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The Shadowy Street Photography of Luca Cascianelli

By Kelly Turner

Like a gambler holding out for that one lucky draw, Italian photographer Luca Cascianelli knows the odds of grabbing the perfect shot are stacked against him—but then, that’s part of the thrill of street photography.

With no models to direct or lighting gear to fall back on, Cascianelli entrusts his fate to the whims of chance and his own trained eye as he wanders Rome’s narrow alleys waiting for it all to come together: the perfect spot, the perfect light, the perfect passerby. “I don’t build a photo-shoot set, simply because I don't need to,” he says. “The city creates it for me. Sometimes the perfection is so magical I almost feel like Rome, in that instant, is posing there for me.”

But just like a winning hand, such moments can be long in coming. “At times, the light in that alley is not quite right. Other times, the light is ideal, but in that brief interlude of perfection—which won't last longer than 10 or 15 minutes on such a tiny street—the right person won’t pass by. Or maybe they will, but not exactly where I hoped they would.” And then the photographer is on to the next alley, the next break in the clouds, the next shot.

Cascianelli owes his career behind the camera to a similar gamble.

Five years ago, working as a real estate agent by day and a waiter by night, he found himself with little time or energy left for his wife and four-year-old son, and even less for a long-held interest in photography. Instead, he lived vicariously through others, perusing photography books before going to sleep. One of his favorites was Early Color, by American photographer Saul Leiter.

When Cascianelli’s daughter was born in 2013, he decided he needed to change paths. At the age of 37, he quit his jobs and enrolled in a three-year photography course. “I had so much passion inside that there was no other right choice for me, even if I knew that, by the end of the course, my future would be far from certain,” he says. “The risk was to be broke but happy, and I considered that an improvement.”

Today, Cascianelli makes a living from still-life, portrait, and wedding photography. But street photography has become his true passion.

Much of his personal work is a study in contrast—long, dark shadows punctured by shafts of warm light in which the photo’s subject is momentarily caught unaware. There is a mystery there that begs to be solved. Where are they going? Where have they been? The viewer can't help but become storyteller. His friends have a name for his style: Noir Hypothesis.

“I find this view of my photographs romantic: a suspended story that arises from a random encounter between the photographer, the subject, the light, and those closed shadows that, by hiding, let the story unfold,” says Cascianelli.

For Cascianelli, too, his subjects are a mystery. He seldom approaches the people he photographs and, instead, attempts to be as inconspicuous as possible—something easier said than done for someone 190 centimeters tall (nearly 6 feet 3 inches). To help, he shoots with a small, silent mirrorless camera with a 35mm lens. He holds the camera almost exclusively at waist level, viewing the scene through its rotated LCD screen, like an old twin-lens reflex camera. “I feel less intimidating this way, rather than when I hold the camera at eye level,” he says. He also finds the photos from this angle more interesting.

CASCIANELLI'S EDITING PROCESS

Since he tries to capture the contrast of light and shadow while shooting, most of his post-processing work involves fine-tuning color and details in Adobe Photoshop CC, which he relies on for all of his portrait, fashion, and street photography work. (For wedding photography, he prefers Adobe Lightroom CC for its ability to process hundreds of files simultaneously.) Here's a typical editing process for one of his street photos.

“While I am shooting street photography, I never look review my work; it’s a treat I prefer savoring slowly on my laptop,” says Cascianelli. When he finds an image he likes, he opens the raw file and straightens it if necessary. He says this is usually the only edit he applies in Adobe Camera Raw.

The unedited photo in Camera Raw.

In Photoshop, Cascianelli opens shadows and reveals detail with Curves adjustment layers. To give the shadows a cold cast, he adds a Color Balance adjustment layer and pushes the shadow tones toward blue and cyan, applying additional Curves and Levels adjustment layers as needed.

Opening the shadows (above left) and giving them a cool cast (above right) with Curves and Color Balance adjustment layers.

Next, Cascianelli turns his attention to the highlights (left). With a second Color Balance layer, he warms up the highlights by emphasizing red and yellow.

Cascianelli fine-tunes contrast by applying three Levels adjustments, each with a different blending mode. (It's a technique he learned from photographer and postproduction editor Claudio Palmisano.)

He sets the first Levels adjustment layer to Multiply and the second adjustment layer to Screen, perhaps modifying the layer mask to moderate the effect. Finally, he sets a third Levels adjustment to Soft Light and lowers its Opacity to 15%. To finish this step, he adds a Hue/Saturation layer and lowers the Saturation to around -15 to tone down the colors affected by the contrast changes.

To subtly increase the contrast along fine edges in the image, he duplicates the background layer and applies a High Pass filter to it, setting the layer’s blending mode to Soft Light. He doesn’t typically give his photos titles, preferring to let the viewer see what they want without his interference.

The image before (left) and after (right) Photoshop's High Pass filter.

The final, edited image.

To see more of Cascianelli's street photography, follow him on Instagram.