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007 - Cyberpunk Photography Tutorial: Worldbuilding Elements

by Lucius Felimus | September 25, 2020


The thing about most cyberpunk photography today is that photographers only go for (mostly East Asian) urban scenes with neon colors, and a lot of them forget to incorporate other core elements of cyberpunk worldbuilding. Too much importance is being given to the styling and editing rather than subjects. Ever since I've been digging deep into literature, media, and discussion boards, I've been trying to distance myself from other photographers' work and developing my own based on my reference materials. I believe that it's very possible to photograph cyberpunk in modern-day cities despite what the subreddit r/Cyberpunk keeps telling us.

That's why I wrote this guide - I want to remind my fellow photographers and aspiring photographers what cyberpunk is really all about. To me, it's more than just the pretty neon aesthetics - it's about the core tropes of what makes a cyberpunk world in the first place. Which is why I keep stressing that subject matter should be the first and foremost thing to consider and that aesthetics only come second (we'll get to this later too, don't worry).

Before we get started with style, there should first be substance.

High Tech

Of course, being set in the future, a cyberpunk world would have advanced technological elements. We may not have artificial intelligences, holograms, nor cyborg cops yet, but even in modern-day cities, you can still find plenty of aspects that symbolize our rapidly-progressing technology. If you can find screens, computers, and communications devices (just to name a few), it would be great additions to any cyberpunk photo.

Some of my favorite subjects are these chop shops for high-tech gadgets - I feel like they are a perfect fit for a cyberpunk world. Not only for the pretty lights, but also for the fact that they take apart old tech and find new uses for them.

Some of my favorite subjects are these chop shops for high-tech gadgets - I feel like they are a perfect fit for a cyberpunk world. Not only for the pretty lights, but also for the fact that they take apart old tech and find new uses for them.

These little "sari-sari" stores not only sell you access to cyberspace ("load") by the peso, but also try to get discarded tech off your hands for a good price.

These little "sari-sari" stores not only sell you access to cyberspace ("load") by the peso, but also try to get discarded tech off your hands for a good price.

Low Life

Don't forget that cyberpunk is a dystopia - there can't only be the high tech without the low life. It's up to you on how you would define "low life" - be it poverty, sordid urban conditions, or anything else that degrades the human condition. There can be many possible interpretations of this, depending on the context.

To me, it's also the unkempt and poorly-lit parts of the city.

To me, it's also the unkempt and poorly-lit parts of the city.

Sometimes, I do manage to come across these lucky spots and combine both high tech and low life.

Sometimes, I do manage to come across these lucky spots and combine both high tech and low life.

Juxtapositions of Wealth Disparity

Cyberpunk is a genre full of juxtapositions. We already have high tech vs low life, but another theme prevalent in cyberpunk universes is the stark income inequality. Extreme capitalism (more on this later) is causing a widening divide between the rich and poor.

You don't have to go to slums like I do sometimes, but it would be a good idea to capture anything that shows wealth disparity.

The subject matter here is quite obvious - I try to look for high-end developments with skyscrapers in the far background, then go to a more run-down part of the city to frame along with it.

The subject matter here is quite obvious - I try to look for high-end developments with skyscrapers in the far background, then go to a more run-down part of the city to frame along with it.

Juxtapositions of Old vs. New

Due to the rapid modernization of societies, the new replaces the old - or should I say, tramples over it. Our ancient traditions that have become integral to our cultural identity are continually being replaced by the next big thing the new world has to offer. In urban environments, you can find relics of the past alongside products of modernization springing up all around it.

Some of my favorite subjects are monuments - because what better way to honor the memory of our national heroes than surround it with motels and malls?

Some of my favorite subjects are monuments - because what better way to honor the memory of our national heroes than surround it with motels and malls?

I know American Gods isn't exactly cyberpunk, but it was pointed out to me that this scene at Ortigas evokes a similar vibe. The New Gods of Media, Technology, and the Free Market exerting their rule over the Old Gods from our traditional beliefs, keeping their influence in check.

I know American Gods isn't exactly cyberpunk, but it was pointed out to me that this scene at Ortigas evokes a similar vibe. The New Gods of Media, Technology, and the Free Market exerting their rule over the Old Gods from our traditional beliefs, keeping their influence in check.

