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Welcome to the latest instalment of Behind the Screens, a blog series that gives an insight into some of my virtual photographs and the processes involved in capturing them. This time, it's a trip into No Man's Sky and a look at how I captured this shot of my starship "threading the needle", or at least... of it appearing to!


No Man's Sky - Threading The Needle

Hello Games' sci-fi universe has always invited exploration; it is still the main draw of the game for me and is ultimately what led to me capturing this image. Rather than any pre-planned shoot at a known location, I had been roaming across new star systems in the hunt for some of the more exotic biomes when I came across a webbed world. Naturally, I set down for a closer look at the mysterious tentacle-like features that littered the planet's surface. After settling on a colour filter which complimented the strange environment and applying my usual high percentage of fog, it was time to take a couple of pictures and enjoy the tonal gradients across the distant view.

it seemed like a perfect opportunity for a trick shot

Planet visited and picture taken, that was all I had originally planned but, upon returning to my starship to leave for orbit, I spotted a large ring in the near distance. Known as Boundary Failures and found only on exotic planets, these structures currently have no function in the game other than being a point of interest and, given that I was in my newly acquired and rather racy-looking fighter, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for a trick shot.

Now, you may expect that in order to get a shot of your ship flying through a giant ring, the first thing to do would be to actually fly through the ring in question. This is of course exactly what I did but, to my surprise, the resulting engine trails did not pass through the ring at all and instead appeared below it. A few more passes later and every trail ended up outside the ring, sometimes even going underground.

Perhaps this should not be surprising in an inherently mathematical game

I wouldn't be much of a scientist if I didn't at least investigate the cause of this and it didn't take long to realise what was happening. It seems as though the curve path of the engine trails is distorted at a tangent to the ship's current flight arc. Put simply, when entering a climb, the trail behind is deflected downwards and, the steeper the climb, the greater the deflection from the actual flight path. Perhaps this should not be surprising in an inherently mathematical game like No Man's Sky, after all its entire universe is algorithm derived, but it does mean that the visualised starship engine trails are affected by subsequent climb or bank angles and do not remain true to the route taken by the craft.

After a period of trial and error, I was eventually able to position my trail

That is not to say that they cannot be utilised though and the key to many good photographs is often persistence. With a better understanding of the behaviour of my subject, I simply began flying modified approaches using flight paths which did not pass through the ring but instead manoeuvred close to it, at a distance just enough to compensate for the trail shift. After a period of trial and error, I was eventually able to position my trail with enough consistency to start working on final composition and settled on a fast banked climb that would result in an aesthetically pleasing and authentic looking trail that passed right through the ring, even though my ship did not.

The lack of a horizon and sky robs the image of colour and distance

Admittedly, it would also be possible to avoid the trail shift by flying through the ring without swooping away afterwards but this was not an option for me. Partly because the undulating terrain demanded that I pull up sharply after passing through, but mainly because a flat, horizontal trail would lack the dynamism that I was looking for in the final shot. Along with lighting, the importance of good composition should never be underestimated and that remains especially true here.

To demonstrate, the image above is an example of bad composition which, despite being taken in the same frozen scene as the final shot, is much less appealing. The ship is insufficiently separated from the ring within the frame and struggles to stand out against the dour backdrop, while the lack of any horizon and sky also robs the image of colour and distance. Crucially though, the overall angle simply doesn't convey the dramatic look that it needs; this was not the shot I was looking for...

With a strong scene established though, and camera position in mind, a late afternoon sun setting and my preferred fog density made easy work of the remaining photo mode options. Although the Vibrant and Isolation screen filters each made a great case, I decided to stick with the Fall filter that I had used in my earlier shots while on foot. A choice not merely based on keeping the same feel for the location, but one which was again driven by the gorgeous tonal gradients and greater sense of distance that this filter offered thanks to its stronger background detail.

The resulting final image is one that I am very happy with. A consequence of both exploration and experimentation, this shot was fun and memorable to capture but perhaps above all, I now know that the best way to photograph a starship flying through a ring, is to not fly through it at all!

Until next time...



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