Photo by Corey Saldana on Unsplash

17 Expert Tips to Level up Your Neon Lighting Photography

Do you want to give your portraits a moody, retro-futuristic feel with a hint of noir? If so, nothing elicits that special 80s feel like pink, blue, and green neon lights. 

Thanks to shows like Stranger Things and 'synthwave' music, the neon look is back in style.

Neon photography will add intrigue, beauty, and mystery to your work.

Yet, you'll need to know the basics of neon lighting to achieve the right look. That includes the proper camera settings, as well as when and where to shoot. That's why we've compiled these 17 helpful tips for achieving awe-inspiring neon-lit photos.

#17: Shoot During the Blue Hour

For most types of photography, the 'golden hour' is the perfect time to shoot - which is sunrise or sunset.

Neon photography is different, as you'll want to shoot during the 'blue hour.'

What's that?

It's the time of day directly after sundown but before nighttime. The sun is out of view, but there is still some visible light - providing a surreal bluish hue.

It's a low-light environment that is still bright enough to shoot. What's even better is you'll be able to easily register neon lights on your camera during this time.

#16: Shoot From Multiple Angles

neon lighting photography outside building

Photo by Justin Campbell on Unsplash

While your first instinct may be to photograph a neon sign head-on - don't leave it at that. Neon signs are so photogenic because of how they interact with their environment.

As such, it's worth trying new angles to discover reflections and new perspectives. It can be as simple as taking a few steps back or walking to the side of the building to find a great new shot.

Include them in your photos if you notice any reflections that stand out, such as in a rain puddle.

#15: Avoid Busy Areas So You Can Experiment

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the last one. When setting out to take photos, it's best to avoid areas ripe with pedestrians. That's because you'll likely want to take plenty of time to experiment and mess with new angles.

When it comes to neon photography, you'll want to be out in the city streets. That's where you'll find most neon signs - but it comes with a catch. Most cities with vibrant downtowns don't sleep, so there'll be many people around.

That's why it's worth scouting to find neon signs in areas without much foot traffic. The last thing you want is to set up the perfect shot only for a pedestrian to bump into your camera and ruin it.

#14: Manually Adjust Your White Balance

You'll have a hard time with neon lighting if you're using your auto-white balance. That's due to the unusual colors that neon tubes produce, leading to white balance issues. To avoid this problem, you'll want to adjust your white balance for each shot manually.

Adjust the color temperature until the colors look normal. Use any human subjects as your guide for the adjustments.

Of course, you could go for strange and unnatural colors if that's the look you want to achieve. It all comes down to personal preference. If you want your models to have natural-looking skin color, you'll want to adjust the white balance manually.

#13: Shoot in RAW

Modern photography is all about preserving as much image data as possible. That will give you the most options during the editing process. For this reason, you'll want to shoot RAW photos instead of JPEG.

You'll wind up with higher-quality photos overall, and you'll be able to adjust the pictures to your hearts' content during editing.

The downside is how much space the RAW photos will take up on your camera. You'll need a great deal of storage space, and you'll want to convert them to a different format before you start editing.

#12: Use Long Exposures for Motion Blur

blue neon lighting photography with Kate City Abstract Bokeh Backdrop for Photography

Kate City Abstract Bokeh Backdrop for Photography

Ever wonder how photographers capture Times Square with surreal streaks and trails of light?

It all has to do with long exposures to achieve motion blur.

That means adjusting your shutter speed to longer than one second. To put it in perspective, a typical exposure is 125th of a second. The more prolonged exposure means subjects have more time to move in front of the shutter - causing the blur.

#11: Give Your Models Glasses

Reflections play a big part in neon light photography, and portraits are no different.

If you're searching for a way to complement your model's face, have them put on a pair of glasses. After that, have them stand in front of a neon sign - and voila! Their glasses will have stunning reflections, and the soft bounced light will complement their features.

#10: Use Proper Aperture Settings

Neon photography always features low light and sometimes total darkness. You'll want to capture as much light as possible with your camera by opening up your aperture.

