Forget being able to climb that mountain in the distance. What matters now is how well you can capture it. Thanks in no small part to social media, photo modes are becoming big business in video games. Are you looking to catalog your adventures, snap a sword mid-swing, or share that sunrise just as its light crests the hill? Photo modes can do it all – but only if you know what you’re doing.
The range of tools and options available in each game can differ significantly. Opening up a menu of unfamiliar sliders, filters, and apertures can be daunting, even off-putting, for many. So to help bring everything into focus, we reached out to four Virtual Photographers – masters of the in-game lens – for some key beginner’s tips. Not sure which games to start snapping screenshots in or what tools to toy with? Keep this advice in mind.
Experiment at your own pace
Taking that first shot can often be the hardest. Where do I begin? What should I capture? Are my screenshots too generic? Sharing any creation, even when you’re just beginning, makes it difficult not to focus on what isn’t right, what isn’t perfect. But without a canvas to spoil or camera roll to clog up, in-game photography is a more forgiving art than most. According to Virtual Photographers, experimentation, and failure, are just part of the process. One that’ll move at whatever speed you choose.
“First off, take a deep breath,” says Steffi Syndrome, co-founder of the community-run VGPNetwork. “There is no rush. That’s the beauty of it. You hit photo mode, you paused the game. You are now free to experiment. You are free to look up tutorials, you are free to look up guidance and tips. There’s no shame in any of that – we’ve all started out like that.
“Start small. Just try to shoot a nice capture at first. Then branch out – experiment with the depth of field or try some filters. Go ahead and mess with the contrast! The simplest advice is: do not be afraid to try. Do not be afraid to experiment. Do not be afraid to take great captures and mediocre captures.”
“One doesn’t have to be super involved or know a lot to start,” agrees photo-mode consultant Ludovic “Shinobi” Helme. “You can literally just open it, hide the UI, change your angle, and shoot. It’s already different from a simple screenshot.”
Misthios Monday host and VGPNetwork admin Rosa makes use of a variety of tools in-game and out to tune images to her taste. But for beginners, she notes that there’s no need to dive straight into a confusing pool of camera terminology, lens functions, and mods.
“Just because a feature is available in a photo mode, you don't have to use it right from the start,” Rosa says. “I personally didn't touch depth of field for a long time when I started because it never looked right to me, and I was afraid to ‘ruin’ my photo with it.
“So, if you don't know what something does or you don't understand a feature completely, just ignore it for now and have fun with the things you know. You can always return later and learn more about it. Just take your time.”
If you are curious, though, there’s nothing to stop you rummaging through the toolbox to see what happens. If anything, that inquisitiveness will almost certainly be rewarded. Effects and adjustments can be applied and undone on the fly, allowing plenty of room to dabble without disaster.
“Every game is different, every photo mode is different, so it actually takes time to find your take in each one,” says Shinobi. “Every time I start shooting a new game, I go through this phase. I ‘meet’ the game in a way; I try a lot of things, and little by little, I will find what I’m happy with or comfortable with.
“The best advice I can give is to always slide the sliders! Try everything multiple times. It’s only by spending time in it that you’ll find your pleasure. And if that’s keeping it super simple and straightforward, so be it! Don’t overthink it, have fun playing with whatever features your photo mode gives you.”
Pick a world you love
Far more important than the available tools is your choice of game. To our Virtual Photographers, that connection with a world or its characters is paramount to everything else.
“A big factor is picking a game that gives you some inspiration to begin with,” says Mik Bromley, creator of Virtual Photography website TheFourthFocus. “Without that it will be difficult to get any really compelling results no matter what the photo mode offers.
“There is a tendency for people to want to capture the most visually impressive games, but it doesn’t just have to be a matter of fidelity. Different games can offer all sorts of varied opportunities and art styles that are suited to different genres of photography, especially if the photo mode tools have a lot of creative freedom.”
“You need to click with the game,” Shinobi concurs. “You need to be excited to go shoot it, otherwise you’ll just take dull shots that everyone else is taking. I would strongly advocate for changing games, as some are more adapted for landscapes, others for portraits, etc. You can learn a lot just by jumping from game to game, and then coming back later to a previous one with new knowledge to shoot it in a totally new way.”
But for those after more concrete suggestions as to the best games for budding in-game photographers, our Virtual Photographers are willing to offer a few suggestions:
“That would be Assassin's Creed Odyssey in my eyes. It has a beautiful, detailed world and characters, and the photo mode is really good,” says Rosa. “It has all the necessary features but isn’t too overwhelming, so you can start learning what the basics do.”
“The most generic answer here is to say the Horizon games from Guerrilla,” Bromley says. “The photo mode is capable and accessible, the subject material is great, and the community support is outstanding, so it is a very friendly starting point for a lot of people.”
“I heavily vote Control,” says Steffi. “Because it’s not overly complicated. It’s very beginner friendly in that it doesn’t overwhelm with tools. Its simplicity is your friend, and the filters let you spice things up nicely. I also very much like and enjoy the Assassin’s Creed photo modes. They give a few more options in regards to what you can do – contrast, temperature, stuff like that – but are also very easy to navigate and play with. Plus, the games are so gorgeous, it’s easy to find plenty to photograph!”
