A group of photographers using long lenses

Is virtual photography real photography?

Flickr, one of the world’s most popular photo-sharing sites, introduced virtual photography as a category in 2022. Its blog post states, “Virtual photography is an emerging art form specializing in photos taken in a video game or virtual environment.


But is virtual photography really photography? Let’s discuss the problem below.


What is photography?

Before talking about virtual photography, we must first establish a baseline for what photography is. According to its Greek roots, φωτός (photos or light) and γραφή (graph or writing), photography writes with light. True to form, that’s how a camera works, even a digital one.

But beyond the mechanical act of taking an image, the purpose of photography, when it was invented, was to capture real life as it was. Photography allowed people to see the world as the photographer saw it, not through the (sometimes unreliable) interpretation of a painter.

Photography can also serve as a medium for visual art. Since photography is in 2D format, it easily follows the concepts, theories and precepts of painting.

Over time, photography has evolved from a mere technical skill to recording moments for posterity in art. With this, some photographers have created art for art’s sake, while others have combined all three disciplines to create truly remarkable masterpieces.

Now that we’ve defined photography, let’s judge how virtual photography compares to these criteria.

Recreate the technical aspects of physical cameras in a virtual world

When you shoot in full manual mode, you’re juggling three things on the camera: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Also called the exposure triangle, these are the most basic elements a photographer must master to turn their vision into an image.

Since virtual photography is captured in a virtual world, how can it recreate the intricacies of physical photography? Some games allow you to have some semblance of control over how you capture a screenshot through their cinematic or photography mode, such as allowing you to change exposure and contrast, like editing a photo.

Many other titles only allow you to capture images in automatic mode, that is, if they even have a photo mode. Most games will just hit the screenshot button and save your photo as is.

Nevertheless, virtual photography is still in its infancy, while real photography has already been around for about two centuries. As technologies such as ray tracing and advanced game engines develop, the virtual world is rapidly catching up with the real world in visual acuity.

And if you’re playing the latest AAA games like Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5 at max quality, there are instances where in-game screenshots are hard to tell apart from the real world at a glance.

In fact, virtual photography is already gaining a foothold in the commercial industry, where companies can simulate their products as they appear in the real world. With virtual photography, entrepreneurs can save costs because they can see how their items look, even before they are made.

Soon, we expect more games and software to use ray tracing, which can accurately recreate the behavior of light in the real world, blurring the line between physical light and virtual light even further.

Does virtual photography serve the original purpose of photography?

As stated earlier, the primary purpose of photography was to capture events and memories that are untainted by the painter’s interpretation.

Although this is debatable, since the photographer chooses what to include and exclude in a photograph, and photo manipulation already existed nearly 150 years before Photoshop, the fact that cameras captured images as they were made it the ideal support to record memories.

That is why photography has been instrumental in recording history. From the American Civil War to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, photographs have captured a single moment in time and saved it for eternity. And more than just a record of history, some photographs, like this compilation from All That’s Interesting, even changed history.

But since most historical events happen in the real world, there’s almost no chance that virtual photography will record anything that impacts the human race, at least for now. However, that doesn’t mean that virtual photography doesn’t have a place in creating memories.

As the world increasingly goes online, especially when people were forced to stay home during the 2020 pandemic, many have made real friendships in online spaces, like Second Life, Grand Theft Auto Online and Forza Horizon 5.

Although their activities are only within the bounds of the virtual world they have chosen, the relationships they have fostered there couldn’t be more real. And since everything they did with their friends happened online, the only way they could commemorate their experiences and accomplishments was to take virtual photos.

Virtual photography as an art

One thing photography has become over the years is art. According to The Britannica Dictionary, art is something created with imagination and skill, is beautiful, or expresses important ideas or feelings.

With this definition, you can say that games are art, which is one of the reasons why many love modern video games. And if someone lived and moved around in a beautiful virtual world, even for a few hours a day, they can be moved around to capture their environment and make more visual art out of it.

It’s not just beauty and imagination that make virtual photography an art. Even the chaos and destruction of first-person shooters, like Battlefield 1, can be captured in ways that portray the true horrors of war. In doing so, we can remember the pain and terror our ancestors went through, reminding us that peace must prevail.

Can virtual photography apply the concepts of real-world photography?

By definition, video games are considered art. But when those titles started creating worlds that allowed players to capture jaw-dropping, even controversial, images in these virtual worlds that made you think and feel an array of emotions, that’s when the virtual photography has become an art.

When it comes to technicality, virtual photography still lags behind the real world, but not by much. Over the next decade, you can expect hardware performance and software advancements to create photorealistic scenes on the fly. With this, developers can create algorithms that allow players to recreate real camera effects in the virtual world. Moreover, smartphone manufacturers are already doing this with digital photography.

The only thing that virtual photography falls behind is capturing the story as it unfolds. This is because most events that affect massive groups of people simultaneously tend to happen in reality. Although people are already capturing memories using virtual photography, they are usually only done between small groups of friends.

Only when the metaverse takes over our world – when politicians run campaigns and elections are held in a virtual world, and people’s lives are drastically altered by events inside – that we will see virtual photography become an important part of human history. And as things stand, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Should virtual photography be considered as real photography?

In some ways, yes, virtual photography is comparable to real photography. Developers can implement algorithms in their games that mimic the behavior of real-world light and cameras. Virtual photography can also be used to record events, albeit personal ones, and humans can still create art in any medium.

While virtual photography is not yet at the mainstream level where it can grace the front pages of newspapers or be included in breaking news coverage, it is slowly gaining traction among millions of people. From online actors and social media butterflies to companies using simulations to take virtual photos of their products, virtual photography is slowly taking root in our society.

Just as it took nearly two centuries for photography to become as ubiquitous as our smartphones, it will also take time for virtual photography to take hold. But once virtual photography takes off, it could become so mainstream that many won’t notice or even care whether an image is real or virtual.

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