While it may have seemed like neon signs were beginning to disappear from the urban landscape just a few decades ago, it appears that they’re starting to pop up in the public’s consciousness once again.
In fact, they’ve become so trendy these days that it’s difficult to scroll through Instagram without swiping through an acid-colored post or two. And who can blame people for liking them?
Neon signs possess all the visual elements that give an image that stand-out quality: they’re bright, colorful, and intricately crafted. If you want to add a unique dose of color to your photos, here are 12 ingenious ways to integrate neon lighting into your work.
01. Light up your portraits
One of the most popular ways to use neon signs in your images is through portraiture. The different colors they emit can cast an otherworldly, seductive glow on your model’s skin.
Take advantage of the saturated light and sharp contrast they produce to highlight select parts of your subject's face or body by having them stand against it. Just make sure that its light is bright enough to illuminate your subject from a distance.
Since neon signs themselves look great in pictures, you have the option to include them in your frame as well. You can have your subject stand next to or beneath them and let them bathe in the light.
Signs that feature recognizable symbols or words can also add extra context to the message behind an image.
For best results, it would help a lot to bump your ISO (no more than 800), use a wide aperture (such as f/1.8 or f/2.8), and set up your camera on a tripod. Remember to ask your model to stay as still as possible to avoid motion blur.
02. Add color to urban landscapes
Nothing can add life to a city better than its bright lights. If you happen to visit a place that’s known for its neon signs, make it a mission to include them in your photos. Use a wide-angle lens to include as much of the scene as possible.
Include people and cars passing by as they add character to your photos. After all, what's a city without them? Just remember to check your settings before you shoot. The best shots of bustling life in the city often involve long exposures, producing dazzling light streaks. To achieve these kinds of shots you’ll need a tripod and a smaller aperture (anything between f/11 and f/32 in Aperture Priority mode). To make things easier, just let your camera pick the shutter speed.
If you want quick snapshots of neon signs while you’re walking around, you can use a high ISO and choose Aperture Priority with f/1.8 or f/2.8 as the aperture size. With these settings, your camera should be sensitive enough to capture scenes without any issues.
While the best time to do this is at blue hour when the horizon is dark enough to make them pop, it doesn’t have to be done at night all the time. Even in daytime, these signs, especially those with clean shapes and simple designs, are easy to recognize even when they’re not lit up.
You can still choose an aperture between f/11 to f/32 to keep images crisp, but a tripod may not be needed.
If there are a lot of glass windows or if the streets are wet, a great project is to try capturing reflections. Don’t just look for regular reflections; they should be sharp and big enough to add interest to your lighting and composition. Once you find one, walk around it and explore every angle—both from a higher vantage point and by sitting down low until you discover the best perspective.
03. Highlight nostalgic landmarks
Some neon signs have been around for so long that they’ve pretty much become iconic landmarks. There’s the Boston Public Market sign, the Moulin Rouge sign, and the Welcome to Las Vegas sign to name of few. Almost every major city has at least one of these famous monuments, and you can start your very own neon sign collection by photographing them.
Since most vintage signs are enormous, you’ll need a wide-angle lens to make sure you include everything in a single frame. Each sign is often attached to an old building with its own unique history, so you might want to include the architecture in your shot as well.
Before you go to a location, do some research and look at some of the best photos online. Were they taken at night? Were there plenty of people? From which angle was it taken from? Take these factors into consideration so you can plan what type of equipment to bring and what kind of photos to aim for.
For instance, if a place is cramped, busy or too far away to get to physically, bringing a zoom lens will help you shoot closer and compose better.
If you want to create sweeping views of the scene, then using a wide-angle lens would be ideal. Ultimately, it all depends on the needs of your location and what type of photo you’d like to achieve.
04. Create futuristic, sci-fi-looking sets
You’ve already heard many times that in photography, natural light produces the best photos. So why would you use neon signs if they look so artificial? Well, sometimes going against convention allows you to create something out of the box, and the futuristic quality of neon does exactly that.
To produce sci-fi looking images, look for neon signs that are visually unusual. Instead of using logos or directional signs, search for ones with geometric shapes and outlines. Furthermore, pick surrounding architecture that looks unfamiliar to your viewers. Find a place with odd features that can resemble a spaceship or some strange alien domicile.
Alternatively, you can get creative with your angles and include only elements that make your scene appear like it’s some space-age structure. The image above could have been just a random alleyway. But the inclusion of reflections in the foreground, and the pattern of glowing lines in the background make it look like a scene from Blade Runner or even 2001: A Space Odyssey.
05. Inspire people with colorful quotes
Have you noticed how neon signs with clever messages are suddenly all up in your feed? From the ‘20s to the ‘60s, neon signs were quite the trend, and now they’re making a major comeback.
So where do you go to shoot these signs? These days, you can find them everywhere from museums to arcades to bars and cafes—even some of your friends’ own homes. Keep in mind that these signs can also show up in some of the most unexpected places, so always have your camera ready.
A general purpose variable zoom lens would be the perfect tool to capture Instagram-worthy neon lights. It’s versatile enough to photograph wide-angle scenes or to zoom in on signs that may be too far away from you.
Typically, you’ll want to include the entire signage in your frame so that it doesn’t look awkwardly cut off, but you can also zoom in and only take a shot of a word, a phrase, or a symbol that you want to emphasize in your image.
06. Add a romantic spark to wedding photos
Wedding photos are all about communicating love, joy and intimacy, so what better way to drive home that message than with neon signs? They not only make receptions more colorful, but they also add something unexpected to traditional wedding photography.
Photographing your couple with a neon sign in the background adds a fun, personal touch to their special day. Feel free to give them space to simply bask in its fluorescent glow for a unique portrait session that highlights their interaction with one another.
Additionally, you can use a wide aperture to produce creamy neon bokeh that will make your wedding photos even more magical.
07. Make a bold fashion statement
Fashion photos lit with neon signs have a more edgy and modern feel. Because of their bright, vibrant colors, you can use them to outline your model’s clothes as well as their figure.
Furthermore, you can employ them to produce beautiful lighting that replicates the effect of using color gels in a photo studio.
If you want to incorporate neon signs in your theme, you can try to have them complement the colors of your model’s outfit or makeup. Accentuating the clothes with your lighting will also draw more attention to them in your image.
Just as you do when shooting with color gels in a studio, feel free to mix two or more different hues to emphasize your subject.
Contrasting colors from opposite ends of the color spectrum tend to have a more aesthetically pleasing impact when combined in a single shot.
08. Make beautiful black and white photos
We’re used to seeing neon signs in color, but what do they look like in black and white? Just like screenshots from a film noir or French New Wave movie, they can make a scene look mysterious and seductive. Apart from that, without the distraction of color, they can make people’s faces glow as though they were shot in a photo studio.
You don’t need to do anything special when shooting neon signs in black and white. As long as you remember what to do when shooting in the streets at night, then you can expect similar results. One thing to look out for is sharp contrasts in a scene. Since you’re not working with color, you need to play with light and darkness to create deeper blacks and cleaner whites.
Since neon lights are artificial, a lot of newbie photographers tend to feel intimidated by them. But, as long you choose the right settings, there really isn’t anything to be afraid of! The only secret is to constantly play around and be open to the different possibilities while shooting. There is so much that you can do with neon, and for the most part, all you need is a little bit of imagination.