The internet’s latest enthusiasm for electric colors has brought neon photography to the forefront. The retro-futuristic vibe and aesthetic are incredibly eye-catching, and not very easy to capture correctly.
From city lights to neon signs of all colors and sizes the creative possibilities are endless. You can also have fun setting up your own artificial neon lights indoors or even use you TV as a light source.
If you too are intrigued by neon photography and are aiming to improve your skills, this article is the perfect place to start!
Read on to learn how you can get the best out of your neon photography shots.
What is Neon Photography
Neon photography is one of those genres that captures the dystopian and forlorn atmosphere that we know so well from movies like Blade Runner.
It draws us into the colorful world of retro-futurism, although with a touch of ‘noir’.
It conveys a sense of mystery to the photo and makes the viewer curious. Even though neon lights are nothing new, there is something forward-looking about them along with a hint of nostalgia. This helps neon photography tell a compelling story to its viewers, and is one of the reasons for its popularity.
Related: Mastering Storytelling Photography
Neon Photography Camera Settings
Knowing the right camera settings before you start taking photos of neon lights, will save you a ton of time and maximize your opportunities to get a beautiful shot.
Neon photography is typically taken at night and in low light conditions. This means that you will need to capture as much light as possible. A large aperture will help take better photographs in low light conditions and help you use a faster shutter speed.
However, you must keep in mind that a larger aperture creates a more shallow depth of field, and leaves the backgrounds blurred. It will not capture every detail of the scene. Luckily for you, this effect only enhances neon photography, especially those with distracting backgrounds.
You can decide if using a very wide aperture such as f/2.8 or wider, in which case the background will be completely blurred or you could use something like f/4 if you want the background to be somewhat distinguishable.
ISO in Neon Photography
Since you’ll be mostly working in the dark, it is important to use a high ISO setting on your camera for brighter and sharper shots. However, as the ISO increases, the amount of noise in your image will also increase.
Adjust the exposure such that you can hide any extra noise. If you aren’t able to do that, you can still remove noise while post-processing in just a few seconds. Experiment with various ISO settings and figure out what works best for that specific situation. As long as you don’t use the highest ISO level possible with your camera, the results should look great!
White Balance for Neon Photography
Neon lights come in a range of hues and shades and often end up looking too saturated in your photos. If the white balance is even a little off, it can make the photo look unnatural, especially if you have people in your shots. Adjust the color temperature of your camera manually to avoid this.
Shoot in RAW
Make sure that you shoot your photos in RAW rather than JPEG. With RAW you will be able to maintain a lot more image data, which results in higher quality photographs. Post-processing is also much better with RAW since you can make as many adjustments as you want without losing quality. Owing to how unique each neon sign and photo will be, taking RAW photos is incredibly useful.
Auto Focus or Manual Focus
Autofocus is great and I use it almost all the time, but it has its pros and cons. If you are looking to have complete control over your photos, you can try to use manual focus.
Most neon photography will be in low light conditions, which makes it harder for the camera to find the subject. You may end up wasting time and effort with autofocus. The effort that you put into mastering manual focus will pay dividends over time, and ultimately help you become a better photographer. Using manual focus works best with neon photography.
Neon Photography Tips
Ok, it’s time to take a look at some easy tips to take your neon lights photography to the next level!
1. Avoid Busy Areas
Neon lights are usually found on bustling streets, which can be quite distracting and makes it difficult for photographers to focus.
If you want to experiment and take photos without being bothered by people and traffic, look for quieter areas. The longer search will help you save a considerable amount of time and also help you take the perfect shot.
2. Shoot From Multiple Angles
Using the same angle in all your neon photographs will make them look boring and uninspired. To capture from different angles you need not invest in a drone or go to a rooftop.
After you find an appropriate sign, walk around and find unique angles that promise to be more eye-catching. Experiment with slightly different angles to find the one that works best.
