Photographing Neon: The Beauty Of The “Living Flame”: Photographing Neon Signs


© Jeff Wignall

When it comes to subjects that combine color and light in creative and interesting ways, few things are as eye-catching or as fun to encounter as an artfully designed neon sign. If I’m out driving on a summer’s night and see a particularly interesting bit of neon, it’s hard not to pull the car over just to admire the sign maker’s skill and take a few pictures to add to my collection. I quite nearly had an accident doing a sudden swerve into a parking lot while driving on Route 1 in South Florida when I saw (very unexpectedly) the neon horse shown here (#1). You just never know when you’re going to encounter a very cool sign at night. As to that title, early observers of neon signs often referred to neon as the “living flame.”

And while really unusual and complex signs are getting more and more scarce these days, there are still interesting and artful signs to be discovered even in the most humble pizza restaurant, liquor store, or barroom window. In some places, like the Las Vegas Strip (#2 and #3) or Times Square in Manhattan (#4), there is generally a wild mix of types of signs—some neon, some not—and you could spend hours shooting them.

© Jeff Wignall

© Jeff Wignall

© Jeff Wignall

Photographing neon is not particularly difficult, but there are some tricks that will increase your percentage of keepers that capture the brightest and most accurate color. Even very simple cameras can do a great job with a few basic settings. Note: If you can, shoot in Raw format where in processing you can really hone in on the color and exposure—something I’ll discuss later.

Time Of Day & Time Of Year
It should be obvious that the best time to shoot neon signs is after dark, though there are some exceptions. For example, if you’re lucky enough to be shooting a classic vintage sign such as the Hollywood Theatre sign (#5) photographed by Janet Loughrey in downtown Portland, Oregon, you might want to shoot at twilight so that you can use a low angle to capture a sapphire-blue sky as a colorful backdrop. Also, if the structure of the sign itself is interesting (some old motel signs are quite interesting), having a little daylight to open up those details can be very useful.

© Janet Loughrey

There is, however, a seasonal issue that can pop up when it comes to shooting neon after dark, something that never occurred to me until I started shooting lots of signs. Because a lot of interesting neon is in retail store windows, and those businesses tend to shut off their signs when the shop closes, time of year plays a role. In summer, for instance, if a store closes at 8pm and it’s light out until 9, you have an obvious problem. I shot the interesting little sewing machine (#6) in a tailor’s window on a cold March night because in summer the sign would have been turned off by the time it got dark.

© Jeff Wignall

Sometimes, of course, you just get lucky: Even though I photographed the Corona beer sign (#7) in a liquor store window in August when it was light out until 9pm, the sign was on a timer that kept it lit for several hours after closing. Restaurants and diners (#8 and #9) stay open later and their signs are often located against a dark area of sky so it’s less of an issue with them.

© Jeff Wignall

© Jeff Wignall

© Jeff Wignall

There are occasions when you just have no choice about timing: if you’re there and the light is on, just shoot. I shot the “Safe Ice Cream” sign (#10) near the Eiffel Tower in Paris while taking a walk on a summer evening. There was still light in the sky, but the sign was bright enough and had a dark enough background that it worked. As a benefit I was able to capture some detail in the surrounding signs.

© Jeff Wignall

In most cases, though, when it comes to retail neon, most of my shooting is done either in autumn or winter when the daylight is shorter. I personally despise short days and cold temperatures, but at least the neon gives me something to look forward to shooting during those months.

Metering And Exposure
Metering and exposing for neon is not particularly difficult. Most patterned meter modes (Matrix, Evaluative, etc.) provide a very accurate exposure—if you’re shooting close-ups of the signs themselves. Also, I’ve found that there is quite a bit of exposure latitude with neon tubes and you can vary the exposure by a stop or more and still get good results.

