How to take Awesome Screenshots, Part 2: Composition


Previously, Hugh introduced some technical tips that help produce excellent screenshots. In this entry, I'll be talking about composition - specifically, elements around you to consider when setting up a shot! Keep an eye out for Hugh's tips in action, particularly the Rule of Thirds!

However, before I get into any specifics, I want to mention my golden rule, which I consider absolutely essential:

TAKE TONS.

Don't limit yourself! You're not using an old film camera where you have a limited number of shots! You've got essentially unlimited storage space - use it!

Take a few extra shots, maybe even an extra dozen or two. Maybe from a slightly different perspective, or maybe with your character turned a few degrees more in one direction. After all, you never know when a shot you think will be great turns out terrible because of a blinking NPC, another player flying by overhead, or even just when a particular angle or head tilt doesn't end up looking right. And even if your first shot looks great, what's the harm in taking a couple more just to make sure?


I took 300 screenshots for this post.
You probably don't have to take this many. (But you could.)

And of course, if you're worried about hard drive space, then when you're finished simply delete the ones you didn't like!

Why settle for a good shot when you can have a great one?

* * * * *


Taking a screenshot in WoW is as simple as reaching over and pressing the Print Screen button. (Or whatever Mac users press.)

But screenshots are also capable of being great art. What is the scene? What is the mood and/or emotion? What is visible in the shot? Is it flat and bland, or dynamic and exciting? These are all qualities you can think about before taking a screenshot, and even a quick consideration can turn your image from a plain, unremarkable one that anyone could have taken, to one that's unique, memorable, and something you can look back on fondly and think "I made that. Me. And it looks awesome."

In this post, I'll describe the following composition techniques:
Lighting
Framing
Up Shots/Down Shots
Setting

and Foreshortening.


Lighting
One of the most fundamental elements of photography is lighting. At its core, it really is quite simple: is my subject visible?

In WoW screenshots, proper lighting is crucial to be able to SEE the cool thing you want to capture! But it's also tricky, since we have limited control over lighting in-game. Sometimes we can wait for it to be day and take nice, bright shots in the middle of Stormwind, but often we don't have that luxury - we want to take the shot now, or the area the shot requires is always darkly lit. (For example, I hated when my raid team was progressing through Heart of Fear, because the entire raid (with the exception of Garalon's room) was murky, dim, and generally terrible for good screenshots.)

Still, when we can help it, we should strive for lighting that improves your shot, or at the very least, does not negatively affect it. Take a second and look at where the nearby light sources are! If your back is to a bonfire, torch or other light source, your features and front may end up shadowed and hard to see. On the other hand, if you are directly facing into a nice source of light, your details will probably be very visible and well-lit.

Here's an example of the different proper lighting can make. To emphasize the quality difference, I haven't touched up these shots in Photoshop.


Look how dull and bland the colors are. I took this on the zeppelin tower in Orgrimmar, and the lighting there is garbage. The reds on Fabulor's outfit are faded and muddy, and the weird light coming from his mace is actually lighting up his cloak, which looks totally bizarre since it's the only part of him that is well-illuminated in the entire shot! Truly a terrible picture.


In contrast, look at this one. In this shot, I positioned the "camera" on top of a large Orgrimmar bonfire. The difference is very clear. Look at Fabulor's hair, the crest on his tabard, even his boots. The reds are much more vivid and vibrant, and you can see that the dark colors of his pants and tabard are actually a slate gray. His face is also facing the light, and you can clearly see the shadows of his cheekbones and neck. Much better.

Now, sometimes you can't get proper light on a character. Fortunately, you can cheat. Any player character or NPC (and many objects) will highlight and illuminate when you select them or hover your mouse cursor over them. So if you really need some extra light on someone, mouse 'em and that might do the trick!

By doing this, you can turn faded, washed-out colors (look how jarringly bright the orb at Fabulor's belt is)...


...into some nice, evenly-lit detail.

Of course, sometimes you may want your character to be partially in shadow! Being dimly-lit or back-lit can be quite an effective dramatic tool.


Courtesy of Catulla.

In this shot, the heavy shadows cast Darnassus in a very different light than if the scene was bright and sunny. It's serious, solemn, perhaps grim. We can see on the left that there is still some light in the city, which further adds to the intrigue - the light is right there, literally a few feet away, but Catulla is choosing to instead stand here, in the shadows. Is this relevant to her frame of mind? What is she doing here, away from the warm sun, away from everyone else?

Finally, look at her eyes - she's in shadow, but her eyes are blazing out of the darkness, staring right at us. She's in the shadows, but so are we. And she knows we're there.


Framing

If you read Hugh's post, you're familiar with the concept of the Rule of Thirds. While I generally tend to follow the RoT, I find that using scenery or background visuals to frame your subject in the center of the shot can be an effective narrative technique.

