Photo Mode in Video Games: Why are more and more people taking photos instead of playing games?

Since its appearance in 1826, the ability to capture an instant in an image has opened up an infinite world of possibilities. Since then, there is no generation that has not resorted to a camera at some point in its life. There was always some moment that deserved to be immortalized in an image. A feeling that has been carried over to our days.

Returning to the present, in recent years we have observed how video games have evolved to such an extent that they come to question their concept in itself. Before we conceived videogames as a work with a series of elements that characterized it: history, graphics, artistic design, soundtrack…. However, over time we have seen how a game, a genuine work of art, evolved to the point of being able to create art on its own .


The arrival of games as a tool has been the seed of a series of artists who would be born from the possibilities that the game offered them. We have seen examples of all kinds: from the paradigmatic Super Mario Maker to the track editor of the Trackmania saga. But if there is a tool that has stood out above any other, it has undoubtedly been the photo mode . All of us at some point in our lives as players have been enchanted with the setting and the characters that were presented to us, we have fallen in love with the fidelity of car representations from the Gran Turismo saga or even with historical monuments such as those seen in the Assassin’s Creed saga. The irruption of the photo mode has allowed us to capture the beauty of their worlds and show them in their best version.


Not surprisingly, photography is an art that consists of capturing a snapshot to evoke a reaction in the viewer, an intention not far removed from that of modern video games. Although at first photography managed to strip painting of its mission of representing reality, the truth is that over time it found a way to evolve, to the point of separating itself from its intrinsic function of mimesis in order to change reality. . Something like this happens with the photo mode of video games. As players we collect a previously scheduled experience, as photographers we choose our own experience. This is how Ansel Adams defined it in his most famous quote: “Photographs are not taken, they are made”. The photographer is an active part of the capture, it is he who seeks, creates, deforms and shapes the image until he gets the perfect snapshot. As players we are mere passive subjects, as photographers we are much more.


Gamer to Photographer: Photo Mode in Video Games


As players we are mere passive subjects, as photographers we are much moreAlthough the photo mode came as an anecdotal extra , the truth is that the passion and enthusiasm shown by many users has made it an almost mandatory tool for any game and responsible for some of the most spectacular images of our favorite titles . Not in vain, in it two cultural currents converge destined to understand each other and that offer us the best of each one to create snapshots to remember.

Advertising photography example in Forza Horizon 4, by @wxrry

However, it is true that there is a current of thought among fans of real photography that disagrees when considering photography in video games an art in itself . They argue that while in real life you have to work on the framing, focus, composition, light and a dozen determining elements to achieve the perfect capture; In a video game, the user can modify the arrangement, angle and intensity of light, filters, ISO settings and other parameters at will. They are right, the digital world is much more moldableand it allows an adaptation of the environment to the photography and not of the photography to the environment, as it does in the real world. However, there is another large mass of users who do consider both types of photography equally valid, since if all users start with the same tools then only the truly exceptional will stand out from the rest.

Capture of The Last of Us, by Mik Bromley.

To better understand the point of view of a professional photographer, we have contacted Mik Bromley, a photographer with more than 15 years of experience and founder of The Fourth Focus , the first awards gala on virtual photography. Regarding the prejudices about virtual photography, Mik believes that many of the skills of one medium are transferred to the other: “There is a misconception that virtual photography is nothing more than taking a screenshot, but the truth is that modern photography modes allow the user to adjust the same settings as on a real camera. By controlling things like focal length, aperture value, exposure, and color gradation, virtual photographers can compose unique and artistic shots. Whether the world is real or virtual, there is a common desire to capture visually compelling images that convey meaning and inspire others . Ultimately, it’s the images that do the talking, not the hardware that was used to create them. ”

Capture in Spider-Man Miles Morales, by @virtua_photo.

