Roleplaying games are about telling and sharing stories with one another. If you’re into tabletop gaming, especially RPGs, then you know the excitement doesn’t end when a session wraps up. The memorable events linger and may even haunt you on your ride home. Some experiences evolve into legend, and others fade beyond your control.
The nostalgia of taking a good photo or a series of them during gameplay is invaluable for re-living the experience. Sure, it’s cliché to say that a photo is worth a thousand words. But, I would go further and say that a memory captured in a single beautiful image is priceless.
In this article, I share with you some tips for how to take better photographs of your tabletop games (you can find more gaming photography tips here). Whether you want a keepsake for yourself or a post on social media, a truly engaging photo is a shared experience that brings a community together (if only for a precious moment).
You Only Need Three Things to Start Taking Better Photos
Most snapshots are games are taken spur-of-the-moment without much thought for composition and story. For example, a crazy event happened, e.g., a boss fight, and you capture a photo to show your miniatures and board state at that instance.
When you look back on that image, however, it’s blurry, dark or simply bad. And, it’s not because your photography equipment is poor. Most smartphone cameras rival the best the semi-professional photography industry had to offer only a few years ago.
To improve your images, you don’t need fancy equipment. In fact, you only need three things to make better photos of your tabletop games:
- Good light
- Better perspective (angle)
- An eye for storytelling
With good light and better perspective, you are capturing information for your viewer through your photography. With an eye for storytelling, you’re composing images that create a narrative your viewer can piece together.
In a storytelling photograph, for example, there are characters in a situation. There is a tension in the image that engages your viewer.
Read on for how good light, a unique perspective, and a photographic eye for storytelling can immediately improve your photography of your tabletop games.
How to Improve Your Lighting When Photographing Tabletop Games
The best lighting for photographing almost anything is natural sunlight. The sun produces a perfectly cast neutral light that renders the rich, vibrant colors that we all love in a scenic landscape. Our brains are tuned for this kind of lighting.
Of course, indoors, where we play our games, most of this natural sunlight doesn’t exist, or only in limited fashion through a window. The indoor lamps and overhead lights in a home living room, kitchen, or a local game store and club aren’t very conducive to creating colorful, good contrast images.
In this case, you can place your smartphone or camera on a tripod. This allows you to stabilize the camera and will permit the camera to leave its shutter open longer. A longer shutter opening time (or slower shutter speed, in camera terms) will allow more ambient light to enter the lens and hit the sensor. This improves contrast, brightness, and clarity in a photo, while the tripod stabilization reduces image blur (e.g., an artifact of a shaky handheld photograph).
Another way you can improve the lighting of your tabletop game is adding extra lights. There are portable ambient lights you can take with you to your games. These could be LED rings lights or light cubes you can find online. Usually, a battery powered light is sufficient.
Don’t use flash. A flash bulb will distort and “wash out” your images, reducing the color richness and contrast of your photo. At the distances you will photograph a tabletop game, a flash hurts your images more than it helps. Sure, there are exceptions if you know how to use “off-camera” flash systems, but these are quite sophisticated to setup and are not friendly to gamers, especially if you’re also playing.
Finally, another way to improve your lighting in your photos is to understand how to fix your white balance. Most cameras, including smart phones, have an Auto White Balance (AWB) setting that is default. You can change your white balance to things like “shade” or “sunlight”, which could improve your colors if things look off. Or, you can edit your white balance in photo editing software, which may help you achieve best results in a photo. You can find more details about white balance editing in this article. Ultimately, you’ll find what works best for your photos if you experiment and play around with your settings.
A New Perspective or Camera Angle Will Improve Your Tabletop Gaming Photographs
The most convenient camera angles (your eye level) often create the most boring images. For example, you’re sitting at the game table and lift your smartphone up to take a snapshot. This creates the overhead angle that everyone already sees. Sure, this is a great “documentary” style photo that captures information.
But, information alone is boring, tedious. It carries no surprises, no sense of immersion or story. It is simply data.
To take a more compelling and interesting photo of your tabletop game, change your perspective. Perhaps you lower your camera to the tabletop height, to the eye level of your miniatures and see the “world” for their eye level: the miniature eye level. Get your viewer to see from a viewpoint they would not explore otherwise.
Maybe you take a series of photos. Pretend you’re a bird, flying high above the tabletop, then swoop low, and capture how the “world” looks as a dragon would as he strafes a village in fire.
You could take a photo of your gamer friend as he throws those polyhedrals, but shoot from super high angle or a low wide angle. Surprise your viewer with visuals they would not normally expect.
Exploit symmetry and shape. Squint your eyes and look for how the blurry “big shapes” come together in your scene. Try and create a sense of structure through your photos. Read more about using photographic structure to create more engaging images. Use leading lines, shapes, and interesting juxtapositions to capture your viewer’s attention.
Think About How Your Photos Tell a Story
All art, including photography, communicates a message. Whether a viewer receives that artist’s message clearly and accurately is another discussion altogether.
When it comes to photographing a tabletop game, you are the messenger. You tell the story from your perspective. A good photograph will tell your story through 1) all the elements that you include or exclude in the image frame.
Your characters have their marching orders as they enter a dungeon. Do you include in your photo the miniatures in their current positions with or without the giant spider lurking around the corner? One image provides data that adds a sense of foreboding tension. The other merely communicates a formal (boring) step in a longer series of events.
My advice is to check the corners of your frame and be mindful of what you include or exclude in your photo. This is the first phase of creating a narrative style photo.
As your game progresses, think about capturing photos that include the players themselves. What are their emotions like during each event? When the DM orders “roll for initiative”, how are your fellow players poised in their chairs; are they flicking their pens/pencils? Nervously massaging D20’s?
What kind of junk snacks and drinks are scattered around the table? Adding these player, non-game elements into a photo series can add value to your in-game images. In fact, this is the kind of thoughtful, systematic approach of a wartime photojournalist.
And, that’s exactly what tabletop games are, a kind of conflict between players and characters in a fantasy world event.
To take better photos of a tabletop RPG game is an act of courage because you have to become an artist. And, as an artist, the danger to your ego is real. A damaged ego hurts like hell. Most of your photos will suck, like badly. On the bright side, this is normal. You will rarely create the gem you think you captured.
At the end of the day, photography, like a narrative campaign is about the quiet thrill of discovery and disappointment.
Capture it with your camera.
What do you think? Do you ever wish you could take better images of your games? If you enjoyed this article, leave a comment below!