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Learn the secrets and challenges of shooting neon

Added on Friday 12th of February 2010 09:46 am EST



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Many people opt to create their own neon effects because capturing it can be tricky. But don’t pass on shooting this tantalizing subject—we’ll show you how to capture neon signs in your photos so they look great!


To capture dazzling neon shots, we’ll:

     Give you a short overview of the origins of neon.

     Describe the technique for shooting neon.

     Provide a number of helpful hints for when you’re on location.



Since its invention, neon lighting has grabbed attention and dazzled viewers. Nothing has come to epitomize the city at night more than neon—or, more precisely, neon signs. Early filmmakers would often run a montage of neon theater marquees at the beginning of their films to evoke the razzle-dazzle of opening night on the Great White Way (a euphemism for Broadway ablaze with neon).

Originally, neon signs were simple and inexpensive ways to incorporate a message into a lighted sign. However, over the decades, they’ve evolved. Technology mixed with ingenuity has transformed neon signs into a highly developed art form—one that is well worth the effort of photographing, as shown in Figure A. However, as exhilarating as shooting neon may be, it does require some special techniques to capture it correctly.





Nebulous neon

Neon is a basic element and is a gas at room temperature. It was discovered in 1898 by two chemists: Sir William Ramsay, a Scotsman, and Morris M. Travers, an Englishman. A few years later, in 1910, the neon lamp was invented by Georges Claude, a Frenchman. He discovered that if you fill a glass tube with neon gas under low pressure and apply an electrical voltage to it, the neon gas glows. When he also discovered that the phenomenon would work regardless of the shape of the glass tube, the concept of the neon sign was born. Claude produced the first American neon sign in 1923 for a Packard car dealership in California. The sign literally stopped traffic. Since that time, neon signs have continued to stop traffic—and photographers as well.


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