Is a picture taken in SL a ‘photograph’?


Kate Bergdorf has opened up an interesting debate on her blog about the ‘validity’ of virtual photography. Recently snubbed by an RL photographer friend when she asked him for an opinion on the images she created for her new exhibition, Le serpent qui dance (currently on display at Itakos Gallery), Kate asserts that “a photograph is a photograph whether it is taken in real or virtual worlds.” She continues, “if not, would someone please explain to me what is actually the difference?”

It’s a fascinating question, and one which I approach with no particular expertise notwithstanding an on-and-off interest in RL photography over about the last twenty-five years. I’m drawn to it in part because the RL friend I’ve most enjoyed that hobby with over this time has a number of views about photography that differ in places from my own and which have sparked some lively – and not entirely unconnected – conversations.


For example, he takes quite a dim view of mass usage filters applied to pictures. We’re talking Instagram here. His view is that pictures messed with in this way – for example, to make them look old or under-saturated – are not really genuine photos. It’s not so much that he has a problem with image manipulation as it is that he dislikes everyone using the same special effect. I, on the other hand, am quite happy to use off-the-shelf filters if I feel they enhance a photograph I’ve taken.

It’s tempting to label such views as his as defensive or some sort of snobbery. I remind myself, however, that my friend is actually highly skilled in many of the technical aspects of photography that I’ve never really bothered to learn, and that my general view in life is that less skilled people criticising the views and knowledge of more skilled people is something of a problem in the world at the moment (coughTrumpcough).


So where my friend will spend time carefully considering aperture and shutter speed to get the right amount of light onto the film or sensor, I tend to leave the camera on auto mode and think more about composition. My belief is that his skills are less and less vital as photography becomes more and more automated, whereas composition remains as important as it ever did. I think I’m right in saying that his view, on the other hand, would be that ‘photography’ is a set of specific skills and the images created through these skills are ‘photographs’: you can play all you want with toys that do all this work for you, but the images that result are not true photographs. This isn’t to say that they don’t have value, it’s just that they’re something else. A table made from metal might seat four for dinner, but it isn’t carpentry.

Where do Second Life photos fit into this? One way of exploring this issue might be to consider the similarities and differences SL images have with both conventional photos and with paintings – we must agree at least that paintings and photographs are two different things, much as they might both attempt to capture an object or a person or a scene. Second Life images, then, are different from photographs in that they involve no physical capture of real life light reflecting off real light objects. They are at best simulations of real life light and objects, albeit the potential is there for these simulations to appear incredibly real. On the other hand, SL images are similar to photographs in that they involve the instant capture of arranged items created externally to our creative process. If I take a picture of a female reclining on a couch then it’s likely I didn’t create the couch or the room it’s in or the clothes the model is wearing (or, extending this to SL, her body or her shape or her skin). The thing that I bring creatively is my arrangement of these items, and my lighting and composition of this arrangement.


It could be said that an SL image is more like a painting, however, because there’s no limit to the things we can take pictures of in SL. In boring old RL we can’t take photographs of dragons or alien landscapes or dancing fairies because none of these things are available to us to photograph. Paintings suffer no such limitation. A counter-argument to that, however, might be that we can certainly take photographs of models of all those things – and have been doing so for many, many years. And what are items in SL if not models?

It’s looking pretty good for the ‘SL pictures are photos’ argument. But have we considered sufficiently the various different types of photography? Another difference that exists between my friend and I is in the nature of the pictures we take. Where I tend to go for composed, aesthetically satisfying images, his preference is to capture life happening. He takes a camera with him everywhere. He captures images of family members mid-sentence or reacting to someone else’s comments. He’s sort of a scaled-down version of a war photographer, with a belief that a still image and the attention it can draw to a particular aspect of a subject might just tell you more about that person than a video clip of them ever could. Where in SL does the possibility exist to capture spontaneous behaviour and emotions? Suddenly, we’re on much shakier ground.


Although it isn’t as though we don’t try to capture these things. Facial expressions for mesh heads are a thing now as are all manner of finger arrangements (since it’s not only through our faces that we express our emotions). It might not yet be possible to capture as-they-happen expressions, but the real-time mapping of facial expression from you to your avatar’s face is certainly something that’s being researched (much as I personally hate the idea), so it will likely be a reality one day. Pictures about emotion might be staged pictures for the moment, but there’s no reason to suppose that this will always be the case.

