Virtual photography

20200409144846 copy

With the current state of global affairs, and the quasi-military lockdown in my country, photography of any kind beyond watches, household objects and things I can see from my apartment balcony has been pretty limited. I’ve attempted the moon a couple of times, making an unholy combination of teleconverters and adaptors that worked quite well*. But honestly – I’ve run out of stuff to shoot. It doesn’t help that my lighting gear is at the office, and we’re not exactly allowed to leave home. So…I decided to see if it was worth ‘learning’ how to photograph in Gran Turismo Sport.

*Zeiss-Hasselblad 5.6/250 Superachromat with Zeiss s 2XE APO on a V-F adaptor, on a Nikon TC17EII teleconverter, on the FTZ adaptor, on the Z7, for a total of 850mm at…f16. But it really was apochromatic, and resolved remarkably well – up to the diffraction limit, at least.

20200409144532 copy

For those of you unfamiliar with sim racing, GTS is arguably the granddaddy of the genre. Now into its seventh generation after nearly 23 years, it takes advantage of much better hardware to generate both surprisingly realistic physics and graphics. Actually, the physics engine has always been at the core of the game; I have no shame in admitting almost all of what I know about serious driving was learned from thousands of hours of practice on the simulator. It’s gotten accurate enough that I even simulate the setup of my Cayman in the game, translate it to the physical car, and find that the behaviour is pretty much nine tenths of what I expect. And that says nothing of the FIA-sanctioned race series it’s spawned; in the form of both virtual competition and digital qualification and talent searches for real world drivers. Those drivers turned out to be fast; they just lacked the physical stamina of ‘traditionally’ trained pilots.

GTS has a sophisticated graphics engine that produces remarkably realistic visuals at 4K resolution; textures are sophisticated, meshes are fine, and there’s surface interaction between for example rain and tarmac/ puddles/ splashes, and wind and blades of grass. Secondary objects are three dimensional, real tracks and cars are mapped with LIDAR and even the car interiors and driver movements look pretty damn realistic. The one thing missing is realistic damage, but I suspect that kind of chaotic finite element simulation will have to wait for much more powerful computing hardware – it is after all effectively a multiple body collision problem.

20200409144619 copy

So where does photography come into all of this? Well, I suspect some engineers were sitting around the water cooler one day and thought the simulation engine might be used for something beyond drawing the game only; after all, the cars are fully vectorised, as are a lot of the environments. And new static ones could easily be translated if relatively planar and the limits of interaction between car model and environment were well defined. Make some of the motion and lighting parameters user-accessible, translate the rendering ones into something photographic and you’re pretty much there. Too bad they had to put a Sony camera UI over the top: as usual, the menus are a mess and it really isn’t intuitive. You can for example move the focus point, but nowhere does it tell you how (you have to hold down the button assigned to ‘focus’ and then use the left stick). There are some pretty sophisticated processing options, but they don’t look anything like a typical exposure control panel in LR, PS, C1 etc – instead it’s a bunch of filter layers.

20200409144707 copy

All of that aside, being selective about how one uses the photographic controls and using PS to finish the rest can yield some very interesting – and more importantly, believable – results. There are a few limitations, though. The main one I’ve noticed is that the background images aren’t all clean or suitable for the same level of enlargement. Some are relatively noise free and some scale well; others don’t. I put this down to the way the process works: output is a 4K file, i.e. 8MP. It’s also vector based, so it’s a very ‘clean’ 8MP – especially for the simulated elements. The framing controls allow for a degree of zoom, pan and crop; usually a 3-4x ratio, which means to maintain the original quality level, you’d have to start with a 100MP file or greater. On top of this, the perspectives can vary quite significantly between the backgrounds. I find that the moderate ones (say 24-70-equivalent, usually yielding a maximum workable ‘zoom’ of 200mm or so) work much better than anything superwide or overly telephoto; the rendering engine doesn’t seem to be optimised in these regions, and in any case – cars don’t look that good when shot overly wide.

