The player’s artform: virtual photography

The player’s artform: virtual photography

Photography in racing games comes in a million facets and offers as many possibilities.

Photo credit: Champion Joe

Video games look brilliant nowadays – and hardly any other industry has developed quite as fast as in-game graphic design. Regarding the visuals of some renowned PC or console titles from the last decade, it is almost unbelievable that next generation graphics are still coming our way. Thanks to this rapid technological development, gaming has evolved to be a highly authentic and immersive experience – in parts even more compelling than reality, one could argue.

It is therefore no big surprise what the looks of some games have brought forth: virtual photography has come to be an artform in itself. With higher accessibility than real-life photography – regarding for example the cost of equipment and photoshoots – virtual photography nowadays has gathered itself quite a community. Racing games are no exception to the rule – after all, cars make for brilliant models and there are millions of possibilities to set a spectacular scene with them. Taking a look at various different racing games and the photo modes they feature, we will introduce you to the community of virtual photography, its representatives and their work.

Sim Racing Photography

Some of the more widely known sim racing games clearly have a strict focus on their players’ authentic racing experience. Besides force feedback and a realistic game engine, graphics are a huge part of that experience. Games like Assetto Corsa for example look amazing – and do not withhold the opportunity for players to capture that.

Albeit being a little fumbly and not too prominently advertised in the game, Assetto Corsa‘s photo mode is a great example of sim racing photography. As is characteristic for photography in video games, weather, time of day and light conditions are adjustable settings at the player’s command. While catching the best angle and adjusting the focus can be a little tricky due to the photo mode, it still allows players to capture their vehicles just fine and even offers the possibility to take some spectacular motion-shots.

But other sim racing titles feature similar photo modes as well. We spoke with virtual photographer Luan – @FRTLuan – who has also taken some amazing photos in the title F1 2020.

While those already look amazing, Luan’s favorite photo modes are featured in quite different titles, namely The Crew 2 and Forza Horizon 4. What the virtual photographer appreciates most about them are qualities that lie at the heart of virtual photography as a whole:

First, The Crew 2 – [in its photo mode] I can change various settings: the climate, time and place and various other effects. We also have Forza Horizon 4, thanks to the great level of detail that the game presents you can take very realistic photos in this game, and with few adjustments. What fascinates me and [what] I also find different in virtual photography is the freedom we have to photograph, with several resources at our disposal, being able to choose several different places for the photos.

Regarding the aspect of “location”, rally or open-world games like Forza Horizon 4 clearly have a huge advantage for a virtual photographer, as they offer much more variety than a simple race track. It is therefore no real surprise that the Forza Horizon franchise takes virtual photography and its community to a whole new level.

Open-world virtual photography

Various aspects of the Forza Horizon franchise make its games stand out – many of them go hand in hand, like the open-world feature and the brilliant photo mode. Due to that, Forza Horizon is one of the series with the biggest virtual photography community: besides the Forzatography thread in the official forum, members have also gathered together in the Forzatography Central Facebook group with roughly 500 fans so far. Forza‘s photo modes impress with their relative ease of use, yet they still enable the player to take highly realistic photographs within the game. Here is how it can be done:

But the Forzatography experience doesn’t end after having taken a great shot. Oggi, a Canadian freelance automotive photographer and member of the Forza Horizon community explained to us why the game is such an important title from a virtual photographer’s perspective:

Forza is the main reason why I am so connected with automotive photography in games and real life! I have been taking photos in Forza for a few years, and am always trying to improve in whatever way I can. I like to challenge myself with photography all the time, and [that] is what inspired me to start real-life photography!

Oggi especially appreciates the creative possibilities photography in video games offers, seeing how the photographer has total control over close to all parameters influencing the photo. Besides that, there is the huge benefit to the game’s community – not only for the players to connect and network among themselves, but also for each of them individually. Oggi describes it as a creative outlet that is especially effective for younger players: “[…]It gives them the chance to create something truly unique and amazing that is theirs, something they can be proud of. […] This is […] due to the fact that creative outlets like virtual photography create very involved communities, where one could belong and escape from harsh realities.”

