Friday, August 8, 2008

Signs of the Times: Vegas Neon

There are some things that video just does better than still photography. I started figuring that out around the midnight hour on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

That's when they turn on all the vintage signs and since both my wife and myself LOVE these signs, we were looking forward to photographing them.

You are not going to get a better exposure or a tighter crop than the picture on the left. It was an amazing sign. The colors came on in impressive waves and, by prefocussing and judging the time exactly, I was able to hit the shutter button when all the lights were on.

It's still not a very interesting picture, is it?

Neon and flashing lights are about...well...neon and flashing. You can't convey that in a photo. You can just capture that one second and hope that is able to give your viewer a taste of what it was like to be there.

Even when the sign itself is interesting, like "Smoking Good Times" you still won't get a great image. It's like taking a picture of a picture, or someone else's artwork to me.

If we are taking pictures as graphic artists, we need to take pictures that show our subject in a new light, and hopefully convey a sense of that subject. Otherwise it's a picture of a picture, neon or not.

I am told that the name of this neon girl is "Vegas Vicki." She is currently working over a "Gentlemen's Club" in Fremont Street.

As I stood there late in the night, I had a sneaking suspicion that my neon sign graphics weren't going to be all that interesting. So I started taking pictures at odd angles, with strange close-ups.

I wanted to take the neon out of this picture so FIRST I copied the original layer and blured it a little. I wanted to take the harshness of the flat neon lines out. Then I added a blur around the outside of the graphic, since I wanted only her face to be featured.

I copied the original again onto it's own layer and worked adding a brush-stroke texture my graphic. Reducing the Opacity on this layer to about 40% allowed me to have a whisper of that texture come through to make the picture have a "painterly" effect.

Finally -- I flattened the layers and took the whole mess to Virtual Painter's Watercolor filter. I use this plug in all the time and it did a great job on de-neoning the whole graphic.

There's another multi-layered "saloon type neon girl" a little further down Freemont. I looked at this sign for several minutes before I started shooting.
I was trying to see it in a different light.

"What else could she be?" I asked myself.

"She's a superhero," I answered me -- surprising myself with the observation as well as drawing some odd looks from passersby.
So I shot her that way. When I was done, her hand is in the air and she looks like Wonder Woman about to kick someone's butt.
I worked with a Contrast Adjustment Layer to bring the colors down to five or six primary colors. I added a halftoned look and finally took the whole graphic to Alien Skin's Snap Art Comic Book filter. I added a brick wall texture very gently behind the main figure and am very pleased with the final result.

Here are 5 Kick-Butt Tips for Shooting Neon Signs at Night:

1) Brace Your Camera: A tripod is a great idea. But, since I am pretty lazy about what I carry, I have also found fence posts, light standards, garbage cans etc. wonderful places to put my camera down to avoid the dreaded "night shake" syndrome.

2) Use Your Delayed Shutter: This is the setting you use when YOU want to be in the picture. Usually it's a three to ten second delay after you press the shutter button. This allows you to avoid camera shake since the camera is no-doubt-about-it still and stays still after the shutter's pushed.

3) Make Sure You Consider Your Scene Modes or a High ISO: A common problem with night is the...ummm...darkness. So you need to give your camera every break. I'd much rather get an exposure that is a little dark because I can tease the detail out using Photoshop. If the exposure is too light -- that detail's not there.

4) Take LOTS of Pictures From Odd Angles: You never know how you are going to be using the shots. But if you take LOTS of shots you have a very good chance of seeing one you can use for whatever strange and wonderful treatment you have in mind.

5) Study your Subject BEFORE You Start Shooting: What else could it be? Is there one part of the image that would make a great close-up? Could the picture be of something other than what it is? Could a soldier be a superhero? Could a sunset be an atomic explosion?'

How We Wound up Watching Roller Derby on our Anniversary

Let me set the scene: it's our 21st wedding anniversary and Sheree and I have reservations at a great Las Vegas eatery called "The Bootlegger."

We've just finished photographing The Boneyard (I think it's two blogs back), I am recovering nicely from a minor heatstroke and we have decided to poke around Fremont Street.

