VIdeo game "photographers" create art about art. They create art using art. The art of the "photograph," or screenshot, may come from composition or editing of stylization. For graphic design student James Pollock, that means taking images of games and filtering them with Instagram for his blog Virtual Geographic. For Duncan Harris, who runs Dead End Thrills, art comes from pushing technology to the limits--rendering virtual worlds at 4K resolution, tweaking the field of view, and using mods to touch up lighting and textures just so.
Like real photography, virtual photography requires balancing composition with technical mastery. Photographers adjust depth of field and shutter speed and ISO as they wait for light to hit from just the right angle; virtual tourists tweak anti-aliasing and field of view as they wait for the right animation to play in just the right spot. Photographers bring the world into focus through a lens; for PC gamers dedicated to taking screenshots, that lens is a technique called downsampling.
"The beauty of this 'hobby' is to show off areas in games you might not notice at all," Michael Larsen wrote to me in an email. "Or [to] really illustrate the beauty of a simple landscape scene, perhaps even an uninteresting scene that suddenly starts to shine with clean image quality and the graphical effects pop. So that means walking, driving, flying around and constantly being on the lookout for places, areas or a certain composition that works."
Larsen was a frequent poster in a High-Res PC Screenshot thread at the gaming message board NeoGAF. These threads are common on gaming forums--members upload screenshots of whatever games they're currently playing, often in three megabyte, 1080p PNGs that would choke the life out of a dial-up connection. The threads that have been open for years still have 56K warnings in their titles.
No camera hacks or debug modes...they just play games at resolutions most gamers only dream of.
Some of NeoGAF's members simply post quick shots from whatever game they're currently playing. Others are more deliberate, turning off user interface elements and detailing their posts with settings information like 1680x1050 8xEQ SSAA + FXAA--Ultra. After making a combined 1311 posts in 2012's screenshot thread, Larsen and another frequent poster, Kasra Korki, decided to cater to that diehard group with the 2013 PC Bullshot thread. Korki wrote this in the introduction:
"This thread is going to be a dedicated 'High Quality' thread where there's a no holds barred attitude for achieving the highest image quality possible in-game. We're talking about downsampling, lots of anti-aliasing, Nvidia Inspector bits, the whole nine yards. We have no interest in frame-rate or what's deemed playable, this is just about a feast for the eyes, nothing else...This is the thread for people who start up games at extreme settings for the sole purpose of taking screenshots of games, to find those amazing areas that aren't just the mandatory 5 set-pieces from the games, it's about taking pictures of a toilet stall and be in awe at the quality, how the reflection falls and how clean the image is."
Like Dead End Thrills's Duncan Harris, Larsen and Korki are fascinated with the art of these virtual worlds; unlike Harris, however, they don't use techniques like camera hacks or debug modes to break free of a game's programmed confines and take shots from normally impossible angles. For the most part, they just play games...at resolutions most gamers only dream of.
Downsampling is their secret tool. And here's how it works.
It's a simple technique--you set up a custom resolution through your graphics card to force games to render at an unusually high res. The graphics card then shrinks that image down to the monitor's output resolution. When multiple pixels are combined into one, there's far more data to work with, and the resulting image can be crisper and more detailed. Pushed to the extreme, a downsampling setup may be taking a 3840x2160 image (8,294,400 pixels) and compressing it down to a typical 1920x1080 resolution (2,073,600 pixels).
The end goal, of course, is to highlight those overlooked areas and underappreciated artistic touches in games. Getting there, however, takes a certain fondness for tinkering with settings--and shelling out for some serious hardware.
Getting into Downsampling
Larsen doesn't mess around when it comes to PC hardware. He plays his games on a 4.5GHz Intel i7 3930k processor and two Gigabyte GeForce GTX Titans. Even before he had the $1000 Titans, he was buying computer hardware largely to support his screenshotting hobby. "When I started downsampling and played games purely to take screenshots, I felt the compositional quality of my images started to go down," he wrote. "So I wanted enough horsepower under the hood to play the game on 'playable' settings ( i.e 60FPS ) but also have the game maxed out completely and with some form of powerful AA."
And, he admits, more powerful hardware offers a little more wiggle room.
"A few years ago, I almost wanted games to give me a hard time so I could troubleshoot, tinker and mess around," he wrote. "However in recent years as I started working in the IT industry, you just don't have the same energy any longer when you get home from a long day at work where you've been troubleshooting, maintaining servers and fixing other people's computers...So I aim for 60FPS at the highest allowed settings and then I start playing...Might also be the reason why I now buy overkill hardware, just to brute force my way out of any performance hiccups and the settings tweaking."
Diving into .ini files, modding games, and tuning settings to keep a steady framerate are, love 'em or hate 'em, classic elements of PC gaming. The good news, though, is that downsampling works with just about any game. So long as your hardware can sustain the load of a high resolution, configuring downsampling can be relatively painless. While earlier guides were mostly focused on Nvidia hardware, more recently AMD graphics card owners have been able to get in on the action.
