Flickr, one of the world’s most popular photo-sharing sites, introduced virtual photography as a category in 2022.
But is virtual photography really photography? Let’s discuss the issue below.
What is photography?
Before we talk about virtual photography, we must first establish a baseline of what photography is. Photography, from its Greek roots φωτός (photos or light) and γραφή (graphe or write), is writing with light. Such a camera works true to form, even a digital one.
But aside from mechanically capturing 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 a painter’s (sometimes unreliable) interpretation.
Photography can also serve as a medium of fine art. Because the photograph is in 2D format, it easily follows the concepts, theories and principles of painting.
Over time, photography has evolved from being a purely technical skill to capture moments for posterity to becoming an art. With this, some photographers created art for art’s sake, while others combined all three disciplines into truly remarkable masterpieces.
Now that we’ve defined photography, let’s assess how virtual photography compares to these criteria.
Replicating the technical details of physical cameras in a virtual world
When you take a photo 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 in order to turn their vision into an image.
Since virtual photography is captured in a virtual world, how can it replicate the intricacies of physical photography? Some games allow you to have some semblance of control over how you take a screenshot via their film or photo mode – like changing exposure and contrast, much like editing a photo.
Many other titles only allow you to take pictures in automatic mode – that is, if they have a photo mode at all. Most games just settle for the screenshot button and save your photo as is.
Nevertheless, virtual photography is still in its infancy, while real photography is already around two centuries old. With the development of technologies like ray tracing and advanced game engines, the virtual world is quickly catching up with the real world in terms of visual acuity.
And when you play the latest AAA games like Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5 at maximum quality, there are cases when in-game screenshots are difficult to distinguish from the real world at first glance.
In fact, virtual photography is already gaining ground in the commercial industry, where companies can simulate their products as they appear in the real world. Virtual photography can save costs for entrepreneurs by allowing them to see what their items will look like before they even start manufacturing them.
We expect that soon more games and software will use ray tracing, which can accurately recreate how light behaves in the real world, further blurring the line between physical and virtual light.
Does virtual photography serve the original purpose of photography?
As mentioned, the main purpose of photography was to capture events and memories untainted by the painter’s interpretation.
Although this is debatable, given that the photographer decides what to include and exclude in a photo, and photo manipulation existed nearly 150 years before Photoshop, the fact that cameras capture images this way makes them the perfect medium for capturing memories.
Because of this, photography has been instrumental in the history of the record. From the American Civil War to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, photographs have captured a single moment and captured it for eternity. And some photographs, like this compilation from All That’s Interesting, not only captured the story, they actually changed the story.
However, since most historical events happen in the real world, there is almost no chance for virtual photography to record anything that impacts humanity – at least for now. However, that doesn’t mean virtual photography doesn’t have a place to create memories.
As the world increasingly goes online, especially when people were forced to stay at home during the 2020 pandemic, many made genuine friendships in online environments like Second Life, Grand Theft Auto Online, and Forza Horizon 5.
Although their activities only moved within the confines of their chosen virtual world, the relationships they sparked there could not be more real. And since everything they did with their friends happened online, the only way for them to capture their experiences and achievements was through virtual photos.
Virtual photography as art
One thing that photography has evolved into 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, it can be said that games are art, which makes them one of the reasons why many modern day video games love them. And if you lived and moved in a beautiful virtual world, even for just a few hours a day, you can move to capture your surroundings and create more visual art from them.
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 a way that depicts the true horrors of warfare. This is a way for us to remember the pain and horror our ancestors went through, thus reminding us that there must be peace.
Can virtual photography apply the concepts of real photography?
By definition, video games are considered art. But as these titles began creating worlds that allowed players to capture stunning or even controversial images in these virtual worlds that made people think and feel a spectrum of emotions, virtual photography became art.
Technically, virtual photography still lags behind the real world, but not by much. Over the next decade, you can expect hardware power and software advances to create photorealistic scenes on the fly. It allows developers to create algorithms that players can use to recreate real-world camera effects in the virtual world. Also, smartphone manufacturers are already doing this with computational photography.
The only thing virtual photography lags behind is capturing the story as it unfolds. That’s because most events that affect large groups of people at once tend to happen in real life. Although people are already capturing memories with virtual photography, it’s usually only between small groups of friends.
Only when the metaverse invades our world – when politicians campaign and elections are held in a virtual world and where people’s lives are drastically altered as a result of events in it – will we see virtual photography becoming an important part of human history. And by the looks of it, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
Should virtual photography be considered real photography?
Yes, in a way virtual photography is comparable to real photography. Developers can implement algorithms in their games that mimic the behavior of lights and cameras in the real world. Virtual photography can also be used to record events, albeit personal ones, and people can always create art, regardless of the 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, it is slowly gaining traction among millions. From online players and social media butterflies to companies using simulations to take virtual photos of their products, virtual photography is slowly taking hold in our society.
Just as it took almost a few centuries for photography to become as ubiquitous as our smartphones, it will also take time for virtual photography to take root. But once virtual photography gains momentum, it could become so commonplace that many don’t even notice or even care if an image is real or virtual.