While the Rule of Thirds creates visually pleasing images, a framed, centered, usually symmetrical shot can grab your attention and emphasize the importance of a scene. Look back up at the image of Catulla above - it's stark and a little bit startling, feelings that are emphasized by how she is centered in the shot, and framed by the huge pillars behind her.

The abrupt feel of a centered shot (compared to a Rule of Thirds shot) can also make someone pause and consider a scene's importance, perhaps more than they would have with a RoT "pleasing" shot. For example, take a look at Sylvanas and Garrosh here. Without knowing the context, these two images aren't really remarkable. But the context accompanying these moments is everything.


In the Sylvanas image, she's framed by the braziers, wall and decorations behind her. But what are those decorations? That's not the Undercity. That's (old) Orgrimmar's throne room, when Sylvanas traveled to Orgrimmar to seek Thrall's help in retaking her city from Putress and Varimathras. It's a frozen moment of one of the most important events of the entire Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and it's also significant because it's the only time in WoW that you would ever see Sylvanas there. It's historic, basically.


And Garrosh? Well, if you've quested through the post-Shattering Stonetalon zone Horde-side, you know exactly why this is such an important moment. What Garrosh says and does in this quest was constantly brought up and referenced whenever discussing his character, for all of Cataclysm. He had a number of appearances, but this, THIS was his big defining moment, the moment when he revealed a side to himself we had not yet seen.

And hell, Garrosh aside, it's an extremely powerful, dramatic moment. We just watched everything fall to pieces, and then everything got even worse. And then, Garrosh shows up. And he's pissed. Not a roar, wave-my-axe-around pissed. Something far worse. It's outrage mixed with horror and disbelief, and he's staring right at Krom'gar when he speaks, but he's also looking Right. At. You.


Up Shots/Down Shots

An Up Shot is a shot when we are looking up at something, like the above image. A Down Shot is when we are looking down at something.

Implementing vertical angles into your screenshots can have a number of different results. Up Shots are excellent at making your subject look powerful and impressive, often emphasizing their size. Up Shots also usually indicate who is controlling or dominating a scene. Look at Rades staring up at Ragnaros - he's TINY compared to the Firelord. They can't fight, it wouldn't even be a contest! Rag would squash him like a bug.


Up Shots can also be used to emphasize something's figurative importance, by making it seem larger-than-life. In this shot, Gerk's plague tank isn't REALLY that much bigger than Nosos, a dwarf. But because of the angle, it looms and towers over her. And when you consider the context of the scene - her solemnly paying her respects to the deceased Gerk - the fact that it's an Up Shot hints to us just how important this is to her. (The fact that she's kneeling also makes her look smaller, contributing to the mood.)


On the other hand, Down Shots are the reverse. They make things look small, weak or powerless. In the above image, which is almost over Rades' shoulder (ie, almost from his perspective), who is the one in control? Is it Rades or Arthas who looks pitiful and helpless?


Does this statue look impressive or majestic? No, it's covered with moss, it's broken, it's alone in some dark woods, and are those zombies back there? It looks forgotten and neglected. These feelings are amplified because we are looking down on it from above. Unlike Gerk's plague tank, which seemed huge, this statue looks small and lonely.

(For another example of a Down Shot, scroll back up to the top and look at the lead image of Wrathion and Anduin, and what the camera angle adds to that scene.)

You can easily achieve Up and Down Shots in-game by - rather obviously - putting yourself below or above your subject. You can do Up Shots by standing close to your subject so you are staring up at them, descending to a lower elevation, or if all else fails, lying down on the ground. Down Shots are typically easier to set up - mount up so you are taller, fly above if you are outside, hop up on a bush or crate or ledge, or even just jump in place and look downward.


Setting

Choosing a nice background/setting can add a great deal of context or story to a screenshot. Now obviously, sometimes the setting is out of your hands - if you want to take a picture of Yogg-Saron, well, there's only one setting you'll ever be able to use.

But if you're posing a shot? Don't just snap it wherever you want - put some thought into it!

What's the mood? What is the environment behind your character, and what will it mean, in the context of the shot?


In this shot, Fabulor is being silly, charming, and goofy. He's grinning, he's dancing, everything is warm and happy. He's in his RP set, which is Silvermoon-themed; he's doing a Love Fool achievement, which matches very well with Silvermoon's bright aesthetic and pinks and reds; and he's also alone in the shot - it's all Fabulor, baby.


In contrast, look at this shot. The theme isn't silly and fun anymore - now it's all business and being a badass. He's in armor, he's got a serious look on his face, and he's walking with a purposeful stride toward the camera. We can also see Shattrath behind him, the naaru A'dal in particular.

