Lighted Sign Photography

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by thouts, Feb 23, 2009.

  1. thouts macrumors regular

    thouts

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    Jul 2, 2008
    #1
    I'm the marketing manager for a sign company in Ohio. Part of my job requires that I take photos of completed signs. Some sign photos that have lighter colors featured in them come out washed out. I'm sure this comes from leaving the aperture open for a long period of time in order to get a good shot at night without upping the ISO. I've been fixing the problem spots in photoshop but i'd like to know if there is a way to take the pictures without this problem ever occuring. If anyone has any insight I'd appreicate it.

    Tips on general night time photography would also be appreciated.
     
  2. JKitterman macrumors member

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    #2
    You may want to post your camera details as it will help with suggestions. If it is a SLR, what kind of metering are your trying?
     
  3. jaseone macrumors 65816

    jaseone

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    #3
    It sounds like HDR may well be a possible solution, I'm no expert though so I'll leave it to said experts.
     
  4. thouts thread starter macrumors regular

    thouts

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    #4
    It is a Nikon D60. Usually I use the 18-55mm kit lens. About metering...this is something I'm not really sure how to do. Kind of starting out in photography now.
     
  5. localghost macrumors regular

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    #5
    start having a closer look at the light source, and search big photo forums (like dpreview etc) for it. every source has it’s own characteristics, eyes and brain compensate, your sensor doesn’t.

    next, getting the right filter (e.g. for fluorescent light) will help you a lot in post, even in the digital age. speaking of it: shooting raw will give your a lot more headroom for color-correction. find a white part from the same light source to fill the frame for your white balance.

    don’t trust your meter, have a close look at each rgb-channel of your histogram and/or bracket if possible.
     
  6. jaseone macrumors 65816

    jaseone

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    #6
    Isn't the issue the longer exposure time at night though? I didn't think anything you metered off would make a difference? Like in this shot:

    [​IMG]

    The color in the freeway signs is washed out due to the long exposure, could that be improved simply by metering off the signs themselves?
     
  7. thouts thread starter macrumors regular

    thouts

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    #7
    Yes, the issue is the washing out of colors with longer exposures. Especially actual parts of the sign that are a lighter color. There are times when a light blue for example will turn completely white.
     
  8. 103734 Guest

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    Apr 10, 2007
    #8
    Im not really sure but that sounds like a white balance thing, do you shoot raw? Or maybe you could try a polarizing filter, I could help with some glare off the signs.

    But really I have no idea because I never really tried to shoot signs.
     
  9. termina3 macrumors 65816

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  10. localghost macrumors regular

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    #10
    my guess would be that the red channel is blown (in the area of the street sign). should be easy to find out anyways: make two pix of the sign with the same amount of light and different axposure times. i'm wondering why you need so much exposure time, an iluminated sign sould be bright enough to work with < 1 second.
     
  11. termina3 macrumors 65816

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    #11
    Those signs in the photo are not illuminated. That is, they are only illuminated by the ambient street/highway lights (which are extensive).
     
  12. shady825 macrumors 68000

    shady825

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    #12
    No expert here either but I was going to suggest trying HDR as well.
     
  13. jpfisher macrumors regular

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    #13
    You'll need a tripod. Set your lens to f/5.6 or f/8 and use a longer exposure (set manually -- experiment... but probably 2 seconds or so, depending on the amount of ambient light) at a low ISO - this will keep the image clean from noise, and should avoid blowing out the highlights of the light coming from the signs.

    HDR should not be necessary for this -- it's completely possible in-camera.
     
  14. leighonigar macrumors 6502a

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    #14
    Yes. To the OP is it possible for you to post a bit of an unedited photograph showing the problem, just so we can be sure it is overexposure of the bulb specifically?
     
  15. snberk103 macrumors 603

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    #15
    Hello thouts

    Are the signs you are trying to photograph internally lit, or externally? i.e. Neon signs would be internally lit, and billboard with a flood-light on it would be externally lit. Using a camera flash would be externally lit.

    Do you need the background as well as the sign to be properly exposed? i.e. If you have a billboard on a building, are you photographing the building as well as the sign to show context, or are you just needing a photo of the sign itself?

    The easy answer is: You are overexposing the signs. If you are getting white instead of colour, then you are putting way too much light onto the sensor.

    Now you will understand why a professional photographer gets paid for what they do.

    Your best bet is to get very close to the sign, and meter with both brightly lit and dark parts of the sign in the viewfinder. If you are going to handhold, keep the shutter speed number at a number that is at least as big as the focal length number. If you can get the shutter speed number bigger (its a fraction, so a bigger number is less time - so shorter shutter speed) you will find your photos are better. Using a tripod allows you use longer shutter speeds, but don't joggle the camera - use a remote release if possible.

    Now, change the f/stop number (aperture) until the sign looks properly exposed. If you are getting white instead of colours, then close the aperture (i.e. bigger f/stop numbers) until the sign is properly exposed. Shoot in RAW if you can. RAW allows you to ignore the white balance/colour balance until you are back in the office. You should still be close to the sign. Now, record your shutter and aperture. Now you can go and stand anywhere you want, and that particular sign will still be properly exposed - as long as the light on it doesn't change. Exposure is entirely dependent on the distance between the light source and the subject. Camera distance does not matter - unless you are using an on-camera flash, where moving the camera is actually changing the light/subject distance. Any sign with similar lighting will have similar exposures. Once you have done a few, you may find you can just set up in the final location and skip the metering part.

    Remember that bit about the pro photographer?

    Now, if you need both the sign *and* the background properly exposed it gets complicated.

