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Photography: How to shoot foreground shadowing

Slawek Kozdras, the photographer of our Prague feature for the December issue, explains how he got this shot balancing lighting and shadowing

Photography: How to shoot foreground shadowing
View of Vitava River and Prague Castle. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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Shutter speed: 1/250 sec
Aperture: f1.4
ISO: 1100

The key challenge on each assignment is to capture the spirit of a place. In this case, the task was both figurative and literal as my brief was to include shots of the role of alcohol in Czech culture. Prior research and planning proved very useful, but, as usually happens, my favourite shot was a chance encounter.

Ahead of the trip, I lined up a list of destinations to visit, including a bar called Pipa Beer Story in the old town, one early Saturday evening. When I arrived, hardly anyone was there, despite an impressive list of beers on tap and in bottles. The bartender told me that on a beautiful warm evening like this one, locals usually gather along the Vltava River. He recommended going to Naplavka, south of town, to get a feel for Prague summer drinking culture.

By the time I got to the river, the sun was already down, but the sky was still bright. As I’d expected to photograph people having a good time in the evening light, I’d changed from my standard 28-70mm f.2.8 lens to a 50mm f.1.4 lens, which I usually use for night shots and portraits. I set my camera to manual mode, with f.1.4 to isolate interesting people or scenes from the crowd, and a speed of 1/250 sec to make sure the shot was sharp. I also spot metered to ensure the precise point I focused on was well-exposed, but to account for the fact that I was shooting at night, I wanted to underexpose the image. With the very high aperture, I didn’t have to worry about the grain and left the ISO on auto mode — I generally don’t tinker with the ISO apart from setting 6400 as the maximum level the camera can go to.

I like this image because it shows two sides of Prague — the timeless, stately elegance of the iconic castle in the background, and a group of young people enjoying a drink on a beautiful evening. The scene distills my experience into a single image.

This shot came out at ISO 1100, with Prague Castle well-exposed against a purple sky and the rest of the scene reduced almost entirely to shadows — except for the red of a girl’s top and the wine in a plastic cup.

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Published in issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine