Q. How do I take sharp, clear photographs of neon signs at night?
A. This is what I refer to as an “impress your date” trick: It takes about five minutes to learn, but most people don’t know how to do it, so you come off looking brilliant if you can pull it off. I put it up there with making French silk pie or teaching the dog to “gimme four.”
Here is how you do it:
1. Set your ISO as high as it will possibly go.
2. Get as close to the sign as you possibly can.
3. Open up your aperture as far as it will go. The aperture is your f-stop. The f-stop is measured with numbers like 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, etc. You want this number to be as low as you can get.
4. Do not go below 1/100th of a second on your shutter speed. You can probably get away with something much faster than that, but that’s about as slow as you can go before things start getting blurry.
5. DO NOT USE FLASH. It will only lighten the background, which is exactly what you don’t want.
The cool thing about shooting neon is that you are almost guaranteed to get some kind of image, because you are shooting light itself. Since a camera works by recording light, it is almost guaranteed to “see” a neon sign, even if the sky around the sign is pitch-black.
Lower shutter speeds will produce a halo effect around the sign. Medium shutter speeds will give you a modest halo but will allow you to pick up detail, such as the electrodes and even the sides of the tube (which will look like faint black lines on either side of the light). Higher shutter speeds will give you a simple outline of the sign’s shape.
Here are some examples:
This sign at the Wigwam Motel on Route 66 in San Bernardino, Calif., was shot at 1/250th of a second, aperture f5.6, and 1600 ISO. The sign itself is maybe eight or nine feet off the ground, so I was pretty close to it when I was shooting. In retrospect, I probably could have gotten a nicer shot if I’d dropped to 800 ISO or used a faster shutter speed — I think this image is a little too bright, making it a bit hard to read (especially on those vivid white letters).
This neon swallow is mounted above a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. It’s probably 10 feet off the ground, or thereabouts. The lighting is a bit strange, because the entire property is illuminated with architectural neon. I shot it at 1/125, f5.6, and 1600 ISO. Notice how the camera picked up the edges of the glass tube and the details around the electrodes. Running the shutter faster or slower would have lost that detail — a faster shutter would have faded the lowlights into the background, and a slower shutter would have given a blown-out halo effect, like this:
This sign is also at the Blue Swallow, but it is inside a garage, just at eye level. I shot it at 1/250, f4, 1600. Notice the difference a few feet (and a slightly more open aperture) will make: Even with the shutter speed twice as fast, I wound up with a much brighter image, because I was closer to the sign and thus picking up more of the light. See how the details of the neon tubes disappear? If I’d dropped to 800 ISO or upped the shutter speed to 1/500 or so, I probably would have picked up more detail.
The famous rotosphere outside El Comedor de Anayas (an excellent Mexican restaurant with absolutely killer posole) on Route 66 in Moriarty, N.M. Shot at 1/200, f5.6, 1600. This thing is at least 15 or 20 feet in the air, but it’s so big and so bright that you don’t have to get carried away with the shutter speed to pick it up.
Here are three views of the Oasis Motel on Route 66 here in Tulsa. Notice the difference in the brightness of each one, and the variations in the amount of detail you see on the sign itself (not just the neon) as the shutter speed and ISO change:
1/160, f5, 1600 ISO. Notice how fuzzy the light looks — the shutter is slow, the ISO is high, and the camera picked up a lot of glare around the letters. This is fine if that’s the effect you want, but I usually don’t.
1/160, f5, 800 ISO. Notice how slowing down the ISO reduced the amount of glare around the letters and made the edges look a little more crisp without losing the intensity of the light.
1/200, f5, 800 ISO. Just a tiny bit more speed on the shutter, and the yellow moon (or whatever that thing is) loses a lot of intensity. When you’re dealing with yellow, purple, soft violet-blue, and sometimes green, you have to be careful not to speed up the shutter or slow down the ISO too much, because the tubes that produce these colors are coated with a powdered chemical inside that can mute the color and make it less vivid.
The sign at Fenders’ River Road Resort on Route 66 in Needles, Calif., is about 12 to 15 feet off the ground, as I recall. It’s close enough that I could zoom in a little bit and get a very intense image at 1/320, f5, and 1600. I like how the “NO” part of “NO VACANCY” — which isn’t lit up — is visible, but the tradeoff is that the vacancy sign itself is way too bright for my taste.
Green is produced by using argon gas and a tiny bit of mercury inside a phosphor tube. Depending on the shade, you can end up with an extremely bright light, because the mercury intensifies the color. (It’s really cool to watch this process when a sign is being made. You put the finished tube on a transformer to age, but you leave the mercury at one end. After the argon has settled down and quit arcing inside the tube, you roll this little ball of mercury through it. If you leave it plugged into the transformer while you’re dropping the mercury, you can literally watch the tube change color as the mercury rolls through it. But I digress.) This is important to you as a photographer because, with a sign like this, which has both neon (red) and argon tubes, you have to make some decisions about how to shoot it, since one color is much brighter than the other.
This shot of the Blue Spruce Lodge on Route 66 in Gallup, N.M., is one of my favorites. I just love the way the sign glows in that dry western New Mexico air. The sign is very close to the ground (I seem to recall the bottom being about seven or eight feet up, if that), so you can get away with a very high shutter speed: 1/500 at f5 and 1600 ISO.
Below is another example of that decisionmaking I was talking about when you’ve got a sign with several colors and intensities. This sign hangs in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. I am sorry to report that this room rate no longer applies. 😉
1/1600, f5, and 1600 ISO. I could get away with a shutter speed this fast because the sign is at eye level and very bright. The “$3” part looks about right, “UP” looks a little too intense, and “VACANCY” looks a little dim.
At 1/640, f5, and 1600, the “VACANCY” part looks better, but everything else gets a little too intense.
Hope this helps. I know it was a little long, but it’s hard to explain photography without going into a little detail and giving visual examples.