Dote Night: Videogame Photography

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

This week I wanted to share something a little different when it comes to Dota 2. It’s not based on scientific research or a pet theory; it’s about bringing a hobby from the physical world into a game world. A game within a game, perhaps.

My game within a game uses screenshots and image editing apps on my phone. In real life I take a hell of a lot of pictures, both using my phone and using a real proper grownup camera. It’s the phone which is winning out at the moment in terms of regular use because of the wealth of image editing apps – things like Instagram with which you’ll probably be familiar, but also slightly more obscure programs like Glitché and Tales of Us – a photo layering app released by Goldfrapp.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to treat gaming content in the same way I would regular photography. I spend so much time in those worlds and it started to feel odd not to approach them as I would any other place where I spent dozens of hours – with snapshots and Instagrams and weird deconstructed stitched images. It’s a bit of a convoluted process at the moment which runs contra to the simplistic appeal of tinkering about with pictures on my phone, but it’s had some curious results.

How it works at the moment is I take a screenshot in Steam, then crop the image to a size my phone can deal with and upload it to imgur. That way it’s easy to find at a later date (and doesn’t require me to address the fact that my Dropbox is more than 150% over capacity and needs drastic digital pruning). Then it’s just a case of running the image through a heap of image editing apps and seeing what works best.

Mostly the results have been shots of heroes in various poses which are then highlighted, cropped or tinted. A big part of this is because a lot of screenshots are taken to capture a particular play or bug or impressive moment. These shots aren’t. They come from watching the game in cinematic mode, phasing out the commentary and the implications for the meta in order to focus on elements of composition I ingested as part of an art history degree I accidentally ended up taking.

Where’s the subject? How can I position the in-game camera to make a Lightning Revenant obey the rule of thirds? Can anything be offset in some way? How do I use the trees for framing effect? What’s the direction of the action? Whose abilities are the most aesthetically pleasing or work best with the Radiant jungle colour palette?

It’s something which also opened up Dota in a different way – as an aesthetic experience rather than a mechanical one. The camera positioning is entirely different – a foreign language in some ways. The same is true for combos. It’s not about watching for a team to execute the most efficient and devastating wombo at their disposal, it’s about knowing that Lifestealer bursting out of Razor as the latter sets off his plasma field ability looks spectacular from directly overhead even when it happens in the middle of the jungle for no good reason. It’s also about swearing because someone on your own team got a last hit on a creep and utterly ruined the balance of the image.

Dota 2 is often a stressful game to play, and can be nerve-jangling to watch. By bringing in one of my external hobbies, it’s also become something unrecognisable; soothing. There is a downside to all of this (aside from being “that Instagram Dota dick”) though. I’ve chucked nearly 1,500 hours into that game and I’ve now found a way to up that even further.


Top comments

  1. Philippa says:

    I'd started up a Pinterest to collect these as I seem to end up splitting them between various photo apps - it needs updating and a bit of curation but it's here if you wanted to poke about :)
  1. Tatourmi says:

    I am not a dota 2 player and so I do not know the name of the skills used, but I’ve gotta say, the penultimate picture looks fantastic and is by far my favorite. The geometric shape of the “ghost gods” contrasts nicely with the trees.

    But it shows the problems that you will be facing with a game that has been built to be seen from above as opposed to ground level. The trees are set up in lines and it breaks the organic effect that they went for with the overall shape of them.

    On another note, I’d recommend, if you wish to extend to other games, Bioshock Infinite for that kind of thing. I have done my own photo safary in that game for a non player family member of mine that is in the art business, to try and make her understand my interest in the hobby with something that she can relate to.

    • Philippa says:

      I’d started up a Pinterest to collect these as I seem to end up splitting them between various photo apps – it needs updating and a bit of curation but it’s here if you wanted to poke about :)

      link to

  2. Dog Pants says:

    What a fantastic perspective on the game. I had no idea the engine was capable of producing such high detail in cinematic mode (or is that more editing trickery?). Were these taken in live games? I’m assuming they’re replays, because it’s hard enough concentrating on Dota 2 without having to consider your camera angles too.

    • Philippa says:

      Thank you :)

      Ok, so. I used to just take the images idly during natural in-game pauses but that always has a greyed-out colour palette and a pause sign splashed all over the place. Now I load replays and just play them at half speed or look for moments I remember being colourful or interesting. I need to fiddle around with the different camera modes and with removing the HUD but at the moment there’s a triangular button – really pale – on the hero picture for the person you’re currently looking it which takes you into a cinematic view where you can control the gamer a bit better.

      • crizzyeyes says:

        That’s called showcase mode, by the way. You can also toggle it by hitting the “i” key. Practically useless in game, but great for angles and checking out your sweet cosmetics.

      • Hideous says:

        As of the latest update, there’s a completely free camera mode as well, enabled with dota_free_camera 1 in the console afaik. Should let you get any angle you want.

  3. Polifemo says:

    Please do share your treasure trove of artistic Dota images (unless its one of those “its my private thing” things which is totally understandable). Dota is a very pretty game and it would be great to see the more artistic side of it enfasized somewhere as its hard to focus on how pretty the rain effect is while contesting a safelane Naga.

    The cinematic mode is very enjoyable to use during play in those “nothing is happening” moments. Its also great while watching live games or replays (I assume you use replays to capture a particular moment as oposed to trying to take a picture while a Huskar dunks you).

  4. xcopy says:

    The last two pictures are really fantastic.

  5. BooleanBob says:

    Have you seen the new version of the free camera mode Valve have implemented Pip? (WARNING: TURN YOUR SOUND DOWN!) Might prove a boon you in getting the snaps you want.

    Dota could really use a skybox, though. Anything but the overhead view and the game looks like it’s taking place in Chernobyl.

    • crizzyeyes says:

      Yeah, seems like one of those things that they could have had before the game released. That, and fixing the infernal shop interface bug which has existed since I started playing in closed beta.

  6. Easy says:

    These shots are brilliant Philippa. <3

  7. says:

    I enjoy this column more and more, even though I’m not much of a MMO player! Keep up the good work Philippa!