I love to take pictures of lighted signs at night because there is something very visually exciting about that pure and highly saturated color against the dark of night. Another of the fun things about shooting signs is that they are one of the few subjects that really call out to be composed in a completely abstract way. Unless you're photographing a neon sign that makes more sense as a whole (it spells out a classic neon word like "Diner," for example), there is really no reason to even include the entire sign. Instead, look for patterns of light and shapes and colors that have their own visual rhythm. I photographed the sign here at a carnival, for example, and I don't even recall what the sign said--and I don't think I shot a single frame of the complete sign. But I got fascinated by interplay of shapes and colors and the flow of the swirling script.
Normally with night shots (as with any shot) I go to great lengths to get a plain background and to have the pieces of a composition seem organized, but in this shot the random shapes and colors of the carnival flags and pieces of carnival rides in the background just push the scene even farther into the abstract. All the various bits of the shot create a kind of organized clutter that really appeals to me--especially since, again, I'm usually so controlling about the background and simplicity of most of my shots. To be honest, I think I often shoot photos like this to release the tension of keeping such a tight grip on "reality" in most of my photos; letting go and just playing with light and color is very relaxing. Interestingly, when I'm editing an evening shoot, if there are some abstract night signs in the take, I tend to go to those images first, probably because they have a fun and carefree feel to them. It's hard to look at a sign like this and not get a mood lift. In the case of carnival signs, at least, I think that is exactly the atmosphere the sign-making artist was trying to create.
Next time you see an interesting sign at night, try to intentionally avoid shooting the whole sign and instead see if you can find some interesting patterns of shape, line and color. Try holding the camera at weird angles or just zoom in until you barely recognize the subject, you may find that letting go of reality for a few minutes is a welcome (and relaxing) change.
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