Virtual Environments: The Photographer’s New Frontier

Photography is a game-like activity. Beyond the literal sense in that you are pushing buttons in the correct succession to achieve a goal. It is an artform that demands trial and error to understand the myriad of adjustable functions that take an image. This in turn creates an approach-award system akin to modern gameplay. So it only makes sense that photography has had its place in videogames for many years now (Dead Rising, Bully, Pokémon Snap). However, within the last console generation, photography in these virtual environments has seen a resurgence beyond the mini-game format it found itself locked in.

In-game photo/video modes are certainly not a recent development. Game series like Halo would record entire multiplayer matches, giving you the option to edit and highlight standout moments. Additionally, for decades the PC crowd has had access to mods for games that never intended a photo-mode. However, with the Xbox One/PS4 screenshot and record functions, it has become apparent that allowing your player base to edit/capture exciting moments opens your products up to a wealth of free advertising that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Today, the majority of modern triple-A releases come with a built in photo-mode, along with an array of customisable options to better capture and edit your content. Unlike the screenshot ability, players aren’t restricted to a pre-set character view, having the freedom to omit HUD details that would otherwise be distracting from the subject matter. The camera has the ability to move freely within the game world. With the vast selection of options allowing the user to adjust their virtual cameras settings, creating detailed pictures.

Rather than just being seen as a marketable gimmick, these photo-modes open the door to aspiring photographers to practice the craft before buying a single piece of equipment. Additionally, it lets both amateur and professional photographers to practice in unfamiliar territory. They could step into the large sweeping landscapes of Red Dead Redemption 2, or the dense verticality of Spiderman (PS4). I have never been to New York, but I have photographed it. If you are curious of what lens to invest in. Turn on your console and play with every focal length available. We have already seen filmmaking delve into the rich possibilities found within the virtual environment and it’s about time photography explored it to the same degree.

Along with any technological advancement in an artform, scepticism soon follows critiquing the divergence from traditional equipment. Arguments claim the subtraction of the camera and lack of tactile subjects removes key factors necessary when defining photography. However, as a medium it has already seen a variety of technological shifts in how it is perceived, practiced and visualised. Surrealist works developed from the 1920s and beyond do well in deconstructing the need for specific equipment. One major example being Man Rays “cameraless” practice in creating “Rayographs” which used photographic paper to imprint images. Ray personally rejects its link to photography but many scholars argue this denies the representative ability the medium holds. Beyond this, recent examples of sub-genres like the “lo-fi photography movement” have formed as a retort to the sharp, clean images of the digital age. They instead opt to distort and post-process the images, making the subject unrecognizable from their initial state. Perhaps the most popular yet highly debated shift is the advancement of digital sensors, gaining popularity due to their ease and reliability in comparison to film. All these examples prove photography, though complex to define, is certainly more than its apparatus. A painter can still paint without a brush . Thus, ideas such as virtual photography should not be discounted purely based on it deviation from conventions.

Therefore, it is clear we must define photography in the practice itself. In which in-game photography has a varying set of similarities depending on the game you are playing. First off, the decision alone. Barring games in which photography is integral to the gameplay, the act of photographing moments in the virtual space is based purely on player choice, just as it is an option in real life. You have the ability to play through these entire games without taking a single picture. Additionally, the players must adjust to the game-world as we do our own. There is a specific time-frame that must be waited in-game if the photographer desires a specific backdrop or certain light for a scene. Games such as Forza Horizon 4 take this realism a step further with dynamic weather shifts that cover the map in snow during the winter, rain in spring and falling leaves in autumn. While games like Horizon Zero Dawn do give full control of the weather, the adjustment of which is still a creative choice though a less realistic one. However, it can be argued that if every element of an image is decided by a person, it is somewhat more humane, at least in reference to the photographer’s vision. This is comparable to studio photography. Finally, a linking factor is the involvement of light. The inclusion and recording of light is perhaps the most important factor in the photographic process. Regardless of how it was taken, light has been used to represent something. This is not lost when using an in-game photo mode.

In-game photography is a growing artform that allows us to better express the postmodernist attitudes that belong to contemporary society. Photography has passed many previous milestones in its short lifespan and it is clear this growth will continue to advance far into the future. These new practices offer whole new worlds to explore and appreciate, offering an inclusionary gateway into photography not found since cameras were installed into our mobile phones. Experienced photographers now have the chance to apply their style in scenarios beyond those encountered in the flesh. Photography in virtual environments does not take away from the traditional practice, it instead enriches an already broad and welcoming artform. Giving us greater appreciation of these manufactured worlds, by allowing us to see them from our own perspective.

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  1. Great job! This was an interesting read. I never really considered or even recognised this perspective until now. Cheers!

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