Art, Inspiration, Photography

Urban Photography: Photographing Neon Lights

photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev made for Skylum photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev made for Skylum

Urban life is a fascinating theme. It’s challenging, risky, and demanding. There are plenty of subjects to choose from and many stories to tell. Urban photography needs creativity and courage. It also needs a true engagement with your subject. Urban photography includes street life, architecture, portraits, social categories and issues, night lights, and many other aspects. Diversity is good, but be careful to dedicate enough time and energy to each direction of your photography.

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Here we speak about the neon lights and the stories they tell. Neon lights can be billboards, street signs, and symbols of all types. They may come from windows, digital screens, holiday lights, and even cars. Neon lights are an artificial source of light, usually in powerful and bright colors. They dominate a frame and disturb any balance. But they carry meaning and deliver a strong effect. The problem is it’s not easy to photograph them. They overwhelm, impose, and break the rules. Neon lights require many technical skills. Follow the next steps and learn the art of photographing neon lights.

Choose the best time for shooting

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Neon lights look better on the dark. That’s an easy issue. Night photography is practically based on this kind of lights. But there’s a trick that can save you from some sleepless nights. Choose to make your photo session in the blue hour. Blue hour represents the first hour after sunset and the last hour before sunrise. It’s what we usually call twilight. At blue hour it won’t be completely dark, but the neon lights will be visible and bright. In the same time, you’ll have just enough light to distinguish the environment. It is a blueish light, cold and smooth. It has a special charm, a kind of urban fairy tale. Furthermore, the first hour after the sunset is still an active hour. The city’s humming. People’s after work life is just beginning. Blue hour is a great time to photograph life under the neon lights.

Depending on your theme, night is a good time for photographing neon lights too. There’s a different kind of life during the night. Bars and restaurants, cinemas, amusement parks, they all have their lights and stories. You should also consider bad weather. It’s hard for you, but it’s great for photography. Neon lights look amazing in the rain, fog, or snow.

Master the technicalities

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Neon lights require professional equipment and knowledge. First of all you need a camera with low light performance and wide dynamic range. It can also help to have high ISO options. Matrix Metering and Spot Metering allow you to choose how the camera will evaluate the brightness of the image. When you have very bright areas and very dark areas is important to have camera meters adjusted to your needs.

If this type of photography is what you choose to do in life, invest in a good camera. Then you’ll need a wide lens with image stabilization, a tripod, and a lot of practice.

The basic technique for shooting neon lights is to use a low ISO (100 or 200) and a slower shutter speed. Make sure the camera and the subject are not moving. Still, if the subject is moving you’ll have a river of light which can be very artistic. Think of all those pictures featuring roads and motorways full of moving cars. That’s a still camera and a moving subject.

Don’t forget to adjust the white balance according to your needs. You should also consider using a large aperture, to allow as much light into the camera. This means deep depth of field, so a large part of the image will be in focus. Pay attention to composition. Urban areas are crowded with people and objects. Framing is extremely important.

There are photographers who choose or are forced to work with fast shutter speeds. For example, there are places where you are not allowed to bring a tripod. While you can try to manage camera stabilization in different ways (using your body as a support, supporting the camera with other objects, etc.), usually a higher shutter speed will save you from trouble. One option is to increase ISO as much as possible. But high ISO adds noise. You need to make a compromise between ISO and shutter speed. Which leads us to the next step.

Invest in a good image editor

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photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev made for Skylum

Almost all neon light photographs need post-processing. Maybe you need to work on exposure or to have a black background. Maybe the lights reflected on people’s faces and you want to do some skin retouching. White balance is also important and hard to get directly in the camera. Maybe framing wasn’t ideal and you have some cropping to do. Maybe you used a high ISO and now you want to remove the noise. There are many reasons to edit your images.

But people also use post-processing for more artistic reasons. Enhancing the colors is probably in top 10. Neon lights are colorful, but long exposure sometimes reduces the intensity of the colors. So you’ll need the image editor to restore the colors. Adding special effects is another reason in top. Working with lights gives you endless opportunities to be creative.

Be creative

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photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev made for Skylum

One of the reasons people choose to photograph neon lights is the incredible amount of creativity you can use. There are no rules here. Even lens flare, considered a major mistake in other forms of photography, here is an extra feature. Consider bokeh and doing your own bokeh shapes. Use any angle of shooting you want. Photograph people with strange colors in their hair, neon signs with messages, and water reflections. Use neon lights to do fashion photography or family portraits. Use neon lights to enhance architecture or street life. Document a city based on its lights. Really, that’s no stopping on this subject.

Photographing neon lights is hard work, but it’s rewarding as well. You get to learn to control your camera, to photograph in low lighting condition, and to play with lights, people, and ideas. This is an artistic type of photography, which lets you a lot of space to be creative and unique. Still, keep in mind that a photograph should convey a message. Urban lights are much more than a pretty image, designed to please the eye.

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  • cloberts19

    Great article. Tokyo will always be my favorite place when it comes to a city full of neon light. It’s the best subject for me for this kind of photography.