I know most of you are here for the pretty pictures — and there’s nothing wrong with that! A lot of the time I spend on the internet, and even in real life in front of neon signs, is spent admiring lovely colors and pleasing forms. Having a lot of time resting at home lately, though, has given me time to think, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the appeal of neon signs beyond just the visual.
There are more pretty pictures queued up, so no worries if you want to skip on to those, but if you’re curious about one of the reasons one person here finds neon signs compelling beyond the pleasing act of looking at them, read on.
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Life for me is a search, and I think it always will be. Maybe I’m just in a mid-life kind of mood lately, but I’m beginning to suspect that I’ll never be the kind of person who is fundamentally settled and contented. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — it doesn’t always make life easy, but it means I’ve got a kind of built-in restless energy driving me to look both for new things to see and for new ways of seeing familiar things. It also means I’m always looking to try different ways of doing things, from mundane tasks like washing dishes to larger undertakings like living life. And it definitely means I’m always on the lookout for answers to questions about myself, most especially lately, Where is my place in the world? Probably this is true of most people, but I think a lot of people are better at setting those kind of things aside while they get on with living, while I tend to fall more into the fret-about-them-endlessly camp.
Maybe part of the reason for this restlessness is that one of the things I’ve been told all my life, in one way or another, is that I am weird. Now humans, even the introverted sort, are a social species, and weirdness has just the hint of a shadow of ostracism about it, so it can be a little unsettling. Weirdness can also be a point of pride, of course, and plenty of people strive all their lives to be considered different. But still, it can feel a little lonely. Neon signs, though, have shone a little light into that loneliness for me.
The neon signs I love most are the ones that are unique. Made by hand, different, even a little, yes, weird. One of the main reasons I love New York is that it is a weird city, though it has certainly gotten a lot less weird lately. Standing in from of a Starbucks, you can forget what city you’re in for a moment. Standing in front of Colony Records (RIP), though, you knew right where you were.
Exploring the city alone at night looking at neon signs makes me about as content as I ever am.
Wandering the city of strangeness and serendipity makes me feel like there is still room for weirdness and wonder in the world. On the other hand, I never feel more lost than when walking indistinguishable suburban streets looking at indistinguishable split-level houses with indistinguishable cars in indistinguishable driveways. The numbers on the houses are sometimes the only clue that they aren’t all interchangeable. And isn’t the fact that we are fundamentally not interchangeable what makes us most human? I find it hard to remember that, though, when my surroundings are so unrelentingly uniform.
And so I love bold, beautiful handmade neon signs that have their own lettering, their own patina, their own particular glow, signs that are located in a specific place and point the way to a specific local institution, whether it’s a bar, a drug store, or a church. The saturated colors, subtly altered by time and weather, the hand-formed letters not found in any font, and even the hint of buzz and flicker, remind me that I don’t need to be normal to be a regular. They insist that I am a particular person standing in the glow of a particular sign, and that both of us belong right where we are.
What type of camera/lens/setting do you use for your photos?
Hey, OK, I’m very slow to answer questions! Sorry about that charlesfox.
My newish camera is a Canon EOS 60D, and I used to have a Canon Digital Rebel xTi. I nearly always use a 50mm fixed lens, aka the “thrifty 50.” It’s (relatively) cheap, lightweight, and does really well with low light. The downside is that because it is fixed, I often have to stand quite a ways away from the sign, ie in a snow berm or the middle of the street.
I do also have a 17-85mm zoom lens, which I use occasionally, usually when I want to photograph an entire storefront. It’s heavy, though, so I don’t always carry it with me.
I don’t carry a tripod with me, and while I’ve gotten quite good at bracing myself and holding the camera as still as possible, I do need to use a relatively fast shutter speed to avoid blurriness. I aim for at least 125, but will try as low as 80 if I have to. Since the signs are generally flat, I can usually open the aperture all the way, which on the 50mm is a whopping F1.8. My new camera has fantastic ISO settings (up to 6400), but I usually keep it below 1000 if I can. The large aperture and high ISO mean I can usually get the fast-ish shutter speed I need for focus.