And the ‘SL pictures are not photos’ argument starts to get into real trouble when we look ahead at all the graphic improvements likely in the future. At the movies today it’s almost impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is computer-created; it’s no great leap of the imagination to assume that this level of realism will arrive eventually in virtual worlds. When we can no longer tell if a photo has been taken in real life or not, will it be important to us whether it actually was or not?


Actually, I think it will. Knowing that a picture of a starving child or a war victim or a person with cancer is real is precisely what gets us digging into our pockets and donating in response to appeals. Real life human suffering is one thing that virtual photography won’t ever be able to truly capture. It might be only one aspect of photography’s wide range of purpose, but it is the one that’s probably changed the world the most over the last century. The realness of RL photography is important. And that’s why we will always continue to call it RL photography.

Are RL and SL photography the same thing? No. Are they each equally valid forms of photography, with their own range of categories and function, some of which overlap and some of which are distinct? Yes, I think they are.

Since you’re here…
Why not take a look at my novels? Many of them are set in and around Second Life® or a similar virtual world, and most are free to read if you choose the Issuu option. If you would like to buy an e-copy of one of my novels, however, the Kindle and ePub versions are priced very low. In fact, my first SL novel, AFK, can be downloaded in Kindle, ePub and PDF format for free (see the link at the top-right of this page). Enjoy!

16 thoughts on “Is a picture taken in SL a ‘photograph’?

  1. Very thought provoking. And a subject dear to my heart.
    So much so that I decided to write my own blog post rather than clutter up your comments section! (And considering this is only my second post since starting the blog in 2011 ……. it’s rather a landmark for me :)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m old fashioned.
    To me a photograph is taken with an actual old fashioned camera that still uses films, I’d even be hesitant to call a picture taken with a digital camera a real photograph.
    It just isn’t right without a dark room, the mixing of chemicals, the photo paper, etc.
    But then again, I live in the past, what do I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See, as a keen film photographer, Jo, I love all of that. I don’t develop my own pictures but I regularly use slide film in my two 35mm cameras (a Praktica SLR made in East Germany and – my favourite – my father’s Olympus Trip) – there’s just something about looking at slides through a slide viewer (and the fact that the slide was actually *there* where the picture got taken) – plus I have a beautiful Minolta 110 that sits permanently just in front of my PC monitor – I’ve only run a couple of 110 films through this because it’s quite expensive to get them developed – and more recently have bought an Instax camera because I missed taking polaroids. Film photography is a bona fide ‘thing’ in its own right, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I still think it’s just one type of photography though.


      1. I’m also an enthousiastic film photographer, no longer develop but use antique cameras, like my much loved 1930s box camera.
        I think we should all use photography just for this old traditional way and make up something new for everything else ;)
        Pictography ;)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. You raise a lot of different questions on several fundamental principles, including aesthetics, processes and technology, technique, intent, subject and interpretation. The boundaries of art and photography are constantly patrolled by those trying to exclude the unworthy by disqualifying their work on any one of those grounds (not something I’m accusing you of, to be clear).

    But I would add this (after Sontag in particular). There is no such thing as ‘real’ photography. Truth is the burden that art placed on photography, and those expecting that unasked for requirement have been disappointed ever since. From the early days, photographs were amended, altered or manipulated (depending on your view of intentionality). From choice of film to how it was processed, photography has told tales that are outside of the subject matter itself.

    Photographers rarely rely on one shot and, as a familiar example, Dorethea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, ‘Migrant Mother’, was just one chosen from many. It became iconic because that image ‘said’ more than the others – yet those other images contained exactly the same people with exactly the same histories and exactly the same claim to ‘truth’. We both read from and read into images, the aesthetics and our emotions detracting or adding to the subject matter

    Ultimately, photographs are just images. And a virtual subject is just as legitimate as any other material object, particularly as its a question of more images being made, rather than one genre (eg virtual) replacing another (eg documentary). The death of journalistic photography is due to other reasons (economics) and documentary due to it being displaced by moving image.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think I agree with all of that, Tizzy, in particular your point that photographs have always been manipulated and that selection is another invisible form of manipulation. A very good point indeed. And ‘Truth is the burden that art placed on photography’ definitely goes down as my number one insight of the day!


