How to Photograph Neon Signs

ISO 200 f/8 25 second exposure on a tripod

Mary and I have quite a few on-going photography projects.  Since we live along Route 66 in Los Angeles, we have been enthusiastic about photographing neon signs near our house, in LA, and wherever and whenever we go on a trip.  Neon signs, of course began as commercial art, but are now “classic” folk art.  Again, I believe there is a nostalgic feeling to seeing them.  They definitely evoke a different feeling than the plate glass and bulb signs of more recent times.  Here are a few tips for photographing neon signs and a few good resources.

ISO 200 f/16 .6 second exposure on a tripod

If you have a tripod, and I really think you should have a tripod, the tips are few and the options are many.  If the sign is fairly flat and you are straight on to its face, f/8 – f/11 should be just fine for aperture.  You can then put the camera in aperture priority and let the camera pick the shutter speed.  This is a good start, but I find that you often times get under exposed, here.  You can either use exposure compensation or go into manual mode and continue to takes shots until you are happy with the exposure.  If the sign is really big or has lots of depth, you may need to go up to f/16 to get a sharp photograph.  This will definitely lead to longer exposure times and a tripod will be necessary.

ISO 100 f/16 5 second exposure on a tripod

ISO 100 f/16 1 second exposure on a tripod

If you are hand-holding without a tripod, it is a little more challenging, but still doable.  Most good digital cameras now can shoot in pretty high ISO.  I would start at 800 for good digital cameras, and if you have one of the newer Nikons or Canons, you may be able to go to 1200-1600 with little “noise” issues.  If you have a point and shoot with “night ” mode, use it.  You can always use some software later for noise reduction or find the noise reduction setting on your camera.  If you have an image stabilization lens or camera, make sure you have it on.  Lastly, remember the “handheld rule of thumb for shutter speed.”  You usally can handhold if the shutter speed is 1.5 X 1/focal length.  I think a minimum of 1/250 – 1/400.  Again, set your camera to aperture priorty and shoot away.

ISO 2000 f5.6 1/320 second exposure hand held

ISO 2000 f/5.6 1/400 second exposure hand held

A couple more things to think about:

If you want a bluer sky, shoot 10-30 minutes after sunset.  The sky is still blue and not black and there is no harsh light, so the neon sign should look great (see Pancake Alley Diner, above).

Set your white balance to “Auto” and make sure your camera flash is off.

If you want just the sign, use a faster shutter speed.  If you want more “glow”, keep slowing down the shutter speed until you get what you want (see Lancelot, above).

If the sign is attached to an interesting building or casing, or if you have a good foreground or background, you will need to slow down the shutter speed to let in more ambient light to get the details other than the sign.  There is a trade off here.  As you get more details around the sign, sometime you begin to lose the “color” in the neon light and it becomes white.  This all has to do with how much ambient light there is.  If you just want the sign, go out later when the sky is black and there is not much ambient light.  If you want the building along with it, make the photo at sunset or sunrise to get more detail with more ambient light (see Rio Grande, below).

ISO 200 f/11 1/13 second exposure on a tripod

ISO 200 f/11 2.5 second exposure on a tripod

If you live in Los Angeles  or are here visiting and want to see really cool neon signs, visit the Museum of Neon Art. We also like the book, Los Angeles Neon.  Before we go on a trip we search Flickr and Google Images for local neon signs.  Neon signs are a great way to capture some of the fun places you have been for your travel photography.  To see more of our photographs, go to www.pamphotography.com. 

ISO 1600 f/16 1/50 second exposure hand held

ISO 800 f/8 1/250 second exposure hand held

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8 thoughts on “How to Photograph Neon Signs

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I was out this weekend, taking a picture of a neon sign and it’s reflection in a glass window. It was interesting to get the “mirror” image. If you run across anything you’d like to share, please let me know.

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