This is part two of a four-part article with pioneering night photographer Troy Paiva of Lost America. To see part one, click here.

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.

Beginning with film

As mentioned in the first part of Troy’s history, he began his experiments with night photography and light painting in 1989. “My work spans the film-to-digital transition, so my equipment and techniques evolved with the technology. It has changed a lot.”

Shooting junk with junk

“That old film work was unbelievably rudimentary by today’s standards. And I pushed it that way even more, shooting with crappy old gear, on outdated film. I had a very tight budget when I started, so I shot with the cheapest gear I could find. It was all bought at flea markets and garage sales. $2 flashes, $20 lenses. Most of my pictures made between 1990 and 1998 were done on a sixties swap meet Canon FX body that cost forty bucks. I adopted a ‘shooting junk with junk’ ethos and it infused all my film-era images.”

Salton City Trailer — Trailer park neighborhood along the Salton Sea, flooded in the late 1970s, then abandoned. I shot this fifteen years later, in 1992. Exposure details now lost to time, but it looks like tungsten film for 5+ minutes. Lit by the full moon and green and red-gelled strobe. Red-gelled flashlight on the fridge too.

Battery considerations with long exposure photography

Night photographers create photos where the shutter is open for several minutes or more. Battery drain is a major consideration.

“The other SLRs I experimented with at the time (the A1 and AE-1) drained their hard-to-find and expensive lithium battery when the lens was locked open — one shot and you’re done. So I gravitated to the simplest meter-less, battery-less camera: That Canon FX mentioned above. Eventually I moved to Canon T90s that didn’t drain the batteries when locked open and ran on easily available AA batteries. Great camera, tough yet sophisticated. Now I could even meter in the dark, a real luxury at the time. As the film era wound down, I ended up finishing off several high-mileage T90s. Certainly the nicest film camera for night shooting I’ve ever used.”

Favorite lenses of the film era

“My work was always shot with wide angles, the more extreme, the better. My favorite lens of the film era was a Vivitar 19mm super wide. I got it really cheap and it turned out to be the one with Zeiss glass. It was really sharp and was my main lens for over 10 years. I sold it to an old guy in a repair shop in the early 2000s for more than I paid for it. It was pretty used up by then, all wiggly in your hands, like a bag of marbles. I also killed a long succession of off-brand wide primes back then. This kind of photography tends to be hard on the equipment.”

Lenses of the digital era

“When I switched to digital I went with the widest zoom I could find that didn’t cost more than my car, mainly out of a concern for not wanting to change lenses in the field and dust up the sensor. I quickly grew to love the easy flexibility of the zoom and I haven’t used a prime lens since. Well, except the fisheye, which became something of an obsession for a while.”

Ink Mist Vortex — Fisheyed with one of four 4-foot fans in the rooftop air-filtration system of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper printing plant. Closed and abandoned in 2009, it was torn down shortly after this shoot. Lit with white, green and red-set ProtoMachines flashlight.
Imperial Floaters — 1963 Chrysler Imperial, bending under the fisheye lens in a Fresno, California Junkyard. Lit with deep shade, with white, blue and red-set ProtoMachines flashlight.

Rock solid equipment

“My best, most reliable piece of equipment through the years was my tripod. Starting out on one of those spindly-legged amateur tripods with the hand crank, I quickly realized I needed something more rugged. I got my hands on a mid-level Bogen (now Manfrotto) and used it for 18 years. I still use that same head, an old fashioned 2-handle pan-tilt model, now mounted on a thick-legged, aluminum-rail slick. It’s very heavy for a reason. While teaching workshops, I’ve seen cameras shimmy uncontrollably, or even fall over and fly away in the wind — always caused by an insufficient tripod. Where I shoot, it’s the one piece of equipment that needs to be super strong and stable.”

Final Boarding — Boeing 737 undergoing the rendering process at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, California. Tripod at full extension and teetering on a loose pile of shredded airliner. Lit by a full moon and red ProtoMachines flashlight.

A sea change with digital

“In 2005 I saw my first digital night shot, a time exposure of a pier from Andy Frazer. Like everyone else, I was blown away by how creamy digital looked compared to film. I bought a Canon 20D and ran off to some favorite places in Nevada to see what I could do with it.

“Using my film-era knowledge about moon exposures and hand-lighting in combination with the ability to now see the shot right there on the back of the camera in the field, it changed everything. Now that I could adjust and reshoot on the fly, I began shooting like crazy. My productivity skyrocketed. Instead of throwing out 3/4 of the setups I shot blindly on film, I could work patiently and make every set up exactly how I want it. It more than outweighed the loss of the ‘shooting with junk’ mentality.

“Digital was the biggest evolution in the history of photography on every level — including the way it opened the night photography and light painting field up to anyone with the patience to experiment. Beginning in 2005, I’ve evolved through Canon 20D, 60D and 6DMk II bodies.”

Troy’s evolution in post-processing

Troy’s post-processing has also evolved quite a bit over the years.

“I was already an experienced Photoshop driver when I started to digitize my film work in the late 90s using a Nikon Coolscan VI ED slide scanner. Even still, I worked on those images very little. Spotting, dodge and burn, etc. was about it. The kind of basics you used to do in the old ‘wet’ darkroom, but digitally. Even digitized, that early film work is quite pure and untouched.”

Becoming freer with post-processing

“Once I switched to digicams in the mid-‘00s my post-processing methodology became freer. I was more willing to combine two halves of images from the same tripod setup to make one good image.

“I do star trail stacks and keystone corrections, and a lot of selective contrast adjustments. My photography is still closer to “as shot” than not and I’m a firm believer in maintaining the original image. If you’re swapping out skies and erasing or adding whole elements that weren’t really there, it’s not photography to me anymore.”

Planet Claire — 45 minutes worth of stacked 2-ish-minute exposures of one of the Mojave B-52s. Great consideration was taken in the placement and relationship of the two cut ends. Lit by a full moon and red-set ProtoMachines flashlight.

Current Post-processing workflow

“These days I use Adobe Camera RAW for the initial mixdown and Photoshop for the heavy lifting. ACR gets more PS-like features in every update, but I’ve used PS since v4, and it’s still the software of choice for working pros after all these years for a reason. I don’t use Lightroom at all. That may surprise a lot of people. LR’s strength is in organization, but for a photographer with 30 years of work in storage, I really don’t have THAT much work. Less than 5,000 finished images, anyway. I’ve never found a use for Lightroom.”

We will explore Troy’s lighting aesthetics and influences in the third part of this article.

Troy Paiva’s work can be found here:

Many of Troy’s books are available on Amazon.