Contre-jour street photography:
the history, the technique, the kit

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of bathers in silhouette at Sea Point swimming pool in Cape Town, South Africa.
Shot at Sea Point swimming pool in Cape Town, South Africa, this photo by former Canon Ambassador Kim Ludbrook is the title image in his contre-jour photography retrospective. "It totally embodies what I want the work to do – transport the viewer into the middle world or dream world," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Sometimes a picture raises more questions than it answers. Where is the image set? Are we looking at the sea or a pool? Who are the figures in the frame? Shown in silhouette, there is no clue what they look like, who they might be. The mystery is captivating…

In fact, the people in the picture in question are bathers at Cape Town's public swimming pool, shot by South African photojournalist and former Canon Ambassador Kim Ludbrook for his intriguing project, Contre-Jour, exhibited at FotoZA Gallery last year.

Regional Chief Photographer, Africa, for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), Kim has spent the past 15 years capturing major events, from Nelson Mandela's funeral and Barack Obama's inauguration through to international sporting competitions. Four years ago, after noticing his tendency to shoot subjects backlit, he came up with the concept for his photo series. The technique, known as contre-jour – French for 'against daylight' – originates in painting and features bold contrasts.

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of revellers at the AfrikaBurn festival silhouetted against a large inflatable tent.
Kim shot many of the contre-jour shots while on assignment on other projects. "I was on assignment shooting the annual AfrikaBurn festival in Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa, when I spotted this huge inflatable tent in the middle of the desert," says Kim. I noticed that the sun behind the tent created backlit contre-jour images." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO50. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook
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"What I love about contre-jour is that it creates highlights and shadows and nothing in between," says Kim. "What that does is strip away all the details from the pictures to create these dream landscapes where you no longer recognise people." He describes these scenes as a kind of "middle world", a meditative space, removed from daily life, where anything is possible.

Delving into his archive, he found a wealth of pictures shot with his camera pointing directly at the light source, some up to 15 years old. Initially, he'd been drawn to the style for pragmatic reasons. "A photo editor at a major news outlet sees thousands of pictures a day. The first time they interact with that image it's the size of a thumbnail – contre-jour images stand out from the crowd." As the technique is so striking, Kim finds it works better for standalone images than as part of a photo essay, otherwise it can overpower the other shots. Kim found around 150 images in his archive, which he edited down to 35, before going out to shoot some more.

"The majority of photographers go through a process of conceiving something, fleshing it out and then deciding how they are going to shoot it – this was much more organic," he explains. Most of the pictures have been shot while on assignment, though not necessarily for the assignment. The swimming pool shot, for example, was taken on an afternoon walk after covering a mountain bike race. Several others are from AfrikaBurn – South Africa's Burning Man festival, which happens annually in Tankwa Karoo National Park.

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of a young man performing a backflip silhouetted against the waters of Lake Kivu in DR Congo. Taken by Kim Ludbrook.
The setting sun provides the glare for this shot. "I went to DR Congo to do a photo essay on the huge refugee camps near Goma. On the way back to the hotel, I noticed this group of boys doing backflips off the pier into Lake Kivu," says Kim. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Eye-catching street photography

True to Kim's photojournalist roots, none of these shots are staged. He goes out when the light is at its most intense – half an hour after sunrise or half an hour before sunset. "In Europe the harshest light would be in autumn or winter, so if you shoot then it would be easier to get that radical difference. There's a seven-stop difference between the highlights and lowlights." He wanders around until he finds a background element that catches his eye, such as the neon heart strung between palm trees at Camps Bay Beach, Cape Town.

"Once the light is in the right place, I wait for subjects to move through the frame and shoot maybe 15 or 20 pictures," he says. "I've set my exposure either in manual or the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is so accurate that you could have it in aperture priority – at f/2.8 or maybe f/4.5 – and the camera will expose for you to come out with the silhouette."

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of a neon heart strung up above figures in silhouette at Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town.
"This heart strung between palm trees at Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town caught my eye and I knew I wanted it in the background," says Kim. "I ended up in the road and nearly got run over getting the framing right." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Kim's go-to lens is the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, which he dubs "the secret weapon in my Canon arsenal". Discreet, fast and quiet, it's perfect for working in the streets. "I know a good number of top South African photojournalists who've really taken to that 40mm. On a Canon EOS 5D, it's such a compact package, people don't even notice you have a camera, it almost becomes a maxi point-and-shoot. The lens also has this warm quality, which suits the light we have here in Africa."

