The Ultimate Guide to Neon Light Photography
Dive into the popular neon aesthetics and create a Blade Runner-esque look with this ultimate guide to shooting in neon lights. Use these simple tips to make your colors pop and capture that crisp retro futuristic atmosphere with ease.
There's simply nothing alike when it comes to shooting in colorful moody neon lights. The somber, dystopian atmosphere we all know so well from movies like Blade Runner instantly draws us into a colorful world of cyberpunk and retro-futurism, yet with a touch of "noir". Even though neon lights have been around for years, there is still something instantly futuristic to them, and then again even some sort of nostalgia, as they remind us of our childhood at the arcade and the look of the 80s.
This kind of retro-futuristic look is deeply anchored in our mind and supplies a wonderful base to tell a compelling story that hits the spirit of time for many years to come.
As in every low light situation, there are certain requirements you need to meet to be able to work with neon light for your photography. In general, a camera with good low light performance is key, but there are also a few options we have also discussed before in our night photography guide.
The best way to get lots of light onto your sensor is working with a fast lens that has a very low maximum aperture. Typically lenses with f/1.8 and downwards are preferred. This enables you to maintain a decent exposure time and blurry images due to unsteady hands. In general, 1/60th of a second is as low as you should go without using a tripod. Another advantage of low f-stop lenses is the shallow depth-of-field and hence beautiful bokeh (background blur) they produce, which makes your images appear deeper and draws the focus of the eye onto the bare essentials. Shooting with a massively open aperture is such an easy way to beautifully isolate a subject from the background and always looks highly professional and expensive.
If you, for some reason, cannot afford a very fast lens or don't have one at hand, don't worry. You can always get more light by upping your exposure time, which means, of course, that you will have to utilize some means of steadying your camera. In most cases, that means using a tripod. Also, your model will have to hold very still during the shot, so you should avoid shooting in motion. However, long-time exposures can get you nice effects like light streaks of passing cars and enable you to capture even the blinking and moving lights many neon signs are equipped with.
Another possibility to work in low light conditions is cranking up your ISO. With current digital camera models often ISO up to 1600 can still produce clean images without to much visible grain, however, older models tend to produce a lot of noise in high ISO ranges. Make sure you know how well your camera performs in these conditions and make a few test shots to see how high an ISO setting you are willing to stomach. Always remember a subtle amount of grain and noise can also be an element of style which can make your image look organic and less sterile.
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Colorful Edge lights
When using neon lights for portrait photography, the thing you want to look for is having it as your rim or edge light. The soft nature of the neon light produces a wonderful consistent edge light along the face, beautifully highlighting its features and separating your model from the background. The colors add a dynamic look which you can pickup in your post production.
A useful tip is to always underexpose, when shooting in neon lights. For one you want to keep the detail in those highlights, as those are the main subject, and also underexposing saves you that extra little bit of exposure time that might help you shoot handheld and get rid of the need for a tripod.
Rain & Reflections
Using reflective surfaces in your image can make a big difference and add to the look. Try incorporating wet grounds, carry a bottle of water to wet the floor in front of the camera, have your model wear reflecting glasses or use a prism during your shot. This is one of the shoots where a rainy day is just perfect. Simply make sure to cover your camera to protect it.
Locations with interesting lights are just about everywhere. You don't need to be downtown Tokyo or in the middle of Piccadilly Circus to find interesting light sources. Especially with the revival of neon signs chances are, there's a sign at a shop close to you.
Wander the city at nightfall and discover areas with colored lighting and many reflective surfaces. It can be as simple as the "open" sign at your local barber shop, or as complicated as an entire street full of moving signs. It is completely up to you. Also modern LED lighting or even traffic lights work just fine.
You can easily fake neon moods in your studio by using colored gels on your lights, or by using RGB LED fixtures. Also since neon has its revival, there are numerous neon signs available either as real neon or LED remake for purchase. And they aren't really expensive, but still look good on your picture if you apply all the rules and tips above. By shooting through or against reflective surfaces you can add depth to your image. It can be as easy as spraying some water onto a piece of acrylic glass. Just user your creativity.
Coming soon - Part 2
Read soon: "How to edit and post process neon aesthetic looks".
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