Neon Nights: Photographing the Beauty of the “Living Flame

When you think of subjects that combine light and color in creative and interesting ways it is hard to find something so captivating or fun to look at as an exquisitely designed neon sign. If I’m out driving at night in the summer and come across a fascinating piece of neon, it’s difficult not to pull my car to look at the sign maker’s skill and snap a few photographs to add to my collection. I was almost in an accident while making a sudden swerve into a parking area when driving along Route 1 in South Florida when I saw (very unintentionally) the neon horse pictured here (#1). You just never know what you’ll see when you come across an amazing sign during the night. Neon was often called the “living flame” by early neon sign-spotting observers.

Although truly unusual and complicated signs are becoming ever rarer, However, there are still intriguing and artistic signs that can be seen even in the simplest pizza eatery or liquor store, or bar window. Some places, such as the Las Vegas Strip (#2/33) or Times Square (#4) in Manhattan have a broad range of signs. It is possible to spend the whole day photographing them.

Photographing neon is not particularly difficult, but there are a few tricks to increase the number of keepers that capture the most vibrant and precise color. Even simple cameras can achieve amazing results using just the most basic of settings. Be sure to, shoot in Raw format so that in processing you can hone in on the color and exposure–something I’ll go over in the future.

Time Of Day & Time Of Year
While it’s obvious, the best time to photograph neon signs is after darkness falls, there are exceptions. For example, if you’re fortunate enough to be shooting an iconic vintage sign such as the Hollywood Theatre sign (#5) photographed by Janet Loughrey in downtown Portland, Oregon, you might choose to shoot in the twilight hours so that you can use the low angle to capture a sapphire-blue sky as a colorful background. If the sign’s structure is interesting (some vintage motel signs are quite intriguing), it might be worthwhile to have some light available to capture the finer details. The reason that many neon signs are seen in retail store windows is that those shops tend to close their signboards when the store closes. In summer, for example, the store is closed at 8 pm and it’s light out until 9 pm, you have an obvious problem. I took this photo of the intriguing sewing machine (#6) in a tailor’s window on a cold March night because in summer the sign would’ve been turned off before it went dark. Sometimes, of course, it happens that you are lucky. Even though I captured the Corona beer sign (#7) in a liquor store window in August, when it was dark until 9 pm, the sign was on a timer that kept it lit for a few hours after it had closed. Diners and restaurants (#8 and #9) remain open until late, and signs are frequently located.

There are occasions when you simply need to decide the timing: if you’re there and the lights are in the air, you can take a picture. I shot the “Safe Ice Cream” sign (#10) near the Eiffel Tower in Paris when I was walking in the evening of a summer night. While there was some sunlight the sign was visible enough with a dark background to be effective. I was able to get some details about the surrounding signs, which was a nice bonus.

However, retail neon is most often shot in the autumn or winter. I hate cold and short days however, the neon provides me with something to anticipate shooting during those months.

Metering and Exposure
The metering and exposure process for neon is not particularly difficult. Most patterned meter modes (Matrix, Evaluative, etc.) When you’re taking close-ups of signs, patterned meter modes (Matrix or Evaluative.) offer the most precise exposure. Additionally, I’ve discovered that there is plenty of exposure sway when using neon tubes. You can adjust the brightness by a stop or more and still get good results.

When you alter the brightness, the most significant change is in color saturation. Underexposure creates saturated hues. The phenomenon called “halation” (#11) is a slight overexposure that causes glowing around the tubes, which may decrease their clarity. This is particularly evident in blue-colored tubes. Since the light sources are so bright, I tend to shoot with a low ISO (usually 100 or 200) There’s no sense in introducing noise by using higher ISOs if they’re not necessary, even though it’s dark.

A camera placed close to a bright object like neon could cause it to overexpose the background, and shift the exposure to the brightest part of the image. This is generally the result you’re looking for. I often set a -1 EV exposure compensation to avoid a habit as well as for insurance.

The closer you are close to the sign, the fewer background effects exposure, and often you won’t need to adjust the minus compensation. In this shot of a vintage motel sign (#12), I used an extended focal length setting which meant that the black background played more of an impact on how the exposure was read. I then zoomed in and then took an image from only the tubes; you can also accomplish this by walking further in while taking and locking the exposure, and returning to the original viewpoint (#13).

Although neon lights are often sufficient for hand-held photography I do always make use of a tripod. That way I’m not afflicted with the fear of camera shake when I shoot using the slow shutter speed to increase the depth of field. A further reason for this is that I’m more open to exploring new ideas for composition and creative techniques like “zooming while exposing” when my camera is on a tripod.

Shooting in Raw
Raw format is my preferred method for shooting neon since it has a wide range of non-destructive editing options. My most favorite is the ability to modify the White Balance (WB) after the fact. By changing the temperature of the image, you adjust the coolness, warmth, and hue of the custom neon sign. This allows you to have more control than making adjustments later using the hue and saturation controls. It can also be much simpler to modify the settings of the WB after you have made them. (An auto is always a good option, but it is also possible to experiment with different styles too by using WB bracketing if your camera offers it or just make several shots with different WB settings.)

As well, as I try my best to ensure that the exposure is perfect in the camera, I often struggle to make important exposure choices by looking at the LCD screen. It is usually better to make these decisions after the fact. Another tip: the Vibrance slider, an option within Adobe Camera Raw (and other processing programs) can bring out the neon colors. Although it is best to use it “in camera” there are plenty of software options to enhance the neon images.

Seek And Ye Shall Find
While these days neon may not be as prevalent in all of its past grandeur and sometimes garish glory It’s hard to travel through any town in America without seeing some very cool neon signs that are worth taking pictures of. The greatest aspect about finding neon is the fact that you don’t know exactly where it could be, whether in a street sign or an old window of a drugstore.

The Color Of The Glow
The concept behind neon lights is that a tube made of glass is “evacuated” that is, it draws out the air and then is replaced with inert gas. Electrodes (one positive, one negative) are placed at either end of the tube and when the electric charge passes between the two poles the gas forms a filament and produces a glow.

While lighted signs can be generically called neon signs, sign makers employ a range of gases, such as neon, the gas argon (usually mixed with mercury) as well as xenon, krypton, and helium. The color of each gas will vary depending on the glass’s color and the kind of coating. When you put neon in the clear glass tube, you will get the natural neon glow that is red-orange. If you fill the tube with a mix of mercury and argon you get a light blue glow known in the industry as “clear blue.” By using tinted glass tubes you can play with the colors. To get green, for instance, you can use a yellow-tinted tube to fill with a mixture of argon and mercury (blue + yellow = green). You can experiment with both gels and lights however, you’re mixing the colors of glass as well as a noble gas.

Nowadays, the majority of sign makers employ UV-sensitive phosphor-coated (“phosphorescent”) tubes to enhance the color range of their signage as well as to increase the intensity of colors. Phosphor tubes are made with a wide range of colors that when mixed with different gases, create an entirely new range of colors. Glass bending is a completely different art style.

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