A wide aperture will also help you work with a faster shutter speed. A side effect of an open aperture is a shallow depth of field. You won't be able to capture every detail of the scene, especially the background.

#9: Use Proper ISO Settings 

We've talked shutter speed and aperture; now it's time to complete the exposure triangle by talking about ISO settings.

You'll want a higher ISO setting for shooting neon signs at night. The compromise here is that the higher you crank it up, the more noise will show up in the shot.

The good news?

You can counter the noise by adjusting your exposure. If that doesn't work, there are ways to remove noise and grain in post-production. Do your best to limit the amount of noise while still maintaining a high ISO setting.

#8: Use Shallow Depth of Field 

neon lighting photography of street

Photo by masahiro miyagi on Unsplash

As stated before, an open aperture creates a shallow depth of field. The good news is this often only enhances neon photography.

You'll want to intentionally use a shallow depth of field nine times out of 10.

Blurred neon city lights can look moody, atmospheric, haunting, and mysterious. That's especially true if you're capturing portraits of human models.

#7: Capture Neon Signs at Night

While the blue hour is ideal for portraits, the dead of night is best for capturing cityscapes. If you want to focus on neon signs as your subjects, wait until it gets nice and dark.

Why's that?

The darkness will bring out textures not visible in sunlight or even during the blue hour.

An example would be raindrops on a window bouncing and reflecting the light of a neon sign.

#6: Start Simple at First

You don't need a ton of gear and a studio to shoot neon-lit photography. Instead, don't be afraid to get out there and start simple if you're a beginner.

If all you have is an iPhone - don't worry about it. Hit the streets at night and start taking some photos.

Remember, you don't need fancy gear to learn the basics of photography. Snapping photos with an iPhone can teach you about composition, lighting, depth of field, and more. Hands-on learning and trial and error are the way to go in this regard.

#5: Make Use of Rain and Reflections

Did it rain earlier in the day? If so, it'll be prime time to take photos that night. Neon lights bounce and reflect off rain puddles - which will add a lot of personality to your shot.

If it's not raining, you can always take a water bottle with you and pour it out on the ground. A hose is another option, as long as you have permission to use it.

#4: Cellophane Paper Can Mimic Neon Lights

Do you want to achieve the neon look for a portrait but don't have any neon lights? No problem! All you'll need are some sheets of translucent-colored paper - orange, teal, pink, and green work best for mimicking neon lights.

You can position a tripod with a light source at your target. The paper will reflect the light, making it look like a neon light.

#3: TV Screens and Laptops

photo of man with neon lighting in sunglasses

Photo by Quinn Buffing on Unsplash

Another way to mimic the neon effect is to use a laptop screen. You'll need to Google a neon photo and make it full-screen.

Position your subject next to it with the laptop out of view - and it will look like neon lighting.

#2: Use Faster Lenses

If you're trying to avoid motion blur in your neon photos, you'll want to use a fast lens. Not only that, but your photos will appear sharper and better-lit with fast lenses.

A fast lens makes it easier to focus on your subject instead of contending with light streaks and motion blur. An ideal lens is a 50mm f/1.4 lens or one similar to it.

#1: Try Using Strip and String LED Lights

Lastly, a cost-effective way to mimic the neon look is to use strip lighting or string lighting. LED strip lights feature adhesives - so you can attach them to virtually any surface. They also come in a wide variety of colors, including neon greens, pinks, and blues.

String lights are another option. They're even more affordable, as a set of string lights will cost $10 or less. They also come in neon colors and are great for achieving the cyberpunk noir look on a budget.

Conclusion

You should have a better understanding of how to take photos with neon lighting by now. It's an exciting look that mimics the feel of movies like Bladerunner - and it's come back into style in a big way.

Make sure to use the proper camera settings, reflections, and cityscapes to make your neon photography pop.

At Kate Backdrop, we're always staying up to date with the latest trends in photography. If you enjoyed this post, check out our Top 20 Female Poses for Portrait Photography You Must Know.

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