Chinatown is one of the key parts of Sydney’s CBD. It’s a centrepiece of Chinese culture in Sydney. There are so many good restaurants here, and for lighter meals there are a multitude of foodcourts and foodstalls. I go here with friends for late night food, or to get tasty Emperor’s Puffs. To top it off, Chinatown exudes a vibrant, bustling atmosphere filled with brightly coloured lights and neon signs.

Neon Technology

Neon signs are becoming a rarity these days, mainly due to the cost associated with their construction. Custom made neon signs are especially expensive. These days neon is being replaced with LED lighting because it’s cheaper and easier to mould shapes out of. I’ve come to Chinatown on quite a few nights to do portraiture using the colourful lights here.

Locations around the world famous for their neon signs include London, New York and Hong Kong. The technology was most popular from the 20s to the 50s. It’s essentially an electric current flowing through a glass tube filled with neon gas. Neon particles hit each other and give off a signature glow; adding varying amounts of other chemicals like hydrogen, helium and mercury can change the colour of the light. I find it a real shame that it’s becoming less common!

My Secret to Neon Portraits

To get visually engaging portraits, just using coloured lighting isn’t enough. It’s important to draw inspiration from environment around you; I’ve often used reflections from windows and mirrors to better frame the subject. I’ve also shot some photos through my glasses. The glasses slightly blur the edges and create glassy textures that change with different angles. That’s the secret!  In the images below take note of the smeared light effect on the edges.

Be Careful of Brothels

When you’re looking for coloured lights to use for photos be careful of brothels or dodgy businesses – you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them. We got kicked out of a hallway for using the lighting in this photo (we were probably drawing unwanted attention). They promptly turned off the lights and forced us to leave.

Other places in Sydney with Neon

Have you seen the neon signs in Chinatown? Next time you’re in the city at night take a look around at the lights and signs. It’s all designed to draw customers in, but usually we don’t notice the individuals signs and how they can be used. Another place to check out in Sydney for neon lights is Newtown. There are a few shops on King Street that keep their lights on til late.