How to Take Great Photos of Neon Lights

Be prepared for low light

Although it sounds odd, it is true. In a museum filled with neon lights, there would be low light conditions. Neon lights (as with other types of lighting, such as indoor incandescent lighting), are not intended to provide bright illumination. These lights should be bright and eye-catching. They are not meant to be too bright to see. It is more expensive to bring a tripod to the American Sign Museum. I don’t want to carry around extra gear. Instead, I found other ways to capture the light despite its low luminosity.

First, I found that I braced often in order to take photos. Bracing can be used when you don’t have a monopod or tripod. Bracing is a technique that allows you to stabilize or support yourself in order to minimize shaking at slower shutter speeds. You can brace by leaning against a wall, balancing on a chair or asking a friend to lend a hand. It all depends on who you are and how capable your camera’s image stabilizer is, but generally, bracing should be done at shutter speeds of 1/100 to 1/60. You should practice ahead of time to determine which shutter speeds you need to brace at and which shutter speeds you can use to create a tripod.

In situations like these, you will also find that your camera should be able to handle low-light conditions at high ISOs without producing too much noise. Many times, I was able to shoot at ISOs greater than 25,000. A good noise-removal program is also a must. To reduce the noise in my neon light images, I used Luminar.

Automatic Setting is Now Possible

It can be difficult to let your camera do all of the work. Many photographers find that full-automatic controls are not enough to satisfy them. Without carefully selecting shutter speed, aperture and ISO, the art-making process is incomplete. Automatic settings can be your friend in places like the American Sign Museum. The lighting in a place such as this can change with each step. If there are flashing lights, it will also change between shots. You will spend more time fiddling around with your camera settings than creating art if you stop and adjust them between every shot. Set the aperture priority to “Aperture Priority” so you can let the camera set the settings. This will allow you to focus on composition, and more importantly, enjoy the experience.

The same goes for white balance. Now, if you are in a place with consistent lighting — incandescent, fluorescent, what have you — then you can set your camera up to achieve the white balance you need. And, if you are going for a certain set of colors or a certain look, then, by all means, set your white balance to get that look, if it helps. But when you are in a setting that features lights in red, yellow, blue, green and every other color imaginable, then, here again, you’ll find that the decision-making process is better left up to the camera rather than attempting to make adjustments between each shot.

What about post processing?

Adobe Lightroom is the best choice for this type of project. You will take more photos if you rely on automated settings and creative ways of brace yourself to ensure you have a good collection of images to work with. It will be much easier to use software that can process large quantities of images.

To complete this project, I first imported the images into Lightroom to flag the ones I liked. After I had finished importing the images into Lightroom, I let them rest for a while to allow me to process my thoughts and then return to look at the flagged images more objectively. Then I performed a basic processing procedure, making adjustments to the exposure and boosting or decreasing highlights. This is a common task when you are photographing lights of all kinds.

Color is as important as exposure when using neon lights. You can go over every image and adjust the saturation or vibrancy of the colors. You can also selectively sharpen the most important parts of each image. If necessary, you can move on to noise removal.

The most important aspect of cropping is last. There are many elements in a museum like the American Sign Museum that you cannot move outside of the frame. And those elements can easily make their way into your images. Modern technology makes it simple to remove distracting elements. You can take your time and try different orientations. Also, make sure to align the most important elements with the various compositional rules. Finally, remove any objects that are getting in the way of the edges. Remember to think about how you will crop each image, or a series of images. This mentality will help to determine what should stay and what should go in each photo.

These are some tips to keep in mind if you have the chance to work on a project such as this. I hope you find these tips helpful and that they will allow you to enjoy the process while you create beautiful images that you can look back on for many years.

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