When he's shooting sport, his kitbag contains two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II bodies (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III), along with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS ll USM, Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM) and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lenses. "In sport, and sometimes news scenarios, you need zooms because your movement is often limited, but for 99% of my news and features work I use primes," says Kim. "They focus your attention, make you clinical with your framing and have exceptional quality. I'm pretty tough on my gear, too, and those L-series lenses are unbreakable – that's another reason why I love them."

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of two figures in silhouette walking through Victoria Falls, Africa.
"After an assignment in Zambia on malaria I went for a walk at the amazing Victoria Falls. This image illustrates the huge amount of water that falls on visitors as they walk past." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 IS USM lens at 1/30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook
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Stepping into the print world

Day-to-day, Kim mostly works with digital images on a screen, rarely getting to see his images as 2D prints, let alone as high quality A1 and A0 fine art prints. Beyond converting the files to black and white, he did "very little" to the images in post-production. "With a Canon EOS 5D, the image quality is so good that I just do some sharpening and some minor dodging and burning here and there."

Starting out in the 1990s, he remembers working with slide film and a handheld light meter, spending months getting the wrong exposure before starting to master his craft. "Back then when you fired the shutter, that was the image. You had to get the exposure within a third of a stop and your framing had to be perfect," he says. "I come from an era in photography when there was no margin for error and that's carried on in the way I work, even though we now have the most unbelievable computers in our hands. That's what I call them. They're not just cameras anymore, they're computers."

He enlisted the help of the team at Canon to prepare and print the files using a Canon imagePROGRAF PR0-4000 printer. "I'm a photojournalist, I have the skills I need to do what I do, but I'm not a retoucher and I don't know how to make my images print the same way as they look on my laptop. My advice would be to reach out to someone whose job it is to do post-production, go to a really good printing house – Canon in my case – or do a course."

A black-and-white image from Kim Ludbrook's Contre-Jour retrospective of a ballet dancer silhouetted against the curtain, backstage at Joburg Ballet, South Africa.
Dancers preparing for the final dress rehearsal of Cinderella at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg. "I have a good relationship with Joburg Ballet and they let me shoot their final dress rehearsals," says Kim. "I shoot the classic front view, but I also love shooting backstage because you get unusual images." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.4 and ISO3200. © EPA/Kim Ludbrook

The key thing Kim learned from printing his images was to always shoot RAW, an option that wasn't available in his early career. "RAW is here for a reason, because the image quality is outrageously good. Now I always shoot RAW on one memory card and JPEG on another."

Looking at the contre-jour images in the context of his exhibition made Kim see them in a new light. "When they were up on a gallery wall, their meaning changed," he says. But the process of going back through his archive and putting the series together also made him appreciate their original context. "Working for a news agency is an intense, pressured form of photography. I'm not even talking about covering conflicts, which I've done, but just the fact you shoot so many assignments, one after the other.

"I don't get to go back and review my work that often, so doing so now, I feel blessed. It's a privilege to document the human condition. I've seen the best of human nature and the very worst of human nature. In 2020, the world is vibrating so fast, information-wise. It's more critical than ever that we have bona fide photojournalists out there doing what we do. We need a mirror for the world."

Autor Rachel Segal Hamilton

Kim Ludbrook's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The contents of Kim Ludbrrok’s kitbag – three Canon cameras and 4 lenses – laid out on a table.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The EOS 5D Mark IV's 30.4-megapixel sensor delivers images that are packed with detail, even in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows. "The finest camera I've used in the digital age," says Kim. "Unrivalled image quality with an unbreakable build that can deal with the rigours of my work."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The successor to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II features a 20.1MP sensor and up to 20 fps - it’s the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K Raw video.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, the compact, high performance EF 50mm f/1.4 USM standard lens can be relied on for superb performance in any field of photography.

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

A compact pancake lens with a fast aperture that is great for travel and general photography. "The secret weapon in my Canon arsenal," says Kim. "The lens has this warm quality, which suits the light we have here in Africa."

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

This 35mm prime lens comes with a four-stop Image Stabilizer and f/2 maximum aperture, and is ideal for low-light photography.

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