Photo Studio vs Rez-a-Prim

Do you need a photo studio in Second Life? I’ve come across this question many times. Often the answers boil down to a simple no. Hardly surprising given that any resident who’s ever opened the snapshot feature on their client knows you don’t need a photo studio to take a decent  photograph in SL.  And if you want a special background for your photo, just rez a prim and apply the desired texture. Need a light? Rez a sphere, click “light” … et voila!

the rez-a-prim photo backdrop

Do you need a studio? Perhaps not. But is this the right question to ask? You don’t need an AO or a face light either, but few would deny that these items make your SL experience more convenient and enjoyable. After all, you could just open a raft of animations on your screen and click between them to change your stands, walks and sits. Need more illumination for your face? Why not just light up a sphere and attach it to your eyeball? You see my point. It’s not so much an issue of need as it is of usefulness. Surely the more productive question to ask is: in what ways can a photo studio facilitate and enhance photography in SL, and what features does it need to have to achieve this? 

the easy AO and facelight

As the owner of Ananke Media Systems, I’ve spent many hours, together with my partners, Anna Tretiak and Desdemona Enfield, crafting products that we believe help people meet the challenges and opportunities of virtual photography. If all you need to do is rez a prim and slap a texture on it, why go to all the trouble to design, build and script a photo studio in the first place? Well, let me share with you how I got here.

When I started writing about fashion in Second Life, I soon discovered I needed lots of photographs to accompany articles and blog posts. Many of my fashion photos were self-portraits, and I found myself endlessly frustrated by two major limitations.  First, the endless fiddling with the environment editor or with local prim lights trying to get the lighting right. Second, lining up a shot perfectly, only to realize the background wasn’t what I wanted, or the lighting needed to be adjusted. Result: cam out, fix this or that, cam back in, still not right, out again, fix whatever, in again, arggh!, out, fix, in, but now I can’t find that #%*! perfect angle I had before … and I’m not sure I like this hair anymore either … and on and on …

"working it" with the rez-a-prim takes on a whole new meaning

I’ve done professional lighting for theatre, fashion shows, and film in real life, so lighting is a medium I know a little bit about. Ask any good photographer and they will tell you: lighting is key to taking great photographs. The physics of how light functions in a virtual environment may be different than RL, but the aesthetic principles of composing with light remain the same. Look at photos you admire from Second Life and in most cases (if not all), the photographer’s ability to work with light is a key component in what makes the photograph so strong.

When looking for a photo studio, the single most important feature to focus on is not the backdrop, but the lighting system. The use of local lights (illuminated prims) to enhance the tone, shading and highlights of your subject is an invaluable tool for creating a strong, compelling photograph. Too often photographers settle for a flat overall illumination that makes their avatars look like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Such a shame, given the 3D graphical environment we inhabit in Second Life.

Well placed local lights are one of the most effective ways to sculpt your model and add more dimension to your images. A good studio will give you the ability to use HUD, menu or chat commands to rez  lights, position them where you need them, and then change their color, intensity and radius remotely. Scripted lights greatly facilitate the process of lighting your scene because you can keep your camera focused on the subject when making adjustments. No more need to cam in and out to reposition lights or change their colors.

prim lights sculpt the model

prim lights sculpt the model

Scripted backdrops provide a way of quickly loading textures and colors for the background of your scene. When looking at backdrops, the important things to consider are: How easily can you cam around through the entire shooting area? How much of the background area does the backdrop cover from a wide range of angles? Can you change the position, rotation or size of the backdrop to meet your shooting requirements? Can you add your own textures? How easily can you select and change the background textures, colors and appearance settings (brightness and glow)? Are the HUD, menu or chat controls clear and easy to use?

the AMS PhotoSpin lets you resize and rotate the backdrop

A good studio will also give you a set of gaze points, or gazers. These simple devices allow you to control the direction your model’s eyes are looking. Once again, a good system lets you reposition the gazers remotely using HUD, menu or chat commands, so you can keep your camera focused on the model.

Particle effects provide a nice addition to any photo studio. Look for a good range of effects, plus the ability to adjust color, density and position remotely. Another invaluabe tool that should be included in a high quality studio package is an easy to use modeling stand, preferably one that allows you to rotate an avatar when posing on it.

There are a fair number of photo studios available on the SL market. With some, the designers have put a lot of thought and hard work into making a scripted studio that really does something useful for you as a photographer. Yet it’s also true that other studios are little more that overpriced devices for applying textures or colors to a prim. So if you are considering a photo studio, shop carefully. There are significant differences, and if you choose wisely, you’ll have a powerful photographic instrument that makes the ol’ rez-a-prim method look as quaint as system skirts and watermelon hats.

Albrecht Duerer wishes he'd got that photo studio instead

For more about using prim lights see my posts Photo Lighting in Windlight and On-Location Fashion Photography  as well as Torley Linden’s wiki on SL photography.

For more about using gazers, see my post Making Eyes.

To see the AMS line of photo studio products, please visit the AMS website, or swing by one of our stores: AMS @ Smaug (Smaug 220,232, 33),  AMS @ Lady Vale (Lady Vale 124, 228, 301),  or  AMS @ LeeZu! (To The Nines 149, 48, 35).

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