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Game Photography Tutorial – Intermediate Composition

A tutorial for Intermediate level game photography about Composition

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Hello!! This is my first article for Arcade Geographic and this little tutorial on a few compositional techniques I use. While I’m not an expert or anything – I am a professional photographer in real life (I do weddings and landscapes), and I have received a lot of critique from people who are better then me!

I’ve also been taking photos in games since Pokemon Snap. Windwaker (yes, I collected every figurine) Skyrim, Fallout, and Uncharted have been some of my favourites. A couple weeks ago I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn. I’ve been amazed by the flexibility and the accuracy that photo mode has… it’s similar to real life! The thing that has been constantly impressing me however, is the ability to fine tune composition and put theory into practice. It’s much easier to rotate a camera then to walk around in real life – I have no excuses to be lazy anymore!

Intermediate Composition Techniques

I recently did my first cauldron in Horizon Zero Dawn and I felt like that was a fantastic way to show some examples of some intermediate compositional techniques. There’s a lot of fantastic articles that display things like rule of thirds – I tried to make this article a little more focused on things that are Photo Mode specific!  These aren’t really overly complicated or fancy – just simple suggestions you can add to your toolbox of knowledge!

Separating your subject from the background

I brought one of my absolute favourite street images in for a critique night. It got scored pretty poorly, without explanation as to why. So I went up to one of the judges afterwards and they explained to me about separating the subject from the background. When I got home, I cloned out some of the background things – sure enough a MUCH better image. The image was far less “messy”, your eyes went straight to the subject and it gave a more cohesive image.

It’s been one of the best critiques I’ve gotten ever since!

Aloy Sliding – Comparison

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Aloy swinging

By rotating the camera around, I was able to get Aloy in front of the highlighted steam! You can also tilt the camera vertically as a means of separating the subject. Be careful of distortion when using a wide angle lens or a large Field of View.

Using Lighting

Lighting Comparison
Lighting Comparison

Lighting is also an incredibly useful tool that you can use for separation! While I’m a sucker for dawn and dusk (like all photographers), Horizon Zero Dawn makes it super easy to change the time of day. By moving the sun around it lets you pick the angle which the scene is lit. In real life it’s much easier to place the subject in the lighting – but in games, you just work the lighting around your subject. High key lighting on a subjects face or using silhouettes (like this lil saw tooth) are both super useful techniques!

If you can’t separate your subject fully, it’s sometimes better just to make sure to separate the head. Generally the subjects face is a key part of the image – and if that collides with things, it can very easily make it look like there’s things growing out of it! (but you can totally use that to your advantage as well).

Aloy in a Forest – Time of Day Comparison

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I’ve separated out the body and head using shadow & rim lighting by changing the time of day. In sunlight it was just a little too harsh and in shadow Aloy wasn’t able to be seen.

Sometimes you have to compromise!

Make sure you remove bright areas from the edges – your eye will go directly there!

Here’s another little technical tidbit! Don’t put highlights on the edges of frames. It’s distracting and your eye will go straight there. Use light to direct the viewers eye!

Of course that’s absolutely not a problem if you’re going with a high key, fog, or even a majority white image. All you need to know is that your eye will go to where the highlights are, especially if there’s major contrast! Use light and shadow where you want to direct the viewers attention.

If you’re taking landscape images, rouge clouds at the edge of the frame or bright reflections can cause issues! Just move your camera so they’re tucked in the frame nicely! (or clone them out after…..). Dodging and burning for black and white is also a great technique – look at the way a master Ansel Adams directed the viewers eye!

Don’t be afraid to crop or clone out what you need to. This image of a watcher was lacking a liiiiitle bit of focus (your eyes are going straight to that highlight blob & that bit in the frame).

On the first Image your eye doesn’t quite know where to go – however on the second (by cropping it down, cloning and changing the angle), your eye will go to the watcher, then the little illuminati supply box cube, then the random pool of light and then finally the last watcher. It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s a huge step up from the first image, and it does make your eye go directly to the watcher!

Highlight your subject

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In the next shot, I’ve placed Aloy on the path to silhouette her. I’ve framed the white sky with the trees (with very few white patches) and I’ve made sure there’s no white around the edges. The first image is more about the path, but the second is more about Aloy walking her way into white space. Two totally different feelings.

Aloy on a path

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Leading lines

Okay – I know I said that I wasn’t going to do basic stuff, BUT – leading lines are super important! You don’t even have use straight lines – you can use things like pathways, godrays or even a pool of light to lead the viewers eye. The most important thing is to have lines -> subject, OR you use lines to direct the flow. This is probably one of my favourite compositional techniques for landscapes. I use this extensively in real life photography as well!

I’ve done….quite a few examples. But I think it’s one of the most flexible techniques that often gets the short end of the stick when being explained. (It’s often showed with a 1 point perspective pathway or some traintracks….*Sigh*)

These squiggley lines and the rope help give the shot some movement that leads your eye to Aloy. (If only you could set shutter speed…)

Aloy sliding down a rope
Downward godrays to lead your eye into the city.
Sideward light to give direction to the tree, which then helps your eye flow to the river.

Below I use the highlights on the flowers to try to direct the viewers eye towards Aloy (the most contrasted part of the image). Sometimes  flipping the image can help you figure out which way you want to direct the composition as well!

Symmetry

Leading lines and now this? I know I said I wasn’t going to do basics but… the cauldron happened!

SO ANYWAY. I think symmetry in games is actually one of the hardest things to find! It’s harder to use reflections (so that rules out a lot of vertical symmetries) and a lot of the texture mapping can make it look incredibly messy and…constructed. But when you DO get that symmetry, it feels so so good! I find by supplementing it with patterns, filling the frame or even a slight asymmetry can make some really cool story devices!

