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Reflections: A Castle at Night with the Trompe l'oeil Painting Effect

Trompe l’oeil” is French for “deceive the eye” and refers to an art technique where objects are depicted so realistically that viewers have the optical illusion that it exists in three-dimensions. A photographer managed to achieve the same effect in photography by capturing a water reflection of Takada Castle in Niigata Prefecture, Japan in amazing detail. He shares how he did so.  (Reported by: Atsushi Malta, Digital Camera Magazine)

Takada Castle and sakura at night

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L USM/ FL: 35mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 20 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight
Season: Spring/ Time of day: Night

In this 20-second exposure, the reflection of Takeda Castle, lit up at night during sakura season, stands out clearly in the pitch-black waters of the nearby moat. With the right framing and exposure, your shot can look so real that viewers feel like they have stepped into the scene.


Takada Castle: One of Japan’s top 3 night sakura viewing spots

Most Japanese castles are built on a high stone foundation with surrounding stone walls to prevent enemy invasion. However, Takada Castle has neither of these features, supposedly to save time and resources because war was approaching when it was originally built in 1614. 

We can thank this lack of stone walls for the beautiful, unhindered reflection of the castle’s three-tiered tower in the waters of the nearby inner moat. The castle also happens to be one of Japan’s top three sakura viewing spots—over 4000 sakura trees were planted in the park next to the castle after World War II. When these are lit up at night by about 3000 lanterns during the Takada Cherry Blossom Festival (usually 1 to 15 April every year), they make a spectacular sight and create a very unique reflection scene.

For another perspective of Takada Castle at night during sakura season, see:
Photographing Sakura in Japan: Scenic Spots & Pro Photography Tips (2)


Key #1: Don’t underexpose by too much!

The key to achieving the ultra-realistic effect of the main shot lies in the clarity and brightness of the castle's reflection in the water. 

Takada Castle and reflection at night, underexposed

To prevent blown highlights, many photographers will intentionally underexpose the shot a little. However, if the shot is too dark, the reflection in the water will look a lot weaker (see image above).

To get better results, don’t worry too much about the blown highlights. Instead, make it your priority to bring out the tones and gradations in the dark parts of the scene.


Key #2: The water has to be as still as possible

Blurring in the water will ruin the mirror-like effect. If there is wind, increase your ISO speed and use a faster shutter speed. 

Ideally, it is best to shoot when there is very little wind or no wind at all. However, depending on the weather conditions, this can be quite a challenge. If you are getting frustrated, try moving to another spot to shoot from a different angle. Even a 90-degree shift can make a huge difference to the appearance of the water surface, as the shot below shows.

Takada Castle at night from another angle

You can get amazing effects when you shoot sakura against flowing water with a slow shutter, but it also helps if there’s no wind!:
Photographing Cherry Blossoms: Should I Shoot Wide-angle or Telephoto?

For more tips and tutorials on photographing reflections, see:
Tips for Water Reflection Photography: Fun with Puddles!
Composing a Shot of an Aurora with its Reflection in the Lake


More about the location

Takada Park, Motoshiro-cho, Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture

Details at: https://www.tohokukanko.jp/en/attractions/detail_1305.html

Opening hours and admission fees
Free entry to Takada Park all year around. Admission charges apply if you want to enter the Takada Castle tower.

Other notes:
- Over 1 million visitors attend the Cherry Blossom Festival every year. Be prepared for crowds!
- Don't fret if you missed sakura season. Takada Park is also very scenic during other seasons. In late July to mid-August, hundreds of lotus flowers bloom in the castle moat. The park is also home to stunning autumn foliage and picturesque snow scenes in winter.



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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

Atsushi Malta

Atsushi Malta

Born in 1968. Malta now makes night photography around the world his life's work, and is active in photography series in newspapers/online, magazines, weekly gravure publications, photo exhibitions, and nightscape photography-related websites.