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Getting Started with Neon Cyberpunk Street Photography: A Beginner's Guide

I've been doing Neon Cyberpunk Street Photography since 2018. Since arriving in South Korea in 2016, the neon-soaked streets on rainy nights have been my favourite feature of this country, naturally leading me to photograph them every chance I get.

This guide will walk you through the essentials of starting neon street photography from capturing stunning shots to selecting the right equipment and mastering post-processing techniques.


Equipment Essentials


Camera: Any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual mode capability. Keep in mind you don't need the very best to take good photos. A photo I captured with a $100 camera was featured on a New York Times Square billboard.


Lens: A fast lens (f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8) is ideal for low light conditions.


Tripod: Useful for long exposures of cityscapes. That being said you can use your surroundings which is the great thing about shooting in the city. Look for walls, fence posts and other surfaces to create steady shots. Or you can try the camera strap technique: wear the strap and pull the camera away from your body to create tension, which helps stabilise the shot.


Remote Shutter Release: Not exactly essential, but it can help with reducing camera shake when taking shots.


Prisms: Again, not essential, however, prisms work wonderfully with neon lights and other light sources and it's very fun to experiment with them.



Image of New York Times Square.
My first neon cyberpunk photo, shot on a Canon 100D, up on Times Square.


Scouting Locations


You don't need to be in Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong to take neon night photos, I have seen great work from cities from all around the world. Restaurants and diners, convenience stores, markets, alleyways, and streets lit by neon signs are what you are on the lookout for. Use media for inspiration such as movies like Blade Runner, TV shows like Altered Carbon and games like Cyberpunk 2077.


Alternatively, you can use your own neon lights. When I do portraiture, I have handheld Nanlites that I use to illuminate my model. It all comes down to experimenting and seeing what works for you. I've also seen people use car headlights and taillights when it comes to lighting their subject, so get creative as light is everything in this genre of photography.


Old man smoking illuminated by green neon light.
Shot in a dark alley with my own portable lights.

Camera Settings


Manual Mode: Gives you control over ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.


RAW Mode: Choose RAW over JPEG to retain data and gain editing flexibility. More on this in the 'Important Note' below.


Aperture: Use a wide aperture (f/1.4 - f/2.8) to capture more light and create a shallow depth of field.


Shutter Speed: Adjust based on your desired effect. Use a slower shutter speed for light trails and a faster speed to freeze motion. Additionally, to ensure sharpness and to minimise blur, keep your shutter speed equivalent to or faster than your focal length. For example, if you're using a 50mm lens, aim for a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second or faster. This helps maintain image clarity, especially in low-light conditions where camera stability is crucial. ISO: Keep it as low as possible to reduce noise. Increase it only if necessary.


White Balance: Auto white balance can work, but custom settings may better capture the neon's vibrancy. Personally, I use a cooler white balance setting which aligns more closely with the tones of night photography.


Important Note: When it comes to editing, over-exposed images are a nightmare to edit as they lose a lot of information. For instance, capturing a neon sign with over-exposure can obliterate crucial details, including letters and colours. However, under-exposed shots are more forgiving, allowing for easier information recovery, particularly when shot in RAW mode. Nonetheless, even with RAW, over-exposure can lead to inferior results compared to under-exposure.


Below is an example of what one of my RAW images looks like vs the edited version. The brightest part of my image is the most important aspect and guides my settings. I have ensured that I can see the detail in all of my light sources and the rest of the image is still visible even though it is shadowed. From experience, I know that I can bring out the shadows easily enough and highlight my subject during post-processing. If I were to try and make my subject as bright as it would be in the finished article, my light sources could be blown out and illegible.


A before and after comparison of a night photography edit showcasing a woman walking in the street outside of a 7-Eleven,
I am not shooting to ensure my subject is bright and visible, but rather that my light sources are detailed.

Composition and Framing


Composition in neon night photography has two key elements, your subject and how the neon lights frame and interact with them. This can mean using them for scale as your subject walks below them, how they frame the scene, or as a light source that illuminates your subject in a vibrant colour.


You can also look for reflections in puddles, windows, or metallic surfaces to add an extra layer of interest. Leading lines, rule of thirds, and framing can also guide the viewer's eye through the scene.



Group with umbrellas walk underneath neon sign.
Here I used the sign and road to frame my subjects.


Capturing the Shot


Patience is key. Wait for the right moment when the subject and the neon lights align perfectly. Experiment with different angles and perspectives, lately I've been trying to get a little elevation to get isometric points of view. Sometimes, shooting from a low angle upwards can make neon signs more imposing and dramatic.



Person entering a restaurant at night.
I waited outside of this restaurant so I could capture somebody entering it.


Post-Processing


Just as it's said that getting in shape involves more work in the kitchen than the gym, the same holds true for neon night photography: the bulk of the work takes place on your computer, not just on the streets.


Your photo lays a good foundation, but a lot of post-processing work is required to give it that neon cyberpunk aesthetic. You are looking for cooler white balances and explore colour processing creatively. Each scene is different so add tones that compliment your image. I previously discussed colour theory in my last blog which is crucial to creating a quality night shot, and it's something that I have studied and keep in mind with every edit.


Neon Cyberpunk Street Photography


Neon street photography first and foremost is a lot of fun. It can transport viewers from the present day into the future. For fans of the cyberpunk genre, it is our gateway into living in the year 2049 or '77.


By getting to know your equipment, fine-tuning your settings, and creatively engaging with your environment, you can transport yourself and your audience to the future.


Practice and experiment. Each batch of new shots will teach you something new about light, colour and composition. So if you have read this and you're heading out tonight to capture some neon street photos, please send me a DM with your results, I'd love to see them.


Good luck, and have fun!



Get started with neon edits quickly with my preset pack:



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