To capture the perfect lighting, Rasmus Furbo directed Spider-Man to crouch on top of a queen-size bed.
The web-slinger sat there, facing the end of the bed, against a black studio-like backdrop for the hero’s classic red and blue suit. The photo shoot was not for some kind of magazine promo for the next Marvel Cinematic offering. Rather the scene unfolded all within a video game.
Furbo, 33, has played video games practically his entire life, but over the summer he found what he calls “a hobby within a hobby” — what’s known by some as in-game photography.
“For me … it’s the same as taking photos out in the real world,” Furbo said. “You just have this ability to go places that you couldn’t do normally.”
As developers stretch the limits of gaming consoles to allow three-dimensional exploration of hyper-realistic worlds, a community of fans uses photos — or rather screenshots — to capture the beauty.
It has been five years since Sony first released PlayStation 4 and, with it, an added feature on each controller to let players share what they’ve done on screen. The studios behind the games for the platform began to offer what is ubiquitously termed “photo mode” as a way to pause the game, reposition the perspective of the camera and capture a snapshot. The encouragement from both the platform and game manufacturers has fostered an artistic niche inside video games to which some devote myriad hours.
“I think in the beginning it was such a new concept and like an entire controller button was dedicated to it that it was, you know, that kind of ‘What’s going on with it?’,” said Cory Barlog, the creative director at Sony Santa Monica Studio. “I think that photo modes have started to pick up heavily and become one of those of ‘if you don’t have it, why not?’ kind of thing.”
Not every game has a photo mode. Players can always take screenshots, but studios only sometimes offer the added ability to pause the action and reposition the camera. It hasn’t been until recently that the feature has become a clear and noticeable part of how gamers interact with these virtual worlds. The games that do include photo mode are often single-player narratives — stories with sequences that almost feel as if you’re acting a role in a movie. The photo mode gives them an added ability to be something of a director or cinematographer.
Insomniac Games, the studio behind Marvel’s Spider-Man, created their photo mode as an extension of Peter Parker’s (or Spider-Man’s) phone. Gil Doron, the user interface and user experience lead there, said they’re still perplexed by what fans can pull off in the game.
“We had no intention of creating great lighting specifically for photo mode, but we get shocked with that kind of stuff,” Doron said.
Doron led the group at Insomniac that developed the feature, and he said the goal was to give the community “a moment that uniquely belongs to them.”
Reddit features a community just for the Marvel’s Spider-Man, which came out in September. The subreddit, r/SpidermanPS4, has more than 80,000 subscribers, larger than the original subreddit for the friendly neighborhood web-slinger, which has been on Reddit for eight years.
A vast majority of the posts on r/SpidermanPS4 are screenshots, some are memes but many more are artistic and carefully staged. There are posts admiring one of the many suits you can wear in game. Photos of Spider-Man swinging across the fictional Stark Tower in New York or simply sunset shots across the city. There’s even a subreddit named after the comic book newspaper, The Daily Bugle, that’s devoted to great in-game photography.
Angelo Cagnina, 18, is a moderator for r/SpidermanPS4 and said he started the subreddit two years ago when the game’s first trailer released. Cagnina said he thinks photo mode has played a “huge role” in getting other people interested in playing. “It’s easy to look at a photo and like it,” Cagnina said, whereas the average discussion thread about some game doesn’t offer that same instantaneous connection between fans.
Furbo, a graphic designer living in Aarhus, Denmark, said he “got really hooked” to photo mode after finding the feature in “God of War.” He played the game a second time just to focus on taking photos and, so far, he said he has taken over 5,000 pictures from God of War alone.
Furbo said he takes photos when he travels, but in a video game you have far more control to move around an environment, including the ability to “move around in the environment, move in close on the characters.”
“If I go traveling, I don’t really have the nerve to go over to people and ask them if I could take a portrait of them if they look interesting,” Furbo said, adding he’s learned more about photography because of his time taking photos in games.
Chris Dicks, 28, who lives in West Sussex, England, created an Instagram account for in-game photography and said even just getting the recognition from the studio or actors behind the game makes the time spent worthwhile.
Dicks said he’s an amateur photographer outside of games and has a passion for cinematography. He estimates he played one game, “The Last of Us,” a seventh time to simply photograph the key moments throughout the game and ended up with more than a thousand pictures. “It’s from a cinematic point of view for me,” Dicks said. “They’re so cinematic in the way they’re made.”
Playing games comes “hand-in-hand with the escapism that you get when watching a film,” Dicks said, adding setting up a shot in game is almost like being a stills photographer on a movie set.
Not all photo modes are created equal. There’s no industry standard and each studio creates their own offerings. Horizon Zero Dawn is often named as a leader in photo mode offerings, letting players pull back from the main character and take landscape shots across the map
Dicks said he sees that game as one that pushed many fans to start in-game photography accounts. While playing Horizon Zero Dawn, Dicks said he’d just traverse the map to find a great place for a photo, like a nearby forest or the top of a mountain.
“Like a photographer in real life, I think, if you were wandering about London for the day you’d be looking out for opportunities to take a good picture. It’s a similar thing when you’re playing in a game,” Dicks said.
You need a deal of patience to get the right photo in a game, according to Dicks. Though his friends also play video games, Dicks said many favor multiplayer games or simply playing the story rather than getting a photograph.
“It could boil down to real-world passions,” Dicks said. “I think the main difference could be patience, patience and passion, really.”
In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a western single-player narrative recently released by the studio behind “Grand Theft Auto,” does not feature a photo mode but does include an interesting photography option. While players can screenshot the entire display as in other games, their character can also snap a photo by physically carrying a camera in the game.
Furbo explained an instance in which his character was running around taking photos right in the middle of a true firefight — armed with just an old-time camera.
“I felt like running around like a war photographer,” Furbo said with a laugh. “It was fun. The photos didn’t turn out that good, but it felt a bit more realistic in a way.”