Computer Games, Spatial Awareness, and Photographic Composition

One of the most unintentionally useful influences on my photography has turned out to be the time I’ve spent playing computer games. Some photographers use cinema as a learning tool to observe the way cinematographers and DOP’s use their cameras to capture a scene. This can be a great source of inspiration, but I think it can lead to some photographers heading out and seeking to recreate shots or aesthetic styles (color palette, depth of field, grain, etc) rather than capturing anything unique for them.

In a computer game, you are an active participant in the process, whether conscious or subconscious, and in many games, this involves a directorial/DOP role in terms of camera control. As your character explores the world (in first or third person) you move the camera around to see what’s around you.

Many modern games feature beautiful and intricate worlds, and some even feature photographic mechanics so that you can capture parts of the gameplay to share on social media.

There is a similar, and perhaps enhanced, experience of this in 3D rendering software, which I used to play around with a lot. Here you have not only control over the camera, but the positioning of objects and movement/lack of movement. You are freer to play with angles, and distance, and perspective, and can position the camera anywhere, leaving you infinite possibilities for examining the scene.

This act of moving the camera in three dimensions is the crux of it – as opposed to observing the decisions made by another artist you are free to shift your perspective yourself and discover angles that have certain effects. I often shoot with other photographers and, when watching them work, often observe how they notice a detail and then promptly root themselves in space and capture an image from where they’re standing. For me, the opposite is the case — the subject is what I consider a fixed point, which leaves me to do whatever it takes to move around it in space before making the image from the best angle.

I often pre-visualize my images when I see potential, which means I can look at my surroundings and imagine what the image will look like from different vantage points, without having to physically move myself. This is useful and cuts down the amount of time I spend working a scene drastically. I usually know where I’ll want to position my camera in order to make the image I have in my mind.

I really think this is a skill I’ve developed through computer games as I’ll often have to look around an environment and figure out where to be for certain objectives.

Moving around physically is still a useful thing to cultivate, and can help you arrive on fresh ways to view a scene, but having the spatial awareness to map out an environment by eye is an underrated skill, well worth cultivating.

On top of these visual skills, there are some other valuable lessons you can practice through games. Resource management, strategic planning, lateral thinking, noticing details, problem-solving, even memory improvement, can all be key in games, as well as many genres of photography – and I can definitely say that playing a number of different titles over the years has correlated with an increased capacity for all of these. Puzzle games are particularly excellent at helping you see possible ways to fit pieces of the world together; my main approach for most compositions is to mentally separate out each element and then fit them together in the neatest way, like a puzzle.

In no particular order, here are a few games I really encourage other photographers to play (or at least to find gameplay videos of on YouTube) to get a feel of the mechanics and the way they augment sight and spatial learning.

  • The Witness
  • Portal
  • Mirrors edge
  • Minecraft
  • Titanfall 2
  • Superhot
  • Journey

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.

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