Neon Noir: Hong Kong's Neon Lights on Film - Peter Stewart Photography
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By Peter Stewart | 7th Feb 2017


There is nothing more quintessentially Hong Kong than it's abundance of overwhelming neon lit signage that illuminate the bustling city streets and alleyways at night. 


After the Second World War, Hong Kong started to grow at an exponential rate, and this new found prosperity gave rise to almost every business in town jostling to advertise their wares using any available space they could. From restaurants, tailors, pawn shops, hotels, jewellers, watch shops, nightclubs and karaoke parlours; you name it and there was probably a colourful gas lit sign for it. 


In my recent years of visiting Hong Kong however, I've noticed a steadfast change in the cities makeup. Gone are many of the more iconic signs in places like Mongkok and Wan Chai, either torn down or permanently left unlit. Although not as iconic as say Piccadilly Circus or the Shibuya crossing, these small pillars of identity are I feel a great loss for Hong Kong, and their absence somewhat dulls the cinematic landscape of a city that I and many others love to photograph after the sun goes down. 


So what gives? Why is all the neon disappearing? It turns out that many of these signs, some predating back 40 odd years, were in-fact erected illegally. It is only in recent years that the government started enforcing a crackdown and steadily removed potentially dangerous signs or go through procedures to have them pass inspection. 

That last part seems to be quite important. These new rules don't just apply to neon, but also to the thousands of signboards that precariously hang from the sides of many buildings. In order for signage to pass the requirements, the owner has to fork out. So in many respects, it's likely cheaper to just have it removed altogether. 

Other sources state that growing concern over light pollution and electricity costs paved the way for neon's days to be numbered, with many businesses in Hong Kong now turning to LED's for their advertising needs. 


Soy St, Mongkok

Having photographed Hong Kong over the past 8 years, it makes me sad to see these mini landmarks disappear, and as a photographer who has incorporated the nightly glow of the cities neon into many of my pictures, it came as a surprise to me why I never actually focused on it solely as a subject matter. 


So the idea came to me to try out somewhat of a test. I wanted to try and experiment with forms of rack focusing and double exposure, to see if I could come away with some quirky types of images beyond just going for straight snapshots (although some of the following pictures are shot in one exposure).

Now I've never really liked the way digital cameras render areas of bright highlights, nor am I particularly fond of how my Nikon D810 renders the colour red. So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reach for film instead, but not just any old film!

I opted to try out my little experiment using motion picture film. Namely Kodak Vision3 500T, which has been rebadged for 35mm still camera use as CineStill 800Tungsten

What's special about this film is that not only is it designed for low light nighttime photography, but being a cinema purpose film it has a special anti-halation backing, designed to prevent halos around bright objects or edges that appear in the image (i.e. neon lights).

Now "regular" film for still cameras don't require this special backing, it is only required for film shot through a 35mm movie camera. This extra layer, also known as "rem-jet" requires the film to be developed using a different chemical process to the regular C-41 development that you would find at a common photo lab. What the folks at CineStill did was to take the Kodak negative and carefully remove this rem-jet backing, which now allows it to safely be shot and processed like any other colour negative film. 

The difference though is that the film no longer has the anti-halitation protection, which means we'll be getting some interesting effects going on for areas of highlights. 


Below is a selection of images from the one 36exp roll of CineStill 800T, shot over two nights  in Mongkok, Sham Shui Po, Yau Ma Tei, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. 

Photographed using a Nikon F3HP & Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AIS





CineStill 800Tungsten film is available for order from Amazon.com and cinestillfilm.com

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