We all know the history between the naaru and the Blood Knights - what's going on? Did Fabulor just deliver an ultimatum to A'dal? Is he on a mission for the Scryers? Hmm, he's also walking away from a draenei paladin - a rival? A friend?

Also, unlike Silvermoon's colorful/lustrous architecture, the actual colors and scenery in this shot are actually pretty dull, and a little hazy, both of which serve to naturally draw the eye to Fabulor's sharp colors and prominent foreground position.

If you switched the backgrounds in these two shots, neither would be nearly as effective. Why would you be shooting off heart fireworks in Shattrath? Why would Fabulor be so serious and business-face in decadent, relaxed Silvermoon? Context and suitability is key!


Mind you, backgrounds don't always have to tell a story. Sometimes you just want them to complement your subject - or at the very least, not detract from them. In the above shot, the simple stars in the background don't necessarily add anything to the shot, but the emptiness naturally focuses your attention on Rades. And it's uncluttered and quiet - it's just Rades and the open, silent night sky. Finally, the dark sky provides a pleasant, vivid contrast to Rades' bright colors and the fiery flames from his rocket pack.


Foreshortening

Courtesy of Cynwise.

Foreshortening is when objects near the camera appear large, and objects far away appear to shrink and vanish into the distance. We can easily use this technique to make something look quasi-3D, and "reach" towards the viewer.

In the above picture, Cyn's polearm is leaping right out at us, and looks dangerous and huge. It's also an Up Shot, which adds to how lethal and capable his character seems.


Foreshortening can also be used to draw attention to something small, by making it look big. You often see this in movies, when a character is looking for an Important Item (a key, a coin, etc.) and when they finally spot it, the camera zooms in super tight, magnifying the object and making it take up most of the screen.

Look how large the purple spider appears to be, compared to Rades. We know it's not actually the same size as him, it's just closer to us, but by presenting the spider like this we know that it is the focus of the shot. Not Rades. And like us, he too is fixated and looking at it.

* * * * *

I hope these concepts help you in your own screenshot-taking endeavors! Remember, it's easy to take a quick snapshot-style screenshot if you simply want a memory of something. But if you want something that's not just special, but also beautiful, it can be worth a few extra seconds to think about your scene and the exact emotions you want to capture.

Next up, Part 3: Posing Tricks!


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

7 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. gravatar
    Evlyxx

    Great post, I'll be raising my screenshots a notch up thanks to this one :)

    January 24, 2014 at 4:49 AM

  2. gravatar
    Andy Farrell

    This might get mentioned in the next post, but if your screenshot's going to include large smooth gradients (e.g. sky), it really helps to use TGA format :

    /console screenshotFormat tga

    Unlike JPEG there's no lossy compression, meaning gradients are smoother rather than blocky, and hold up better to manipulation in Photoshop.

    Another thing I'd mention, which again might be covered in the next post, is zoom. Yeah you basically only have 1 zoom level (or two if you get an Ornate Spyglass), but there are a couple of ways around that.

    For more zoomed-in shots, you can just crop the middle of the picture out. This is literally what zooming in is, except obviously there's a lower limit based on how many pixels you have to start with, but even at a standard 1920×1080 HD resolution you can effectively 'zoom in' by 2× by cropping a 900px-wide image out of the original.

    For wider-angle shots, so long as there's not too much motion, you can use panorama stitching. I wrote a blog post about how to do this on Windows using Hugin (the small thumbnails you can see in that guide are what I used to create this image).

    January 24, 2014 at 6:32 AM

  3. gravatar
    Galdhael (Ravenholdt)

    May I ask how you remove nameplates from screenshots? I'm always trying to dodge the nameplates especially if I have something targeted and want an in-combat shot - I'm sure there is a simple solution but it continues to elude me. :/

    Great post! :D

    January 25, 2014 at 10:59 AM

  4. gravatar
    Rades

    @Andy - That's a really good point about using .TGA images! I typically don't switch back and forth, because I think TGA files are much larger, and the way I take screenshots I really would run out of space. But for a specific one or two shots, I may start doing that. Good tip!

    @Galdhael - I am going to address manipulating nameplates and visible text in the next post, actually! :)

    January 25, 2014 at 11:37 AM

  5. gravatar
    Andy Farrell

    Yep, at 1920×1080 TGA screenshots are generally 3–5MB. I don't even take that many and my screenshots folder is 2.6GB!

    January 25, 2014 at 2:12 PM

  6. gravatar
    Galdhael

    Thank you, looking forward to it! :)

    January 25, 2014 at 7:07 PM

  7. gravatar
    Astalnar

    I have just one question. What are those black/red boots the Paladin is wearing in the second and third picture called?

    January 31, 2014 at 8:29 AM