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The Bright Lights of Las Vegas

George Benson may say (and sing) that the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but I'll take (and take pictures of) the bright lights of Las Vegas instead. As a professional travel writer and photographer, Las Vegas lights are a favorite subject for my computer and cameras. Lookin' at them will never give me the blues.

It all started on Fremont Street back in 1930s, when Las Vegas was but a glimmering gamble on the tourism map. Brightly-lit neon and electric signs lured early tourists into casinos, hotels, restaurants and shops. Though Glitter Gulch now has the bulk of lighting, Fremont Street is back, and brighter than ever, as the Fremont Street Experience.

Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) was a pioneer in the lighting of Las Vegas. Founded in 1920, they were the first sign company in the region to manufacture its own neon tubing. YESCO designed and built the first El Rancho Vegas sign in 1941, opened their first production facility in Las Vegas in 1945, and created the first spectacular neon signage at The Boulder Club. This new type of classic cantilevered and vertical marquee sign, with thousands of incandescent bulbs and sweeping ribbons of neon, was an instant success. Other resorts looked to make their own signs bigger, brighter, and better.

A steady stream of neon and electric sign displays was designed, manufactured, and installed by YESCO, with early noteworthy examples including the Golden Nugget in 1948, the Sahara in 1952, the Dunes and Riviera in 1955, the Tropicana in 1957, and the Stardust in 1958. The "Golden Age of Neon" had dawned and YESCO lit the way.

Expanded airline service brought millions of visitors to Las Vegas's booming resorts. YESCO installed a new 222 1/2-foot free-standing sign for the Sahara, as well as one of the first computerized four-color electronic message centers at Caesar's Palace.

The new Fremont Street Experience is YESCO's most spectacular project. It involves a four-block-long electronic message center, which utilizes 1,910,656 lamps and requires 8 million watts and 121 individual computers to control.

The history of Las Vegas business is scattered across an expansive "boneyard" in the backlot of YESCO. Almost 50 years of signs trace the changing tastes and increasing wealth of the gaming industry. Many of the signs stored there are recycled and brought back to life with design modifications, new faces, and new owners. The company is even working with city officials to create a long-desired Museum of Neon Art and Signage.

YESCO's Las Vegas Division employs about 300 people and has many branch offices. It's one of seven divisions of the huge company and you can bet every office is well-lit.

Of course, many other companies also provide bright lights for Las Vegas. When it comes to bright lights for a big city, Manhattan places a dim second for photographers.

Starting a half-hour or so before sunset, I love to start roaming the streets of Las Vegas, looking for another brightly-lit and -colored scene to shoot. This transition from light to dark offers a great opportunity to take pictures with ample ambient light, as the electric lights start coming on all over the city. This is also true at sunrise, when the streets are virtually empty.

When it's completely dark, the use of a tripod is very important, in that you can take longer exposures and get sharper pictures. I typically use slower-speed film (ASA 100), because it results razor-sharp images that faster film can't always provide.

Automatic exposure cameras work very well with neon and electric lights and I use the automatic settings on my Nikons often. However, I also bracket my exposures (intentional underexposure and overexposure) to try to get the best shot. I still experiment a great deal to get the picture I want. I'll often fill the frame with neon, trying many different colors, compositions, and exposure times and f-stops.

One advanced technique that's easy to try is to move your zoom lens in or out during a longer exposure (on a tripod). Again, bracketing and experimenting with exposure times will often lead to surprising (and surprisingly good) results.

From the Fremont Street to Glitter Gulch, I'll roam in search of bright lights. I may spend lots of money on film, but at least it keeps me out of the casinos. With Las Vegas, every picture can be worth a thousand brightly-colored words.