Hong Kong has long been a neon city since the 1970s, when colorful neon signs could be seen everywhere in prosperous districts. As such, neon signs are often associated with the good old times of Hong Kong, when people fought in the effort for a better living. However, in recent years, neon signs are starting to phase out with the emergence of the brighter and more energy-saving LED lights.
Photography is a way to capture and preserve this extraordinary cityscape. There are techniques to take good neon signs photos, here are some tips for you:
Photography Techniques for Neon Signs
1. Basic Settings
Taking good neon sign photos is not that difficult if you set your camera right. Here are the recommended camera settings:
Aperture: between f/2.8 and f/5.6 (to avoid vibration and high ISO setting, which will result in increased noise)
Shutter speed: above 1/100th of a second (unless you are using a tripod, the shutter speed can’t be too slow, or vibration may be resulted)
ISO: between 400-1600 (high ISO will result in serious noise; while low ISO will lead to possible vibration)
Due to the high light density of the signs, having the right metering setting is an important for taking neon sign photos. If the metering is not pointed on the neon signs, over-exposure may be resulted, and the details on the signs will be lost. Therefore when we shoot the signs, we need to adjust the metering to the spot metering mode, then put the metering point on the neon sign to make sure the details on the neon signs can be maintained.
3. White Balance
Neon signs are of sharp and bright colours. Different white balance setting will have a large impact on the the colours of the surrounding environment of a neon sign compare to that on the colours on the sign. Therefore we should set the white balance based on the light in the surrounding. For example, if the main light source is daylight, we should adjust to 5500K or light mode. Another example is that if the main light source is from a yellow street light, we should select 3200K or Tungsten mode.
(Both photos are shot under a yellow light source. The left one was shot by 3200K, The color of the environment is closer to reality. While for the right one, it was shot by 5500K and thus has a serious color cast.
4. Environmental Light
The shooting time in the day is important. It is generally thought that the best hours to take photos of neon signs is nighttime. In fact the best shooting time is at dusk, just before the sky turns dark, this way the surroundings of the neon signs can be preserved. As a general rule, if you wish to capture the details of the surroundings, the best shooting time would be within 30 minutes after sunset.
5. Shooting Angle
Apart from taking photos of neon signs from the front, you can also try taking photos from multiple angles to create a different mood and perspective for the images, Rooftop is one of the spots that you can take photos of different angle from.
Instead of putting up the exposure level when shooting, another alternative is to shoot the photos with less light, and push up the light level in post production to keep the details of the photo. Pushing up the dark part of the “curve” or dragging the “dark” bar to the left can lighten the dark part of the photo while keeping the details of the lighter part of the neon sign.
7. Points to note
When shooting neon sign photos, it’s important to distinguish the difference of neon signs and LED signs. Characters and shapes on neon signs are created with glass tubes, while characters and shapes on LED sign are composed of many tiny light tubes. Don’t mix up!
8. Shooting with Smart Phone
It is certainly nice to take photos of neon signs with a camera. However, when you see a neon sign nearby, shooting them with a smart phone is not a bad idea at all. Moreover, with smart phone, the shooting location can be recorded in the photos too.
Apart from photography techniques, you might also want to know some good places for taking neon sign photos. Interestingly enough, the types of neon signs can be very different in different parts of Hong Kong!
Recommended Photo Spots for Neon Signs
1. Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok
The best places to take neon photos in Hong Kong would definitely be Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. There are many neon signs with local characteristics along Nathan Road, and in this area you can find all sorts of neon signs, ranging from night clubs, restaurant to department stores.
Apart from the Yau Tsim Mong district, Wan Chai is also a hot shooting location for neon signs. Here you can find many neon signs from historical restaurants and foreign pubs on Luard Road and Lockhart Road . Check them out if you are interested.
3. Central and Western District
We also recommend you to take a walk in the side streets in Central and Sheung Wan. There are a lot of old shops along the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator and Walkway System, where you may discover interesting neon signs.
4. Other Districts
Last but not least, don’t forget about the places outside the downtown area. For example, there are many neon signs with local characteristics in new towns such as Tuen Mun and Yuen Long.
[Special thanks to Photoblog.hk for the neon sign photo taking tips]