Virtual Photography

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


In my spare time, to hone my Photoshop skills and to have a little fun, I work with video game graphics. I thought I would show you some of the things I’ve been working on lately.

On some of the video game forums, there are places where you can post screenshots, which are basically photos of the game. Some of the screenies aren’t good, but some are amazingly realistic blurring the line between a photo of the real world and the virtual world. I try to make my screenshots as realistic-looking as possible without incorporating photographs of the real world. One game that I consistently have fun working with is Armed Assault (Arma). It’s a “sandbox” where you can control almost everything about the world the game is set in through the Editor interface and game engine. You start with a map or virtual world which has buildings and terrain and trees. Then you can set the time of day and date (to position the sun), set the weather, visibility, fog, you can add soldiers or civilians, vehicles, etc. There are huge libraries of stuff you can add including money, construction cones, rabbits, aircraft carriers, airplanes, weapons, trucks, cars, power lines, really almost anything. No women or children, but I hear those are to be added in the next release, Arma 2.

I used to make plastic models when I was a kid, which was a lot of fun because you can be very precise with them. The more time you spend and the more detail you add, the greater the results. Nowadays, I do the same thing but on the computer. So here are some of the shots I’ve made recently. You can click on any of these pictures to see the original size.


A lot of times, the 3d models I download are good, but the graphics (i.e. the paint and decals) are poor or rushed. So I redo the graphics or just make new ones in Photoshop. I made the paint/graphics (called skins) for these airplanes. Shot the screenshot, edited it, duplicated the plane, made it smaller in the background and Gaussian blurred it, motion blurred the background, cut out the planes to make them look more realistic, removed some of the highlights from the background plane to make it look different from the one in the foreground, etc. The only thing that looks fake to me in this shot are the bombs and the lack of cars/people on the streets below.


The shot above required very little setup but careful editing. Basically I set the time of day, placed two helos in the middle of the desert, tweaked the time to get a nice sunrise, shot the screenshot and edited it in photoshop. I tried to make one that isn’t so violent. Most screenshots of this game involve war and blood. So this one is more peaceful. This one required a lot of work to make up for the crappy color banding that the game presented me with. So I had to play with surface blurring, multiple layers blending in different ways, and eventually some dodging of the ground to bring out the highlights in the terrain. I went down a few blind alleys and ended up going back to the beginning with what I did to this shot, but that’s all part of the learning process. In the end, surface blur was a better option than multiple layers and blending settings.


For the above shot, I set up all of the cars on the map (144 I think), blew some of them up to get the smoke (basically set their damage coefficient to 1.0), locked a camera to the plane which required some technical scripting, painted a new skin for the plane, set all the parameters for the camera (above below, left right, front back, field of view, distance), then waited for a good angle as the AI-controlled plane dove in and shot at a tank behind the smoke. After shooting a lot of screenies, I took the most interesting shot into photoshop and edited it to look more harsh and grainy.


This next shot was the first time I worked with character animations. Basically I placed all of the soldiers, assigned an animation to each of them (there are 13 total), set the helos up so the rotors were spinning (sometimes the computer would then have the helos take off which was annoying), then I activated the animations and cameras and the soldiers froze into these positions. Only their heads would move around. So I moved the camera into position, waiting for the heads to be looking in the right direction and snapped the screenshots. Then I took the photos into photoshop and added grain, blew out the sky to white, etc. I think it’s good that there’s a story here (the man holding his helmet on as the other soldiers come off the helo). But there is room for improvement. This shot was taken in the same place as the Harrier divebomb shot, but on the ground where the smoke was.

The last two have a bit more dramatic editing like something you would see in Blackhawk Down or Three Kings. That’s good for conveying a mood, but I like the shot of the two Harriers near the top because to me that looks most like a real photograph. I had it up as the background on my monitors at work and a coworker asked if it was shot at the air and water show. So that’s what I’m hoping to achieve.

The first foggy image on this post is one I just completed tonight. I’m trying more and more to tell a story with these images. A good photograph tells a story and makes the viewer want to explore it more. I guess that’s what I like about doing these video game shots. I have total control over everything in the picture, to the extent that the game engine is flexible enough to grant my vision. Anyway, it’s fun and good practice for the real world. I hope you enjoyed them.

1 Comment
  1. […] I have also found myself spending days designing texture graphics for models for video games. I justify it to myself by saying it gives me good practice with Photoshop, which it does. But in reality, whatever that means, I find it fun making rivets on tiny body panels and doing hours and hours of Internet research to ensure the model’s accuracy. I’ve also started participating in “photo contests” of the virtual world (you can see my entry for the “Heavy Armor” contest in my previous post and more here). […]

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