LOGIN/SIGN UP function is disabled for upgrade and maintenance. It will resume on 22/01/2022 10.30 AM SGT. Sorry for any inconvenience caused.
Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

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

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)

A surreal night photograph shot with EOS 5D Mark III (with exposure compensation)

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.

For more about tweaking Picture Style settings to create your ideal finishing, check out:
3 Steps to Creating Custom Photos With Picture Style

Normal contrast, shot with the EOS 5D Mark III

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.

Got an EOS M-series camera? Use Creative Assist for an easy way to control contrast—find out more here:
EOS M10 Lesson 2: Controlling contrast and saturation to enhance your subject


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.


For more on long exposure photography, read: 
Capturing Drifting Clouds with a 60 sec Exposure

Need more ideas for unique-looking nightscapes? Check out:
One Location, Two Looks: Abstract Nightscapes – Tranquillity vs. Vibrancy

For more tips, techniques and ideas on night photography, go to: 
In Focus: Night Photography

Receive the latest updates on photography news, tips and tricks by signing up with us!


Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Kazuo Nakahara

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.