Aloy Fires an Arrow© The Fourth Focus - Horizon Zero Dawn
Games
An Introduction to Virtual Photography
The Fourth Focus introduces the burgeoning world of virtual photography and offers tips for Red Bull Capture Point competitors
By Mik Bromley
Published on
Whether it's through game developers showing off their newest photo mode, or people's captured images appearing on social media and in feature galleries, there is probably a good chance that you've heard something about video game photography by now.
Typically called virtual photography, but also digital photography or capture art, the use of in-game photo modes has emerged as a modern art form that is letting players engage with the games they love on a whole new level. With software tools that mimic the use of a real-world camera, virtual photographers can explore the beautiful worlds of video games to compose unique and artistic images, just as they would in reality.
But what if you don't have any photography experience; what if you don't know where to start? Well, although the particular features do vary from one photo mode to another, understanding a few fundamental aspects will give you the essential skills to tackle them all. This 2-part post will help you get to grips with the basics and begin your own creative journey through virtual worlds.

Photo Mode

A photo mode is an in-game feature that lets players freeze time and move freely around part of the game scene with a virtual camera. The first step is getting into the photo mode itself; often this is done through the pause menu, but be sure to look out for a dedicated button shortcut that makes it quicker and easier to jump in.
God of War's Photo Mode Interface
God of War's Photo Mode Interface

Field of View

Whether real or virtual, Field of View (FoV) is the area that is visible through your camera and determines the frame of the final image. In photo modes, you may see this setting given directly as a view angle, where larger angles mean a wider FoV, or it might be controlled with a "focal length" setting.

Focal Length

Focal length is a photography term that describes the optical path of a camera lens in mm and is responsible for the "zoom" effect. Although there is no physical lens in a photo mode, the in-game camera uses this setting to produce the same result. A short focal length, like 12 mm, gives the shot a very wide FoV and distorted perspective, while a longer focal length like 150 mm, compresses the scene and "zooms in" to a much narrower viewing angle.
Games · 1 min
Field of View in Ghost of Tsushima

Focus

This one is simple. When an object is in focus, it appears sharp and crisp to the camera; when out of focus the object will be soft or blurry. Photo modes allow the user to manually adjust the focus distance so that you can decide which objects are in focus and which are not. Also look out for auto-focus options that lock onto characters to keep them sharp even as you move the camera around.

Depth of FIeld

Crucial to any photograph, Depth of Field (DoF) refers to how much of a scene appears in sharp focus. A large DoF keeps both nearby and distant objects in focus, whereas a shallow DoF "defocuses" objects on either side of the focal point, creating a bokeh or blur in the background and foreground, and helping the chosen subject to stand out.
Depth of field is vital to a great virtual photograph
Depth of Field in The Last of Us 2

Aperture

Essentially the hole inside a lens that lets the light pass through, the aperture size influences the exposure and DoF of a photograph. Of course, photo modes don't have a physical aperture but this term is still used to control the DoF for an authentic effect. Small f-numbers, like f/1.8, represent wide apertures that create a shallow DoF, while large f-numbers, like f/22, represent small apertures that produce a large DoF. Using wide apertures with precise focus is useful in drawing the viewer's eye to important parts of your shot.

Exposure

Exposure is a measure of how much light is picked up by a camera and determines how light or dark a photograph is. In reality, this depends on several interlinked camera settings, but in-game photo modes tend to take a simpler approach with one overall setting for exposure or brightness.

Aspect Ratio

The ratio of an image's width and height, aspect ratio is the shape of your frame. Photo modes will default to 16:9, matching the aspect ratio of a TV, but experiment with 21:9 for wider and more cinematic shots, or 4:3 for something tighter.
An image from God of War in 4x3
An image from God of War in 4x3
A different aspect ratio can make all the difference
The same image from God of War in 16x9

Color Filters

Being a digital art tool, photo modes also let the user to edit the image before capturing. Along with things like logo overlays and decorative frames, this often includes a selection of colour filters should you want to set the tone of your image or work in black & white.

Rule of Thirds

One of the most widely known photography principles, using the rule of thirds is a great way to get an effective and balanced composition by positioning important elements around equally spaced lines. Some photo modes include a helpful thirds grid that you can overlay on the screen as a guide, just remember to hide it again before capturing the image.
The Rule of Thirds in Horizon Zero Dawn
The Rule of Thirds in Horizon Zero Dawn
On PS4 and PS5, the SHARE and Create buttons found on the controllers are your virtual camera's shutter button. When you have composed a shot using the photo mode, hit the button to save the image to the console's Capture / Media Gallery where it is ready to be shared directly to Twitter, not forgetting the #RedBullCapturePoint & #Contest hashtags of course.
Check out Part 2 of The Fourth Focus's hands-on guide to virtual photography
Are you a fan of virtual photography? Check out more of Mik's work at The Fourth Focus. If you're in the United States, head to RedBull.com/CapturePoint to learn more about how your best photos of Ghost of Tsushima, Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Demon's Souls and The Last of Us Part II from PlayStation photo mode could win you some awesome prizes.