A Street Photographer’s Guide to Red Dead Redemption 2

How does a street photographer practice street photography when the streets are off limits? Like many of us, Cambridge–based photographer Craig Whitehead, aka Sixstreetunder, is stuck at home with an abundance of spare time, but has found a novel way to practice his craft — inside the video game world of Red Dead Redemption 2. The game, set in the American Old West at the turn of the 20th century, allows players to roam around a believable and vast world on foot or horseback, navigating through mountains, deserts, prairies, wetlands and bustling urban centres. Whitehead shares how he uses the in–game camera mode to capture and create stunning images that almost look like they were taken in the real world.

I was forced to cancel my photography workshops a week or so before the U.K. officially went into lockdown. There was no one on the streets to shoot. Then, I started seeing people shooting in Red Dead Redemption 2 and decided to give it a go.

I’m inspired by the work of Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas, who were both pioneers of colour street photography and often photographed New York during the 1950s and 60s. I think Red Dead Redemption 2 has created an atmosphere that is about as close as you can get in a video game to replicating those glory days of street photography. It features a lot of characters wearing hats as well as the same colours and lighting you find in early street photography.

April 23, 2020
Red Dead Redemption 2: Horse and carriage on a dusty road

Saint Denis is my favourite location in the game because of its vibe. It’s based on New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century and it has got the look that I want. (The game’s developer, Rockstar, has done a really good job with atmosphere, and weather in the game, right down to the fog and dust.)

Red Dead Redemption 2: Man in red sweeping on the streets of Saint Denis

I’ve been taking photos of this guy in Saint Denis, because I think he has the best outfit. Often, he just stands around on a corner just sweeping the floor and will then walk over and smoke a cigarette. But then on other days, you will see him dragging a horse and cart around town.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A man reading on a front porch

It’s not as easy as you might think to get great shots in the game, especially if you’re trying to get something that looks convincing — you have to cut out the weird stuff that gives away that it’s actually a video game. In the single player mode, you can change your framing and add a bit blur.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A woman with a broom standing in the sunlight

Just like when I walk down a real street, I’m investigating what I see around me and trying the same compositions in Red Dead Redemption 2. The game’s environments have the same things that you would see in real life. After playing every day, I could go back out on the street in the real world and pick up where I left off without feeling rusty at all.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A man smoking in front of a red building

Setting up shots can take a long time because I have to make sure the light and the pose of the person is right and that they’re in the spot I want them to be in. I can spend up to four hours in the game, just walking around taking photos.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A man standing in the shadows of a building at night

I’ll tweak the colours in my shots because the game is a bit too aggressive with an over–the–top cinematic vibe that just doesn’t exist in the real world. Sometimes I’ll adjust the colour balance to make the images look a bit more realistic.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A man sitting on the front steps of a building

There are so many different ways to work the light in Red Dead Redemption 2. Sometimes, it’s the shapes of the shadows and you catch people standing within a frame and you just need to wait for the light to move so it focuses on them.

Red Dead Redemption 2: A window view of a man standing outside

The online engagement with my Red Dead Redemption 2 street photography has been massive. Every time I post in–game photos on Instagram, they do really well. A couple of days after posting an image from the game, I posted a real photo and received a couple of comments along the lines of, “wow it looks real.” I was like, “yep this one is.”

Red Dead Redemption 2: A man leaning on the rail overlooking a ship yard

Not only does the game inspire me to one day visit New Orleans, but elsewhere too. There’s a shot I took close to the docks in Saint Denis that looks a lot like an old Fred Herzog photo taken in Canada. If you were to try and get a similar shot now, the only place in the world where you could would be in Bangladesh at Dhaka’s ship–breaking yards.

Red Dead Redemption 2: The silhouette of a man in front of a window

Once I’m able to travel I’ll again, I’ll be heading straight to New York. There is just nowhere else like it, it’s just iconic. Every corner that you turn feels somewhat familiar and that you’ve been there before. If someone made a game that was in 1950s or 60s era New York, with the same level of detail as Red Dead Redemption 2, I would just live inside there, it would be amazing.