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Is Virtual Photography Real Photography?

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Flickr, one of the most popular photo-sharing sites globally, introduced Virtual Photography as a category in 2022. Their blog post states, “Virtual photography is an emerging art form specializing in photos taken inside a video game or virtual environment.”

But is virtual photography really photography? Let’s discuss the issue below.

What Is Photography?

Before we talk about virtual photography, we must first set a baseline for what photography is. According to its Greek root words, φωτός (photos or light) and γραφή (graphe or to write), photography is writing with light. True to form, that’s how a camera works, even a digital one.

But aside from the mechanical act of taking an image, photography’s purpose, when it was invented, was to capture real life as it was. Photography allowed people to see the world as the photographer saw it—not through the (sometimes unreliable) interpretation of a painter.

Photography can also serve as a medium of visual art. Since photography is in 2D format, it easily follows the concepts, theories, and precepts of painting.

As time passed, photography evolved from being just a technical skill to recording moments for posterity’s sake into art. With this, some photographers created art for art’s sake, while others combined all three disciplines to create truly remarkable masterpieces.

Now that we’ve defined photography, let’s judge how virtual photography stacks against these criteria.

Recreating the Technicalities of Physical Cameras in a Virtual World

When taking a photograph in full manual mode, you’re juggling three things on the camera: the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Also called the exposure triangle, these are the most basic elements a photographer needs to master to turn their vision into an image.

Since virtual photography is captured in a virtual world, how can it recreate the intricacies of physical photography? Some games allow you to have a semblance of control with how you capture a screenshot through their cinematic or photography mode—like allowing you to change exposure and contrast, similar to editing a photograph.

Many other titles only let you capture images in auto mode—that is, if they even have a photo mode. Most games will just settle for the screenshot button and save your photo as is.

Nevertheless, virtual photography is just in its infancy, while real photography is already around two centuries in existence. As technologies like ray tracing and advanced game engines develop, the virtual world is quickly catching up with the real world in visual acuity.

And if you play the latest AAA games like Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5 on maximum quality, there are instances where screenshots from the game are difficult to differentiate from the real world at a glance.

In fact, virtual photography is already gaining a foothold in the commercial industry, where businesses can simulate their products as it appears in the real world. Through virtual photography, entrepreneurs can save on costs as they can see how their items appear, even before it has begun manufacturing.

Soon, we’re expecting more games and software to make use of ray tracing, which can accurately recreate the way light behaves in the real world, thus blurring the line even further between physical and virtual light.

Does Virtual Photography Serve the Original Purpose of Photography?

As discussed earlier, photography’s primary purpose was to capture events and memories that aren’t tainted by the painter’s interpretation.

While this is debatable, since the photographer chooses what to include and exclude in a photograph and photomanipulation already existed almost 150 years before Photoshop did, the fact that cameras capture images as is made it the perfect medium for recording memories.

That’s why photography has been instrumental in recording history. From the American Civil War to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, photographs captured a single moment in time and saved it for all eternity. And more than just recording history, some photographs, like this compilation by All That’s Interesting, even changed history.

But because most historical events happen in the real world, there’s almost no chance for virtual photography to record anything that impacts the human race—at least for now. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean virtual photography has no place in making memories.

As the world is increasingly going online, especially when people were forced to stay at home during the pandemic of 2020, many built real friendships in online spaces, like Second Life, Grand Theft Auto Online, and Forza Horizon 5.

Although their activities were only within the bounds of their chosen virtual world, the relationships they kindled there could not be more real. And since everything they did with their friends was conducted online, the only way they could commemorate their experiences and accomplishments was through virtual photographs.

Virtual Photography as an Art

One thing photography turned into through the years is art. According to The Britannica Dictionary, art is something created with imagination and skill, is beautiful, or expresses important ideas or feelings.

With this definition, you can say that games are art, making them one of the reasons many love modern video games. And if one lived and moved in a beautiful virtual world, even for just a few hours in a day, they can be moved to capture their surroundings and create more visual art out of it.

It’s not just beauty and imagination that make virtual photography an art. Even the chaos and destruction of first-person shooters, like Battlefield 1, can be captured in such a way to portray the real horrors of warfare. By doing so, we can remember the pain and terror our forefathers went through, thus reminding us that peace must prevail.

Can Virtual Photography Apply the Concepts of Real-World Photography?

By definition, video games are considered art. But when these titles started creating worlds that allowed players to capture breathtaking or even controversial images within these virtual worlds that make people think and feel a spectrum of emotions, that’s when virtual photography became art.

When it comes to technicality, virtual photography still lags behind the real world, but not by much. In the next decade, you can expect hardware performance and software advancement to create photorealistic scenes on the fly. With that, developers can create algorithms that let players recreate real-world camera effects in the virtual world. Besides, smartphone makers already do that with computational photography.

The only thing that virtual photography lags in is capturing history as it unfolds. That’s because most events that impact massive groups of people simultaneously tend to happen in reality. Although people already capture memories using virtual photography, these are usually just between small groups of friends.

Not until the metaverse takes over our world—when politicians conduct campaigns and elections are held inside a virtual world, and where people’s lives are drastically changed because of events inside it—will we see virtual photography become a major part of human history. And as it is, it seems that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Should Virtual Photography Be Considered Real Photography?

In some ways, yes, virtual photography is comparable to real photography. Developers can implement algorithms inside their games that mimic how light and cameras behave in the real world. Virtual photography can also be used to record events, albeit personal ones, and humans can always create art, whatever the medium is.

While virtual photography is not yet at the mainstream level where it can grace the front page of newspapers or be included in breaking news coverage, it’s slowly gaining steam among millions. From online players and social media butterflies to businesses using simulations to take virtual photos of their products, virtual photography will slowly take root in our society.

Just like how it took photography almost a couple of centuries to become as ubiquitous as our smartphones, it will also take time for virtual photography to take root. But once virtual photography takes off, it could become so common that many won’t notice or even care whether an image is real or virtual.

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