Screenshot Photography: Where Does it Fit in the Art World?

Screenshot photography is a newcomer to the art world. Screenshots have been around since the beginning of computer video games. PC gamers would use screen captures to document moments in games and capture vast virtual landscapes and character customizations.

With the introduction of screen capturing on new generation consoles, this new art form has made way into casual gaming.

In most instances, screenshots are basically candid snapshots. However, screenshot photography is gaining popularity with artists who are looking for an additional medium to explore. This new attention is due to the growing demand for video games. Games are worlds to experience, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that artists have begun to embrace screenshots as a new medium.

Video games are increasingly producing photo-realistic, open worlds and these games provide a new outlet for photographers to explore and document. Screenshot photography is documenting in-game landscapes and cityscapes, architecture and pivotal moments during cut-scenes. Screenshots are used by players to document victories and humorous glitches.

image by Dina Farmer - example of a funny poorly compose screenshot.
Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Dina Farmer – example of a funny poorly composed screenshot.

On a larger scale, screenshots are used by gaming media companies to promote new game releases or downloadable content. Most of this media uses screen captures for promotional releases, but this removes the character and feel of a game, and with this new desire to promote with screenshot photography, the number of high-quality screenshots is minimal, because, screenshots today are quick captures of in-game content with no attention to lighting, content, or spatial awareness of the subject.

Screenshot photographers create images by applying photographic techniques during the composition of their screenshot. Attention is given to lighting within a game, the space a character fills within the screen, and camera angles.

Screenshot photography can be difficult due to limitations as well as what is contained within the design of the game. There’s no control as far as setting your camera aperture or shutter speed. What you see is what you get with a screenshot, in most cases.

James Pollock creates screenshot photos by capturing with his cell phone, then applying filters from Instagram and thus creating an artistic composition, utilizing in-game elements.

Yet, artists such as Duncan Harris of “Deadendthrills” modifies games in order to manipulate camera angles, distances, and textures. Harris also enhances his captures to high-quality stills, creating photo-realistic shots. Conversely, Iain Andrews documents games with minimal processing of composition and no tweaking or modifying the basic game.

Image by Dina Farmer
Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Dina Farmer

The beauty in screenshot photography is that anyone can take a screenshot, apply a few artistic techniques and create a striking image. The artist is taking something already there and creating a new piece of art.

It can be said that screenshot photography is actually a form of flattery, where these artists painstakingly seek out obscure moments in games, showcasing scenes a casual gamer may overlook due to playing the game, rather than appreciating the game. The artist is bringing attention to the level of detail game developers take to create these games.

Arguably, a screenshot can be taken by anyone and be called art, and yet, it is not as simple as double-tapping the Xbox home button or tapping share.

Image By Dina Farmer
Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot By Dina Farmer

This sort of debate is commonly brought up in all forms of art. When does something become art? Who decides what is art? When someone takes a photograph of a screen does it become art? Couldn’t this be considered plagiarism, since the photographer is not the creator of what is in front of the lens or computer?

It is a question of authenticity, the ownership, and the technical skill that goes into creating that work. The artist screen-captures a scene in a game using an artistic eye. However, the subject matter they captured is not their original work. How then can they call it a work of art or even their own artwork, when they are not the content creator? Art is sometimes interpreted as creating something from nothing. If this is the definition we accept, then the art of screenshot photography is a rampant case of plagiarism.

The capturing device is simply a tool to document something only possible in a digital world. This tool is a machine able to capture the virtual world it works within. It inhibits an artist’s ability to create.

Screen captures are just that, there is no thought process or artistic skill in pushing a button. Even if an artist modifies the game, they are not doing anything beyond noting a moment in a game, and slapping a filter on it and calling it art. Skill is not required to take a screenshot. When an artist chooses to capture during a cut-scene, all the work is done by the cinematographer of the game. Arguably, there is no management of screen shots and manipulation can easily be done post processing.

A textbook definition of Art states, “Art must have form and content” (1). This means then that art must have an element of design, and the materials used to create the art gives it form. Effectively, you could then state a screenshot isn’t art; because, the artist did not choose the color, values, or lines, they simply captures what they saw. Art must also contain content; this is what the artist means to convey to the viewer, or rather what the artist portrays. Again, since the artist is creating a screenshot they are in effect using another’s work to portray the same thing rather than bringing new meaning to a piece of work.

Image by Dina Farmer
Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Dina Farmer

At its essence, it is difficult to decide the rules of art. Must art contain beauty? Must it display a grasp of artistic ability? If a person doesn’t create it with their hands but with a mechanical or digital device, does that lessen the value? It can be argued that all of these questions are valid, but the viewer must then decide, What is my definition of art?

I feel screenshot photography is what you make it, the same as any piece of art photography. An artist must know something impactful is about to happen and thus capture that moment.

I find it fulfilling to compose an in-game shot and work within the limitations of the game’s camera angles and textures. There is beauty in capturing an event at the perfect moment. Screenshot photography should be explored from heavy edits to untouched copies. And with applying creative techniques to create aesthetically pleasing compositions, I believe screenshot photography is an art form.

Ultimately, we must allow the viewer to determine if it is art or not.  The viewer must look within him or herself and decide if screenshot photography meets their criteria for art. As it stands right now, screenshot photography much like photography, is gaining recognition, and it will be interesting to see how screenshot photography etches a place for itself in the world.

  1. Belton, Robert. “The Elements of Art.” The University of British Columbia. The University of British Columbia, 12 Dec. 1996. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://fccs.ok.ubc.ca/about/links/resources/arthistory/elements.html>.

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