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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Light Up Your Night Shots with Neon Signs

I've always thought that neon signs are one of the most underrated forms of public art. Sadly, I think it's also something of a dying art because you see fewer and fewer really interesting signs. Not only are the classic old signs disappearing as businesses and neighborhoods change, but fewer new signs are replacing them--most businesses just slap up an uninspired fluorescent sign. That's part of the reason that finding a really great neon sign is so exciting and why it's worth stopping for a few minutes to honor it with a photograph.

Photographing neon is really simple. If the sign is fairly bright and you're close to it, there's probably enough light to shoot at a relatively slow ISO of 100 or 200. I shot the sign here (in Norwalk, Connecticut) at ISO 200 with a Nikon D70s and the exposure was 1/25 second at f/8. If you're using a tripod (and you should), put the camera in aperture-priority mode and select a middle aperture (like f/8) to get the optimum sharpness from your lens. If the sign is big and depth of field is a concern, select a smaller aperture, perhaps f/11 or even f/16. The camera will then select the correct shutter speed for you. If you have image-stabilization you might not even need a tripod (or alternately you can bump up the ISO but you will gain some digital noise if you do).

The size of the aperture has some effect on the bleeding or "halation" of the neon glow, so take a few test exposures and see if you like the glow. As you change apertures you will probably see the spread of the glow change. There's no right or wrong, of course, it's just a matter of taste--just something to be aware of while you're shooting. If you want to take in some of the background of the sign (the metal structure, if there is one), then you can increase the exposure by a stop of so. In the case of this great motel sign I wanted the colors to really pop so I exposed for the tubes and let the sign fixture itself go black. I leave the white balance in auto, by the way, and it seems to do just fine.

As I said, classic neon signs like this one are getting harder and harder to find and shooting a series of photos of them makes a great summer project. Any time that you have a few hours in the evening, just grab your camera and tripod and get a cup of coffee to go and take a ride through the older sections of town. You might even consider putting together a small exhibit at your local library or town hall to show off your neon treasures.

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