The main change as you adjust exposure up or down is a gain or loss of color saturation: underexposure creates more saturated hues. Slight overexposure often causes a phenomenon called “halation” (#11), where there is an obvious glow around the tubes that can take away from their sharpness (it seems particularly obvious with blue-colored tubes, for some reason). Incidentally, because the lights are so bright, I tend to shoot at a low ISO (usually 100 or 200): there’s no point in introducing noise by using higher ISOs if it’s not necessary, even though it’s dark out.

© Jeff Wignall

Metering from something as bright as neon will usually cause the camera to bias exposure toward the brightest part of the frame and completely underexpose the background—which is often exactly what you want. I often set a -1 EV exposure compensation as a matter of habit, and for insurance.

The closer you get to the sign, the less the background will affect exposure and often you won’t even have to set a minus compensation. For example, in this shot of a vintage motel sign (#12) I used a wider focal length setting so the black background played a larger role in how the exposure was read. I then zoomed in and took a reading from just the tubes; you can also do this by walking in closer, taking and locking exposure, and then walking back to your original point of view (#13).

© Jeff Wignall

© Jeff Wignall

And even though neon is often bright enough to shoot hand held, I always use a tripod. That way I don’t have to worry about camera shake if I choose to use a very slow shutter speed in order to enhance depth of field. Probably a more important reason is that I am far more likely to experiment with compositional choices and offbeat tricks like “zooming during exposure” if the camera is on a tripod.

Shooting In Raw
As mentioned, when it comes to neon, I shoot in Raw format because it provides several nondestructive editing options that I find useful. The most important option, I think, is the ability to adjust the White Balance (WB) after the fact. By adjusting the color temperature of the shot you are adjusting the coolness/warmth and colors of the neon. I find that provides vastly more control than trying to make adjustments after the fact using hue and saturation controls, which can be very heavy-handed, or trying to always guess what the proper WB should be. (Auto is always a good choice, but try different looks as well by using WB bracketing, if your camera offers it, or just make a few shots at different WB settings.)

Similarly, while I try my best to get the exposure correct in camera, I sometimes have a hard time making any critical exposure decisions by checking the LCD panel. It’s often far better to make those decisions after the fact. Another tip: I have found the Vibrance slider (an option in Adobe Camera Raw and other processing programs) can really add a nice pop to the neon colors. While it’s always best to get it right “in camera,” there are many software options that can add extra spice to those neon shots.

Seek And Ye Shall Find
While these days neon may not be as abundant in all of its past grand and sometimes garish glory, you can hardly drive through a town in America and not find a couple of very cool neon signs to photograph. And the interesting and fun thing about looking for neon is that you never know where you’ll find it—whether it’s on a roadside diner sign or in an old inner-city drugstore window.

The Color Of The Glow
The principle of how neon signs work is pretty basic: a glass tube is “evacuated” (they suck out the air) and replaced with an inert gas. Electrodes (one positive, one negative) are placed at either end of the tube and when an electric charge is passed between the two poles the gas acts as a kind of filament and creates the glow.

Though lighted signs are all generically called neon signs, sign makers use a variety of gases, including neon, argon (usually mixed with mercury), xenon, krypton, and helium. Each type of gas produces a different color that in combination with the color of the glass (and the type of glass coating) determines the color of the glow. If you pump neon into a clear glass tube you get the native red-orange glow of neon. But if you fill the tube with a mix of argon and mercury you get a light blue glow known in the industry as “clear blue.” By using tinted glass tubes you can further mess with the colors: to get green, for example, you can fill a yellow-tinted tube with a mix of argon and mercury (blue + yellow = green). It’s kind of like playing with gels and lights except that you’re mixing glass colors and noble gases.

Today, most sign makers use UV-sensitive phosphor-coated (“phosphorescent”) tubes to help expand the color range of their signs and to enhance the intensity of the colors. Phosphor tubes can be created in a variety of colors that when mixed with various gases create an entirely new spectrum of colors. As to the glass bending—that’s a whole other art form.