How to take Awesome Screenshots, Part 1: Through the Lens

Whoa, look at this, OAK's first guest post! Yes, believe it or not, in the 4+ years this blog has been around, this is the first one! Anyway, Hugh's got some exciting news about a new project, AND some great cinematography-based screenshot tips! And I'll be following up this post with my own batch of screenshot tricks later this week! So without any further ado, let's get into it!

(Click any of the images in this post for nice huge high-resolution versions.)

- Rades

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Hey! Hugh here, from MMO Melting Pot and more recently the director of Death Knight Love Story.

Rades asked me to share a few tips on taking the best pictures possible in WoW. Since I've been using games as my visual medium of choice for 15 years now, and I've just spent 5 years working out how to use WoW specifically, I think I can do that...

Five years? Yep. I've spent the last five years making what's almost certainly the biggest WoW fanfilm ever, using Avatar-like motion capture techniques. It's called Death Knight Love Story - and it has been really useful in honing my visual skills to a fine point as we shot scene after scene making the film perfect.

So, here are a few of the tricks I've been using over those years.

Consider The Rule Of Thirds
One of the oldest rules in visual media - dating well before the invention of the camera - is the Rule of Thirds.

Essentially, the Rule of Thirds states that if you divide your frame up into thirds, then place the items of interest in your scene at the corners or edges of those thirds, you'll create a visually pleasing image.

This idea actually dates back to Greek architecture, and the so-called "Golden Ratio". You can see it at work in Da Vinci's paintings, and onward through the history of Renaissance and later art. By the time we have modern cameras, it's omnipresent.

Here's the Rule of Thirds at work in one of my frames from Death Knight Love Story, for example:

You'll see here that I've placed the strong horizontal lines in the picture at the top and bottom third lines. That's a trick that works particularly well if you've got a horizon line in the picture - try the effect of having the horizon on a third line compared to having it in the middle of the picture, and you'll immediately see the difference.

Here's another example:

Here you'll see that I've placed Miria's face on the top right corner of the thirds. Placing a character's eyes on the upper third line works particularly well, as our own eyes are naturally drawn to meet the gaze of anyone in a picture we're looking at.

Note that the Rule of Thirds, much like the Pirates' Code, is more of a guideline than a rule. A lot of the time you'll see classical art disobey the rule with character placement, in particular. In fact, often it can be more effective to "tease" the rule rather than actually match it, by having characters looking toward the third line rather than sitting on it. In this shot, for example, Miria's placed so she is about to break the line:

And on that subject...

Place characters according to their role
The way you place characters in the frame will strongly affect what the viewer thinks of them.

Firstly: you should almost never place a character's face right in the middle of your shot. Whilst it might seem the most aesthetically pleasing way to set things up, it's actually quite the opposite. Almost anywhere else in the frame will be better!

However, placing a character on the center line of frame, but offset vertically, can have some very interesting effects. For example, if you want a character to seem dominant and scary, place their face above the center line but centered vertically:

Most of the time, though, you'll want to offset characters in the frame. There are two useful techniques here. Firstly, the closer that the character is to the center of frame, all else being equal, the more sympathetic they'll seem.

That frame also demonstrates the next principle: a character who is facing toward the center of frame will seem more sympathetic than a character who is facing away from the center of frame. In the previous shot, Miria seems more sympathetic than Arthas - obviously that's partially because one of them is wearing Big Evil Armour, but also became Arthas is looking away from the central point whilst Miria is looking in.

Here's a less sympathetic Miria to demonstrate that point:

Combine those three elements and you can easily tell a story with characters whose faces can't move. In fact, that's what we did with Death Knight Love Story - up to 6 months ago, we were shooting the film without any facial animation, so we had to get all our emotional content in via cinematography. The final film has lovely full-face animation (seriously, check out the cameo from the Tauren Death Knight, which is particularly impressive) but we'd already created the emotional resonance with storytelling through the camera.

Look For Lines To Lead The Eye
If you possibly can, make use of the lines and shapes in your image to lead your viewers' eyes.

Photographers and cinematographers in real life make a lot of use of converging lines, but this is a tip that is particularly applicable to photography or video in a computer game. Because of the polygonal nature of what we're shooting, there are a lot of opportunities to use lines to enhance your shots.

Here's one example from early in Death Knight Love Story. See if you can spot how many straight lines there are in the shot, all converging on the eyeline of the soldier pushing the cannon:

A lot of the lines there are actually polygon lines, which would otherwise be more than a bit ugly - but in this case we've put them to use to tell viewers what's important in the shot.

Here's a slightly different example of using lines: rather than using them to point to a central part of the image, we're using a "vanishing point" to give the impression of scale and depth in the picture:

This approach works particularly well when you're going for a sense of something large or continuous. In this shot, we wanted to give the impression that the line of just-risen Death Knights was almost endless, but also that they were dwarfed and almost crushed by the landscape around them.

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And that's it! Well, actually, it's not - there's much more I could talk about, like depth of field, the Golden Ratio, post-processing, and so on - but I don't want to overwhelm you with a wall of text!

So, enjoy - I'll be very interested to see if you end up taking pictures using this guidelines!

And if you'd like to check out Death Knight Love Story, the WoW animated fanfilm that I've spent five years on (and which features the voices of Brian Blessed, Joanna Lumley, Jack Davenport and Anna Chancellor), check it out at Let me know what you think!

- Hugh

How to take Awesome Screenshots
Part 1: Through the Lens
Part 2: Composition
Part 3: Posing Tricks
Part 4: Going the Extra Mile

3 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. gravatar

    Hugh! What a spectacular project! Can't wait to see its exciting conclusion! Every time I take a crappy screenshot, and there are many, I hear that inner voice of 'rule of thirds' in my head. Ah well. Great tips, and wonderful post!

    January 21, 2014 at 7:32 PM

  2. gravatar

    This is awesome Rades, and Thank you Hugh for sharing your tips... I really admire those screenshots and cinematography films such as yours based on game like World of Warcraft the productions and the efforts behind this are crazy! Well done sir! Thanks again! Definitely the rule of the thirds seems to be a great tip to follow first. Thank you thank you again! =) Keep up the good work you two!

    January 21, 2014 at 11:35 PM

  3. gravatar

    Finally, two of my favourite wow-bloggers join forces! Thank you Hugh for this piece full of interesting insights. Can't wait for your sequels, Rades!

    January 23, 2014 at 1:16 PM