot and instantly post it to Twitter. But for Megan, and many others, it’s much more involved, using traditional photography techniques and principles, like the rule of thirds, in order to capture the best shots possible.
MEGAN REIMS: Most photo modes add grids that help a lot in that sense. Then I would say good lighting, obviously. Quality is not so much of a thing I focus on, because a shot from PS4 Slim could definitely compete with a shot from the PS5 - I used to capture on PS4 Slim, so that's why I'm saying that - because it didn't change any of the interaction I got on my shots back then. But yeah, mainly composition, lighting, the contrast between your less exposed areas in your shot. And the subject, basically the subject. So in my landscape shots, what I try to do is add some near depth-of-field and far depth-of-field. So obviously, it gives more depth to your shot is what it's for. But it focuses the viewer’s eye on what I want them to focus on. Same with portraits, sometimes it's shadowy, sometimes it's just the background that's blurred. Sometimes it’s shadowy to the point you can only focus on some facial features. And I want the viewer to focus on what caught my eye, and tell me what they feel through it. That's why I really enjoy when people comment, and they actually go into reviewing the shot, if I may say. It's really interesting to see how they relate to shots, but basically, yeah, I've seen that's what happens most of the time.
LEO SANG: Usually, I take my video game pictures around the human eye level. I would try out techniques in video games and I will test them out in real life. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but that's I guess, the idea of experimenting and trying to create new stuff, new ideas. And the same happens whenever I learn something new about real photography, I try to apply this to the video game environment as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Leo Sang, a freelance photographer in São Paulo, who mostly focuses on street photography. His real life work includes lots of candid action shots, and he looked to translate that approach virtually, through Grand Theft Auto IV.
LEO SANG: It has, you know, parallels to real life. It's an urban environment. And I wanted to see how, if I could, use my photographic knowledge from what I was practicing in the real world, what would be the result from using this knowledge in the virtual world world.
JAMES PARKINSON: For a game that’s all about crime and wreaking havoc on the streets of a digital recreation of New York City, Leo was more interested in the mundane movements of its virtual inhabitants. Applying techniques like one-point perspective, and playing with symmetry and shadows are all elements of Leo’s real-life work that he enjoys replicating in-game. And while some games offer the ability to manipulate the time of day or the weather, Leo usually prefers to leave that stuff alone, approaching the game world like our own, and capturing it as is.
JAMES PARKINSON: Megan says she doesn’t really have a personal style, but tries to incorporate a bit of everything.
MEGAN REIMS: I guess I'm still trying to find my style, even though people say I have a specific style. I'm still trying to find it myself, because I oftentimes compare myself with other people. Some people specialise in minimalism, some people specialise in black and white shots. I try to specialise in everything. I would say I'm more attracted to landscape shots. I try to, in every of my landscape shots, have a leading line and have my viewers focus on a specific subject, focus on light as well. I guess that's what you would find in most of my shots, I try to have good lighting and a good subject as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: But like real world photography, it’s about more than just a good looking image. Megan approaches her work with emotion and storytelling in mind, so her images capture people’s attention as much as the game itself.
MEGAN REIMS: So that even if someone that's not interested in video games could be intrigued, interested in the shot, and that I'm able to pique their curiosity for them to be like, “Oh, I wonder where that leading line goes to? I wonder who that character is? What's their past? What’s their story?”. And basically to get them to be more interested. And I want them to feel what I feel when I take my shots. So most of them are hopeful, but other times it might be a character with a specific expression. For example, I'm thinking of an Ellie portrait I took. A lot of people like that one, because a lot of people told me they felt claustrophobic, because she has a gas mask on, and her expression is really, really striking, because she looks like she's afraid of something. And because you don't see what's behind her, it's all shadowy and stuff, people felt that there was something coming and she was running for her life, basically, which she was. And in that sense, it's really interesting to see how people react to different kinds of shots. But most of the time, I want my viewer to imagine they're in the shot, or imagine what the character might have been through, who they are, what was their past. Yeah, that's the main idea.
