Sci-fi cityscapes: neon-lit images of Tokyo at night

Discover how art director and photographer Liam Wong used the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to create atmospheric images of Japan's capital after dark.
A crowded sea of umbrellas at a busy, neon-lit intersection in the heart of Tokyo as people cross the road at night.

A sea of umbrellas at Tokyo's iconic Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in Japan. "This is one of the first images I captured and the image that made me want to continue shooting after midnight," says art director and photographer Liam Wong. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 105mm, 1/100 sec, f/4 and ISO1250. © Liam Wong

Back in 2014, Scotland-born photographer Liam Wong spent time travelling as an art director for a video game company. To document his trips and show his family what he was up to, he began taking photos on his smartphone. Now an internationally celebrated photographer, Liam's vivid, contrast-filled cityscapes of Tokyo at night have amassed millions of views online and his crowdfunded book TO:KY:OO has sold out three times. Here, he discusses the inspiration behind the project and how he used the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to capture Japan's capital after dark.

Initially photography was only a hobby for Liam, but in 2015 he bought his first DSLR, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the predecessor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. After watching Miguel Santana's Memories of Tokyo, a cinematic journey through the city in spring, Liam was inspired both technically and creatively. "It motivated me," he recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, I want to achieve that someday.'"

While in Tokyo for business, Liam began shooting and sharing whatever he came across. He upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, and as his experience and online following grew, he noticed which subjects resonated most with viewers and refined his work into a series of vibrant night-time cityscapes – neon-filled, high-contrast images that capture the city's atmosphere through its architecture, style and people.

Two people walk down a neon-lit alleyway at night in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest wards, is bathed in eerie green-blue light, creating a surreal, almost cinematic feel. Liam's aesthetic stems from a range of influences, one of which is film. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 24mm, 1/30 sec, f/7.1 and ISO800. © Liam Wong

A man holding an open umbrella walks through a neon-lit Tokyo alleyway in the rain at night.

Liam sometimes uses subjects to convey the scale of the buildings and environments he captures. Here, a man walks through one of Tokyo's back alleys as the last train passes by in the distance overhead. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 24mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.5 and ISO1000. © Liam Wong

Capturing contrast

Liam's audience may have helped to guide his subject matter but his style was always uniquely his own – an amalgamation of his passion for video games, film, architecture, colour and graphic design. Cyberpunk motifs such as neon signage, a night-time setting and rainfall provide a backdrop for Tokyo's buildings, while the dramatic use of light, colour and contrast adds impact.

"When someone sees my images, I want them to know it's my work," says Liam. "I'm inspired by directors such as Wong Kar-Wai, Ridley Scott and Gaspar Noé and by films that play with colour in a way that's very surreal. There are a lot of references to cyberpunk because I come from a video game background," he continues. "I also like to capture the contrast between old and new architecture, to give a sense of how something can evolve over time."

Unique locations

To find subjects to shoot, Liam scoured Google Maps for interesting buildings or structures and used Street View to hone shooting angles. "I would find a shot taken from an alley, for example, and mark it on the map, video game-style, setting waypoints," he says. "I would walk for hours, doing 40,000 to 50,000 steps."

Having covered Tokyo's landmarks, Liam sought out lesser-known subjects to give a more nuanced view of the city. "I would get on a train to a random station," he says. "Or I would ask taxi drivers or locals if they could give me an idea of somewhere I was unlikely to have seen before.'" Once there, Liam would photograph from different angles until he was satisfied with what he had shot.

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A woman under a clear plastic umbrella crosses a road in Tokyo at night.

On a rainy night in the buzzing district of Harajuku, Shibuya, a woman waits to cross the road. Liam used his knowledge of colour theory and graphic design to create this vibrant, neon-lit image of Tokyo after dark. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 70mm, 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO5000. © Liam Wong

Under cover of darkness

His city-wide voyages happened mostly at night. This was partly to satisfy the night-time element of his cyberpunk aesthetic, but it was also a deliberate compositional tactic – he wanted to represent Tokyo with as few distractions as possible. Using simple composition, he located focal points centrally or to one side, and he kept the presence of subjects to a minimum, although sometimes including them for scale.

Ultimately, in a city of nine million people, nightfall made moments of clarity much easier to come by. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV provided the creative flexibility Liam desired, and switching between the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM, Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM allowed him to explore a range of ways to shoot the city.

Rocky outcrops in Zion National park, Utah, USA, pictured at night. Blurred lights run along the road and the Milky Way can be seen in the sky above.

The dark side: low-light photography

Valtteri Hirvonen forged his technique during Finland's gloomy winters. Here he reveals his tips for shooting in low light.

Liam's kit also helped him to overcome the project's technical challenges. The primary obstacle he faced was low light, and to ensure his images were in focus, he frequently had to stop down. To manage this, Liam used the bracketing feature of his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, capturing each image at a range of different exposure points for greater flexibility in post-production, and would sometimes trigger remote flash.

He also encountered environments with a wide dynamic range – for example, bright signage adjoining dark alleys – threatening detail loss in highlights and shadows. When this issue arose, Liam would deliberately underexpose his shots, setting his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to Auto ISO but limiting it to ISO2000. This ensured his highlights weren't overexposed, while the camera's low light performance and superior automatic metering meant he never sacrificed any detail in shadows. "I didn't have to think about how the darks should be and how the lights should be and I could actually bring out more detail," he says. By slightly lifting his exposure in post-production, Liam had perfectly illuminated shots, no matter how extreme the lighting conditions.

A Tokyo taxi driver waits outside a hotel. In the background is a darkened street illuminated by neon signs.

A taxi driver waits in the rain for a couple to exit a love hotel. To source his subjects, Liam asked taxi drivers or locals where he could find interesting buildings and places less frequented by tourists and crowds. "This was the photograph that started my journey into photography," says Liam. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM at 200mm, 1/30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO5000. © Liam Wong

Blurring motion

Liam used slower shutter speeds to create his cyberpunk-style blurred rain effects but wanted to avoid introducing blur from passers-by moving through his frame. "To capture rain and moving people I used a shutter speed of between 1/50 and 1/100 sec," he explains. During the early hours, when the streets were quieter, he could blur the rain further by going even slower. "Then, I mostly shot handheld, at about 1/30 sec."

Using slow shutter speeds raises stability concerns, so Liam sometimes used a tripod, but that wasn't always an option when he was walking long distances. The image stabilisation technology in two of his favourite lenses, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, helped when he was shooting handheld, and he also trained himself to remain as still as possible. "I tried to be the tripod and put effort into stabilising myself," he says. "I can now shoot at high or low shutter speeds without having to think about it."

Cinematic colours

Liam edited his RAW files in Adobe® Photoshop®, and to begin with he used his knowledge of design and colour theory to heighten their impact, changing entire colours and applying video game industry effects to enhance the cyberpunk aesthetic. "Photographers always try to remove chromatic aberration from images, for example, but sometimes I'd put it back in," he says.

Over time, Liam's approach has softened. "Nowadays, I go for a cinematic style," he says. "I might shift colours slightly, making an image feel cooler or warmer, or strip out colours."

In 2018, Liam crowdfunded the publication of his book, TO:KY:OO (2019), which showcases the early years of the project. The publishing process was neither quick nor easy, but overall Liam found it to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. "Physical publishing opened up my work to people who don't use the internet," he says. "I hope my book has helped people who couldn't travel due to the Covid-19 pandemic look forwards."

Peter Wolinski

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