It May Be Art, But In-Game Images Aren't 'Photography'

It May Be Art, But In-Game Images Aren't 'Photography'

Do you like this photoWould you believe it if I told you that it wasn’t a photo taken in real life – it’s from a video game, Dishonored 2, by Flickr user Videogame PhotographySo, then, does the question change? Is it even a photo anymore? No, it’s not.

When one of the early Gran Turismo games allowed me to take a picture of my virtual Ford Mustang next to a virtual canyon, it was a neat trick. I downloaded the file onto a USB drive and made it my desktop wallpaper for a while. But I never looked at that image and thought to myself, “Gosh, that’s a nice photograph of a Mustang.” It was digital art, pure and simple.

The topic of in-game photography was brought up in the news again by this week’s B&H Photography Podcast. In game photography is something that isn't new, but certainly gets more sophisticated with each generation. It was an informative interview, with a game developer and a couple of in-game “photographers,” an artist who earned his M.F.A. using some work incorporating World of Warcraft screenshots, and a game developer.

It used to be that video games would run at 640x480 resolution on your computer, bad guys would like a clump of pixels overlaid on the screen, the quality was so bad. But now with faster processors and better hardware, 4K is even possible – for reference, that’s an 4096x2160 pixels, or about 8 megapixels, big enough to print 24” x 36” at full resolution in high quality. That’s better than some “actual” cameras. But does that make it photography?

Artist Eron Rauch in the podcast describes a project he did to earn his M.F.A. that involved large prints of World of Warcraft screenshots. He said that at the time he was accused of plagiarism, copyright violations, and was generally pilloried by his classmates. He was supported by a few professors and continued and evolved his work. Today, he said he believes it’s part of photography in 2017.

The photography industry is under assault from many fronts, but who would have thought that another one would open up against video games?

There’s a lot of talk in the podcast about the in-game “cameras” that you can use to take a “photo” – but the reason here for all those quotation marks comes from one of the things the game developer – Tobias Andersson of Avalanche Studios – says toward the end.

“The circumstances are always perfect,” Andersson says.

Indeed, why worry about rain? Or sunlight that isn’t just right, or wind that won’t cooperate? These are all pesky things that real-world photographers have to worry about. But the circumstances are not always perfect in real life. Andersson even adds that sometimes are people are fooled by screenshots.

Why the need to fool people, if indeed in-game photography is just as real as IRL photography?

Because it isn’t.

I drove out to this spot in Long Island in New York at 4:30 in morning to make sure I caught the sunrise. I dropped my neutral density filter in the water. It was December and I froze my feet off after an accidental splash while setting up the tripod. This is a real spot in the real world, with all of the danger and infinite variability that comes with it.

A real photograph of a real sunrise taken in the real world.

A real photograph of a real sunrise taken in the real world.

This is a photograph.

If you’re sitting on your couch and the Playstation’s doing all the work, call it what it is: Art.

[via B&H Photography Podcast]

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42 Comments

Bert McLendon's picture

I honestly think that there is just a terminology switch going on. Any "photograph" that you take while playing a game is really just a "screenshot" of all the hard work that particular game development team achieved. Nothing more. The design team, environment team, texture team, FX team and lighting team all have a huge part in creating the world that users experience. People can call it whatever they like, but it's just a screenshot of heavily protected intellectual property. =) I'm not sure how this is a threat to actual photography since "photographers", or I would call them, "screenshoters", within a video game are limited to the environments that the development team created.

Exactly! Really, the fact that so many here don't get the difference between creation and consumption is more than a little Mind Blowing.

So by your own argument you are discrediting architectural photography, product photography and fashion photography. Simply because you are photographing something created by someone else initially.

Bert McLendon's picture

Imagine if you went to photograph some architecture and you had to sign a release saying that anything you created was the property of the architects and property owners even before stepping foot on the property that you "HAD" to photograph from. Every spot that you picked out as a shooting location was private property and highly protected piece of intellectual property including the subjects that you were shooting. Every single shoot location within any game is private property. You gave this away when you accepted the End User License Agreement when playing the video game. It's just different. Did you shoot that building from a public sidewalk? Awesome! Did you shoot that bottle of Whiskey from the privacy of your very own studio? Cool! =P

After posting my first response I did get to thinking about other things like the IKEA catalog where there is a high percentage of "photographs" in there that aren't photographs at all but 3d renderings. I'm sure it's similar where you have a team of artists, modelers, texture artist, lighting artist etc... that create the scenes and then you have a creative director that finds a good angle of the kitchen and hits "render". But I doubt you have anyone that does this and calls themselves a "photographer"? I think they're still labeled as a digital artist.

I still think it's a terminology mixup. Whenever the marketing team from any video game company posts images of their game, they call them screenshots, not photographs.