JAMES PARKINSON: Sometimes Megan is just playing a game normally and taking a few photos as she goes, but other times, she’ll boot up a game for the sole purpose of virtual photography.
MEGAN REIMS: With games I've finished playing, I oftentimes go back to them just to take pictures because they're gorgeous, and I’ll just feel like going back to them. But most of the time, I actually play the game a lot. Sometimes I forget to go into photo mode because the game is so immersive. So for example, now I'm playing Mass Effect 1 - I’ve taken about 10 shots max. To give you a bit of context, I've taken about 600 shots in The Last of Us 2. But that doesn't change how much I loved The Last of Us 2, it just depends on the experience. I try to focus more on video games these days to enjoy them, and see if I stumble upon something that catches my eye, certain lighting, a certain location. And I try to take a shot there because it’s weird to say it like that, but as I play, I stumble upon a specific location and I see the shot that I want to take in there. And when I go into photo mode, I try to recreate that shot I have in mind when I stumble upon the location.
JAMES PARKINSON: Coming up, how the games industry is reacting to the virtual photography community, and the debate over its validity as a true artform.
JAMES PARKINSON: As I was researching the virtual photography community and swiping through Instagram, I was blown away by the craft in some of the photos. Some photographers even go to the trouble of editing their images in post, before publishing them online. They might apply filters or make more subtle tweaks, using tools like contrast or saturation, and cropping their photos to suit platforms like Instagram. Megan Reims says she also edits her shots, but takes a simplified approach.
MEGAN REIMS: What I see on my TV screen is not always the same as when I export it to my phone. HDR, for example, doesn't get transferred. So I have to do some tweaking in terms of lighting and stuff. Nothing crazy, really. I try to keep the main idea there. But I need to tweak some things. Sometimes if I want a specific subject in my shot, I would say mainly with portraits, where I want the viewer to focus on the eyes, for example, I would try to edit the eyes for them to pop a bit more. But it's nothing crazy. Sometimes I would edit my shots with a colour splash, to be more creative and stuff. But I try to keep the general idea and not change the game’s view too much.
JAMES PARKINSON: Leo Sang uses Adobe Lightroom to edit his in-game photos, and his process isn’t much different to his real-world photography.
LEO SANG: My editing style in video games is almost mirrored to my editing style in real life. Because I guess that's how I see photos. I do experiment with editing in video games too. But usually, it's just automatic editing. When you do it so many times, it gets automatic, I guess.
JAMES PARKINSON: And for people who are completely new to photography, taking in-game photos can be a great way to learn some of the basics.
MEGAN REIMS: A lot of people actually start with virtual photography first, and then take their skills from there, to go into real life photography, and they're really talented. They take their aesthetic style and they translate that to real life photography, and it’s really amazing to see. It takes some time, sometimes, for people who have an artistic background, not necessarily in photography, it’s a bit easier. But yeah, a lot of times I've seen that they’re really - I think, since we're in video games, since we love them so much, it's easier to learn about photography, and in a place we love, rather than, let's say, going to a specific course, when you're not necessarily go to a place you like to capture things you enjoy capturing. Whereas in video games, you literally can capture anything you love, because you're already playing the game. Why not explore as much as you can through photo mode as well? And I think that's where it clicks for us. And yeah, it all starts from there. But you also have photographers, like professional photographers, trying out virtual photography, and doing amazing as well, obviously.
JAMES PARKINSON: And due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virtual photography community has received greater exposure, as more and more people discovered the joy of exploring their favourite game worlds in a new way. And when people can’t venture outside, virtual landscapes become the next best thing. The GamerGram Instagram account is full of beautiful photos, and Megan says that once people start taking in-game shots, they get totally invested.