I tend to use a lot of leading lines…but this one also has symmetry!
I also used a shallow depth of field and a high vantage point, heavy vignetting to create an almost tilt shift type look!
The cauldron is the place where I’ve been thinking about symmetry the most. There’s so many elements that you can play around with!

It doesn’t have to be perfect symmetry either! I In the next shot I put the bridge at the centre of the frame to draw your eye into that centre point. Above it I made sure the camera had the <WHATEVER THAT GIANT METAL SPIDER THING NO SPOILERS PLZ> is (which, I’m not going to lie, kind of freaks me out a looooot).

Portrait composition

Okay… so I know I’ve focused a lot on landscapes. So I figured I’d put in a couple of headshot tips from things I’ve learnt in real life. By putting your subjects head in the top 3/4 of the image, or at least not below the centre line, creates a better headshot. The viewer can focus more on the subject. For a more intense look, you can crop halfway between the top of the head & the eyes rather then the chin.

Sidenote: It’s also more flattering to the subject (I’m sure Aloy has virtual feelings) if you DON’T crop at the joints.

Aloy Portrait Shots

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While most games screens default to landscape, and are a lot closer to film cinematography, it’s less of an issue then traditional portraiture. If you want that museum type effect – put the dominant eye in the centre of the frame. It will make it look like the subject is following you!

Lighting the subject from above is also huge plus for flattering points, as well as catchlights in the eyes. If you want real life tutorials there’s a blog called the Strobist.

In the below image, I have used contrasting light & also placed the subjects dominate eye in the centre. Cropping just above Aloys knees where ideally I’d like to crop at the bottom of her tunic, but I like the white grass in the frame to give it contrast.

Did you know that there’s a look at function on Horizon Zero Dawn? I didn’t until yesterday…
Aloy Portrait
While the light on her face isn’t as flattering as it could be – she does have cool catchlights! I’ve also cropped off the top of her head – which often gives a more intense – cinematic look.

“What do I, the photographer, want to show”

This is the single most important tip I can give you. Asking yourself that question is is the most important composition tip – the rest of these are just ways to help you achieve your goal.

For me? It’s often quietness – I like minimalism & isolating the subject. Maybe you want to show off architecture? Leading lines, Scale and Symmetry can be ways to go about this. Fight something big? Maybe Showing something that a viewer knows the size of can help them recognise the scale!

A quiet moment - I’ve used a frame within a frame to highlight the outlook. I’ve also changed the daytime so it makes up rim lighting on the foreground elements to highlight them.
A quiet moment – I’ve used a frame within a frame to highlight the outlook. I’ve also changed the daytime so it makes up rim lighting on the foreground elements to highlight them.

I’ve used Aloy and her strider body in the foreground to give the viewer a sense of how big the Tallneck is. I also created a leading line from Aloy to the Tallneck and carefully changed the lighting to a soft late afternoon light so that the light beam from the Strider creates a contrast around the shadow of Aloy’s hair. (Ok I spend a litttttle too much time thinking about photos >.>’). I also had to get the timing right for the tall neck to not be in front of that building because it would blend right in!

A sense of scale.

Below I used vignetting to frame the eye around alloy and the gate. I used a high vantage point and created a tilt shift effect on Aloy to show the grand sense of scale.

Showing off that sweet architecture.

It’s up to you, the photographer, to work out the most important element of the image, and then use composition elements to frame it as such.

Just break the rules.

Honestly! Some of my favourite images break stuff. All these are tools that you can use – but, you’re absolutely welcome to throw them out the window!

This is wrong and I don’t even care!

One more thing! If you use Photoshop to crop your images, press O when you are cropped. Then press shift O, and it’ll cycle through all the different composition grids :p

Some valuable resources

Erik Kims blog. He basically just goes through all of my favourite photographers (I’m a massive fan of magnum photographers… and he analyses all of them). I’ll link the Kodeka one (who’s one of the greats) and one on Soth (bc he’s my fav). But it’s a fantastic website and he also has youtube tutorials!

American Suburb XNote this is NSFW – this is my favourite website on fine art photography! It’s got a lot of incredible essays and features a great number of photographers. I find knowing the reasons behind the composition is just as important (if not more important) then what the composition technique is itself! So nothing about composition…but everything about why / image analyisis) there’s some fantastic essays on the website.

Shaddy Safadi – My buddy used to always say that Shaddy was one of the best concept artists he’d ever worked with as an Art Director – we then hilariously ran into him in a cafe! Anyway. While you can totally study Shaddy’s composition – which is incredible – his real power is the number of ideas he communicates in the one image. Understanding composition is one thing, but using it to show off 2-3 ideas is another. He’s got a few talks up online so go check out his site!

Alex Webb is another photographer known for the amount of different elements and ideas in the one image. https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/ alex-webb/

Sidenote: Alex’s wife Rebecca is just as amazing and she uses a lot of really great textural components, which is sadly a lot harder to do in game photography

Practice! Remember it’s the quality of the shots not the quantity. If you spent a lot of time thinking about composition and reworking the shot – it’s the same as taking 10 shots. It’s the time you spend with a camera. That being said….. I’ve taken about 2300 and I’ve been playing this game for a week and I took 200,000 photos just last year.

Talking to people! I know! This one is really hard but the twitter community seems really lovely even though I’m new to it. I like to share screenshots privately with friends who’ve played or worked on the games I’ve enjoyed & I love. Also, I take a lot of screenshots for me (just like rl) of nice memories of nice places.

If you ever want to talk composition or photography HMU on twitter! @dorkograph 

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