Photographing Hong Kong's Neon: A Contact Sheet

Photographing Hong Kong's Neon: A Contact Sheet

As photographers, we need to put our best foot forward, especially if we're hoping to get clients to hire us or even simply aim for a quick dopamine hit on Instagram. However, one of the most beneficial exercises I have done is to look at the process of getting to my own favorite images and the process others follow to get to theirs. 

I firmly believe that we can learn a lot by looking at the process we work within and the processes of others. The fantastic Magnum contact sheet books are a reminder that even the most revered photographers in history had to work hard for their images and the first picture is rarely the one they use. Everyone has to start somewhere and work towards their desired image.

This idea was hammered home for me in a course I recently took. The instructor took you through every step of his process and showed you step by step how he builds an image. This inspired me to take a look at my own process and consider very consciously how I go from the "wow, look at that" moment to the finished image. In today's simple example, I'd like to walk you through an image I made walking back to my hotel one evening on a trip to Hong Kong.

As this was a personal trip with my wife, I hadn't done any photography research or even considered what photographs I wanted to make. However, in the back of my head, as perhaps many of us have, I had a vision of Hong Kong's iconic neon signs that I wanted to make an image of. The rest, however, was put together from my experiences there and a little luck and patience as I returned home one evening. 

Hopping off the MTR at Jordan one evening to walk back to the hotel, I stumbled upon the scene below. At the time, I had no idea it was quite a popular spot to make a photograph of Hong Kong's neon, so I had no pre\determined shots in my head. That's a great starting place when working on an image. Throw away any preconceived ideas you have and begin working from a clean slate. That night, this street was also reasonably quiet, so I was able to spend my time wondering around the scene and settling on a photograph I was happy with.

As you can see, my first image was certainly not a success. However, I was able to assess how my Laowa 9mm f/2.8 was going to behave in this scene. A lens this wide needs care and consideration when using. I knew right from the get-go that I would have to clean this frame up a little. There were some distracting signs on the left and right of the image. You can also see my finger has crept into the image in the bottom left corner. Most of all, however, I wanted some signs of life in the image. I always like to get a sense that a place is lived in. Check out my review of the Laowa 9mm here on Fstoppers if you are interested in this gem.

In this image, I included a figure walking through the foreground. However, in my excitement, I cut off both her feet and the top of the very sign I was trying to photograph. We all make mistakes. I was also still not happy with the two non-neon signboards that were bordering the frame either. So, for my next image, I decided to try a vertical composition.

As you can see, that cleaned up the left and right sides of the image a lot. I also included a few people walking through. However, I had moved a little too close to the signs above me and they were starting to become unreadable. After all, they were my subject, so I wanted them to be clearly visible. One other thing I noticed at this time, however, was the presence of one of Hong Kong's other iconic draws, the red taxi. 

Now that I had recognized all the elements I wanted in my frame, I was ready to wait it out and make the image I was now seeing in my mind. I took a couple of steps back to make sure the signs were all legible and slowed my shutter down. I knew I wanted to fill the foreground with a taxi, as it would eliminate all the dead space I had created by going vertical with my composition. The slower shutter would blur the oncoming taxi. This would not only give the sense of motion but fill a little more of the frame for me. 

The final element of this image, the long shutter, was made much easier to deal with by using the IBIS on the Fujifilm X-H1 I took with me. Although 1/15 may not seem too long, I often have trouble hand-holding at that speed. The IBIS meant I could shoot and shoot without having to worry too much about sharpness.

If you've enjoyed this process, please head over and watch the video below. There, I take a look at this image in a little more detail and also walk you through another image from that quick shoot. 

If you're just beginning with photography, "working a scene" like this can be extremely helpful in improving your compositions. Don't settle for the first image you make and think there's nothing there. Keep at it. Frame it differently. Try to break the scene down into the pieces that help you tell your story and those that don't. Remove the ones that don't. Have patience. Rarely does a photograph you're happy with happen instantly. Once you're done, look at your images, analyze your process, and try to recall what you were thinking and how it got you to your final favorite. 

Now, I'll turn the conversation over to our readers. How is it that you work your way to a final image in the genre of photographs that you make? Do you do a lot of pre-production work? Do you settle on a composition first and wait for a moment? Is your work more spontaneous than that? Let me know in the comments below.

Log in or register to post comments


Lee Christiansen's picture

What was the colour balance that you settled on?

Dylan Goldby's picture

Hi Lee,

In the end, 4650K. Going cooler fixed the warm road tones but made the neons lose some of their glow and the colours didn't remain how I saw them.

Paul Vaillancourt's picture

Thanks for the great article. I wish fstoppers had a lot more of stuff like this.