MEGAN REIMS: I guess that was appealing to a lot of people, especially since they had a lot more time. And it starts with posting one, two shots, and then it starts being a usual thing, doing it daily. And then obviously you see that the community is a really nice one. I think it's the least toxic gaming community I've ever come across. And I guess that's where people stay in the end. Because they see that it’s a good hobby. It pairs two really good aspects of video games, which is playing it, and enjoying all the work that goes into them to a whole different level.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is something that game developers are really paying attention to. The inclusion of photo modes has been a direct response to their rise in popularity - the fact that people are actually using them and sharing their photos. It’s a great way to get people talking about your game.
MEGAN REIMS: I guess they have seen the potential where it has in terms of marketing, because it's free advertisement for their games. And in that sense, I think that every new upcoming game will have a photo mode. If not at launch, it might be added with a patch. If not, people will ask for it because everyone wants a photo mode, in video games now, in the community, at least. So yeah, in terms of game developers and game studios, they have seen the potential it has. I've seen myself buy a game, just because they had a photo mode, or just because I saw pictures of it on social media. And I guess they're becoming more and more aware of that. And in that sense, being able to add more detail to their games, knowing that people will capture them, helps them a lot in making sales now. That is getting more recognition as well, from the game developers themselves. Like, I've seen a lot of gaming studios interact more with virtual photographers lately, which is really nice. So I guess they will keep on improving their photo modes, adding them to their games.
JAMES PARKINSON: Given the popularity of in-game photography, I’m wondering how long it will take before we get a game that’s entirely based around something like landscape photography, not merely a feature in a narrative or open world game.
MEGAN REIMS: I would definitely be interested in that kind of thing, because then that would be the ultimate game I would go to when I want to take pictures. It would be relaxing as well, in a sense, but I will still go back to the other games, because some things can't be achieved in that kind of game you’re presenting to me. But I would definitely be interested in that.
JAMES PARKINSON: For as many gamers there are taking screenshots for fun and sharing them online, other virtual photographers are taking their hobby seriously. So, is in-game photography a new artform?
MEGAN REIMS: It's a bit complicated. Some people in the community are going to say that it has nothing to do with an art form because it's not as rewarding as real life photography. Because in real life because in real life photography, you wait for certain lighting. It's more rewarding because you have to capture a moment, whereas in games it’s easier with all the features we talked about. But I personally don't agree with that, because I think it should be able to compete with photography, and any other kind of art form in that sense, because we spend a lot of time trying to take pictures. And what we capture is of higher and higher quality as we go. And for some people outside of the virtual photography community, sometimes it's hard to tell apart if it's a gaming screenshot, or a real life photo. And of course, it depends on the game. But yeah, so I guess it should be viewed as an artform, because of not only all the time we spend on it, but all of us, we have different artistic perspectives and visions that we try to translate into our shots. And I think it should be recognised as art, because to me, that's what it is.
JAMES PARKINSON: Obviously, games themselves are their own artform, and in-game photos are just trying to frame them in a new way. But I also think that remixing, reinterpretation and repurposing is a big part of what makes art “art”. And those skills are beginning to be recognised in more official ways. Some of Leo Sang’s virtual photography has actually been featured in art exhibitions in LA, London and Madrid.
JAMES PARKINSON: However you view virtual photography, the community is certainly here to stay. It’s given people another way to engage with games, and a greater appreciation for the incredible work of their developers.
James Parkinson: How has your relationship with games changed through taking photos in-game?
MEGAN REIMS: I spend a lot more time in games now, with photo modes. Gaming sessions that will last one hour can easily last three hours now, with photo modes, because of how much time I can spend in photo mode. But yeah, it has helped me appreciate way more what goes into video games, because gaming studios put a lot of time into their video games. And the only ways you could find out about those things before were through trailers, and then playing them. But now there's a whole community showcasing the beauty of these video games. And I guess, thanks to photo modes, I appreciate the details and everything that's in the games way more.
JAMES PARKINSON: A big thank you to Megan Reims and Leo Sang. We have links to their in-game photos in the episode description and on our website, gameplay.co, and you can follow GamerGram on Instagram at ‘gamergram.gg’.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.
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