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Welcome to another instalment of Behind the Screens, the blog series that takes a look at the process and inspiration behind selected virtual photographs. This time, rather than one of my own shots, it's a chance to get some insight from guest photographer Iqram Ansari, a.k.a. LUCKYless11, into his recent prize winning shot of an angelic Aloy.


Horizon Zero Dawn - Angeloy

With titles as broadly photographed as Horizon Zero Dawn, it can be a challenge to create shots that truly stand out but here is one that does so to great effect. By positioning Aloy in front of the outspread wings of an imposing Stormbird to give the look of an angel, the clever composition shows tremendous use of the subjects within the game itself and is perfectly complimented by an elegant simplicity and splash of colour to give this shot a whole host of pleasing attributes. The best art works though, invoke some kind of thought in the viewer, and perhaps this piece's most commendable feature is that it makes you wonder, or even question, exactly how it has been achieved. For that reason alone, it is well worth a look Behind the Screens of this beautiful capture.

Anyone who follows Iqram's work will be familiar with his style...

As a National Visual Merchandiser from India, Iqram is no stranger to putting together an eye-catching display but was not aware of the art of virtual photography until noticing other people's captures on social media...

"After seeing some breathtaking Horizon Zero Dawn shots on Instagram, I was left in awe and became keen towards virtual photography. A few months later, I chanced upon a way to create portrait shots on a dark background and, from then on, began intentionally looking for locations with light & shadow while working on the best possible photo mode settings to achieve the look I wanted."

Anyone who follows Iqram's work will be familiar with this dark background portrait style in many of his shots from Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, but it was Marvel's Spider-Man that expanded his range to include clean white backdrops as well. Clearly, this newly gained experience was fed back into other games and, after some inspiration from fellow Horizon Zero Dawn photographer,, Iqram spent some time trying to combine the idea of photographing a winged Aloy with a simple composition and white background...

"I spent a long time trying to create a shot on either a dark or white background. After a lot of trial and error, I realised that a dark option wasn't possible with the lighting and chosen location but also that the snowy area was ideal for a white shot."

I first took the Black & White shot as thought and continued to work on.

With the use of the photo mode's black and white filter, an earlier iteration of the shot was this monochromatic version which uses high Brightness and Over Exposure settings to achieve a clean white look as well as a wide aperture value for shallow depth of field. Not one to settle for the simplest version though, Iqram wanted to add something more to the image and decided to work on adding colour to find the shot he was looking for... "I first took the Black & White shot as thought and continued to work on. The only difficulty was that, if I changed filter and increased the vibrancy, the background started to become more visible. The balance between Depth of Field and Exposure / Brightness took me a lot of time."

Drawing inspiration from more of his previous work, as a good artist always should, the solution was to keep the brightness high and to avoid the more vibrant filters, instead relying on Horizon Zero Dawn's excellent time of day cycle and striking lens flare effects to add colour emphasis...

"By keeping the exposure high, removing the colour filter and changing the time of day setting, I noticed that the sun rays that fell on Aloy made her look colourful with the background still dull."

This approach worked perfectly with the subjects in this particular scene. The ability to move the sun to any point along its daily track across the sky meant that, not only could it be used to create just the right amount of lens flare within the frame, but also that the direction of the lighting could be adjusted to be slightly behind Aloy. This, combined with the imperfect recreation of physical lighting in non-ray traced games, put the front of the character into shadow while the rest of the scene, including the more distant Stormbird, remain well lit. Thanks to the high exposure settings already employed, the result is that the majority of the scene is over-exposed and bleached of colour but crucially, Aloy's darkened front remains visible and the lens flare across it appears saturated.

Iqram obliged by sharing photographs of the originals...

While the winged Aloy composition, affectionately known as an "Angeloy", can be reliably reproduced, it was this selective colouration that lead some to question whether the effect was generated post-capture through the use of a de-saturation mask or even whether the background was removed entirely in Photoshop. Indeed, even the #HZD2020contest judges chose to look into whether this shot legitimately fell into the virtual photography category or if it was a more complicated digital art creation before eventually selecting it as one of the winners. Iqram obliged by sharing photographs of the originals and further revealed the extent of his post-production work.

"I've had some interactions on Twitter, Instagram and also Facebook asking for the full size image as a wallpaper and whether I used Photoshop for it. I'm not a fan of edits so I just do some minor touch-ups and desired cropping on my Phone before sharing. For this shot, I just increased the contrast by 6% and saturation by 10% on my Samsung Note 9 which I always use when processing my shots."

Of course, it would be wrong to cover this shot without digging into how it feels to have won the recent Elisabet's Legacy contest and I was keen to hear Iqram's thoughts on whether the success of this image changes how he feels towards it at all... "I like to take part in any virtual photography contests I come across and I feel great because this is the first time I've won one. Even though I was very confident about my shot, I was also nervous after seeing the other amazing entries. This shot which I took, will always be special to me and so will all the people who appreciated it."

Images © 2020 Iqram Ansari

So there you have it, a shot resulting from several inspirations, careful choice of location and excellent use of the game's light and photo mode tools that managed to create something of a stir. Personally, this is the sort of image that I would be proud to have captured and the very fact that it leads others to think about how it was done is an achievement in itself.

Thank you to Iqram for joining me for this edition and for providing all of the above images; be sure to check out his beautiful work on Twitter and Instagram.

Until next time...



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