This guide is ongoing – up to date as of April 2017.
Getting Started Taking Screenshots
This is a beginner-oriented tutorial on how to get started taking your own screenshots and making game photography. I will cover all the tools you need to get started, as well as some tips and techniques for creating beautiful shots. Note that this guide assumes that you are using a Windows PC. Many of these tools and techniques are not possible for gaming consoles. I am also assuming you have a basic knowledge of how to access and modify files and folders on your PC, and install programs.
The first thing I generally do when preparing to photograph a game is to search for that game’s modding community. Some games have massive communities dedicated to modding them, such as Skyrim, Fallout 4, Minecraft, and Grand Theft Auto V. Many games have a small to medium sized community that is still well worth looking into, such as The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, and almost all games at least have a small selection of ReShade or SweetFX presets made for them. Some directx games may also have an ENBSeries and some ENB presets, which is similar to ReShade but more advanced in many ways.
Some games, especially multiplayer-only games, do not allow modding of any kind. Be aware that using mods in some online games could get you banned from the game. For example, when modding Grand Theft Auto V, it is necessary to temporarily disable most types of mods before you play online, and to only use most mods in single player. Policies on modding will vary from game to game, so make sure to do your research.
The process for installing and using mods is different for each game, but often the community provides detailed instructions on how to get their mods working in your game. For photography, I recommend looking for mods that increase texture resolution, improve textures and models, improve lighting or shader quality, improve weather and environmental effects, or allow you to manipulate the game to set up scenes or change the cosmetic appearances of your characters. You will also need some method for manipulating the camera (free cam) and a program to actually take the screenshots with, which brings us to our main tools.
Here is a list of tools that I (and many others) use quite frequently. It’s not a bad idea to keep these downloaded and up to date all the time.
- Bandicam – Or your own preferred screenshot software such as MSI Afterburner.
- Simple Runtime Window Editor – Allows you to temporarily alter the resolution and aspect ratio of your game window for hotsampling.
- Windowed Borderless Gaming – Can also be used for hotsampling. We’ll talk about what hotsampling is in just a moment.
- ReShade – A framework for implementing shaders such as SweetFX and MasterEffect. We’ll talk about this soon.
Additionally, if you are playing a game made in the Frostbite Engine, there is a good chance that Matti Hietanen has created a version of his Cinematic Tools for it. If you don’t see it on his games list, search his Twitter or harass him mercilessly until he makes a tool (don’t do this). Matti’s Cinematic Tools allow you to manipulate the game camera’s position, rotation, and field of view. Often he will also include controls for altering a game’s effects (such as depth of field).
There are several games, more and more recently, that include an in-game “photo mode” of some kind. For example, Grand Theft Auto V has the Rockstar Editor which allows you to record clips to freecam in later. Doom (2016), Shadow of Morder, Mad Max, and even Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 also have their own photo modes which allow you to manipulate the camera and take screenshots. These can be a great way to ease in to taking screenshots with minimal work involved, in order to see if it’s something you really want to pursue!
A quick note on Nvidia Ansel. Ansel is a great tool for grabbing a quick shot for casual use, but does not capture the highest quality shots possible. Because of the way Ansel captures high resolution photos, it often strips the photo of many of the game’s important visual effects. See the example below. This is why we use SRWE or WBG and a screenshot taking program instead. However, there are some games where Ansel is genuinely the best solution when other methods don’t work well, so don’t write it off completely!
Hotsampling, not to be confused with supersampling (anti-aliasing), is a method for increasing the resolution of a game window to greater than the resolution of your screen, for the purpose of capturing a screenshot at a high resolution. For instance, you might hotsample a game from your normal 1920×1080 resolution up to 7680×4320 to simply increase the resolution by 400%. You can also change the aspect ratio of the window from 16:9 to anything you desire. Common aspect ratios for photography are 1:1 (square), 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, and 2:1 (panoramic). Sometimes it is hard to visualize a 2:3 portrait, for example, when you are looking at your 16:9 screen, but all it takes is practice and experience. Some people prefer to crop in post, rather than altering their aspect ratio.
SRWE and WBG (both mentioned above) are the most commonly used tools for hotsampling. To use either of these tools, all you have to do is set up your shot in-game, then alt+tab out, run the tool, select the game process, and change the resolution. Running modern games at extremely high resolutions is very taxing on your system, so don’t be surprised if your game drops to only a few frames per second. Increase the resolution too much and you can even crash your game and/or display driver. Typically you want to try and find the sweet spot – the highest resolution you can attain before crashing. This will be different from game to game, so just experiment.
It is important to note that while many games do support hotsampling, many don’t. In the event that the game you are trying to photograph does not support hotsampling, you can use a different method to increase the resolution. Nvidia DSR and AMD VSR are both tools you can use to set a custom resolution at the driver level. Using one of these methods you will have to go into the game’s settings and change the resolution there before taking each shot.
As a general rule, the higher the resolution you capture at, the better your shot will look. Here is an example of a shot taken natively at 1080p vs a shot that was taken at 8k and scaled down to 1080p in post. I have also included an Nvidia Ansel shot taken at 8k and scaled down in the same way for reference. Click to view larger for comparison.
After you have your game of choice and some mods or tools downloaded and installed, there are a few other basic steps you should take before you dive right into photographing. You may have done a few of these already. Step one is to update your graphics drivers (Nvidia GeForce, AMD Radeon). It’s generally a good idea to keep these up to date all the time, and your driver software should be able to update itself automatically. An additional note for Nvidia users: most of the time you want to keep GeForce “Share” off, which will give you better performance in games and reduce compatibility issues with your mods.
Here is a quick tutorial on how to do that:
If you have a decent monitor, make sure you take the time to calibrate it. Calibrating your monitor will give you a more accurate representation of the colors on your screen. This means that when you are color correcting your photo, you’re not correcting it with the inherent bias of a screen that is inaccurate. For the same reason, if you use f.lux or a similar program, disable that as well while you are taking screenshots or editing.
Lastly I would quickly like to go over my Bandicam settings. A lot of these settings apply to any software, and I’ve also included an example for MSI Afterburner. Whatever software you are using, make sure you are capturing in a lossless format (in my case, PNG). I also have a custom hotkey set up for convenience and an audio queue to let me know that I have successfully taken a screenshot.
Take a moment and pat yourself on the back – you got past all the boring setup and now you’re finally ready to start taking photos! Boot up your modded game, the tools you need to manipulate it, your screenshot tool, and just start playing the game normally until you see something you want to snap a photo of. In Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim, I like to just wander around aimlessly until I see something I think might make for an interesting photo. In some games, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, you have to play quite a bit of game before you get to see all the environments. Try to avoid taking too many shots in the starting areas of games, as those areas are usually the most heavily photographed. Also try to avoid publishing photos of blatant spoilers, especially when a game is less than a year old.
Next, take a look at “In-Game Photography 102: Photography Tips and Guidelines,” which goes over more of the photography process, based on real life photography methods.