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.