20200409144629 copy

One of the most interesting parts of all this are the motion controls – especially in conjunction with the night or twilight scenes; they have the effect of not just adding dynamism to the composition and a little imperfection (you can control how ‘good’ the panning is), but also allowing you to hide background imperfections and push perspective a little further. Interestingly, it’s not just straight panning; the software is smart enough to allow you control the speed of the vehicle and guess direction based on orientation, plus rotation based on steering angle – all settable by the user. It’s also smart enough to return an error when the distance travelled in the frame (shutter speed is also controllable) will drive it into the scenery.

20200409144712 copy

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the background immediately behind the camera position was also captured at the same time as the scene: you can see this in the reflections in the cars’ various surfaces. It’s also one of the reasons I ‘photograph’ the polished aluminium 250 GTO; whilst beautiful in its own right, it has the kind of surfaces which have significant dynamic variation based on the environment. The reflectivity properties of the metal are very well simulated; there’s a tangible difference in the diffusion of the reflection compared to say, chrome or stainless steel parts. For the most part, I’m still exploring the limits of what can be done; at some point don’t be surprised if you start to see the impossible (or at very least, unlikely in real life). That said, no unpainted polished aluminium 250 GTOs exist to the best of my knowledge; and certainly aren’t being driven around Kampung Bahru, Kuala Lumpur… MT

Coda: turns out Lexus UK actually tried to replicate the images in real life, and the resemblance was…well, see for yourself.

More images to follow in part II.


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Superb Fotos. (…)on a V-F adaptor, on a Nikon TC17EII teleconverter, on the FTZ adaptor (…) Which Adapter are you used? How could you reach f/16. With Novoflex and Fotodiox I could only reach f/2.8 on D850.

    • These aren’t photographic images, they’re screen captures…that was a red herring.

      But 250 f5.6 with 2x = f11, then f16 after stopping down a bit.

  2. Oh dear. These are beautiful and at the same time make me feel inadequate as I would really love to work with some of these tools but haven’t a clue.

  3. Derrick Pang says:


  4. Fascinating set, and distinctly ‘Ming’ regardless of the platform.

    That last shot couldn’t be more suburban KL if it tried (well, except for the shiny GTO…)

    • Thanks! Curious though, what makes you think these are distinctly ‘Ming’? Moreso given I’m operating within background composition and lighting restraints of the program…

  5. I honestly assumed these were photographs until I got to the second paragraph and reread the first one. I was a gamer since childhood until some years ago, and just got back to it thanks to the lockdown, but I’ve never seen anything with quite this level of fidelity! Though I suppose seeing it in a smaller screenshot helps.

    • Actually, they’re pixel-perfect at 4K resolution, and because non-Bayer, upsize convincingly to about double that. Reduced resolution has no more advantage here than it would on any other ~15MP file.

  6. Steve Gombosi says:

    My “unholy combination” is just the 500mm Apo-tessar and a 2x Mutar (decidedly *not* an apochromatic combination, if the purple fringing is to be believed). It would probably do much better with the 2XE.

  7. What platform are you running GTS? This game seems incredibly graphics intense.

  8. I have zero idea how this whole thing works and I didn’t understand most of what you said or how these were made, but these photos are incredible – for being generated is mind-blowing to me. Apparently I’ve been completely ignorant of the video game industry (I had to give it up in high school, it was too addictive and binary – either I could play for 10-20 minutes and quit or play for hours because I couldn’t stand to not win or finish or whatever the objective was).


  1. […] Secondly, there’s also the ability to look for inspiration beyond one’s usual circle – I discovered Google Culture that not only has virtual tours of a huge number of museums and galleries, but the ability to cross reference the digital collections and make your own, or say see all of the Monets available rather than the one or two that happen to be in the gallery you visit. This is interesting both because it’s not something physically possible, but also because you can see the creative evolution of the artist. I’ve also discovered movements and artists that I didn’t know existed, and whose work speaks to me at a level that I think might merit some experimentation once I can get out again. I’ve even been using some of these ideas in my recent virtual photography experiments with Gran Turismo Sport. […]

%d bloggers like this: