This is part three of a four-part article with pioneering night photographer Troy Paiva of Lost America. See part one and part two.

Troy is the author of four books, with a fifth to be published in early 2021. His images have been featured in many gallery and museum shows, magazines, and album and book covers. Here, we discuss his evolution with gear.

Who invented light painting?

In 1882, Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny created the first known light painting, or more accurately, “light drawing” photograph. They attached incandescent bulbs to the joints of an assistant to study movement.

However, this doesn’t prevent people from crediting Troy erroneously. He comments, “There are still people today that think I ‘invented light painting.’ People have spread that around since I first put work online and I’ve tried to dispel that idea at every turn. Long exposures and added light have been around since the beginning of photography. Sure, I took it to subjects that hadn’t been shot and lit like that before, but that was the only new thing I did.”

Big Sky Pump — Shot on my first trip to the desert after switching to digital. At the abandoned truck stop at Coaldale, NV. Shot under a full moon, purple and red-gelled LED flashlight. The green light is from a nearby streetlight.

Discussing the evolution in handheld lights for light painting

Previously, we discussed the evolution in camera technology, including digital photography. But handheld lighting has undergone an evolution as well. Troy elaborates on this further.

“In 1990, all flashlights had warm-cast incandescent bulbs and nothing was particularly bright. That’s mainly why I used hand-held gelled strobes back then. In the late nineties I acquired a ‘million candlepower’ flashlight that was very bright, but enormous and heavy. The proliferation of LEDs in the 2000s changed handheld lighting. Lights began to get brighter and more adjustable. By 2009 I had stopped using strobes entirely and have used flashlights only, ever since. Modern LEDs, like the Protomachines lights, give you the entire spectrum of colors at any brightness. Now the market is flooded with all kinds of trick flashlights made specifically for light painting.”

Bobby Peru’s Room — Abandoned, ransacked and vandalized motel, Mount Montgomery, Nevada. Lime, red and purple from the ProtoMachines flashlight in a totally dark space. It took many tries to get this balanced.

The issue with lights of yesteryear

“As previously mentioned, I used garage sale flashes for the first few years, eventually graduating to a Vivitar 285 with a Quantum battery pack in the mid ’90s. Back then the most consistent and reliable flashlights around were Mag-Lights. I used AA, C and D cell models. They cast a warm golden light, but even the D-cell wasn’t bright enough to work with the colored theatrical lighting gels I was using. I started out clipping swatches from a gel sample book and eventually started buying sheets and cutting larger, easier to use swatches. I’d carry about 10 different colors — ‘cools’ in one pocket, ‘warms’ in another — and just hold them over the light source. As always, everything was done in the simplest, most cave man way.”

Enter the ProtoMachines

“Once I discovered the ProtoMachines flashlight, all my old lighting equipment went right into the dead gear crate. It was designed and developed by a light painter specifically for this style of light painting. 100% HSB adjustable, the ProtoMachines light offers endless colors and levels of saturation and is bright enough to light an airliner from a hundred yards away, yet can also be turned down to light a screw head from six inches. It uses long-lasting rechargeable batteries and it fits in your coat pocket. It’s the only light I’ve used since 2011.”

Camping With the Ancients — Abandoned miles down a dirt road in central Nevada. Shot with a fisheye lens under a full moon. Lime, white and red-set Protomachines flashlight.

Lighting influences

“As for where my lighting aesthetic comes from, in the past I’ve mentioned Chip Simons and O.Winston Link as influences for my lighting, but their work doesn’t really look like mine (or each other’s for that matter). I was influenced by their work, as opposed to simply copying it.

“Those photographers worked big. They had assistants and a ton of gear. They used multiple fixed strobes in a traditional ‘studio’ style, even when on location, whereas I’m approaching it with a smaller, stealth-based footprint, on a much smaller budget, using all hand-held, constant sources … for many years, just simple hardware store flashlights. The influence was more of a ‘look at all the different things you can do with light’ realization than a ‘that’s exactly what I’m gonna do’ determination.”

Drawing from influences and moods in different artistic disciplines

Troy remarks, “I also allowed non-photographic influences to spin it in other directions. All those rock concerts I went to in the ‘70s, the ornate light shows of Pink Floyd, Yes, and the early Genesis Vari-Light rigs blew my teenage mind with their ability to enhance the shows bold moments, but also modulate the audience down into quiet intimate moments, and back again. The moods of the moments controlled with light intensity, angles and color.”

Troy also points out something important about movies. “Movies have always played an important part for me too. Most people don’t know this, but almost every scene in every movie is lit in some way. Even in broad daylight they can be using a tremendous amount of light in every shot.”

I would agree with Troy. And indeed, even in portrait photography taken in broad daylight, many skilled photographers are using quite a bit of light.

“When I used to teach workshops there was always someone shocked by the notion that watching/deconstructing movies could make them better photographers and scene lighters. Watch any movie with recently knighted Roger Deakins as the cinematographer and just pay attention to the lighting. That guy is an absolute visionary in the way he uses light. Lubezki, Storaro, Lynch, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Welles … every still photographer should at least be aware of these and countless other motion picture artists. So yeah, being inspired by one art form will have an impact on how you work in other art forms. I’m not exaggerating when I say that movies and rock music are more influential on my photography than historic fine art still photography ever was.”

Inspired from industrial design and machine aesthetics

Ghost of the J79 — Fisheyed abstract machine-porn, deep inside a B-58’s broken wing-pod, in the hole where the GE J79 jet engine used to live. Shot under a full moon, with red and purple-set Protomachines flashlight.

In the first part of the interview, Troy described how his father was a Flight Engineer, growing up in a house surrounded by aircraft and machine aesthetics.

“Without a doubt the industrial design of the machines, and architecture of the structures I shoot are another influence hiding in plain sight too. I don’t shoot things I don’t like aesthetically. If that make and model car isn’t interesting to me, I’m not going to shoot it. It’s almost like these subjects made me shoot them. You can’t get any more influential than that!”

We will explore Troy’s compositional approaches in the fourth part of this article.

Troy Paiva’s work can be found here:

Many of Troy’s books are available on Amazon.