Monday Tip-Off: Virtual Hardwood Photography

Monday Tip-Off: Virtual Hardwood Photography

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with some thoughts on taking great screenshots of basketball video games; or, if you prefer, virtual hardwood photography.

When it comes my original content related to basketball video games, I’ve been drawn to writing over more visual mediums. This goes back to what I was passionate about (and generally good at) in school. I enjoyed creative writing far more than arts and crafts, which I wasn’t particularly skilled at. I’ve enjoyed dabbling with some video content over the years, and that will continue, especially as I can combine it with writing through video essays and the like. However, outside of modding, my content has largely consisted of articles.

With that being said, feature articles have a visual aspect to them as well. Besides neatly formatting the text, images are essential as they provide aesthetically-pleasing breaks, and further illustrate the topic being discussed. To that point, I not only take pride in my writing and self-editing to the best of my ability, but also including relevant and appealing screenshots. If I’ve prepared a topic then I’ll go out of my way to get relevant screenshots, but the screenshots and gameplay videos that I’ve captured for posterity have also provided me with a handy media library spanning my entire collection of games. Either way, I take pride in my virtual hardwood photography.

In particular, when I capture a screenshot for an article, I’m usually trying to mimic a real NBA photo. Needless to say, I will take some liberties here and there. If there are no restrictions on the camera angles in a game’s instant replay function, it’s feasible to achieve some unlikely or downright impossible angles. Depending on what it is that I’m discussing of course, that may actually be ideal, and it’s why it’s frustrating when the camera snaps to specific angles in most NBA 2K titles. I do understand the reason for that approach though, and although it can be frustrating to get the right angle, it does help if your virtual hardwood photography is striving to replicate a real shot.

Shaq Dunks on Haywood in NBA 2K23

Beyond that, there are a few rules I like to follow in order to capture a realistic action shot. First of all, I want to avoid having any player indicators be visible. Many games make this easier by providing the option to hide those indicators along with the replay controls, but others don’t. In those situations, I try to angle the camera so that those squares and circles around the players’ feet aren’t in the shot, or can be cropped out. This can affect the quality of the shot however, particularly if the replay camera snaps to an angle or doesn’t provide sufficient control over height and positioning. It can take some patience and creativity to frame everything properly in situations like that.

I also try to avoid those quirky video game moments that aren’t always apparent in the midst of gameplay, but are painfully obvious in replay. This includes players clipping through each other, a weird frame in an animation, limbs and other parts of the player models disappearing (NBA 2K11 is notorious for players’ heads turning invisible), and anything else that detracts from the realism of the shot. Obviously there are a lot of moving parts that can spoil an otherwise great shot, including rim physics and other environmental interactions. Dunks that are spectacular during gameplay don’t always look as good in the replay, as it’s obvious that the player’s hand isn’t close to the rim.

To that point, it’s about finding the right frame to capture if you want the best and most realistic-looking results. If you’re going out of your way to capture a specific shot, then you may want to try again. Accuracy is also vital when staging a scenario. For example, in articles where I’ve discussed retro teams I’d like to see added to NBA 2K, I’ve used existing assets to set up a shot of what it would look like if they were in the game. To achieve the best effect possible without diving into some modding, I ensure that any players who shouldn’t be present aren’t in the frame. If necessary – and possible – I’ll also angle the camera so that it doesn’t show any inaccurate branding.

Patrick Ewing vs Alonzo Mourning in NBA 2K22

Not to toot my own horn, but these screenshots have sometimes led to questions as to which mod they’re from. This has been quite flattering to read as it’s meant that I’ve achieved the effect that I was going for, but also a slight bummer as I have to deliver the disappointing explanation that it’s not a mod to get excited about; just a staged screenshot. It’s also an example of how some people don’t read the article (or even the title, for that matter), which is what my attempts at virtual hardwood photography were meant to enhance. Still, at least the shot turned out well, and hopefully made the article even more enjoyable for those who did take the time to actually read it in full.