Fremont is often called "Downtown." It's where Old Vegas is. Downtown was first -- the garish Strip came after. I like downtown. It's got a bunch of old stuff. It's got great signs. It's got a massive video screen on the ceiling that goes for three blocks.

But best of all it has interesting people.

"I want that one," says a girl off to my left. The voice is so loud and hard that I turn to look.

The woman has green and purple hair. She's dressed in black -- and it looks like she is wearing her underwear over top of her clothes. Not quite goth. Something tougher. There are many piercings: her nose, her lip and her eyebrows. I am wondering how she manages metal detectors at the airport and little things like blowing her nose. She wears a brightly colored shirt -- but when she moves I notice that it's not a shirt at all. She's got tattoos running up her arms and across her back. There are Japanese warriors and dragons. There are flowers and dates. There are names -- and it's all woven together in this symphony of color.

She's intent on looking at necklaces and earrings. The clerk is beside himself putting things into bags for her. You can tell he's willing to overlook a strange appearance in favor of a well equipped credit card.

She turns, sees me staring (something that probably isn't real unusual) then she smiles, waves and goes back to her shopping.

I look at Sheree and shrug. She shrugs too and we continue exploring Fremont.

A little further down the way a round little man (who looks a lot like the road manager from "Almost Famous") is painstakingly putting down tape on the cement floor in the direct middle of Fremont Street. He's being helped by another tattooed girl who is wearing a yellow shirt that is about two sizes too small. It is not not a good clothing choice.

"I wonder what they're doing," Sheree says.

I shrug and pretend I am not even remotely interested.

"Why don't you go ask them?" she asks.

I shrug again. Sheree sighs and walks over and talks to them. They are having an animated conversation and all three wind up laughing. She comes back to me and starts walking.

"Well?" I ask.

"Well what?" she says.

"What are they doing?" I ask.

"I thought you didn't care."

"Just curious," I say, unable to come up with a more witty rejoiner.

"It's flat track roller derby. There's a roller derby convention in town," she says. Then she laughs and says "We just keep walking into great stuff! We're going to get great pictures!"

Sheree charms some of the athletes to pose for pictures and before long one of the men, wearing a tutu and a flower in his hair, is mugging for the camera. How does she do it? I watch in wonder. My wife can get pretty much any stranger to do anything. I've seen it a hundred times and I have no idea how she manages. (You should have a look at her blog as well: )

We promptly cancel the Bootlegger and settle in to watch them set up a flat track roller derby. Before long the ladies of roller derby are taking the... ummm ... concrete.

It's a very challenging thing to shoot. We're under a canopy that runs the whole length the main Freemont area. The women move very fast and the only way to get any kind of half decent shot is to use my telephoto with a Continuous Focus sports mode. Even then it's tough to get.

These women are not pampered princesses. They're tougher than some of the bikers we've seen. And they have colorful names. There's Daddy's Girl and Cherry-licious and many more that I can't put here on the off chance children will read this.

But it's fascinating to watch. It smacks a little of WWF or a Monster Truck rally and, as I see them go past, I realize I have only a faint idea of what they are doing. My knowledge of roller derby is limited to watching Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber" years ago...and I didn't understand it then either.

But apparently roller derby works like this: the people skate in circles. They knock against one another and eventually (and understandably) someone falls down. The crowd cheers. Two players wearing panties on their helmets (no...I don't get it either) skate very quickly and do things that make the crowd go "ooo" and "ahhh."

Occasionally a referee blows a whistle and everyone puts their hands on their hips and skates around trying to catch their breath.

How do you communicate this energy in a picture? You need to shoot a LOT of pictures.

Relax: it's digital. What doesn't work, you delete. No harm no foul. Besides -- this was so awfully entertaining to watch. These people were having fun...or as much fun as you can have skating in 100 degree heat in the middle of a sidewalk in Las Vegas.

And Sheree and I had a blast. We traded the formal Bootlegger in on a wonderful tropical buffet and played on slot machines until the wee hours. Then we took a walk around Fremont Street and took some more pictures, sipped a little beer, held hands and were just totally relaxed into enjoying the evening and each other.

So that's how I took my bride of 21 years to roller derby for our anniversary. We had a splendid time.

Am I a class guy or what?