Juxtapositions of Man vs. City

The city is a gigantic force of evil and oppression - towering over us, ruling over us, suppressing our individuality. We are but featureless silhouettes in the vast concrete jungle of the megalopolis. In a cyberpunk city, there's this pervasive atmosphere of loneliness and distrust - despite the world being more connected than ever.

The legendary photographer Fan Ho frequently used this technique in his photographs of Hong Kong, and especially in his aptly named short film Big City, Little Man. I think similar principles can be applied in cyberpunk photography to evoke the feeling of being alone in a city of millions.

I like to play with scale. Don't we all feel small just looking at this picture?

I like to play with scale. Don't we all feel small just looking at this picture?

Sometimes, it just makes you stop and contemplate.

Sometimes, it just makes you stop and contemplate.

Skyscrapers

The phenomenon of urbanization is rising at an unprecedented rate - not only in the real world, but also in the cyberpunk future. Due to scarcity of land, populations are forced to densify, build vertically, and reach for the skies by constructing taller and taller buildings. High-density living is a common characteristic of cyberpunk cities.

There are different types of skyscrapers that are suitable for this. Residential towers have small rooms where people are constricted and boxed in - which are very common in classic cyberpunk cities such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, and now Manila, as well as in classic cyberpunk media such as Neuromancer and Blade Runner. Commercial skyscrapers, on the other hand, embody the "megacorporate" aspect of cyberpunk - they are the seats of power for the big corporations that rule over everything in our world.

Bonus points if they have company logos that enhance the megacorporate character even more.

Bonus points if they have company logos that enhance the megacorporate character even more.

Hyper-urbanization requires that new condominiums are always being built.

Hyper-urbanization requires that new condominiums are always being built.

Multiculturalism

In a cyberpunk universe, the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place. It's common for the city to be a "melting pot" with cultures and architectural styles taken from different corners of the world, making it feel both familiar and alien at the same time. There's a reason why many cyberpunk-inspired artworks have signs with non-Latin text in them - they add a certain mystical quality to the look and feel of the setting.

Binondo is a hotspot for multicultural architecture - where you can find East Asian, European, and American influenced designs all in the same place.

Binondo is a hotspot for multicultural architecture - where you can find East Asian, European, and American influenced designs all in the same place.

Yes, even multicultural restaurants. Not only do they have pretty signs, but they embody this trope very well, so I like to use them as elements for my worldbuilding. There's also an Indian apartelle chain and a Thai massage parlor here. Remember, this is still Manila.

Yes, even multicultural restaurants. Not only do they have pretty signs, but they embody this trope very well, so I like to use them as elements for my worldbuilding. There's also an Indian apartelle chain and a Thai massage parlor here. Remember, this is still Manila.

Hypercapitalism & Consumerism

Cyberpunk is often described as a world with unrestrained capitalism pushed to the extreme, where megacorporations go to great lengths exploiting everything and everyone in pursuit of profit. One of the ways they do this is by projecting their power over the hearts and minds of the masses through ubiquitous advertising and brightly-lit signage - constantly fighting for their attention by attempting to outnumber, outsize, and outshine the competition. Everywhere you go, you are bombarded with an endless stream of inescapable ads trying to sow discontent and get you to buy the next shiny commodity.

There are certain districts around the world such as Shibuya Crossing and Times Square filled with billboards and screens everywhere you look, and these are popular subjects for cyberpunk-inspired photography.

Manila's own version of this is Guadalupe, or as I like to call it, the Billboard Capital of the Philippines.

Manila's own version of this is Guadalupe, or as I like to call it, the Billboard Capital of the Philippines.

Even in the darkest of times, the endless barrage of advertisements will light your way.

Even in the darkest of times, the endless barrage of advertisements will light your way.

Mall culture is the norm here - they have become the de facto community centers of Manila. There's a reason why we have the largest shopping malls in the world. They're also some of my frequent subjects because of how well they fit within this trope.

Mall culture is the norm here - they have become the de facto community centers of Manila. There's a reason why we have the largest shopping malls in the world. They're also some of my frequent subjects because of how well they fit within this trope.

They even have futuristic-looking architecture.

They even have futuristic-looking architecture.

Police & Security

If megacorporations aren't the main villain in cyberpunk media, it's likely the authoritative police state. Sometimes it's both. You can often see police or private security personnel patrolling the city streets. They are commonly portrayed as pawns of the powers that be that serve to keep the population in control. Security equipment such as surveillance cameras could also fit within this theme.

