Virtual Photography: Frequent Objections

February 7, 2020

Virtual Photography (VP) is something new, or at least recent. Novelties are always bound to meet some cultural resistance, because they are still unknown, so they are perceived as dangerous and frightening when not plain wrong. Here I’ve collected the most frequent arguments I’ve heard against VP, together with my most honest replies. They are not meant to shut up anybody, rather to provide some explanations by a long-time practitioner and carry on a discussion I declare my openness to.

“That is not photography.”

Everybody should agree on this point. Virtual Photography shares a lot with real life photography, but it’s a different language, with its own processes, tools, ability requirements, etc. Furthermore, real life photography and VP are no competitors by any means, as they are insuperably confined to their respective fields of application: reality and virtuality.

“There is no light setup, it’s all done and ready.”

Yes, sometimes it is. The same goes with real life photography when shooting with natural light. Otherwise, the photographer will strive for reproducing the desired light conditions, relying only on in-game tools and strategies, such as waiting for the best time of the day in games with night and day cycle, taking or luring characters to well-lit places, producing light when it’s dark using torches, magic and setting things (or even creatures) on fire. Ultimately, the Virtual Photographer needs to acquire an equal knowledge of how the light works in a game (every game has its own light simulation system) and when and how it can manifest across the world map. When you know everything on how real light works, you can master any situation real life photography throws at you. In VP, you’re re-learning a lot of it from scratch at every new game.

2021 update: Contemporay Photo Modes now feature a full 3-point studio lighting system, thus lighting setup definitely belongs in VP.

“It does not require any real skill, only passion and patience.”

Passion and patience are critical requirements, agreed. Besides that, I’d swear sensitivity, composition expertise, a deep knowledge of the photographic language and some familiarity with the history of photography need a place in your box of tools. And again, to arrange spectacular gameplay situations you also need to be an experienced player. I’d summarize all that in one word: skill. The very unique and composite kind VP requires.

“It’s just a screenshot with an Instagram filter applied on. It is working months of amazing game artists against one click in a Photo Mode”.

Originally, photography was frowned upon by established arts because it was considered just a click on a box against the hard and long work of painters and sculptors. When the first compact cameras were produced, they were frowned upon by established photographers because they claimed their profession and art were being given away to anybody with a finger. When colour photography was invented, black and white veterans stated it was ugly and kitsch. Novelties are often rejected because they are not understood yet, so they instil the fear they might be taking something away from you. Virtual Photography takes nothing away from real life photography, it just takes photography to the virtual worlds.

“My screenshots are great, too. If your pics deserve to be on a book or in a museum, so are mine.”

When I started taking pictures at games, I used to think my shots were great. Actually, they were rather poor. Trivial, boring, meaningless. They were correct compositions at best. The funny thing with photography is that you don’t realize what shots are real good until you get good enough to take them yourself. Otherwise, millions of amateurs would not be constantly taking and proudly showing off their very ordinary photos. It was not up to me deciding to have my shots on websites, books and exhibitions. I was asked to by professionals of those fields. If you think your shots are that good, send them to editors, publishers, art critics and see what they think about them. Maybe you are right!

“Photography is hard. VP not as much”

I’m not sure the dignity of a language should be evaluated on the basis of how hard it is to master it. However, I used to think VP was easier than traditional photography myself, in spite of the thousands good photographers out there against only a bunch of decent virtual photographers in the whole world. Then I went back to real life photography during a sea vacation and I was constantly surprised by how easier it was under so many aspects:

1. Subjects’ poses and movements – In real life they are often natural and unique, in videogames this is much rarer. You might have to play for some tens hours only to get a pose in real life you can just ask your model to assume.

2. Light – In real life light can be good or bad, but it always looks real. In videogames, looking for a convincing light is a constant challenge.

3. Resolution is never a problem – For console games exclusives, you are often limited to sub-4K resolutions.

4. Scale – In videogames, detail is lost whenever you get either too close or far away from the subject. No macro photography, here. Virtual photographers are constantly striving for a balance between their own creative purposes and the level of detail allowed by the game.

5. Camera control – Real cameras (not to mention camera phones) are easy and quick to handle. Framing can be a matter of a blink. Photo Modes controls are always new, uncomfortable and complicated. Every time it’s like re-learning to ride a bike. Each game usually takes me around 50 hours to master its own camera controls. In real life, you can stick with just one camera whatever you’re going to shoot. And in case you need a different one, your hands and arms will still respond the same.

6. As long as you’re no wild life or war photographer, subjects do not attack you. Most games are about some kind of conflict, so you are always fighting in order to get that perfect climatic shot.

7. Taking a good picture of a real place or person might take some reconnaissance, but not necessarily 50+ hours of it. Fashion photographers can get professional results out of a 2 hour session with a model. No way you can expect the same when you're just 2 hours in a game.

Please note, all of the above does not mean VP is harder than real-life photography. It's just evidence they are both hard in different ways.

“Videogames are not even real. What’s the point of taking pictures of them?”

Videogames are not real. Yet they are true, as they are experienced by millions of people around the world. A wedding photo album is only relatable to the few people involved in the event. Pictures from mass shared experiences make for a universal language, because they can resonate with the personal history of a huge audience.

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