The rise of photography in video games


For this reason, there are more and more photographers who are encouraged to experiment with photography of virtual worlds, as well as players who are bitten by the bug and jump with real photography. They are two different worlds that share the same desire, so they feed back on each other. One trend does not have to banish the other, for that purpose Mik reminds us what happened with the first digital cameras “traditional photographers made fun of digital cameras for not being a” true “photograph, and we all know how that ended. Obviously Virtual photography is not here to replace real-world photography , but it complements it perfectly and we will see many more people develop an interest in both. ” In fact,2020 has been a particularly prolific year for virtual photography . The coronavirus has forced half the world to shut itself up, which has led many people to approach video games for the first time and to experiment with them . Mik emphasizes that “It has not been possible to go outside with the camera and the game’s photography modes allow photographers to feed their creative desires with almost limitless possibilities. Not only can you do things like photograph a superhero dodging death, but that virtual photography is great for comfortably experimenting with compositional techniques or capturing deep emotions that are rarely overtly displayed in the real world. ”


Ultimately, it’s the images that do the talking, not the hardware that was used to create themMik bromleyGiven the tremendous potential of these captures and the dissemination capacity of social networks such as Twitter, Instagram or Flickr, there are some artists who have managed to stand out and make a name for themselves with their works. Starting from different styles, some have focused more on capturing the majesty of the landscape , others on character portraits, others with advertising photography -especially in driving titles- and some have even flirted with street photography trying to find everyday scenes taken. performed by NPC’s in open worlds.


From controls to cameras


But what leads a normal user to put the game aside and spend hundreds of hours searching for the perfect captures? In the case of Petri Levälahti , one of the pioneers and greatest exponents of photography in videogames who currently works at Electronic Arts as Screenshot Capture Artist, is to find the most human side of his characters : “I am attracted to taking photographs of characters. They are getting more and more realistic, and I enjoy trying to catch them in their most ‘human’ form. Games like Hellblade , Tomb Raider and especially The Last of Us: Part 2They do wonders with their character animations, especially their faces. Any storytelling or construction of the world that I can inject into a shot is always welcome. ”

Red Dead Redemption 2 screenshot, by Petri Levatahli.

For Rubén Pinto, alias @DotPone , it was the opportunity to unite his passion for photography with his passion for video games: “When I saw that Marvel’s Spider-Man would include a photo mode, it aroused all my interest and I thought the idea was great since Peter Parker is a photographer . I grew up reading Spidey comics, and watching the 90s animated series, so I couldn’t help myself and started taking dozens of shots of the game. ”

Assassin’s Creed: Unity screenshot, by Andrew Cull.

Not all of them started in the same way, there are those that started almost by accident, like the Australian Andrew Cull who discovered the photo mode messing with Skyrim mods and today he is one of the main figures of the guild: “I started taking screenshots screen when I was fiddling with mods in Skyrim LE . Originally the shots were just a way to show the progress of my mods while I was working on them, but it led me to look up other users’ work, met some great photographers and that’s where I started. to take photos me too.A Luna del Alba, alias @rimaeternax , one of the best known Spanish virtual photographers, the fondness for photography came from her partner, which together with herpassion for video games made a perfect cocktail to capture the essence of your favorite titles. “I honestly think it was the fact that my partner is a photographer, and his way of standing on the street and capturing incredible moments has always caught my attention. That’s why as soon as I saw the photo mode of The Last of Us Part 2 -It was with the first one that I started- I was finding meaning in what she was doing, but transferred to the virtual world. ”


Getting the perfect snapshot is not an easy task, even when we move within an environment as controlled as a video game. Photographers need to adapt a hundred parameters just to know what warmth or tonality they want in the image, so getting the perfect shot at the right moment is a daunting task. This is how Luna explains it: “At the beginning I could spend an hour or an hour and a half in capturing a photo that I considered good, not in vain I restart the levels over and over againif I need to find a point of light, a place, or a specific action for what I have in mind. Then you have to add the editing via Adobe Lightroom. “And it is not easy to get out of the scripted scenes to show the best angles and sell the game to us in the trailer, which leads many users to go further in search of a shot the only one they might not even know they were looking for. In Andrew’s case: “It seems to me that it takes me a few hours to play and photograph a game before I have an idea of ​​how I want to capture it. I try to do different things that suit the game I’m working on. That way, when people access my feed, it’s not just the same shot recycled across many different titles. It is always something new and fresh, something you won’t easily see anywhere else.. ”


