It’s summertime in Seoul, the rainy season, and I am out on the streets with my camera in hand as everyone else quickly runs for shelter. As night descends, a magical transformation occurs: the colours from the neon signs above soak the streets below, their vibrant hues bouncing off every surface around me. This is what gives me a jolt of excitement, and this is the moment when I start shooting right up until racing back for the last train home.

The streets of Seoul are where I fell in love with cyberpunk photography. The neon signs, rainy nights, and urban backdrop combine to create scenes with a futuristic narrative. However, you don’t have to be in Seoul or Tokyo to achieve the cyberpunk aesthetic. So, let’s dive into what characterises a cyberpunk image and how you can achieve this distinct style, regardless of your location.

Defining the Cyberpunk AestheticExploring The Cyberpunk Aesthetic In Photography | Skylum Blog(2)

Let’s delve into the murky world of cyberpunk. At its core, it is a genre built around the mantra of ‘high-tech low-life’. It portrays a dystopian future in which our lives have become so consumed by technology that our humanity begins to diminish. We can see this in movies such as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’, as well as in literature such as Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer Trilogy’. 

Characters within cyberpunk media are often struggling with isolation and alienation despite living within densely populated urban areas. Beyond their struggle for survival, they often find themselves fighting against some form of oppression, typically exerted by overpowering corporate entities. Usually the question of “What does it mean to be human?” arises, as the boundaries between the organic and synthetic fuse into one, confronting the protagonist with an identity crisis.

The environments themselves range from claustrophobic, run-down alleys to sprawling cityscapes with towering skyscrapers that pierce through the smog and reach into the heavens. It is there that the wealthy and powerful reside while the rest of the impoverished population is left to dwell in the dark underbelly of the city. Advertisements from these big corporations are displayed at a scale beyond imagination. We see holograms as tall as buildings, gigantic billboards or adverts on just about any conceivable surface imaginable. Perhaps as well these advertisements are tailored to each individual’s interest, as themes of privacy and obtrusive surveillance are often portrayed.

The world of cyberpunk isn’t a happy place, far from it. It’s gritty, and seedy and reveals a society both elevated and debased by technology. 

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The Core Elements of Cyberpunk PhotographyExploring The Cyberpunk Aesthetic In Photography | Skylum Blog(3)

Whilst you can’t yet capture a cityscape with unimaginably gargantuan corporate towers and flying cars–though flying drone taxis may be in Seoul as soon as 2025–the key to achieving the cyberpunk aesthetic is to capture elements that reflect the genre’s spirit.

Optimal Weather Conditions

You will want to ensure that weather conditions are perfect for your shoot. Rain and fog amplify the sense of dystopia and decay and develop a cinematic quality to your images, and the lone silhouette of a person with an umbrella dwarfed by large buildings strikes the theme of isolation. 

Utilising Light

Neon lights are a core theme of cyberpunk and if your city has them use them as both a light source and an area of interest within your composition. Beyond neon lights, other light sources can be considered to enrich your cyberpunk narrative. Streetlights, illuminated billboards, vehicle lights, and even the glow of shop windows can all be used to create your scene. 

Creating Imposing Architecture

To give the buildings in your city an imposing presence you can employ a combination of techniques. Using a low angle will help capture the size of the buildings around your subject isolating them and giving a sense of scale to your composition. Additionally, if you have a zoom lens you can zoom in on your subject to fully compress the scene. This will make the buildings appear closer together and larger than they are, thereby dominating your subject. This will go a long way towards creating a more impactful image, illustrating the narrative of corporate towers of power that epitomise the cyberpunk genre.

Exploring Urban Textures

Whilst skyscrapers in your city can lend themselves well to portraying isolation, narrow alleyways will portray loneliness and grittiness. I tend to look for alleys with light sources, as well as telephone cables running overhead. If I can get a solitary figure walking down the middle of the alley, then I can hit themes of loneliness, tech and grit. 

Blending Old and New

You could also achieve cyberpunk themes by finding scenes with a blend of contemporary architecture and urban decay. You can find it in crowds of people, cityscapes, or even create your own scenes for portraits. When I am doing portraits, I may have a neon sign as a backdrop but most of the time I prefer to shoot down dark alleys and bring my own lighting.

Futuristic Styling

If you are lucky enough to have access to a great make-up artist, try and create futuristic looks for your model. Bioengineering is a common theme, in which people gradually become more robots than humans. There is often some storyline involving Artificial Intelligence so you can explore those narratives when planning your shoot. 

Crafting a Narrative

Attempt to create a cyberpunk narrative through a series of photographs using either a model or scenes from the city, as this genre isn’t just about the environment but the stories that happen within.

Experiment and Explore!

Once you’ve immersed yourself in the world of cyberpunk through movies, literature, and video games, you will start to recognise the themes and adapt them to your shoots. Experiment with different subjects, themes and settings and have fun doing so. However, there is still one critical component that we haven’t discussed yet: colour-grading.

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Achieving Cyberpunk Aesthetic in PhotographyExploring The Cyberpunk Aesthetic In Photography | Skylum Blog(4)

Post-processing plays a crucial role in achieving the cyberpunk aesthetic. Colour themes typically lean towards blues and pink tones or cyber green with added vibrancy to create eye-catching pieces. 

Creating a Moodier Atmosphere with Temperature and Colour

Begin by treating your image with cooler temperatures to create a moodier feel. From there you can begin to manipulate the colours in your shot using Luminar Neo’s Colour tool, Tone Curves or the Color Harmony tool inside of the professional panel. For a more cinematic look, apply colour theory principles to ensure that your tones harmonise to create a more appealing look. Start by finding a dominant colour within your image and build your palette around it, using colour wheels as a reference. Colour theory is a complex topic, but once you begin to understand it will elevate the beauty of your images. It will also ensure that colours in your image are not competing for attention creating a chaotic composition, and instead, you can use colours to guide your viewer’s eye through the scene. 

Adding Depth and Texture: The Role of Fog and Contrast

Additionally, consider adding fog through the Atmosphere tool to apply a layer of depth and texture contributing to the desired grittiness of your image. The pretty bright neon lights of cyberpunk city streets are just a facade, disguising the true sentiments of the people who are illuminated by their light so they need to be juxtaposed. This can be achieved with contrast in your image, deepening those shadows and highlighting those light sources. 

Focusing the Viewer’s Attention: The Power of Selective Highlighting

Selectively highlight areas that you wish to be the main focal point of your composition, often shots might be a little chaotic, especially in densely populated areas. Tools such as Dodge & Burn inside of the professional panel of Luminar Neo can help you highlight your subject and guide the viewer’s eye through the scene.  

The Bottom LineExploring The Cyberpunk Aesthetic In Photography | Skylum Blog(5)

Achieving the cyberpunk aesthetic through photography brings the future to the present day. And whilst we hope the future isn’t as dystopian as the movies, books and games portray, exploring the themes and narratives of this genre is a lot of fun. 

Experimenting with the various themes and stories will help get you well on your way. Take a walk around the city, exploring and discovering interesting light sources and the tallest buildings to help build the scenes, particularly on a rainy night. Once you have finished your shoot, experiment with your editing and develop a style using the range of colour manipulation tools that Luminar Neo has to offer. Ensure that the lighter areas are vibrant and eye-catching, contrasted by dark shadows and atmosphere. 

So when the next rainy night comes along, grab your umbrella and a camera and start shooting, have fun!

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