Larsen plays his games on a 4.5GHz Intel i7 3930k processor and two Gigabyte GeForce GTX Titans.
Don Allen, the most prolific poster in NeoGAF's 2012 PC screenshot thread, made a guide to downsampling with AMD hardware last May. Korki posted one for Nvidia hardware in January after getting into downsampling himself.
"Setting it up didn't take long at all, but reaching very high resolutions that work across all games took ages and it was just recently that I finally managed to downsample from 3840x2160 without any odd driver modifications of my monitor using obscure 3rd party Taiwanese software," Korki wrote. "I love tweaking pc games and I dare say it's both a luxurious indulgence as much as it's an unfortunate necessity. In the former scenario you pretty much benefit from doing some simple .ini tweaks to make your games perform/look better whereas in the latter scenario you might have to spend a lot of time just to get the mouse to function normally in a badly ported game."
Peter Thoman, another frequent poster in the Bullshot thread, has been downsamplng longer than the other three, who started in the last year or so. He's also responsible for the popular mod DSFix, which liberated Dark Souls from its 1024x720 resolution. "I first started downsampling in early 2010, when I bought an Acer 720p 120 Hz projector," he wrote. "Since you have lots of spare performance in most games when targeting 720p on a PC, I got used to feeding the projector 1080p instead."
The tools Thoman, Korki, Allen and Larsen all use are, for the most part, the same. Downsampling affords them a sharp lens to view their virtual worlds through, but they don't all use that lens for the same purposes. And in some cases, downsampling has actually dictated what games they play.
When is a Screenshot Virtual Photography?
Larsen is always on, always watching for a good shot. But he doesn't always play his games with downsampling, at least not at the extreme settings he likes to use for taking screenshots. Like a lot of PC gamers, he's a stickler for high framerates.
"When I actually play my games I require 60FPS, nothing more, nothing less," he wrote. "With...downsampling and the high resolutions, the performance hit and the fact that my monitor doesn't support 4k at anything beyond 33hz means I now complete the games, take note of screenshot worthy areas and then come back. So I might make a cup of tea and start up a game specifically for taking screenshots in a 4k resolution and maxing out the game completely with all available anti-aliasing methods (Except TXAA / FXAA - That's a big no-no)."
Korki's penchant for screenshotting started with photo modes in console games like Halo, Forza and Gran Turismo. He wrote that "as long as I can maintain 30 fps I keep upping the resolution and/or visual settings," though he thinks some games like competitive shooters and fighters demand 60 frames per second. And while he'll occasionally make a mental note of a pretty in-game vista here or there, he mostly avoids "playing the role of a virtual photographer" during a normal gaming session.
By contrast, Thoman and Allen wrote that they often just take screenshots as they play, and only play games with extreme downsampled settings when the mood strikes them to take serious shots. But all four mentioned a common opinion that speaks to the nebulous divide between your average screenshot and something worthy of the "virtual photography" label: ditching the HUD.
Larsen wrote "[UI is] like slapping stickers on a beautiful painting. I will spend hours digging through obscure setting files to remove the HUD and any UI elements...If a game doesn't allow me to turn everything off, I won't take any screenshots of it."
Allen wrote "Since I started taking screens, it's led to me actively seeking out ways to remove UI elements in practically every game I own, and I feel that many times playing without them actually improves the experience. Far Cry 3 is a great example. Without the hand-holding element that the game throws in your face, the game is much more immersive."
"It's about looking at a shed at the edge of map and appreciating the detail that has gone into it yet few people will notice."
With the purity of a clear screen, free from health bars and mini-maps and waypoint markers, a screenshot lives or dies by its content. And that's mostly what draws the screenshot community to downsampling in the first place--capturing the art that most people never pause to appreciate.
"I just enjoy playing games and enjoy showing people how nice they can look just by simply increasing the resolution and cleaning up the jaggies," wrote Allen. "Hopefully some of the texture artists appreciate it, too."
Thoman wrote that "It primarily is about showing off my favourite games, and maybe inspire others to check them out. That's why I rarely post screenshots from games that are very popular at the time."
Larsen's approach to screenshots may come closest to evoking the techniques of physical photography, but that mostly shows in his culling process. "I usually have a folder full of images after a session," he wrote. "I then start looking through them all in several passes: First deleting all the bad ones, pictures with bad textures in them, stuff that looks silly or a facial expression that just looks weird. Second pass is the nitpicking phase, does the smoke obscure a nice feature, does everything in the image flow, no weird texture transitions and third pass I'm looking at the composition, does the shot make you want to stop when scrolling past it to take an extra look."
He, too, cites the same draw as all the rest: the artistry of virtual worlds. "I feel a lot of the hard work done by modellers, artists, map makers and whoever is involved in creating what you see isn't getting enough credit. Many people are completely oblivious to the minor things that can make a scene fantastic like quality texture work, great lighting or attention to detail. It's about looking at a shed at the edge of map and appreciating the detail that has gone into it yet few people will notice."
All screenshots courtesy their authors and used with permission.