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008 - Cyberpunk Photography Tutorial: Aesthetic Elements

by Lucius Felimus | September 25, 2020


In the previous part of the tutorial, we discussed about the elements that establish a cyberpunk world and which subjects to look for in the city. Once we have those down, it's time to enhance the look and feel of our pictures by including elements that are commonly associated with the cyberpunk city aesthetic.

This is what you mostly see in those pretty neon city pictures on Instagram and elsewhere. Or if you're a cyberpunk photographer yourself, chances are, you're already going for these in your photos.

Neon Signs & Light Installations

Neon lights are perhaps one of the first things that come to mind when it comes to cyberpunk. Although, as I've said before, cyberpunk is really more than just the neon, it's probably the single most recognizable aesthetic element of the genre. It's perhaps one of the biggest reasons why people are drawn to it in the first place.

Although nobody uses real neon anymore in favor of the far more efficient LEDs, they still look cool and stylistically appropriate for a cyberpunk-looking photo. In fact, some LED installations look very similar to old neon lights and that's why people (myself included) often refer to them that way. It's not just limited to neon either - you can use still other types of lighting as well, such as fluorescent tubes, halogen lamps, and even sodium lamps.

In my night photos, I work my composition around the light installations.

In my night photos, I work my composition around the light installations.

Sometimes, instead of following the Rule of Thirds, I follow the Rule of Fit-As-Much-Stuff-In-Frame-As-Possible. Not only does it fill the picture with interesting lights, but I'm also able to use lower ISO settings in low light conditions.

Sometimes, instead of following the Rule of Thirds, I follow the Rule of Fit-As-Much-Stuff-In-Frame-As-Possible. Not only does it fill the picture with interesting lights, but I'm also able to use lower ISO settings in low light conditions.

Urban Geometry & Architecture

One of the things you'll notice first in cyberpunk environments is the futuristic sci-fi buildings. If you can find some ultra-modern or futuristic-looking buildings in your city, it's good to include them in your pictures to invoke that high-tech futuristic feel. Sometimes, the buildings and urban elements are arranged in a chaotic manner that makes the city feel like a convoluted concrete jungle. If you can find spots like these in your city, they can make for some really nice subjects.

It's not limited to the sci-fi architecture either - even old buildings and architectural styles can also be part of cyberpunk. You can use this to frame juxtapositions of old and new, like I mentioned in the previous part of the tutorial. At first I avoided going to places with traditional architecture, but once I passed by Intramuros (a centuries-old Spanish town in Manila), my mind was changed after seeing some elements there that can fit in my cyberpunk worldbuilding narrative. 

I try to look for strange architecture that look straight out of a sci-fi movie.

I try to look for strange architecture that look straight out of a sci-fi movie.

I also look for chaotic urban geometry like this scene taken from North EDSA - the main objects that I used for composition are the network of footbridges, the elevated train tracks, and the billboards in the background.

I also look for chaotic urban geometry like this scene taken from North EDSA - the main objects that I used for composition are the network of footbridges, the elevated train tracks, and the billboards in the background.

Binondo has plenty of old buildings with traditional architectural styles like this. However, they are poorly managed aesthetics-wise and there are tangled cables crawling along their surfaces.

Binondo has plenty of old buildings with traditional architectural styles like this. However, they are poorly managed aesthetics-wise and there are tangled cables crawling along their surfaces.

Decaying Infrastructure

Speaking of old poorly-maintained buildings, some places that might be a good fit are the more run-down parts of the city with visible signs of urban decay. The grime, grit, and graffiti add to the dystopian noir atmosphere of urban environments. Talk about finding beauty in the ugly parts of the city!

I tried to build this picture not only around the people and the light reflections, but also the soot-covered surfaces, potholes on the roads, and debris catchers for demolition works.

I tried to build this picture not only around the people and the light reflections, but also the soot-covered surfaces, potholes on the roads, and debris catchers for demolition works.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ugly parts of the city can still look pretty, if we try to visualize it that way.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ugly parts of the city can still look pretty, if we try to visualize it that way.

Bad Weather

If you look at cyberpunk city artworks and photography around the web, they often have rain, fog, or air pollution in them. Weather effects give the city another layer of a dark, dystopian mood that fits well in a cyberpunk world. They also interact with artificial lights (or the sky during daytime) in such interesting ways that produces some beautiful visual effects.

Rain is often thought to be an agent of gloom that evokes a certain depressing, dreary atmosphere upon the city - the colored, tainted raindrops falling from the sky, washing the weary faces of people going by. Fog and haze add an air of mystery and uncertainty to the overall mood - clouding our vision of the bleak present day and the dark future to come.

In uncertain times like these, we can only rely on each other - and on the rain to create beautiful light reflections on wet asphalt.

In uncertain times like these, we can only rely on each other - and on the rain to create beautiful light reflections on wet asphalt.

Smog doesn't technically count as weather, but combining it with golden hour sunlight and exaggerating the colors in post processing makes for a Blade Runner 2049-ish scene.

Smog doesn't technically count as weather, but combining it with golden hour sunlight and exaggerating the colors in post processing makes for a Blade Runner 2049-ish scene.

It's rare that I get to take cityscape pictures during a volcanic ashfall. The air smelled like sulfur, though.

It's rare that I get to take cityscape pictures during a volcanic ashfall. The air smelled like sulfur, though.

Keep in mind that this is more of a supplementary guide than anything - it's not about the core ethos of cyberpunk (we already covered that in the previous parts), but an aesthetic and styling guide that only adds an additional layer of immersion in a cyberpunk world. It's important that you also read Part I of this guide to get an overview of cyberpunk worldbuilding elements:

As always, I'm always looking for feedback from other fellow photographers and cyberpunk enthusiasts, or suggestions on how to improve this guide. Do leave your thoughts in the comments below, or contact me through any of my social media accounts.

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