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« Look behind you | Main | The value of image stabilization »

Photographing neon

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I spent a lot of time photographing the neon signs downtown. There are some wonderful examples of mid century artistry all in a few block radius, and they hold great promise for beautiful images.

The key to a successful photograph here is to strike a balance between the light emitted by the signs and the ambient daylight so you can maintain a sense of the environment the signs are in. The way to do that is to shoot close to dawn or dusk when both the exposure for the lights and the ambient light for the sky and surrounding structures match. That means that you want to get to your location right around sunrise or sunset (depending on the background environment), do your scout, and find the spot you want to shoot from. I’d suggest bringing a tripod, since the exposures can be from 1second to 5 seconds long, depending on the situation, with an ISO of 100. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could hand hold, but be sure to use a high ISO so you keep your shutter speeds up above 1/60 second. Maybe look for a surface to brace your camera against, like a wall or tree.

Because the window for when the two kinds of light are aligned to make a great exposure is small, you may have to return to the area to make images of other signs.

You have a couple of choices for setting white balance. You could go with daylight balance, and let the image take on a warm glow. Or you could set the camera to tungsten balance, which would make the sky go much bluer, or flourescent, which would make the sky go more magenta. Try playing around with the white balance settings, and see what is the most interesting to you.

Either way, if you are shooting at dawn, start 10 to 15 minutes before sunrise, and watch your histogram for when the sky or background gets too light, and the neon is no longer vibrant in color. Here are a few examples.

Notice the great saturation in the signs, the buildings and the sky.

Notice how there is a loss of saturation in all the key areas just a few minutes later.

Here's another example.

Notice the wonderful detail in the white bulbs and saturation of the sky.

Notice the loss of information in the bulbs, and the effect the ambient light is having on the neon itself as the sky gets brighter.

If you choose to shoot at the end of the day, start to shoot maybe ten minutes after sunset to see what the ambient light balance is. Look at your histogram to see how you are doing. As it gets darker, increase the pace of shooting, as the window for when the correct exposure for the lights, and the correct exposure for the ambient light will only be about ten minutes at most. You’ll know you are done when the sky is black, and the separation between it and the neon are lost.

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