Photography in games

Look at that freakin' cutie.

Video games are fun. Everyone knows this, or at least more and more people do each year. A potentially underappreciated source of joy in modern games—especially bigger titles—is the photo mode. Ah, the photo mode! Something that lets me combine two abiding sources of pleasure in my life: photography and games. Now if only we could combine eating and reading and I might be set.1I did, for a time, review cookbooks, which is perhaps as close as one can get to this combination.

Many an hour of my leisure time has been spent playing with a camera in an imagined world. If you ever look at my play times for various games they are often multiples of even the most generous estimate provided by favourite gaming stopwatch-keeper, How Long to Beat. Partially this is because I am, and quite proudly, a slow player of games. I take the time to explore, poking my digital snoot in every nook and cranny and valley and dale. And partially this high play time is because I love to take photos. A lot of photos. The storage of my various game machines is crammed full of thousands of photos and videos of my adventures across a wide variety of games. 

There is a novel form of melancholy that afflicts me when I play a game that lacks a photo mode, especially if it is set in quite a beautiful world. I’ve been spending time with Xenoblade Chronicles 3 which is frequently stunning, especially on a visual level, as the picture I stole from google images shows: 

And yet the game lacks a  dedicated photo mode, so its many visual delights are largely locked away, leaving one to only mash the console screenshot button and just hope the UI elements don’t become too distracting, as they are in this shot. In researching this essay, I discovered that while there isn’t a photo mode there is, at least, a way to temporarily hide the UI which is, I suppose, better than nothing. 

Happily, more and more games are including photo modes. And so as I spend more time in a sort of magical photo studio, I’ve developed specific thoughts on what makes an enjoyable and rich photo mode versus something that feels a little less useful and/or tacked on to satisfy a back of the box requirement from marketing. 

Photo mode best practices

  • Easy to access. Make the photo mode accessible via a specific button or at least a combo press (such as pressing in the left and right sticks on a controller). Final Fantasy XVI, a game I am otherwise mostly enjoying, hides its photo mode away in a menu which makes it both inaccessible to access but also quite fiddly to exit the photo mode and get back to the game. 
  • Full camera controls. Give me camera controls that mimic how a real world camera exists: so let me set the focal distance in millimetres, let me control the aperture’s ƒ-stop, and control the exposure. And if you have these features, call them by what they are actually called: don’t, as an example, call the focal distance the ‘field of view’ with an unlabelled scale. Also, give me the ability to make minute focus adjustments: for those of us that love to shoot with shallow depth of field, let us, please, precisely dial in the focus. While, of course, the in-game camera is not a real world camera, using the terms and conventions from real world cameras is more helpful than making new non-standard terms. 
  • Camera freedom. And while we’re discussing the camera, give me freedom! I want to be able to get real low/real close/real far/etc from my subject. Let me take photos in both landscape and portrait! And don’t assume I only want to photograph the player character. Taking photos of the landscapes and NPCs or enemies is often incredibly satisfying. Aside from freedom of camera movement and positioning, also give me the ability to switch on and off (or show and hide) the player character, NPC, enemies. Many a potential shot has been ruined because I couldn’t quite get the angle right without someone’s boot or shoulder getting in frame. 
  • Environmental controls. There’s a reason why game photography is often more immediately satisfying than real world photography and that usually centres around a god-like ability to control time, weather, lighting sources and ambient/particle effects. Just like in the real world, no one wants to take photos under the harsh noon sun. Give me the ability to dial in that honeyed golden hour lighting, or allow me to summon a full moon to flood a vista with its ethereal light.  
  • Borrow not reinvent. There are games out there that have truly exceptional photo modes that get it right. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, or do something different just for the sake of being different. Just copy what they do. I will always consider the photo mode from Ghosts of Tsushima to be the benchmark on what a rich and full featured photo mode looks and feels like. 

Whereas the above are essentially must haves, the following are more nice to haves:

  • Filters. Say what you like about the rising influence of filters on modern photography, but they are an undeniable part of the landscape—pun intended—and so can be helpful to include them. I never use the more extreme ones—for instance a filter that turns a photorealistic scene into an ASCII green-on-black representation—but I think they are fun and surely spark photographic joy for someone.
  • Grids. A rule of thirds grid (as well as as a horizon level) can often be really useful to help make effective, dynamic compositions. Yes, I know it’s a bit photography 101, but one must know the basic rules before they can be (effectively and purposefully) broken. 
  • Frames: I am a real sucker for a nice tight 1.85:1 crop, so appreciate when games give me that option to add cinematic feel to my photos via a variety of crops/frames. I’m less in love with say more decorative frames (i.e. the ability to make your photo look like it is in a game-branded postcard) but I can take the latter if it means I get the former. 
  • Basic photo editing: while we can usually get great results if the photo mode includes full camera controls (see above), sometimes it is also quite useful to have sliders for contrast/brightness/simulated noise and the like.

Here is a gallery of some of my in-game photos:


Photo mode, more like fun mode

Developers spend so much time and care and love crafting the worlds games are set in. A thoughtful photo mode allows us to explore, celebrate and share these worlds. It lets us express ourselves and find different ways to explore a game. It also creates a powerful way to remember the time we have had with a game. This can be surprisingly powerful: I was looking through some photos I had captured in games in preparation for writing this article and I was struck by how evocative they were, much like real world photos are. This led me to a conclusion that game photography and real world photography are functionally the same: the distinction—and implicit suggestion that one is superior over the other—between the two feels insubstantial. As I get better at expressing myself in one form of photography, I notice the benefits flowing to other forms of photography and expression more generally. 

Next time you’re playing a game, investigate the photo mode and see what delights await. And if it’s a bad photo mode, send the developers this essay and hope that they take the hint and improve their game’s photo mode.


  • 1
    I did, for a time, review cookbooks, which is perhaps as close as one can get to this combination.

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