Adrian Pocea's picture

How about a scene with light painting? I found a video on youtube where the photographer composed a whole scene, with a man coming home to his wife in front of his car, all from multiple exposures combined. The scene wasn't a photograph anymore, but a composite, looking like a comic book drawing. It had a very hdr, unrealistic look. Is that photography? It might be, but you could do that in a painting, with brush, paint, oil and canvas, and it would look better.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think my biggest argument about "game" photography is that you are capturing someone else's work and calling it your own art. Its no different than say taking a photo of a fine art painting and calling it fine art photography. The visual contents of a video game is completely an artistic construct that was created by the art team of the company who made the game.

Taking screenshots and "in game" photos are great for showcasing the work of these amazing artists but to try to take credit from them and claim it is artful photography created by you is awfully plagiaristic.

Doug Birling's picture

True, but if I take a picture of a city skyline in real life... isn't that a bunch of other peoples work? The architects. It depends on the controls available and does there end up being infinite possibilities of what the photo could look like? And what if you are able to control characters?

Interesting discussion, one I've had with a gamer friend...

Could some of these photographer/screenshooters be getting some great experience in composition and if they are just kids will they be much better photographers because of it?

The better thing to consider is that one is real and the other is not.

You are correct though when you mention controls. In the future you'll probably see people putting on VR glasses and VR gloves and going on photography expeditions and vacations. Makes me feel kind of sick thinking about. I'm glad I'll be dead before that happens.

Interesting, what if you take as premise that the artistic team created a world to explore and navigate within rather than an artistic construct, populated by characters with limited will (following sets of rules like we do, but also choosing a path). Then, the "screenshot" would be capturing a moment, right? Just like photography.

Robert Holak's picture

I have to disagree with the plagiarism angle. In real photography, you seldom make photographs of scenes created entirely by you. Of course there are people that photograph miniatures and other things they created on their own, but I think that most of us photograph things created by nature or other people.
I still don't think it's photography - it's taking screenshots or grabbing a frame from a render, but just like in photography, you can definitely set up a scene and situation in a game or other virtual world using objects created by others to make a very nice work of art.

Elias Hardt's picture

Your final claim is that the system is doing all the work, yet this is inherently not true. All it's doing is rendering. You are positioning and configuring the camera. You are choosing the moment. You are taking a digital photograph. Fstoppers often defends photography as art. This is digital photography. This is digital art. They are one and the same, just as photography and art are.

Simon Patterson's picture

Someone creating art with their musical instrument, clay or paint brushes are not doing photography. Music, sculpture, photography and painting can all be forms of art. So clearly art and photography are not one and the same.

One may be positioning the "camera" but every polygon and pixel rendered out at that moment is someone ELSE'S work. How is that not obvious? Hundreds of individuals worked to bring that scene to life: to lay it out, to light it, and to basically compose 95% of it for you. You (anyone) doing that last 5% framing doesn't come close to having a right to own it.

A Player has no part in the creation of a game, anymore than someone sitting a movie theater has a part in the production of the movie. It'd be like walking into the middle of film shoot, standing in front of the cinematographer's camera, snapping a picture and claiming you "made" the art. Really? How exactly would that work? The only difference here is that the many hundreds of "actual" artists and technicians who created the game one is consuming, is that they are not there to call BS when you take the picture.

Correct, because you built all the buildings, spawned from clay all the models and, moved all the earth for the landscaping in your photos? by your logic all you did was the 5% of the work of pointing the camera and pressing a button. The 95% of the real work done by the "actual" artist belongs to the architects, mothers with good genetics and God. I mean, it's not like you really made anything in your photos you just benefit from happenstance that you are in a beautiful location and just so happen to have an expensive camera and half a brain to use it correctly. Photography isn't about 5d mk llls, or full frame vs micro 4/3. It's about image capture, and in this case I see no difference. Besides it's not like he's trying to sell his images, it's all just for fun.

Tom Lew's picture

What about my Pokemon snaps?

"Your photograph is not art." " Your art is not a photograph." I think the real issue is our ridiculous need to "label" everything. And I don't understand why you are wasting both your's and the readers' time on a seemingly nonissue.

Simon Patterson's picture

It starts to matter when entering photography competitions. Australia's current reigning photographer of the year won the title even though none of her images are single photos, but instead a series of illustrated composites. http://procounter.com.au/2016/09/01/6206/

Pete Whittaker's picture

Wow... I hadn't seen that before, about the Australian photography competition. I guess I'd have to read the rules of the competition but looking at her images, they're great art but not what I would describe as photographs.

Though a lot of the "photographs" featured here on FStoppers also strike me as digital art rather than photographs. So I suppose for the purposes of competition it's really important to lay out ahead of time what post-processing will be considered acceptable.