  4. I suppose I might venture to say that I too consider a photograph as one taken with a real camera and all that it entails such as getting up as dawn rises just so the light will be just right as opposed to a screen shot where you move a few sliders easily for the right effect. To me at least, photography is much more “hands on” in that sense. Like your friend I too feel that photographic portrait captures in real life have much depth and character that is not present in avatar photos though they can be lovely.
    However, Art is something that inspires or moves the beholder, Art tells a story. Images can be creatively edited in both categories. In that there is no difference.
    But speaking of paintings. my sister is a real life painter and considers that the only true art. lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is a great discussion topic! I didn’t mention my history – I made a living out of writing, landscape photography and food photography for around 20 years – I still have a couple of books in print. I understand what you mean about getting up for the dawn for the right light! Or for waiting for hours for the right light on a day of fleeting sun. It was a great experience – but what I did was possible in a particular period of technology which opened up in the late 90s and has now closed.

      It’s not just about light, or waiting (or suffering) though, but also about composition and colour and light – and trying to *do* something with the image. I lost interest in landscape – too much artily predictable black and white, too much snobbery around film, too much HDR – and everyone wanted images for free. It wasn’t that I wanted to do something more or less challenging, just different, and that’s how I ended up working with images here.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t disagree Tizz! I agree, composition, light are what makes it art. I do love to be holding my camera and out and about enjoying nature and old stones both. I have written a couple of travel/history articles myself but am far from a professional!! I love what some people are doing with art in SL. I will check you out too! I am not well known in sl at all though some of my art is displayed from time to time. Check me out if you wish on my blog where I write short stories or on flickr! It’s great exchanging ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I came to this post late, through blog surfing. This reminds me of the very earnest university conversations that we had many years ago (last century). “Is it still a photograph if you use a lot of darkroom tricks?” and “Is illustration art or craft?” And while I wasn’t around then, I’m sure “fine” artists asked “Is photography art?” when cameras became accessible to the public. In other words, these questions are always going to be around. I think it is, in large part, less of an argument of defining and more of one of hierarchy. At least in the old college debates there was always at least a tinge of “My art is higher than your art” and “Is NOT!”

    This is a great topic as graphic capabilities evolve quickly.

    I think everyone would agree that if I took out my old DSL and pointed it out the window and just snapped a picture and developed it with no darkroom tricks (although there are always variables in that process that will affect the print outcome), that the end print is a photograph. Ditto to the same image taken with a digital camera and no filtering, etc. Photograph. It wouldn’t make it a good photo, as it was just a click without regard to composition, lighting, exposure, etc. etc., but it would still be a photograph.

    When you start adding in artistic components, such as lighting and composition, that’s really where you start getting into the weeds about “is it art”? Hellloooo subjectivity.

    What bothers me is trying to compare apples and oranges, and that for me is “raw” images to “post-processed” images. They are both valid, no matter where you end up in the “is it SL photography photography” debate. But it is unfair to compare them side by side. There is a handful of SL photographers who primarily do raw screenshots, who keep to whatever the viewer can do (like using filters), and who only do cropping in post-production. To do this well takes a lot of technical skill. It would seem the majority of SL photographers do some degree of post-production well beyond just cropping. That may be just to tweak a jagged edge or it may be to distort the image so much it no longer looks anything like the raw image, and everywhere in between. To do post-production images well takes a lot of technical skill.

    Real life photography also has this issue.

    I enjoy seeing both, but in competitions, Flickr, and other places where raw and PShopped images hang out side by side, an excellent raw photo will generally lose out to the PShopped. We’re getting used to seeing the artificial perfection and expecting it. In RL photo shows, a gorgeous “true to life” colored sunset picture is probably going to lose out to the “oomphed” PShopped one. This is equally true in SL, less with color, since we can manipulate that with Windlight, but in having that “airbrushed” perfection.

    And, yes, my SL photos are of the “raw” variety, 99% of the time. I find it challenging. I have to fiddle and fiddle to take each shot because I know I’m not going to be able to fix it later. (My Flickr site is currently closed.)

    Thanks for the great opportunity to ramble about art!
    — Seicher Rae (in SL)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Seicher :)

      I agree with your comments about hierarchy in art, though at the same time there’s a danger when we get involved in discussions like this one that we end up reducing everything and claiming all aesthetic expression to be art. Whilst that might be true from some perspectives (eg, a scientific positivist stance, where everything is supposed to be measurable) I think there’s some validity in having a different lens when it comes to the appreciation of a piece of art, which has to include the context that it’s created in. Hmm. Material for another article, perhaps (though probably not one I’m qualified to write).


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