Immerse Yourself: An Interview with Night & Light Painting Photographer Troy Paiva
Troy Paiva, AKA Lost America, has been creating light painted night photography in abandoned locations and junkyards since 1989. His documentarian work examines the evolution, and eventual abandonment, of the communities, infrastructure, and social iconography that spawned during America’s 20th century expansion into the cities and deserts of the West. His imagery has appeared in print in over a dozen countries, including three Stephen King book covers, American Photographer, Air & Space Magazine, Hot Rod Magazine, and CNN Online. Troy’s work has appeared in museums and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Sweden, and San Francisco. In 2010 and 2011, he appeared as a guest judge on the Singapore reality TV show The Big Shot. Troy teaches light painting/night painting workshops several times a year in a high desert junkyard filled with decaying movie prop vehicles. His low cost, high impact lighting techniques have been adopted by amateurs and professionals around the world.
What is your photographic specialty and how did you become interested in it?
Paiva: I’m a night photographer and light painter and general lighting guru. I picked up the basics of the techniques in the days of film, back in 1989, and forged my own techniques for working with flashlights (torches) during time-exposures through the ’90s and into the 21st century. It’s been amazing to see the popularity of these techniques explode in the digital era.
How long have you been teaching and/or writing about photography and how would you describe your teaching/writing style?
Paiva: I’ve been teaching workshops for 5 years now and published my technique eBook in 2012. Before I took up night photography, my education and career path was as an illustrator, graphic designer and painter, so my approach to teaching is as non-technical as possible. I always try to put everything in layman’s terms.
What is your single most depended on photographic item aside from your camera?
Paiva: My tripod. Because I shoot under extreme conditions, frequently making minutes-long exposures in high winds and on uneven surfaces, I need a rock solid base for my camera. I’ve used a Slik D500 for over 10 years now. Scraped, gouged and covered with velcro patches and gaffers tape, it looks pretty ghetto, but the thing is built like a tank. It’s got thick aluminum legs and a simple pan-tilt head. It weighs a ton but the only way it’s going over is by kicking it.
What type of gear, new or old, are you most interested in experimenting with?
Paiva: Continuous-source lights have come a million miles in the last 5 years. I’ve been a beta-tester for a light company called Protomachines that produces a fully HSB-adjustable flashlight. Any color, any brightness, in one unit. It’s incredibly flexible. New kinds of light sources are constantly evolving, so it’s fun to try and keep up.
Describe what prompted or inspired you to create Light Painted Night Photography and Boneyard?
Paiva: Operating workshops prompted me to make notes that covered every aspect of LP/NP as a teaching aid. After a couple of years I had a huge pile of helpful shortcuts and time-tested tips. It seemed only logical to collate and refine them into a book. Boneyard came about as my obsession with aircraft graveyards led me to wrangle access to locations that are virtually impossible to enter and take snapshots, let alone make time exposures by full moon light in the middle of the night. Add my lighting aesthetic to the mix and it’s a body of work that you will not see anywhere else. Literally, most of the images in Boneyard are exclusive to the book; they’ll never be put online. Boneyard is a totally unique experience in eBooks.
What are some additional resources that you recommend to others getting started in photography?
Paiva: Sounds corny, but the biggest resource is YOU. Whether you use a state-of-the-art $6000 DSLR, or a broken Holga taped closed with 10-year outdated film, the best way to get started is to take pictures. Lots of them. Immerse yourself. Experiment. Learn color theory and composition. Learn to become critical of your own work. Study your favorite images, whether in fine art, advertising or from movies and TV. Try to figure out how it was lit and why those choices were made. Then incorporate these things into your own work.
In what ways do you expect readers to improve after reading Light Painted Night Photography and Boneyard?
Paiva: If you’ve never done night shooting or light painting before it has every concept covered that you’ll need to get great images the first night out. And even for seasoned night shooters, it’s filled with nuggets that will simplify and streamline your process.
There are a lot of little rules in photography, such as the Rule of Thirds and the Inverse Square Law. Describe a photography “rule” that you use the most or find most valuable.
Paiva: The Red Rule. After spending decades in advertising and publishing, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen “Add some red” come up in meetings. It really works.
Anything new on the horizon that you are working on?
Paiva: There’s always a new workshop on the horizon, and a never-ending list of unique, strange, frequently time-sensitive or access-sensitive locations for me to shoot!