Videogames are prettier than ever, and the people who make them know it. Of late, the photo mode has become somewhat ubiquitous, giving anyone the tools to become a virtual photographer. This also means there are a lot of bad screenshots floating around, but studying some basic photography concepts can help anyone learn to take better screenshots.
I’m no expert, of course, and all art is subjective. But I do love taking screenshots, so I thought I’d share a few things I always keep in mind whenever I’m composing an image.
How to take screenshots
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First, you need something to take your screenshots with, but that's pretty easy these days. If you're using an Nvidia card, you can use Shadowplay via the GeForce Experience application, or AMD ReLive if you've got a Radeon. Steam has a built-in screenshot tool, too, but be sure to check 'save an uncompressed copy' in Steam's In-Game settings.
If you're trying to capture ultra high-res screens, for instance by using Nvidia DSR to run a game at 4x native resolution, the usual tools won't always work. You may have to try MSI Afterburner or the aging FRAPS. In games with Ansel support, the functionality is built-in to the photo mode.
Whatever you use, just make sure you're getting uncompressed screenshots.
Freeing up the camera
It's possible to take nice screenshots of the back of a character's head, but we're interested in composing shots with as much freedom as possible, and with the HUD hidden. Regarding the latter, some games allow you to turn off the HUD with a hotkey or within the graphics or interface menu, while others may require console input or the editing of a config file—it's case-by-case, but usually you can find the answer via search engine.
Freeing up the camera is trickier, and typically involves entering something into the console or hunting down a Cheat Engine hack that does it (not to be attempted in multiplayer games). More and more games include photo modes, though, so this is becoming less of an issue.
Before you start, study the work of established photographers and be inspired. Whether it’s the stark landscapes of Ansel Adams, the evocative portraits of Annie Leibovitz, or the striking photojournalism of Steve McCurry, you can learn a lot from the masters. I’m not saying every screenshot you take has to be high art, but sometimes when I’m feeling uninspired, browsing the portfolios of real-world photographers can trigger a creative spark.
Time of day
Changing light in games with day/night cycles can radically alter the mood of a scene. So bide your time and wait for the right moment to shoot. A location can look uninspiring at midday, but transform into something beautiful at dusk. Some games give you manual control over the time of day, for example the photo mode in No Man's Sky or GTA V's director mode. Otherwise, much like real photography, it’s all about watching and waiting.
Field of view
Widen your field of view to show more of a landscape or fit large, distant objects into the frame, such as the pyramids in the example above. This is one of the best ways of conveying the scale of a landscape, but don’t go too far with it. You’ll get an ugly fish-eye effect if you overuse it, making your image look warped and unnatural. Just because you can slide the FOV slider all the way to the end doesn’t mean you should. Everything in moderation.
Alternatively, you can tighten your field of view to focus on the smaller details in a scene. Vistas and sunsets are fun to shoot, and modern games are getting ridiculously good at them, but the little things can be every bit as impressive. Whether it’s a flower, an animal, a costume detail, or a subtle architectural flourish, using your virtual lens to study the finer points of a game world can be just as compelling as capturing the bigger picture.
A sense of scale
In a trick used regularly by Batman comics, this shot of Gotham City seems even bigger and more sprawling when you notice Batman’s silhouette set against it. Placing your character in front of a vista, or anything large for that matter, enhances the sense of scale massively. This is especially effective in space games such as Elite Dangerous, where the silhouette of a ship can make its various celestial bodies—planets, stars, and so on—seem impossibly vast.
Depth of field
This technique lets you focus on a subject in the foreground or background, intentionally blurring the rest of the image. Adjust the intensity of the blur and the focal point and you can create some impressively photorealistic images, but keep it subtle. Again, this is one of those effects that’s often overused. Artful use of shallow depth of field, particularly when focusing on a specific subject in an image, can really enhance the feeling of presence in a shot.
A lot of photo modes come with built-in filters that can replicate various effects—old movies, analogue film, retro games. But most of them are, honestly, pretty ugly, and you should avoid using them in most cases. But in some games you can adjust the intensity of the filter, merging them with the natural colours of the image, and it’s possible to create some interesting, stylish effects if you get the balance just right. They’re worth experimenting with.
But the best thing to do is take your raw images into a graphics package like Photoshop and tweak the brightness, contrast, and colour levels by hand. Even the slightest tweak can make a huge difference to the final composition. Just make sure whatever you’re using to capture your screenshots, whether it’s Steam or something like FRAPS, is outputting an uncompressed image. You don’t want a load of gnarly JPG artifacts spoiling your shot.
Rule of thirds
Mentally divide your scene up into a grid of nine rectangles, then make sure your subject is placed along the lines, or at the points where they meet. This technique is a great way to aid you in achieving an artful, balanced composition, and has been used by photographers, painters, filmmakers, and pretty much every kind of visual artist for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Not every shot has to obey this rule, of course, but it’s worth being mindful of.
Exposure, in a camera, determines how much light reaches the film or sensor, and many photo modes simulate it. If an image feels like it lacks punch, bump the exposure up a little to make it sharper and brighter. But if you go too far, you’ll blow the image out and it’ll look like a nuclear bomb has just gone off. Increasing the exposure can also reduce or downright erase the detail around light sources and in the sky, so as with all things, find the right balance depending on what you want to convey.
Portrait photography is an entire artform, but a good technique is adjusting the depth of field to make your subject the focal point of the image, without any background clutter distracting the eye. Portraits can be close-ups of characters’ faces, full body shots, and everything inbetween: the important thing is that it’s a person at the heart of the image, not a place. But you can also use the environment to reveal something about their personality.