my digital life
I have not walked through San Francisco’s Chinatown at dusk for some time. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the YMCA sign is now restored and is lit up. It’s nice to see a vintage sign being restored, rather than sent to the dump and replaced with plastic.
This image marks the 4,000th neon sign image that I have posted to Flickr. This sign in in Boston’s historic North End, a small neighborhood with lots of Italian restaurants and a lot of history. The North End has the distinction of being the city’s oldest residential community, where people have lived continuously since it was settled in the 1630s.
You can see all my neon signs on Flickr here.
Neon lends itself to night shooting, so you may naturally think that you should shoot at a higher ISO to compensate for the dark surroundings. Don’t. Neon is bright! You can easily shoot neon signs at ISO 100-200. I shoot the vast majority of nighttime neon at ISO 200, occasionally bumping up to 400 or 640 if the sign is unusually dim.
Neon is bright! The contrast between the bright neon tubes and the dark background at night can easily confuse your camera’s meter. Switch to manual mode when shooting neon, and you will quickly appreciate the benefit of the extra control. A good place to start is 1/100th of a second, at f/5.6. Take a shot, review it on the screen, and adjust as needed. Usually I will adjust the aperture first, since using fast shutter speeds can result in a “marching ants” effect in the neon tubes.
If your camera supports RAW imaging, use it. RAW will give you the most data. This, in turn, will give you the most flexibility in post-production, allowing you to pull out details that may otherwise be lost.
On my camera’s LCD, properly exposed neon looks slightly underexposed. Learn what correctly exposed neon looks like on your particular camera’s LCD screen and you will save yourself a lot of frustration after the shoot.
Neon often looks best at night. However, don’t discount shooting neon signs during the day. Many signs have painted detail that cannot be seen at night, and the shadows cast by the glass tubes can make for very interesting images.
Try shooting neon in different ways. Shoot the reflection in windows, the reflection in puddles and the color washed streets after the rain. If there is a sign in a window, try shooting the back of the sign. Try standing directly under a sign and shooting up. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Looking at how other people have captured images of neon signs is a great way to get inspired. Check out some of these shooters:
Above all, get out there and shoot!
Do you have any tips for shooting neon signs? Share them in the comments.