When it comes to subject matter which combines light and color in creative and interesting ways, few things are so captivating or fun to look at as exquisitely constructed custom neon signs. If I’m out driving on a summer’s night and come across a fascinating bit of neon, it’s difficult not to pull my car to look at the sign maker’s skill and take a few pictures for my collection. As I was making a quick turn into a parking lot along Route 1 in South Florida, I almost ended up in an accident. The neon horse (#1) was a bit of a surprise the thing I was able to see. It’s impossible to predict the moment you’ll see an amazing neon sign at night. The name, early observers of neon signs would often refer to neon as the “living flame.”
While truly unique and complex signs are getting more and more difficult to find There are still some interesting and beautiful signs to be discovered even in the simplest pizza eatery, liquor store, or barroom window. Certain places, like the Las Vegas Strip (#2/33) or Times Square (#4) in Manhattan have a broad assortment of signs. You could spend the whole day photographing them.
While taking photos of neon isn’t difficult, some tricks can help you improve the number of keepers. These tips will enable you to capture the most vivid and accurate color. Even cameras with basic settings can produce great results with just a few basic settings. Be sure to, shoot in Raw format, where you can hone in on the exposure and color. I’ll go over it in a future post.
Time Of Day & the Time of Year
While it’s obvious, the ideal time to photograph neon signs is after darkness is falling, there are some exceptions. For example, if you’re lucky enough to photograph an old-fashioned sign, such as the Hollywood Theatre sign (#5) taken by Janet Loughrey in downtown Portland, Oregon, you might prefer shooting at twilight so that you can use the low angle to get a clear blue sky to create a stunning background. If the shape of the custom neon sign is intriguing (some older motel signs are very interesting) It’s a good idea to have a bit of light to show these details can be extremely useful. There is, however, an issue of seasonality that could be encountered when shooting neon after dark it was never a thought to me until I started shooting lots of signs. The reason why a lot of neon is found in the windows of retail stores is that these shops typically close their signs following the closing of the shop. If a shop closes at 8 p.m., but the sun shines until nine, it can be a problem. The intriguing sewing machine (#6) was photographed in a window of a tailor’s store on a night in March. In summer the sign would’ve become dark by that point. Sometimes, you’re lucky. I shot the Corona beer sign (#7) from an alcohol store’s window in August, which was the time it was still light outside, even after 9 pm. The sign was illuminated by a timer that kept the sign lit for several hours after it closed. Restaurants and diners (#8 and #9) remain open late and their signs are often situated
There are times when you just have no choice about timing If you’re at the location and the light is on, shoot. I snapped the “Safe Ice Cream” sign (#10) near the Eiffel Tower in Paris during a stroll during the evening of a summer night. There was still some light on the horizon, however, the sign was bright enough, and also had a dark enough background that it did the job. In addition, I was able to capture some of the details on the other signs.
However, in the majority of cases in the case of retail neon, most of my shooting takes place during winter or in the fall when the daylight is shorter. I despise short days and cold temperatures, but at least the neon gives me something to look forward to shooting during the winter months.
Metering and Exposure
It is simple to measure and then expose for neon. Most patterned meter modes (Matrix, Evaluative, etc.) If you’re shooting close-ups of signs, the patterned meter modes (Matrix and Evaluative.) provide an extremely accurate exposure. In addition, I’ve noticed that there is quite a lot of exposure sway when using neon tubes. You can alter the intensity by a stop or more, and still achieve good results.
As you adjust the exposure, the primary changes are in the saturation of color. Underexposure creates saturated hues. Slight overexposure often causes an effect known as “halation” (#11), which is a noticeable glow around the tubes that can reduce their sharpness (it is particularly evident with blue-colored tubes, for a certain reason). Since the light sources are extremely bright, I usually shoot with a low ISO (usually 100 or 200): there’s no point in introducing noise by using higher ISOs if they’re not required, even if it’s dark out.
A camera that is positioned close to a bright object, such as neon may cause it to expose the background too much and bias the exposure towards the brightest area of the image. This is generally the result you’re looking for. I usually use a -1EV exposure compensation to avoid a habit and also to cover.
It is possible to reduce the effect of background on exposure by moving closer to the sign. Sometimes you don’t need to alter the minus compensation. For example, in this image of an old motel sign (#12), I chose a wider focal length setting which meant that the black background played more of an impact on how the exposure was read. Then I zoomed in to take an exposure from only the tubes. You can also accomplish this by walking further in while taking and locking the exposure, and then returning to your original perspective (#13).
Although neon can be shot handheld, I prefer using tripods. That way I’m not having to fear camera shake when I use an extremely slow shutter speed to increase the depth of field. Another reason is that I am far more likely to experiment with techniques for composition and even offbeat ones like “zooming while exposing” if the camera is on a tripod.
Shooting In Raw
As previously mentioned, when it comes to neon I shoot in Raw format because it provides numerous editing options that are not destructive that I consider helpful. My favorite option is the capability to alter the White Balance (WB) following the fact. By altering the temperature of the shot you can alter the coolness/warmth as well as the colors of the neon. I have found that this gives me more control than making adjustments after the fact with hue and saturation control, which can be quite unwieldy or trying to always guess what the proper WB is. (An auto is always a good option, but it is also possible to experiment with different styles too with WB bracketing if your camera offers it, or just make some shots using various WB settings.)
Similar to the previous example Although I do my best to adjust the exposure, sometimes I find it difficult to make crucial exposure choices when I’m checking the LCD panel. Sometimes, it’s better to make these choices later in the process. Another tip: the Vibrance slider, an option within Adobe Camera Raw (and other processing software), can bring out neon colors. Although it is always recommended to do it “in camera,” there are a variety of options in the software that can provide some spice to those neon images.
Search and You Will Find
Although neon is not as common these days, however, it’s still easy to find great neon signs in any American town. The most appealing aspect about finding neon is the fact that you don’t know the location it may be, whether it’s in the form of a street sign or an old window of a drugstore.
The Color Of The Glow
The principle behind neon signs is that a tube made of glass is “evacuated” that is, it takes in air and is replaced by an inert gas. Electrodes (one positive and one negative) are placed at each end of the tube and when the electric charge passes between the two poles, the gas acts as a kind of filament and creates a glow.
Though lighted signs are all generally referred to as neon signs, sign makers use a variety of gases including neon, argon (usually mixed with mercury) as well as xenon, krypton, and helium. Each type of gas produces a different color that in combination with the hue of the glass (and the type of glass coating) determines the color of the glow. It is possible to get the neon’s natural glow by putting it in a clear glass tube. If you add argon to the tube, it’ll produce a red-orange glow. It’s akin to playing with lights and gels but you’re mixing colors from glass and noble gases.
Sign makers today employ UV-sensitive, phosphor-coated (“phosphorescent”) tubes. They can expand their color palette and increase the intensity of colors. Phosphor tubes are made with a wide range of colors, which when combined with various gases produce an entirely new spectrum of colors. The glass bending process is a completely different art style.
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