When you imagine a gamer, what do you see? If you’re unfamiliar with gaming (and easily swayed by pop culture), you might, perhaps, picture a social reject, still living in their parents’ basement, committed to a life of trolling people online. That, of course, is a huge stereotypical generalisation. Thankfully, this stigmatised imagery is beginning to fade—as gaming continues to rise in popularity, the esports industry continues to boom and people begin to discover the incredible value video games can have on mental health. But gaming doesn’t just have its economic and therapeutic benefits. It has its creative benefits too. As the coronavirus pandemic forced us all to reform our way of thinking and sent us on the search for new ways to be creative in the confines of the four walls of our living room—video games might just be the answer photographers have been searching for. Let me explain.
Well, to answer that question you have to understand what ‘photography’ itself actually is. Wikipedia describes photography as “the art, application, and practice of creating durable images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film.” Virtual photography takes elements from traditional photography and pushes them into the virtual realm. In essence, virtual photography is the act of taking photos in video games.
I virtually spoke with a self-proclaimed virtual photographer who is based in Estonia and goes by the name Kelven. Kelven has been practising the art of virtual photography since 2017. He said he started when he was “mesmerized and captivated instantly” by the beautiful world made by Ubisoft in Assassin’s Creeds: Origins. He continued, “There’s also the fact that the developers had included moderately adequate tools for taking virtual photographs within the game. [I was inspired to shoot in the first place because of] the game world, the aesthetic the developer had created.”
Kelven runs an Instagram page called @GameScenery, which although has been inactive for the last year or so, encapsulates the beauty that virtual photography can bring to the world. “The idea behind it was to illustrate the work of game developers through my personal virtual lens.” He said. And it shows—the grid, patterned with stunning landscape images, illustrates how far video game graphics have come.
Similar to traditional photography, capturing images within games encompasses many different styles. You may choose to shoot portraits or action shots, abstract or landscape… the list goes on. Kelven prefers the latter: opting for stunning landscape shots, often making use of the beautifully realistic lighting engines implemented in modern gaming; whether that be in the cityscapes of Marvel’s Spider-Man or the mountains of Far Cry 5. To be honest, a lot of the shots he’s managed to pull off go further than what I could ever achieve with a DSLR—especially in the notoriously constantly-overcast North of England. He explains, “I don’t shoot many characters. To me, all the expressions and poses the characters have been programmed with, it leaves little room for creativity. I’m not saying there’s no creativity but I prefer landscapes and cityscapes where I have freedom with composition.”
The current pandemic has had an effect on us all. We’ve been stripped of social interaction and knocked in our homes, and because of that, forms of escapism have made the jump from luxury to necessity. As Kelven explains, “I think COVID-19 has created some surge in the niche due to stay-at-home mandates and whatnot. Virtual worlds, as well as virtual photography, can be a great escape from the real world.”
However, virtual photography is more than just a needed form of escapism, it can actually serve to help people develop their traditional photography skills too. It’s the reason why, as the world was looking down, a surge of street photographers took to the virtual streets of Saint-Denis, the largest city in Red Dead Redemption 2, to continue their craft. Kelven “absolutely” agreed there were similarities between traditional photography and virtual photography. “The medium is different but the basics remain the same: lighting, composition, the field of view, for instance.” He added, “In a sense, virtual photography, depending on the tools that are available, has much more flexibility since photo-mode tools will have you pause the game and give you lots of options to experiment with. I think virtual photography can be something to spark a real-world photography bug too.”
So where do you start, and what do you need? Kelven argues “curiosity” is the most important thing to have when starting virtual photography, which in many ways is similar to traditional photography. He continues, “A lot of video games these days do have photo-mode tools available—some more limited than others, but the basics are covered for the most part. Platform wise, I know that PCs have custom tools built by enthusiastic fans that can provide much more freedom in terms of experimentation. That said, I am personally a casual virtual photography enthusiast and only use the tools provided by game developers on Playstation.”
In essence, photography is an art—and like music, animation, basically any creative practice you can think of, it evolves, with new technologies, over time. And before the pretentious photography gurus get on my back, why not consider both? As Kelven explains: “There is no criteria for virtual photography or traditional photography. For me, I enjoy both, although getting really into real-world photography is much more expensive. The main idea is to have fun, stay curious and do what makes you happy.”
But is this just a branch of photography on its evolutionary tree or a completely different art form altogether? Time will tell. But “it’s difficult to speculate.” Kelven adds, “It’ll always be a thing among gamers in general who would rather enjoy the content but it could also be considered as a legitimate photography artform—if it’s not already. If we’re talking 50 years, who knows where this road will take us.”