These are perhaps the riskiest photographic subjects to capture, and that's why I have very few of these pictures. I've also heard that in some places, street photography might be seen as illegal and can get you in trouble if someone catches you. If you're going out to shoot in the streets, be sure to always exercise caution.

It's very rare that I get to capture cop cars with flashing police lights.

It's very rare that I get to capture cop cars with flashing police lights.

Like Orwell warned us, Big Brother is watching you.

Like Orwell warned us, Big Brother is watching you.

Street Markets

Underground trade is one of the key elements of cyberpunk - and a good way to represent it in a modern-day setting is street markets. The city has a bustling informal economy selling all sorts of things. Many of these merchants operate outside of regulation, but they are generally accepted as an important part of urban life for the affordable goods and services they provide. They don't have to be illegal wares like those black markets in cyberpunk stories - just enough to give an idea of what the informal economy is like. They can be night bazaars, gadget chop shops, or carts peddling ethnic street food just to give a few examples.

Personally, I'm a frequent customer of Quiapo's market streets.

Personally, I'm a frequent customer of Quiapo's market streets.

Most of these are actually harmless - just food, clothes, and other everyday items.

Most of these are actually harmless - just food, clothes, and other everyday items.

But beware of illicit goods such as pirated media (and in some cases, stolen gadgets) that can risk landing you in trouble.

But beware of illicit goods such as pirated media (and in some cases, stolen gadgets) that can risk landing you in trouble.

Seedy Locations

Cyberpunk borrows many tropes from film noir, including the urban settings and their overall bleak and depressing mood. This often takes place in locations concealed from the public eye such as grimy alleyways, unlit streets, and abandoned parts of the city where dark dealings are most likely to happen (I call them "noir environments"). Think of those places where a protagonist in a cyberpunk story might go to when conducting shady deals.

Japan and Hong Kong may have alleys with neon signs, but Manila's own version is these dark arcades that run underneath buildings.

Japan and Hong Kong may have alleys with neon signs, but Manila's own version is these dark arcades that run underneath buildings.

Just don't stay for too long.

Just don't stay for too long.

Ugly Utilities & Machinery

Another manifestation of high tech and low life in modern cities are exposed equipment, cables, and pipes that are essential for running the city's day-to-day busniess, but are poorly maintained and have become eyesores. Many of these are located in the city's back-of-house areas (or "underbelly" as I like to call it), but if you live in a city like Manila, you can even spot some of them out in the open.

The hotel at the left is an old building, so they likely didn't plan for all those fancy technological features that we have now. Which probably explains those ugly pipes and HVAC equipment being installed outside where people can see them.

The hotel at the left is an old building, so they likely didn't plan for all those fancy technological features that we have now. Which probably explains those ugly pipes and HVAC equipment being installed outside where people can see them.

We may have technologies that have advanced throughout the years, but still none of the means to manage them properly. Also, another reminder that Big Brother is still watching you.

We may have technologies that have advanced throughout the years, but still none of the means to manage them properly. Also, another reminder that Big Brother is still watching you.

Nightlife

There's a reason why red light districts are a common motif in cyberpunk media - not only for the pretty neon lights that contribute to its signature aesthetic, but also for the fact that hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure are some of the core tropes of a cyberpunk world, even at the expense of people being commodified as objects. This often means sexual services in places like strip clubs and brothels.

However, it doesn't have to be sex-related all the time. As long as it caters to the people's desire to escape from the grim circumstances of the cyberpunk world, then it makes for an appropriate subject. Bars and nightclubs might also fit the theme - and they are often the setting of cyberpunk stories anyway.

Manila's red light districts often have KTVs (actually brothels in disguise), massage services ("spakol" in Tagalog slang), and short-stay motels (where magic happens... you get it).

Manila's red light districts often have KTVs (actually brothels in disguise), massage services ("spakol" in Tagalog slang), and short-stay motels (where magic happens... you get it).

At first I thought Adonis was a place that sells hats, completely ignoring the context that it's in Timog Avenue's nightlife district. I thought wrong.

At first I thought Adonis was a place that sells hats, completely ignoring the context that it's in Timog Avenue's nightlife district. I thought wrong.

I'm constantly looking for more ideas so I can't call this list complete. If there are other elements that you think would make nice subjects for cyberpunk photography, do let me know by commenting below or contacting me through any of my social media accounts. I'm always open for suggestions!

In the meantime, let's proceed to the next part of the tutorial:

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