Night Photography: Adjusting Contrast for a Picturesque, Surreal-looking Image

Category: Tips & Tricks | 05 August 2019

Have you ever been tempted to capture a beautiful night scene in such a way that it looks vibrantly coloured and picturesque? The key in evoking a sense of surrealism lies in the contrast, and also shutter speed settings. (Reported by: Kazuo Nakahara)

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/13, 30sec, EV+1.0)/ ISO 250/ WB: Auto

Low contrast (Adjust Picture Style contrast setting to lower value)
To make the contrast appear even lower and evoke a sense of surrealism, I would recommend also overexposing the image by about EV+1.0. Moreover, the sky is brighter on nights when the moon is out, further improving the conditions for such shots.

Lower the contrast to make the image look less realistic

The scene in front of you in real life often features a higher contrast than that in those artistic-looking shots of scenery that you see in postcards and pictorials. This is especially so for night scenes, where on your camera screen, they tend to appear to have very high brightness contrast. Because of this, shooting them the way you would any other photo would result in a photo that looks very realistic.

To make your photo look more surreal, I recommend setting the contrast of the camera’s Picture Style to its lowest value. Furthermore, as it is particularly important to lift shaded areas, you can also shoot in RAW format and adjust the shaded areas and highlights during post-processing.

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L III USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/13, 30sec, EV±0)/ ISO 250/ WB: Auto

Normal contrast (No change to Picture Style contrast setting)
When I took a shot without changing the contrast, the light and dark areas were well-defined. The shaded areas in particular appear dark and sunken. It's a glamorous-looking photo, but it does not have the vibrant, magical look we're aiming to create. 

Bonus tip: Set the shutter speed to 30 seconds to smear the shapes of the clouds and waves

Shooting with a long exposure or slow shutter speed is also effective for removing the sense of realism from photos, turning a familiar world into one that is unrecognisable. This is especially so for details in the sky, which can look very different when you use a slow shutter speed. This is why I recommend taking such shots on a day when there are at least a few clouds in the sky. For both images in this article, I used a shutter speed of 30 sec. This smeared the shapes of the water surface and clouds, making them appear smooth and resulting in a surreal-looking scene.


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Kazuo Nakahara

Born in Hokkaido in 1982, Nakahara turned to photography after working at a chemical manufacturing company. He majored in photography at the Vantan Design Institute and is a lecturer for photography workshops and seminars, in addition to working in commercial photography. He is also a representative of the photography information website studio9.

http://photo-studio9.com/