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Photography in Second Life

An introduction to capturing still images in the virtual world

By Dr. Anthony R. Curtis

Mass Communication Department
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

This is an introduction to making photographs in Second Life (SL) and publishing them with a related feature
story on your own blog, a photo sharing Web site or in the professional SL press.

The Second Life Snapshot

The SL camera is built in. It shoots what you see in the SL viewer.
To take a picture in Second Life using Viewer 2, go to menubar World > Snapshot. The Macintosh shortcut is
CMD shift S. The Windows shortcut is CTRL Shift S.
The Snapshot Preview window will pop up. Clicking the "Save" button will capture a new image.
Snapshot in the SL Viewer offers three choices for output:
My inventory
Save to my computer
Email sends the image outside of SL via ordinary real-world email to a recipient in real life (RL).
My inventory saves it to the Photo Album in your SL inventory.
Save to my computer drops the image out of SL onto your hard drive as a .PNG, .JPG or .BMP file.
The View button at the bottom of the Viewer window displays the Camera Controls. I leave the small camera
controls window (called Orbit Zoom Pan) out on the viewer window all the time just for looking around, not
necessarily for shooting photos. I move it to the upper left of the viewer window beneath the Favorites bar.
Note: If your computer is a Macintosh, Windows CTRL key usually is CMD on Mac. Windows ALT key is OPT on Mac.

Controlling light
Photography is a form of art. The essential elements are light and composition.
An SL day is three hours of daytime and one hour of night. In an RL 24-hour day, there are six SL days.
In SL, you can control the light via the menubar World > Sun. The choices are Sunrise, Midday, Sunset and
Midnight. To revert to the default local sunlight, select Estate Time.
The shortcuts are CTRL-Shift-Y for midday bright light and CTRL-Shift-N for warm afternoon sunset light
(same on Mac, but using the CMD key rather than CTRL).
Note: SL fashion models use face lights, which light their faces even at SL midnight. Ask your models to wear them.

You can control SL graphics quality using menubar Me > Preferences > Graphics (CTRL-P shortcut). To return
to normal settings, press the Reset button.
To refresh or update the photograph in the Snapshot Preview, click the Reset button (circular arrow).
If you are filming water, quality matters, so in menubar Me > Preferences > Graphics try pulling the quality and
speed slider to High or Ultra. Lag will be greater, but the water will be more beautiful and natural.
To control your general lighting level, click the Hardware button, and adjust Gamma. Many photographers keep
Gamma around 0.0 in Viewer1 and 2 on Mac or 0.20 in Viewer 1 on Windows.
Technical photographers may want to color-correct and calibrate their monitors:

Using the camera

The built-in camera shoots what you see in the SL viewer, but without the SL User Interface (UI) and HeadsUp Displays (HUD) you attach.
You can hide UI and HUDs with ALT-Shift-H (useful for making videos/machinimas). Press those commands
again to bring back UIs and HUDs.
See and use the camera controls to position the camera using the View button at the bottom of the viewer
window. It works well to leave the small camera controls window (called Orbit Zoom Pan) out on the viewer
window all the time. I move it to the upper left of the viewer window beneath the Favorites bar.
At left in the camera controls panel are arrows for horizontal and vertical orbiting or panning. In the middle is
zoom with + or . On the right are straight-line up/down and right/left.
Camera movements also can be accomplished without using the camera controls panel. Hold down ALT then
left-click on an SL object. This centers and sets the Focus of the camera on whatever you clicked. Use the
keyboard arrow keys to move in, out, left, right. Holding CTRL-ALT while using the arrows allows panning up
and down and around. Note that the Focus stays on the same object. Use also can use the Mouse Wheel to
Press CTRL-ALT-D on Windows or CTRL-OPT-D on a Mac to show the Advanced Menu to the right of Help in
the menubar.
In menubar Advanced, select Disable Camera Constraints. Then you can move your camera anywhere on a
sim, otherwise you are limited to 50 meters from your avatar.
Also in menubar Advanced, you can select High-res Snapshots, Quiet Snapshots to Disk and Compress
Snapshots to Disk

Taking pictures
To record an SL image, go to menubar World > Snapshot. The Macintosh shortcut is CMD-shift-S. The
Windows shortcut is CTRL-Shift-S.
The SL Snapshot Preview window pops up. Try using these options:
Save to my computer
Format: JPEG
Keep open after saving
With those settings, click the Save button to capture a new frame and send it to disk.
Keep adjusting the camera position and clicking Save to take more shots.
Use the Refresh button (circular arrow) if you see a bad shot in preview.
You can use Save As to get people's names in a photograph filename. When you select Save to my
computer, the choice Save As is in the small drop-down menu labeled Save.
In Viewer 1, there is a dangerous checkbox called "Show interface objects in snapshot" in the Snapshot
Preview window. This is called simply "Interface" in Viewer 2. Uncheck this. Otherwise, it could include content
that you wouldnt want in your pictures. You can use it to capture avatar name tags, but uncheck it afterward.
Use SL in full screen mode to take still SL pictures.

Composing photographs
Choosing what to include in the frame of each photograph is called Composition or Composing a picture.
The basic rules for composition are guidelines, not laws, and do not always apply.

