Neon tubes have been a fixture of outdoor advertising and signage in the United States since the early 1920s. Neon naturally produces a red color, but through the use of argon, mercury and phosphor, more than 150 colors are possible in gas-filled signs.
The variety of bold colors makes neon a wonderful subject for hot summer nights — or anytime, really. It’s fun to just cruise around looking for interesting signage to shoot.
Unfortunately, classic neon is a dying art, with signs disappearing as businesses and neighborhoods change. Most businesses today are satisfied to throw up an uninspired fluorescent sign. Sometimes I drive around, come up empty in my neon quest, and end up at the Dairy Queen instead.
I shot the Garden Park Motel sign (below) near my home a few summers ago, and it remains one of my favorite local signs. It’s a real throwback to those great 1950s motel signs that you used to see everywhere.
How to Shoot Neon
Photographing neon is easy, and you can get great shots with any camera. The trick is to fill the frame with just the neon sign and then trust the metered exposure.
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 pictured 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.
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. But it’s 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 the Garden Park Motel sign, I wanted the colors to really pop, so I exposed for the tubes and let the sign fixture itself go black. I left the white balance in auto, and it did just fine.
Give Yourself a Neon Challenge
If you shoot in the RAW format, you can adjust the exposure and white balance after the fact, which is great. But if you’re shooting in jpeg, you can give yourself similar exposure leeway by using the auto-bracketing feature and bracketing exposures by a full stop in either direction.
If you don’t have an auto-bracketing feature, you can just use exposure compensation to add/subtract a stop or more on either side of the metered exposure and you’ll get the same result.
So the next time you want to go cruising for photos, toss the tripod in the backseat, load up the camera and give yourself a neon challenge.
And if you don’t find a great sign, you can always photograph the line at the Dairy Queen. And as long as you’re at the Dairy Queen …