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BorrowLenses Education: Featured Photographer Troy Paiva

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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.

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Blue Eyed Soul ©Troy Paiva
“A recent addition at Paul’s, it’s a bone-stock, totally complete, four-door ’71 Ford LTD. When I was 10 or 11 these cars were everywhere. I remember thinking they were really common and boring. 40+ years on however, this thing seems strangely stylish and unique. 3 minute exposure under the full moon. Shot into the shadows. Orange light from straight down over the headlights (casting that nice curved shadow on the beak), red from behind the tire (and a little bit on the front of the tire for definition) blue through the window from the back and snooted on the headlights. There’s also some snooted white light on the Ford logo from straight down. Had to piece this one together from a couple of images in Photoshop.” -Troy Paiva

BL: 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.

BL: 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.

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The Gassy Hitman ©Troy Paiva
“Firing a 9mm Ruger in cook’s whites and a Russian Army gas mask. We found that only one type of bullet we brought made these honkin, hairy-looking muzzle flashes, and we only had a handful of rounds of it. 10 second exposure, total darkness, hand-held lime and purple-gelled strobe.” – Troy Paiva

BL: 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.

BL: 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.

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The “Lonely Intersection” Channel ©Troy Paiva
“The junction of Highway 6 and 95 is the only thing on tonight.50 miles from the nearest (inhabited) town. Full moon, composite of 120-second (for the TV and ground subjects) and 500-second (for the sky) exposures, Protomachine flashlight set to red.” -Troy Paiva

BL: Describe what prompted or inspired you to create Light Painted Night Photography and Boneyard?

Paiva: Operating workshops (New fall schedule will be announced before 8/1. Get on the mailing list if you’re interested!) 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.

BL: 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.

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Eightysixed ©Troy Paiva
“A North American F-86 Sabre fuselage, a Korean war-era jet fighter, stored in the California desert. Location undisclosed at the owner’s request. There are at least five complete F-86’s here, awaiting reassembly. Night, heavily occluded full moon. Combination of two 2-munute exposures for DOF. Natural LED flashlight, red-geled strobe. At the beginning of this night’s shoot, in the total dark, before the moon rose, a combination of heavily gusting wind, and a bump, knocked my tripod over. The mount ripped out the bottom of the camera and the lower section of the body was sprung. But it still worked! I did 16 set ups that night with the camera gaffer’s taped to the tripod. I only lost one set up to camera movement FTW. It was a classic Lost America ghetto kludge. I wish someone had taken a picture of it.” – Troy Paiva

BL: 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.

BL: 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.

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Objects In Your Past May Appear Larger Than Actual Size ©Troy Paiva
“Busses and trucks at Paul’s Junkyard, the amazing place I hold workshops. 86 second exposure, f/8, iso 200. Protomachine flashlight set to green and red.” -Troy Paiva

BL: Anything new on the horizon that you are working on, either photography-wise or eBook-wise?

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!

Special thanks to Troy Paiva for sharing his tips and experiences with us! Be sure to check out his eBooks, Light Painted Night Photography and Boneyard.

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Postmarked by the Moon ©Troy Paiva
“The Cantil, California Post Office. Open from 1914 to 1972. Pink and green Protomachine flashlight, while the full moon burned in for 136 seconds.” -Troy Paiva


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Alexandria Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

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