Of course, I can always stand to improve my virtual hardwood photography skills, especially as I’ve had much more of a knack for writing than an eye for art and visual mediums. When it comes to the scenarios and poses that I capture, I’d like to strive for more diversity and imagination. I’ll admit to having some stock poses and plays that I frequently use, because they’re common basketball scenarios and easy to set up. This isn’t terrible as they’re instantly recognisable and clearly represent the player and/or moment I intended to portray, but it can result in some bland and repetitive shots. If you’re a regular reader, then I’m sure you’ll recognise some of my go-to scenarios.

These include a player dribbling the ball up court, always with the ball in hand. There’s nothing wrong with that shot, but I do use it often, and it overlooks the fact that many photos of NBA players mid-dribble feature the ball on the way down to or up from the floor. It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind with my virtual hardwood photography. Like most basketball gamers, my action shots also tend to heavily skew towards players shooting or handling the ball, rather than defensive plays or off-ball moments. When I do focus on those shots, it’s the same handful of scenarios: blocking a shot, posting up, or running up and down the floor on a change of possession.

Virtual Hardwood Photography: Up-Court Dribble (Gilbert Arenas, NBA Live 08)

Once again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those screenshots as such. As I said, they’re recognisable basketball scenarios that effectively spotlight players and moments that we’d see in real NBA photos. I believe they do complement my articles and illustrate what I’m talking about. That doesn’t mean that I can’t try to improve them with more originality and creativity, though. Whether it’s a fancier move or rarer animation, an off-ball moment, or a different pose, it’s been my aim to change things up more often. I’ve also been trying to get into the habit of posting more screenshots and other media on our socials, and I’d prefer them to be interesting and appealing.

Needless to say, this also comes down to the games themselves cooperating. I may not be able to set up the exact scenario that I want for an action shot. A specific animation may not trigger easily, or the CPU defenders won’t cooperate. As noted above, it may look good for the most part, but players are clipping through each other, or looking in the wrong direction. In some games, players seemingly have a tendency to blink at inopportune moments, ruining a frame that would otherwise be the perfect shot. If you’re staging a moment to get a screenshot for an article then you can obviously try multiple takes, but if it’s during regular gaming, the results won’t always be perfect.

Even when everything turns out great however, variety is still important as far as staging. There have been times when I’ve repeated a pose in screenshots used in the same article, especially those featuring lists of players. Sometimes this is deliberate, as was the case when I wrote about players that have never appeared in any official rosters. At other times though, it’s admittedly been a tad unimaginative. It’s more of a layout issue, but I’m also trying to be more mindful of overloading articles with shots of teams that have similar colours. In other words, I’m aiming to avoid a situation such as consecutive screenshots where the featured player is wearing a red uniform.

Myles Turner Blocks A Dunk in NBA Live 18

That probably sounds like I’m over-thinking the matter, but I take pride in my content and presenting it in the best way possible. I want the proverbial thousand words of each screenshot to complement the ones that I’m writing. On top of that though, it’s challenging and fun to stage different scenarios on the virtual hardwood, and try to replicate NBA photography. This also includes selecting various alternate jerseys to add more variety, and showcase something that captures a snapshot of the era. Setting up historical and fantasy scenarios can be a blast, even if I don’t end up playing a full game once everything is in place. Just getting the right shot was the goal, after all.

Indeed, some of my favourite features that I’ve produced over the past couple of years have basically been all about virtual hardwood photography. During my NBA Live 10 kick, I spotlighted players who were still active by placing them on their 2021 teams, as well as players whose rookie throwbacks were included in the game. I also used it to portray some “What If” scenarios and makeshift classic teams. When I celebrated the history of the NBA Finals and other historical scenarios with NBA 2K14, aside from some short blurbs, it was basically more virtual hardwood photography. They’re fun to produce, and shake things up in between my more traditional retrospectives.

And of course, beyond content creation, I enjoy capturing mementos of my basketball gaming. Obviously it all helps build a media library for articles, as well as YouTube now that I’m capturing more videos thanks to upgrading my Elgato. I enjoy having those screenshots and clips as keepsakes though, even if I never turn some of them into content that I share. Photography admittedly isn’t my passion in real life, and I wouldn’t say that it’s my forte when it comes to virtual hardwood screenshots. Still, it’s something that I’m always trying to put my best effort into, for personal and content creation purposes alike. Hopefully, that comes through in the screens I use.

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