Why you should swap your camera for a joypad with virtual photography

Samurai in long grass
(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)

Having the ability to take screenshots while playing games is something that's been around for a while now, but the genre of virtual photography has only recently started to gain real traction. In 2013 the launch of the Playstation 4 saw a dedicated 'Share' button added to it's controller to share what games you were playing with friends. 

Now, in the last couple of years, this option has been taken to new heights with games such as Ghosts of Tsushima, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Death Stranding adding in a completely controllable free moving camera – as if you were there in the landscape yourself.

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The validity of this new art form is sometimes questioned because in-game photographers are taking photos of artwork created by the game's designers and artists. A little like taking a photograph of some street art and claiming 'Look what i did'. However, for the most part in-game photographers share the same motivations as "real life" photographers, including a desire to capture visually interesting images, preserve memories, and to demonstrating technical expertise. All the fundamentals of photography still remain within your control to manipulate into your style. Framing, composition, focal length, depth of field, color - the lot!

Dark samurai hunter with bow

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)

For the aforementioned reasons I was apprehensive about experimenting with virtual photography. However, when COVID-19 hit earlier this year, I had enough time on my hands to become curious enough to give it a go. 

It was during this time I made my peace with virtual photography. I didn't see much difference in taking photographs of a landscape designed by nature, or doing architecture photography of a building someone else designed, or fact fashion photography with clothing made by a textile guru. 

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Photography like most hobbies is, by its nature, addictive. I mainly shoot street or portraits, but everyone was inside or wearing masks. It put a huge dampener on my own practice, and this is where I made my first steps into gaming photography. At that time I was playing Red Dead Redemption 2 which had a reasonably ok in game camera system. I began by just taking shots for new screensavers or backdrops for my monitor, but I quickly became quite focused on making them better and better. Then a few weeks later along came Suckerpunch's Ghosts of Tsushima... Now I was hooked, and I was about to find out wasn't alone. 

Samurai in front of fire

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)

While I had felt somewhat limited in the past by other games, Ghosts had fully set me free. I could control almost anything, and with regular updates the in-game photography options were improving all the time. If you've not experienced in-game photography before, you essentially hit a button (right on the D-pad in this case) and everything freezes. The camera becomes unlocked from your main character and you can position it wherever you like. Vast barren landscapes or extreme close up portraits of our hero in the heart of the action. If you can visualize it, you can shoot it. 

Aside from the typical framing and composition there are also about 15 other options to control your look, from color grading, weather and focal length to cloud formation and sun location. I started posting my shots on Instagram and quickly found a huge community of likeminded people doing the same. No two shots are alike, and just like real life photography, an individual's vision can shine through.

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Alistair Campbell

Alistair is the Features Editor of Digital Camera magazine, and has worked as a professional photographer and video producer.