The light meter in your digital camera, be it an SLR or a point & shoot, is a pretty darned sophisticated piece of electronic wizardry. Throw the meter into matrix mode, point your lens at a scene and shoot it, you’re going to get a “correct” exposure. The problem is, a correct exposure might not be what you’re looking for; your creative eye will look at a given scene and see it very differently from how the dead accurate, but unimaginative, meter does.
This neon art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston serves two purposes. It’s art, and it is a nice way to present the museum do’s and don’ts to visitors. The piece is located near the main gift shop in a well lit lobby. I took a couple of snap shots of the sign because it made me chuckle, but then started to wonder how I could make it a semi-worthwhile photo.
The neon is mounted on a stark white wall in a largely white room, pretty uninteresting as a photographic background. Blue light shining out of a black hole though would look pretty cool…outer space like even. How to make it happen? There are two light sources in this photo. One is the neon lights (conveniently that also happens to be our subject) and the ambient room lighting. I’m no genius with light, but solution to this problem is pretty simple; get a base exposure for the scene (which ended up being 1/30 sec, f8, ISO 800) and then work the shutter speed til you kill the ambient. Starting with that exposure, I took a series of shots, upping the shutter speed about 1/2 stop for each one; if I was good I could have guessed at the right shutter speed but I’m not. I ended up getting the effect I wanted at 1/160 sec, f8, ISO 800. The ambient light is gone completely and all we have is our funny neon artwork.