3. Long Exposures
If you enjoy shooting saturated street photographs, then neon light photography is right up your alley. You can shoot long exposure shots to create a surreal motion blur effect.
All you need to do is find a safe location where you can place the camera on a tripod. As long as you have some understanding of shutter speed, ISO, and aperture for long exposure shots, you can take some spectacular photos!
Related: Long Exposure Photography Tips
4. Shoot At a Suitable Time
Choosing the time when you want to shoot neon photography is important. If you are only looking to shoot signboards, then any time of the day would work.
If you also want to capture some of the surroundings as well, the Blue Hour is ideal. The Blue Hour refers to the 10 minutes immediately after sunset and the 15 minutes just prior to sunrise. During this time, the amount of light is perfect and objects will be clearly visible, without overpowering the subject.
5. Use People as Your Subjects
Having people as subjects in your neon photography can lead to some incredible results.
You can be very creative and set the theme based on what these neon lights say. For example, you can ask your model to sit underneath a light that says ‘Slow Down’. You can use a reflector to avoid unwanted shadows on the face. Just make sure to pay attention to the type of light and the colors that you are photographing.
6. Use a Fast Lens
Fast lenses are ideal to avoid motion blurs. You can take sharper and better-lit photos using some affordable prime lenses such as a 50mm f/1.4 lens.
These lenses will also allow you to focus on shooting your subject rather than dealing with the intricate details.
7. Rain and Reflections
Taking advantage of reflective surfaces is an effective trick in neon photography.
They add a lot more character to your shot and can be the difference between a good photo and a great one. You can use reflective glasses on your models, or even a prism while shooting photos! Going for a photoshoot just after a rainy day is perfect. Alternatively, you can carry a bottle of water and pour it on the ground to create the effect that you desire.
Recreating Neon Effects Indoors
The best part about neon photography is that you can recreate certain effects indoors. And what’s most exciting is that you don’t require any fancy lighting equipment!
1. Using Colored Cellophane Paper
First of all, get some cellophane sheets of various colors, you can easily find it online. Then you’ll need a couple of light sources, and stands or tripods to position your lights and camera.
The best colors I would suggest for your cellophane sheets are orange and teal, to recreate the famous Hollywood light effect. For this experiment make sure you use bright light sources for great results.
Place your light sources on each side of your subject and put the translucent colored paper in front of the lights. Play around with the distance from your subject to get stronger or weaker light effect.
I would say that this technique is best for portraits or even self-portraits.
2. Use TV Screens for Your Neon Photography
To create indoor neon lights easily, use any screen or monitor you have available. A laptop, a desktop computer monitor or a television screen. The bigger the better.
Open a video on YouTube with bright neon-hued images on the screen, and have your model or subject be right next to the screen. Ensure that you are in a dark room. A few sources of light are okay to add more interest to your photo.
As you can imagine, the mood created is very similar to neon street photography. Additionally, you will also have complete control over the source of light and can adjust it exactly like you want to. Another advantage is that you don’t have to waste time looking for the right neon light outdoors.
This method is great for finding out which shapes, colors, and lights you enjoy working with the most.
3. Use LED String Lights
Who doesn’t have one of these string lights today? Also known as fairy lights, this type of props is easy to find on Amazon and it’s very inexpensive. Get a set for less than $10 and you’ll be able to create amazing photos indoors.
String LED lights are great to add a three-dimensional feel to your neon shots. You can use them either as a foreground or background element. Set your camera to aperture priority mode, and choose an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. This will help you achieve a shallow depth of field and create a bokeh effect.
Fairy lights help add a spark to your photo. You could have your subject hold a glass container with a string of lights inside it. If you shoot in front of a screen as indicated in the previous step, you can combine it with this technique for a more interesting result.
Neon Photography Ideas
Get inspired by these 500+ Neon Photography ideas on Pinterest. Take me there.
With these tips and techniques, you can step up your neon photography skills to new heights. Give these various tricks a try and see the immediate change in the quality of your compositions!
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.