So you’ve chosen a game, but what should you be capturing within it? Here’s where approaches can vary drastically. For some, it’s all about finding a focus – be it a particular character or environment.
“I spent countless hours in AC Odyssey just exploring Ancient Greece, because I love the world and the main character Alexios a lot,” says Rosa. “Through that, inspiration just comes naturally. Same with Cyberpunk 2077. Night City is incredibly interesting and my Vs are my favorite photo subjects.”
For others, it’s about the sense of exploration and the world unfolding around you.
“I just roam,” says Steffi. “When something catches my eye, I go for it. An especially weird shaped tree, or perhaps that beam of light shining onto those ruins over there seems mystical and atmospheric. It could be a bird swooping in or a screen-jarring battle scene! Perhaps the lighting is just right for a portrait. Whatever tickles my fancy.”
Once you open your eyes a little to the potential of photo modes, thinking outside the traditional camera box can help too. Smart positioning can open up opportunities impossible in real life, even in locations that are, in game terms, pretty mundane.
“Ultimately, it comes down to reading the game to see the potential for a shot, or just working really closely with the environment to create an effect,” explains Bromley. “Take this shot from The Last of Us Part II [see below]. The surroundings are drab and uninteresting, but by positioning Abby right in front of that slit in the window, it was possible to create a really striking close-up shot with a strip of light across her eyes.”
If you’re not a spontaneous person by nature, weekly and monthly social media community challenges – like this year’s Control-centric Altered April – can help narrow the focus to a given game or theme. But if you prefer to keep your photography personal, you can also set your own rules to force unconventional shots.
“I literally did challenges with a timer, at the end of which, wherever I’d be, I’d have to open the photo mode and take a pic,” explains Shinobi. “So the inspiration, in my opinion, comes from the surroundings at the time you open the photo mode. You can take so many different types of shots from one pause that you really don’t have to think too much about ‘where to find inspiration.’”
The perfect portrait
Video game landscapes often speak for themselves, presenting the player with a gorgeous vista to admire. But elegantly shooting the characters we control and interact with is a far more challenging prospect. Fortunately, some simple tips for character portraits are available.
“To me portraits in VP and in traditional photography obey the same rules,” Shinobi explains. “You want a clear, detached character on a not-too-busy background. You might want a nice bokeh effect, obviously a great emotion or posture, and you should make your model look straight at the camera. The tricky part is the lighting.”
“Light and shadows are your best friends,” says Rosa. “They are what makes a picture interesting. A shadow on a right spot can add so much more to it. The right light can give your photo life.”
“If you want the viewer to engage with the character, then getting sharp focus on the eyes is important, especially when working with a shallow depth of field,” adds Bromley. “Otherwise, I think it largely comes back to getting the lighting right again. Interesting light can be the difference between a drab and uninspiring image, and something that has much more depth and dynamism.”
Composition and lighting
Sifting through all the options a photo mode throws up can make it hard to identify the key tools to work with and the skills you should be learning. Where, precisely, should a beginner get started?
“I’d say understanding camera movements and learning how to properly place your character or compose your frame,” says Shinobi. “You can add all the effects you want, all the stickers and whatnot, but if your shots aren’t strongly composed, they won’t be good. So spending time moving around, trying all sorts of combinations between camera position and focal length – zoom in or out, if you will – is the number-one thing you should get familiar with.
“The most important parts of photography in my opinion are composition and lighting,” says Bromley. “Get those right and the rest is incidental. With that in mind, I would always recommend spending time getting the composition right by carefully choosing the camera position, focal length, and aperture, etc., all with the lighting direction in mind.”
“Contrast and lighting are what I love to play with the most,” exclaims Steffi. “And I do that all the time, no matter whether it’s a landscape, action, or portrait shot. Those are vital to me. If they aren’t available in the photo mode, I hop into Photoshop just to dollop a little of that contrast and lighting on myself.”
While lacking in many areas, photo modes are more than capable of generating phenomenal shots without any external tinkering. But for those looking to push their captures further, mods make PC the platform of choice. Delivering far more than just improved graphics and new outfits, dedicated camera mods – most notably those developed by photo-mode modder Frans Bouma – can extend the camera range within a photo mode or even introduce new light sources to enhance a scene.
Downloading mods is likely beyond the scope of most photo-mode beginners. But if your early dabbling unearths a passion for Virtual Photography, digging deeper into the treasure trove of communities and tools could inspire a lifelong hobby. At the very least, it’ll ensure you’re never short of wallpapers for your phone and PC.
This is the third part of our interview series on Virtual Photography. Read our first piece on the community and concept here, then catch up on what makes a good photo mode in the second feature here.
We’d like to thank Mik Bromley (@TheFourthFocus), Shinobi (@shinobi_space), Steffi Syndrome (@StefanieMcMaken), and Rosa (@Rosapexa) for taking the time to speak with us. You can follow each of them on Twitter and their other social channels if you want your feeds to be inundated with gorgeous in-game shots.