"I drove out to this spot in Long Island in New York"

Ugh, as a native New Yorker I cringe every time I see and hear that. Where on Long Island?! Long Island is huge and encompasses four counties, two of which are part of NYC.

Good article and photo. I see that kind of image grabbing as the same as someone taking screen captures of movies. The so-called photographer is taking advantage of the already perfectly captured and presented scenes. About the only thing useful about it, photography wise, is when cropping takes place.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Peter, you raise a good point about Long Island (and the other stuff). That scene is from Montauk State Park. The iconic lighthouse is just out of the frame on the right of the photo.

Thank you Wasim. I often hear that being done in movies and I cringe every time. Montauk was one of my guesses.great location. Not too many rocks on the rest of the south shore. You should post some of the lighthouse. Oddly enough I rarely run into photos of it.

Kyle Medina's picture

Why? Wasted energy and thought on a ridiculous article.

Why? I'm sure many, if not most, traditional photographers don't even know that such a thing exists.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

Oil painting isn't art, it's cheating. Dadaism isn't art, Pop Art isn't art, Graffiti isn't art... Yada Yada Yada. We've been saying that junk for centuries.

If your motivation for writing this article is to somehow discredit in-game photography, I'm not sure why you feel the need to do that. Great art has an idea that is worth communicating, any photo taken in a simulated universe that communicates a brilliant idea is infinitely more valuable than the millionth identical photo of a landscape.

Also don't forget that there's strong evidence we're living in a simulated universe ourselves. So every photo may an 'in-game' photo.

Tim Foster's picture

I don't know about "strong evidence," but you certainly can't disprove it.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

Yeah fair call. There's strong evidence I reached a bit on my last point.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

Screenshots in a game are not photography...

Photography – noun pho·tog·ra·phy \fə-ˈtä-grə-fē\ – the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or an optical sensor)

Benjamin Thomson's picture

Yeah but the digital part of that definition is a recent addition. Language is fluid.

To the article's original question, I doubt too many people, let alone photographers would ever mistake that image for a photo. It's a nice illustration maybe, though honestly the lighting is pretty flat and if it were me I wouldn't be posting this as my better work. But to the latter concern about game capture as "competing" with actual photography? I hardly think there is much of an issue here at all, especially when you consider exactly what is being "captured."

ANY in-game screen capture is doing ONE thing only: Capturing another person's (or more like team's) work. No way around that, ever. A cinematic, photo realistic game is the product of hundreds of individuals work, and there is why any and all artistry stays. Sure a player may end up finding an interesting view to capture, but this would be like doing a screen grab of movie and calling it "your" picture! Not going to fly.

Steven Lear's picture

Too often anymore I see articles like this seemingly trying to validate one artist's way over another. In fact, it wasn't too long ago that people were criticizing digital photos as fake because they weren't shot on film and processed in a dark room. As a gamer and photographer, I can understand why it's easy to brush with a broad stroke when it comes to screenshots, yet I do believe it's possible to create photography with it. Perhaps I'm in the minority on this one, but it seems to me that the principles of photography are the same as a lot of other art; you're capturing a moment in time by utilizing the relationship of light and objects to convey a scene. Whether it's an oil painting, a film photo or a screenshot makes no difference, in my opinion.

For instance, when one looks at the historical quality of photographs, much of it has been due to the standard tech of the time. Film DLSRs were better than their predecessors and made better photos with less work, as did Digital DLSRs against Film. Now we have people who make 95% composite "photographs" that, in my opinion, are way over processed. I see game cameras as just another tool of photography, neither a threat nor a detraction. After all, photography has always been about capturing someone else's work, be it architecture, engineering, clothing or Nature; the only difference is how we capture it, and with what tools, to convey a particular feeling or message.

Honestly, I see no difference in someone finding the right angle, at the right point in time, with the right characters in a game vs. "real photographers" doing the same IRL with real people, other than time investment which I think is the real issue here. Video games these days, especially with the advancements in graphics, are all about creating vivid worlds filled with flora and fauna and varying weather conditions, just like ours. I can easily envision an individual snapping a pic at the right time, bringing it into photoshop, doing a little cinematic color grading and light work and then saving it as a work of art.

Really, if you want so-called pure photography, where others may validate your sense of commitment, than throw away Photoshop, get rid of your filters and only shoot according to journalistic standards. Otherwise, at the end of the day, it's all about the tech at hand to create the art we're looking for. It's simply easier, more convenient and less of a hassle to capture in-game shots than it is to photograph in the real world. Are these photos to the same standard, yet? Nope, not quite, but give it a few more years and the stuff coming out of your XBOX is going to look more real and vivid than your DLSR. It doesn't make your photography, nor theirs, any more or less legitimate, rather it's simply another piece of tech, creating another form of photography.

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