    Traditionally, photographers would photograph these kinds of subjects at sunset and sunrise so that the light on the sign and the light on the background was more less the same. A bit of darker sky would really make the sign "pop". Now, you can use HDR techniques - but that is beyond the scope of this posting.

    Remember, photographers aren't trained to make good signs - so sign makers may not be the best photographers. A good, old school, photographer with experience in shooting architecture could nail your sign photos in single sitting. If these are for advertizing purposes, a 4x5 photographer who knows what they are doing will give you a file that you could plaster over the side of a - well - bill board.

    Good luck.
     
  16. ChrisA macrumors G4

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    #16

    First and number one. Building don't move and are there 24x7 so you need to select the exact time of day to take the photo. Choose the EXACT amount of sunlight you need. Show up to the job 45 minutes early and wait. Also you can choose the weather too. You can choose the camera location too. Shoot from the ground or a tall 25 foot ladder. This is what separates the amateur "snap shotter" from the pro. The snapshooter takes the picture from where ever he is standing whenever he happens to be there. The pro "creates the image" by choosing the subject, the background, the foreground and lighting. Lighting is always the key. I've known photographers who have hiired a water truck to flood a street so that lights will reflect of the wet pavement. You may not have that kind of budget but you get the idea that YOU can control everything in the image. Some photographers who shoot for ads will sketch the image first to work out the angles and lines and composition. It's not like you are shooting sports and have to react to events.


    Set the exposure so that the highlights (the lit sign) are not clipped. Your camera almost certainly has a built-in histogram. Take a test shot and look at the histograms and then adjust the exposure. Expose as much as you can before clipping occurs.

    If you are going to be using Photoshop, shoot RAW format.

    Of course yuo are using a tripod. Right. Kind of nuts not to as the sign will wait while you set it up and does not move around very fast.

    HDR is mostly an overused gimmick but in this case it could help. Photoshop calls this "merging" and it is easy to do. BUt don't just buy some automatic "HDR Progrogam". You need to understand how to expose for the highlights and the background and then later make an artistic decision about how they are to be combined.

    You should be shooting with an SLR.
     
  17. jaseone macrumors 65816

    jaseone

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    #17
    Do some of you even read the thread before replying?

    To the original poster could you please post one of the problem images preferably with the EXIF data in tact? I think if you do that you will get better advice for your particular situation.

    To me it simply sounds like part of your signs are being overexposed, which may well not be able to be addressed in camera due to the nature of the shot so my original reply was to address that.
     
  18. Max Archer macrumors member

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    Feb 23, 2009
    #18
    Bit of misinformation in this thread - shooting a long shutter speed, with a low ISO, doesn't necessarily make for lower-noise shots.

    The D60 should produce "cleaner" night shots at ISO 640 or 800 with a sub 1sec shutter speed than it will at 100 or 200 with a longer exposure. Digital camera sensors create heat as they operate, and this heat is responsible for much of the noise seen in nighttime photography.

    As for the real topic of the thread...

    I'd suggest not metering at all, or only using it as a baseline and switching to manual exposure. Try bracketing a series of exposures, and shoot RAW in order to have the widest range of adjustment. Concentrate on making the sign look accurate, and you can then tweak the rest of the image, as some loss in color or quality in the less-important parts of the image are preferable to losing anything in the subject. RAW will also give you much more freedom in tweaking the white balance after the shot is taken.

    I'd also recommend looking into a lens upgrade, if possible. The slow kit lens isn't helping, in terms of noise. Depending on exactly what you're doing, I'd suspect the new AF-S 35mm 1.8 would be a great choice, as it'll work great on your D60, while maintaining superb optical quality, and will allow much faster shutter speed. It should be under $200 as well, so potentially not too difficult to justify, in terms of budget.
     
  19. thouts thread starter macrumors regular

    thouts

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    #19
    Here are a couple sample pictures guys. I think the problem is just simply over exposure. Notice the light blue on the 5/3rd sign. That goes away in the over exposed pic. The exposure is about 1 sec. vs. 4 seconds - both at f/11. And yes - I've been using a tripod and a remote shutter. All good advice I've been hearing - keep it coming.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  20. 103734 Guest

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    Apr 10, 2007
    #20
    oh I understand now, well there are a few ways you could fix this, one is take one photo of each signs exposed for the right amount of time then cut and paste the signs in all into one picture, or you can just use a program like photomatix or photoshop to combine multiple exposures
     
  21. MaddMacs macrumors 6502

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    #21
    How about a Neutral Density Filter. You can have longer exposure times, with lower highlights.
     
  22. leighonigar macrumors 6502a

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    #22
    What problem is that going to fix?
     
  23. MaddMacs macrumors 6502

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    #23
    You can maintain the motion blur of the cars (like in the first posted photo) and it could help keeping the stationary lights from being blown out. Just a suggestion.
     
  24. jpfisher macrumors regular

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    #24
    If you're talking several minutes, then yes -- a shorter exposure at a higher ISO is going to be better. But for urban night photography, chances are you're talking 30 seconds on the outer end of things at smaller apertures. I just took a 15 second exposure at f/8, ISO 100 of a store front that I found to be interesting -- zero noise. I know my camera, and the same shot at ISO 800 would have had noise.

    This is with the Pentax K10D, which uses the same Sony 10.2MP CCD found in the Nikons... I've done quite a bit of night shooting in urban environments and have always gotten better results with lower ISO and longer exposure when keeping them to 30 seconds or less.
     
  25. compuwar macrumors 601

    compuwar

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    #25
    With a heavy enough filter, you can completely remove moving lights and objects like cars and people while keeping stationary subjects and lights exposed properly.
     

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