Aspirations of Virtual Photography

But aside from the community aspect of virtual photography, what is its actual goal? Is it to create the most realistic-looking outcome possible? In the most extreme case, one might even be tempted to dismiss the scene as a simple knock-off of real-life photography – but what makes it different? One of the admins of Forzatography Central, Stereojacques, told OverTake a very plausible answer to this:

Some argue it’s not art, and that the developers do all the work in production. Of course I take nothing away from all of the hard work the developers put onto the stunning landscapes and heavily detailed subjects within them, but it’s that unique moment in time, the way you use the settings and filter your shot through some leaves, the coming together of two cars and that fantastic spot you’re able to find that no one else noticed. […] It’s the excitement that goes with that, that should be the goal of virtual photography.

A more accessible way for the community to share their passion about a game, to connect and to create art together – all of these are opportunities given by the virtual photography community. And the results of that speak for themselves! Yet being a virtual photographer is also a profession – unfortunately, one that often struggles to find the recognition it deserves. Our interview partner Brokenvegetable has been doing virtual photography for over ten years and in numerous racing titles and explains why real-life photographers still have the upper hand in the gaming industry:

As members of the virtual photography community, we lose opportunities to real life photographers all the time, because games and events are not keen on hiring or letting a gamer do advertising for them. But the virtual photography community is an amazing community that has so much untapped talent. Many photographers here should have millions of followers and then only have hundreds.

The next level of in-game photography?

The ongoing technological development and constantly improved graphics have drastically changed the quality of gaming throughout the last decade. Virtual photography is of course not excluded from this – and it sometimes seems like game developers feel almost challenged to top each other off with even better optics in every game that is released. At least, that is the impression one has when playing Gran Turismo Sport and entering its infamous photo mode: Scapes.

Gran Turismo Sport's Scapes
Gran Turismo Sport‘s Scapes offers countless professional adjustments in its user interface. Photo credit: Polyphony Digital

While GT Sport doesn’t offer a free choice of location like the open-world Forza Horizon, photos in Scapes are based on real-life photographs of some of the most famous locations around the world. For this, Polyphony sent a dedicated team of photographers all around the globe to take professional shots as a background for the in-game artwork. The goal of this was to reach a new level of realism within the frame of virtual photography. Automotive photographer and member of the photography team Chikara Kitabatake was impressed by the final result of their work, enabling players to create high-quality photographs. “A lot of them have taken better photographs than me!”, he claimed.

Much like the developers of Forza Horizon, Polyphony Digital puts great emphasis on their virtual photography community by creating specific forums for their players to connect. Showcasing their most realistic shots or funniest liveries, players genuinely enjoy using this function.

Handing it back to the player

From the perspective of a virtual photographer, however, Scapes can also be viewed quite critically. Stereojacques offered an alternative point of view on the high-quality photo mode of GT Sport:

I love that it’s introduced people to our scene and our communities, but I also find it can take away so much from the VP community. As someone who strives for realism in my shots more often than not, I find taking a professionally shot, perfectly lit background and placing a photo realistic car somewhere in the frame and calling it work is insulting to the VPs that capture all in-game.

After all, Scapes seems to be a good example to show that it’s not the level of graphics that define the quality of the picture, but the virtual photographer’s skills. Comparing the results of different photo modes will always lead to a variety of outcomes without any visible pattern. Virtual photography therefore might be affected by the mode one is using, but cannot be reduced to its medium. Brokenvegetable sums it up quite accurately:

To say which [photo mode] is best is a fool’s errand. Gran Turismo’s mode is the most in-depth and allows you to effect your photos the most. Whereas Forza Motorsport has the least amount of effects you can place on a photo. But in each game you can create the most realistic photos you want. It just depends on how you utilize the tools given to you in each game.

In short: it’s all in the hands of the photographer. Wanting to create the best possible shots in video games is therefore – like so often – not a question of the best equipment, but of determination. In the words of Brokenvegetable: “Get someone with passion, then your only obstacle will be how far your reach is.”

What do you think about virtual photography? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!

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