Photo Mode: A Difficult Art to Master


Like any photographer, virtual photographers must work very well on the composition of the image , study every aspect of the photo to achieve something really meaningful and show the world a new facet of the most popular games. For example Petri Levälahti dedicates all his effort to find the ideal lighting: “It seems that all I do is look for good lighting, it is by far the most important thing in an image. I train the brain to automatically look for good lights when I walk in games. . ” Luna is faithful to the foundations of photography and her art is due to a maxim: the rule of thirds : “In TLOU 2for example, I really appreciate the grid for making portraits or action compositions […]. It is something that I lack in many games but in the end your eye ‘makes you’ to the situation and you get a symmetry without problems with a couple of movements. In the virtual world I feel free , even more than outside of it, to do these things: you can make the character look at you or simply create a totally different scene from how the players have seen it. There are users who do not even know what part of the game you are showing them when you inquire so much into its possibilities. ”

Capture of God of War, by @DotPone.

However, these possibilities may not be enough for all photographers, Andrew Cull explains that the photo modes of current titles are very limited in terms of options , so he prefers to study the possibilities offered by some mods on PC : “Without the camera tools from the likes of Frans Bouma, it would be much more difficult to get good shots, for some reason developers often make the camera’s range of motion in photo modes really limited.

Capture of TLoU 2, by @rimaeternax.

That makes it very difficult to tackle anything other than portraits. Fortunately, modders like Frans are creating tools that give us freedom and we can shoot what we really want to shoot. That opens up composition possibilities that don’t exist when the game launches. Rubén, on the other hand, has a much simpler and more accessible style: “When I work on composition, I do it thinking about a very simple thing: ‘Does it look good?’ I take and share the shots that I think look good and are great because I want to show the work that the development team put into the game, without modifying anything externally. In fact, today I challenge myself to get the best shots only with the tools provided by the game itself. ” Petri Levälahti agrees with him:The photo modes are getting better and better , at least in terms of features. Miles Morales , Cyberpunk, and Ghost of Tsushima brought us some juicy new features: lights, character movement, environment options . However, most games still keep camera movement limited to the sphere of the character; check out Cyberpunk 2077 or The Last of Us Part 2, where your camera just rotates around your character and you can only fly a few feet away. ”


I restart the levels over and over again if I need to find a point of light, a place, or a specific action for what I have in mind.Dawn moonIt might be thought that, while virtual photography is a modern offshoot, many artists lack exponents, photographers who serve as inspiration to take their captures and gradually outline their style. Nothing is further from reality, the virtual photographers interviewed have a multitude of references from different fields that help them when it comes to capturing unique moments.

Image by Liam Wong.

This is how Andrew explains, who confesses to being a big fan of concept art from games and movies. “I often buy the art book to go along with the game I’m capturing. I’m definitely inspired by the work of artists like Raphael Lacoste, Kristian Llana, Jie Ma, Simon Stålenhag and John Sweeney, to name a few. You know? When I have An idea for a shot I spin – his work – in my head for a while before shooting. I’ve also been inspired by the work of other virtual photographers. In fact, Midhras has been one of my favorite virtual photographers. ”

The Lad of the Lake, image of Midhras.

But the references do not come only from the videogame or film sectors , in fact Luna, despite having little experience in the world of professional photography, is very clear about what figures inspired her: “As for videogame photography, my greatest inspiration is Petri Levälahti, I really admire his work and his ability to play with different light sources. As for real photography, my thing is street photography and in it my clearest references are Tengu , a well-known youtuber who specializes in this type of photography. captures and Liam Wong, a global eminence whom Business Insider magazinecalled it “a prodigy in the use of technicolor to capture the essence of Tokyo.” For Ruben, the most important thing is not only the quality of the snapshot, but also the attitude of the artist when it comes to helping his followers: “One of my favorites is Peter Mckinnon , not only in terms of photography, but also in terms of photography. way he approaches social media and is always ready to help newbies. Also recently, I discovered NeonDemon on Instagram, he has been a tremendous inspiration because of how unique and unmatched his work seems to me. In virtual photography, I put @ Raffu42On the highest possible pedestal in terms of talent, he manages to pull things out of games that I never thought were possible. On the other hand I love @BadGamerElite , he is an incredibly fun creator who keeps posting unique content and supports all the other users who interact with him


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