Casey Lee has braved the freezing weather of the Siberian steppe to photograph a lost city. Megan Reims has traveled to Jackson, Wyoming in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic. Yuri Iliaev has explored the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and Mr. Hasgaha has space-walked to Jupiter. And they’ve all done it from the comfort of their own homes.
These artists are part of a growing “virtual photography” community that’s exploring uncharted territory, traveling backward and forward in time, and discovering make-believe locations as part of the popular “Photo Modes” found in modern video games. Like RL (real life) photographers, these virtual photographers can spend hours and days seeking the right light and the perfect composition; instead of a traditional shutter button, they use in-game screenshots.
“VP is like a gateway into a different world of photography,” Matthew Goring, the director of the Society Of Virtual Photographers, tells us. His training is in traditional photography, but while earning his degree, he stumbled into the brave new world of video game photography enthusiasts. “VP as a whole is really broad and can be created across all platforms, from high-end PC’s to smart phones,” he explains.
For Reims, who became a virtual photographer in 2018 and now works as an administrator at GamerGram, video games always served as a portal into another world, especially during turbulent times. “The original reason as to why I started was to escape reality,” she tells us. “It had been a particularly tough year to deal with, and games always helped me feel better.
“Virtual photography added a surprisingly rewarding layer to something I’d always loved; while playing these amazing stories, I was also looking for the best opportunities for captures. I stumbled upon the photo modes in Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey by pure luck, and, at the time, I had no clue there was a whole virtual photography community flourishing already.”
It’s accessible to everyone with the tools, including those who can’t travel in the “real world” as well as those without traditional training in photography. “Photo modes are easy to use and straight to the point, with no manual settings like on a DSLR camera,” Reims says “Everything is simplified, so there are plenty of possibilities.”
At the same time, the “rules” of photography in the real world still hold true in a virtual world, and many virtual photographers crop and edit their images in post for the perfect shot.“I’ve been working as a professional graphic designer for over 20 years now and have been a hobbyist photographer for even longer,” Mr. Hasgaha explains.
“Taking the technical training and theory behind composition that I already possessed and translating that into a virtual environment started to appeal to me: ‘Could I use what I knew about lighting, color, framing, focus, etc to execute ‘photography’ in a video game? That led to me following a white rabbit down a very deep hole.
“From there, I found out many people were already doing this with incredible success and I became a sponge, learning everything I could. As I soon learned, it’s much more than just playing a game and snagging a screenshot. There is so much work that goes into it.”
As virtual photography is still in its infancy, many developers haven’t quite perfected their photo modes; as a result, today’s artists have to get creative and think outside the box. “The toughest part is getting access to the best range of tools to capture both high quality images and to allow the user to have creative freedom,” Goring says.
“Consoles and phones only have what the developers provide for them, and in most cases it’s a simplified camera experience. For beginners using these, it is a great way to develop your understanding of how to compose and frame the shots.
“To access the best tools available, however, artists should invest in a computer, as you get access to third party photo tools including Nvidia Ansel, which provides an advanced freecam for a range of titles. There are also mods created by the community, which users can add into their games for even deeper control, like Frans Boulma’s injectable Generic Camera System.
“With the upcoming release of the next generation of consoles, I think we’re going to see a lot more professional grade photos being created by a greater portion of the community. It will give them access to advanced lighting and higher resolution images, closing the current gap between amateur VP and more professionally created images.”
Lee, who has been part of the virtual photography community for two years now, tells us, “Coming up with original and creative shots for popular games is also a challenge at times, as there are so many talented VPs out there taking very similar photos.” He found his voice by experimenting and taking tons of pictures: “There is no cost to taking in-game pics (other than time and disk space), and you can always delete those that you don’t like.”
The future of virtual photography remains uncertain, but video game publishers are catching onto the growing movement. “One of my favorite VP experiences is when I won a publisher-sponsored photo contest with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey early in the VP journey,” Lee tells us. “Aside from the terrific prize, the real award for me was that my creativity, originality, and quality of my entry was being recognized.”
The marketing potential here is significant, but in many ways, VP represents a new frontier, where there are few rules. “The advertising that comes from virtual photography is massive, but we still don’t know where we stand in terms of rights with the shots we capture,” Reims explains. “As far as I know, we can’t sell our shots because of copyright issues. There’s a huge communication gap between developers and virtual photographers, so there’s no real way to actually find out about our rights, if we have any to begin with.
“We at GamerGram hope to be part of the bridge between developers and virtual photographers. The marketing opportunity that lies in virtual photography is something to be on the lookout for in the coming years. What could be beneficial for both parties might be some kind of partnership; perhaps virtual photographers get a percentage based on the marketing materials they create.
“The dream would be for people to be able to work as full-time virtual photographers. Virtual photographers spend a lot of their time in these games–can you imagine if they were hired by every studio, who had their very own virtual photographers for different marketing purposes? I’m dreaming, I know, but I hope one day this dream comes true.”
For Iliaev, who got into virtual photography in 2013 and only recently started sharing his work, being part of the community has been a reward in and of itself. “Meeting new talented people has been the best experience,” he tells us. “This is a community that helps each other and learns from each other.
“I also love that we’re getting more frequent feedback and appreciation from the game developers on social media. It shows that they do care and love what virtual photographers shoot in their games, and that’s a big bonus. Over the past few months, I’ve seen so many novice virtual photographers joining in on the fun, and it’s really amazing to witness how this thing is gaining popularity. The future looks good!”