Rule 1: KISS.
Keep It Simple Stupid. Choose a single subject or object or at most a very few avatars for an action shot.
Don't try to get lots of background objects into a shot. For instance, trying to photograph everything inside a
building in one shot will not result in a good composition.

Rule 2: Fill the Frame.

Don't waste pixels (picture elements). Zoom in the SL camera as close as possible. Fill the frame with your
subject. To test this, go someplace in RL where there are flowers. Take some pictures very close up. You will
be amazed at the results. Try different compositions.

Rule 3: Symmetry.
Things that are the same left and right or in many dimensions usually are beautiful. For example, flowers,
sculpture, or the human form.

Rule 4: Rule of Thirds.

Imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe grid in your camera's picture frame. When you position your subject at one of the grid
intersections, a good composition will result.

Rule 5: Merge at least 2 visual elements.

Visual elements include lines, patterns, colors, motions, 2D shapes, 3D volumes and psychological lines such
as the implicit lines between family and friends. For instance, lines are very important. Horizontal and vertical
lines convey stability and calmness while diagonal lines convey tension, instability and change. Art is in the
eye of the beholder.

Rule 6: Manage your backgrounds.

Your choice of location and camera position makes a difference. Avoid visual elements (for instance, bold
lines) that distract from your composition. Often a change of camera angle or position will lead to a better
picture. If necessary, you can use the clone stamp in Photoshop or Gimp later to erase unwanted objects.

Rule 7: Shoot the foreground.

It's often best if the background of a picture is out of focus. SL can simulate this with the Custom checkbox
settings on Me > Preferences > Graphics (CTRL-P). If necessary, you can use Photoshop or Gimp later to blur
the background.

Rule 8: Serendipity.
Photography in SL involves lots of motion relative to your camera and backgrounds. Catching just the right
moment sometimes doesn't happen until your 20th shot. Always record more images than you need and cull
them later. A shoot for an SL story might result in dozens of photos.

Manipulating images
To begin work on photos, use an image editor to examine and select the best from among your pictures. Put
the selected photos in a separate folder.
Image editors:
Adobe Photoshop (free with some RL cameras):
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free download: Gimp
accomplishes mostly the same things as Photoshop.
GraphicConverter for Macintosh.

Suppose you were shooting a news story:

CNN iReports will accept up to 10 photos per story
SL Newser will accept p to 3 photos per story
SL Enquirer will accept up to 4 photos per story.
After placing your selected photos in a separate folder, move them into the image editing software.
Drag and drop them from the folder onto Photoshop (File > Open) or GIMP.
For each picture, use #1 Rectangle Select Tool to select your final composition, then Image Menu and Crop.
Adjust two things: Brightness and Saturation.
In Photoshop, menu Enhance > Adjust Brightness/Contrast. Click on the Brightness slider and use the mouse
wheel to adjust.
Then use menu Enhance > Adjust Color > Hue/Saturation. Click on the Saturation slider and use the mouse
wheel to adjust.
Make the images bright enough to light up the faces, but not washed out. Then, over-saturate them a little to
make the images seem to sparkle with warm color.
Save that image and process the others. With practice, you will be able to process 100 images in 15-20
Some advanced controls you may want to practice with include #2 Dodge Tool, #3 Clone Stamp, #4 Text Tool,
and #5 Move Tool.
Dodge allows you to lighten up specific areas. For instance, make a face brighter in a dark picture. Use Dodge
sparingly as it washes out details.
Clone Stamp is used for erasing unwanted objects from a picture, such as bad lines and objects in the
Before using Text Tool and Move Tool, do this: Menu Layers > New Layer. Then, you can add text or overlay
images, and move them about as needed.
To learn more, there are lots of classes in SL that teach Photoshop and Gimp. To find them, search Events >
Free Photoshop tutorial:

Publishing photos and stories

Anyone can self publish their pictures and stories for free on the Internet using blog sites and social networking
sites. Examples are and
There are photo blogs for Second Life pictures such as
CNN iReport is at
Meet the CNN producers at 10am and 1:30pm every Tuesday at secondlife://CNN iReport Island/100/100/0
If you blog more than once per week, you may be recognized as a CNN Superstar iReporter.
There are also numerous SL publications. Some pay for content.

To write for an edited medium, such as SL Newser or SL Enquirer, talk to the editor, visit their SL site, and get
their author guidelines. Getting an editor to pre-accept your article idea is ideal. Ask your SL editor what she or
he is looking for. If you receive an assignment, your story is pre-accepted. And you can always publish to an
unmoderated blog in case you can't get your story accepted.
To get photo and news story ideas, join SL groups and go to meetings. Check group calendars. Use Search for
Events such as discussions, education, business, music, festivals or poetry.
On the scene of an SL story, remember to take pictures. Without pictures there is no story.
Public chat in the local chat window is fair game and can be quoted without further permissions.
After an event, save the chat by clicking in the local chat window. CTRL-A to select all, then CTRL-C to copy.
CMD-A and CMD-C on Mac. Paste it into a text file.
Private chat, like group IM, friends conference, or private IM is private, and you must request permission to
quote it in your story. It will be a violation of Second Life Terms of Service (TOS) if you don't.
Most blogs and SL newspapers will want to include URLs. SL locations are designated on the Web as
The bottom right button in the SL Map will record the current SLURL.

Revised November 17, 2010