A professional photographer on what it takes to capture video game snaps for a living, and his expert tips for using photo mode

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I never thought I’d be having a deep conversation about the underrated significance of shoes in video games but, ten minutes into my chat with professional photographer Leo Sang, and we’re talking about them as if they’re the next Rosetta stone. “As players, we’re always moving forward in video games, looking around and ahead, but few of us ever stop and take a moment to look down, or really look down quite literally at our shoes.” explains Sang. “What are the characters wearing? And how did the developers design them? I think it’s a really interesting subject for photographic study.”

Which is where Sang’s latest project, Shoes for Virtual Feet, comes in. The shutterbug has been carefully, systematically taking detailed shots of shoes across a range of video games, from FIFA 18’s studded sportswear to Far Cry 5’s rugged hiking boots, and compiling them into one online collection. It’s part of his ongoing fascination with what he calls virtual reality photography (VRP), an emerging discipline within the professional field whereby real life photographers deploy - as Sang describes it - “the application of photographic techniques in video game realities.”

Sang is far from the only person exploring this unique field of photography; there’s a wide and varied online community of equally minded and talented appreciators, from Flickr boards promoting video game tourism to photo essays inspired by snapshots of GTA 5. Not only that, but with the concept of the in-game photo mode being embraced by developers everywhere, more and more players are being exposed to the vocation, discovering for themselves why virtual snapshotting can be so much more than just a quick selfie. Sang, who uses both these in-built photo modes and his own external software for capturing shots, says he is encouraged by this new trend.  

 “I think it’s a cool thing to see. The photo modes seem to be getting more and more sophisticated every year, to the point where they’re now as useful a tool for professional photographers as much as they are for more casual players. I would love to see more of them in all sorts of games going forward, for everyone’s sake.”

Despite the photo mode’s growing ubiquity, however, Sang admits finding some genres much better suited to VRP than others. “I’ve always found first-person shooters, or even just first-person games, to be the most ideal for taking photos. I’m not sure what it is about them, but they always seem to have more detailed environments, and a better sense of geometry than other titles. Maybe I’m just biased because I prefer playing first-person games in general!” 

With experience in both industrial and graphic design, the São Paulo based Sang has always been interested in photography, and takes plenty beyond the confines of his Steam account too, but what drew him to VRP in the first place was the opportunity to easily explore the different roles and perspectives of the average lensman. 

In Battlefield 4, he’s played the war photographer, capturing stark shots of players caught amidst the chaos of the multiplayer conflicts (“I kept dying trying to get good shots!”). Meanwhile in Driveclub, which by Sang’s count features the best photo mode seen in a video game so far, many of his shots are taken from the backseat of a car, using monochromatic filters to evoke the potent mix of moods that we’re all susceptible to experiencing during lonesome road trips.

The predictable collection of the same vistas and action shots that drown Twitter during the release of every major new video game often make it seem like virtual photography can be as generic as the airbrushed coffeehouse pics that dominate our Instagram feeds, but through VRP, Sang and others are pushing our understanding of what’s possible with the in-game camera. 

“I kept dying trying to get good shots in Battlefield 4!”

Leo Sang

Their work is more important than you might think too, as there has been some pushback from the wider photography industry as to whether video game screenshots should be deemed as valid and valuable as real life photos. Despite the ongoing maturation of VRP, many are still adamant to define in-game screenshots as “digital art”, distinguishing them from the photography produced by a real camera capturing a real life subject. It’s an ongoing debate that continues to play out within vocational circles, but Sang says he isn’t too bothered by the white noise.

“To be honest, I’m don’t have any sort of good answer to that question myself” he laughs, when I bring up the ongoing debate. “I’m not sure whether it even matters how to define VRP anyway. I enjoy taking photos both within and outside of video games, and I have a deep appreciation for both.”

Fair enough, but does Sang have any professional tips for those looking to up their photo mode game in Spider-Man PS4, No Man’s Sky, or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey? “It’s subjective! But I would say that finding the right composition and lighting is always important, and more games now provide those kind of options for users to tinker with. More than that, though, it’s mainly about making every picture your own. Something that people will remember.”

As for the future, I ask Sang what titles he’s most looking forward to deploying his digital camera in, and the answer probably won’t surprise you. “Red Dead Redemption 2, obviously. I think that game could be very interesting from a photographic perspective. I saw Rockstar recently announced it has 200 different types of animals or something crazy like that, which could make it an amazing experience for a new style of wildlife photography.”

And as Red Dead Redemption 2 is already proving, games are only going to become better subjects for the photographic eye over time, with the pillars of technology and creative ambition evolving hand in hand to conjure more stylized or indeed photorealistic subject matter for people like Sang to document. And with photo mode on its way to becoming a staple feature in almost every game that can accomodate it, there’s an ever growing audience of potential VRP evangelists, ready and waiting to pick up their cameras and start clicking.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of many new games of 2018 out this year. Find out which others might be worth your time in the coming weeks and months.