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

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 approach and philosophy of composition.

While photography is the capturing of light, it’s how we present it that still matters. Sometimes, night photographers might forget this. We as night photographers might be overwhelmed with the intense beauty of the landscape or Milky Way around us and not give enough consideration on how to incorporate them effectively into a composition.

Troy’s position is also firm on this approach. “Composition is what photography is all about, period, full stop. It’s easy to fall into the trap that being a night shot makes it intrinsically ‘cool,’ while adding lighting means even more wow factor for newbies and laypeople. But because of my background in the arts I’ve always understood that no amount of this night photography and light painting ‘wow factor’ overcomes an awkward or lazy composition.”

Down the Tubes — Abandoned mining complex in the shadow of the High Sierra. Placement of the center tube between the power/telephone poles without touching them wasn’t an accident. Four 6-minute exposures stacked for 24-minute star trails with purple, red and yellow from the ProtoMachines flashlight.

Working with intention: Compositional approaches

“Toward the end of my workshop teaching days I found a basic composition lecture and demo was invaluable for most of the attendees. I would harp on the classic ‘rules’ like the Red Rule, the Rule of Odds and Rule of Thirds (but really the Golden Mean and all its permutations), and the importance of variation in symmetry, contrast and texture. I’d give them the basics of color theory too.”

“Then I’d get esoteric on them, talking about bad tangents, including depth when considering the thirds rule, the symbolism of color, etc. I’d tell them to learn and adhere to all these concepts and rules dogmatically, fanatically, until they become second nature … and then forget them and break those damn rules … but understand why you’re breaking them for that situation. Happy accidents are one thing, but anyone that wants to be more than an amateur needs to learn how to work with intention. You need to say ‘I meant to do that’ more often than you say ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’”

Thinking of a subject as a mass of shapes, textures and colors

Troy mentioned approaching photographic subjects more abstractly. I believe this is a profound way of strengthening composition and letting imagination flow. It’s similar conceptually to how some photographers might view their compositions upside down to try to rid themselves of preconceived notions of what the object or image is. We view the structure of the photograph, making the image less familiar.

Consequently, Troy has taught this approach in his workshops: “I stressed seeing the subject not as a 1958 DeSoto, but as an abstract mass of shapes, textures and colors. If you’re just taking a car-spotter shoulder-high, three-quarter front view of that DeSoto, it’s booo-ring. But if you can re-imagine it as a derelict spacecraft that crash landed on another world, or a freaky face attached to a hulking monster looming from the shadows and shoot it like that, it will change your work.”

Homeric — Junkyard 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood—or a shocked Homer Simpson with a Mohawk—melting into the grass. Why can’t it be both? Taken during a full moon with a white and green-set ProtoMachines flashlight.

Stuck in the mud

There is a children’s game called stuck in the mud. When tagged, players would have to freeze and stand in one place as if, well, stuck in the mud.

An approach to composition takes its cue from this game. As adults in particular, we often ignore many subtleties and textures and details of what is going on around us. For photographers, a great exercise is to slow down and take the extra time to observe the environment around us. Shapes, colors, textures, lines, details, shadows, lights. These emerge after a while if we stay in one place to investigate.

Orcabird — Killer whale-colored 1971 Thunderbird breaches before the full moon. Taken during a full moon with a white, blue and green-set ProtoMachines flashlight.

Troy describes introducing a similar exercise to his workshop participants.

“A favorite assignment I’d give people looking for a challenge is to select one car in the junkyard during the daylight scouting session and shoot at least fifty different views of that car in 20 minutes with one lens. Different angles, different details, different crops. To newbies it probably sounds like obnoxious ‘wax on, wax off’ nonsense, but exercises like this will train your eye to see subjects in ways that never would have occurred to you.”

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. Taken during a full moon with red-set ProtoMachines flashlight.


I asked if Troy’s perception of his own photography had changed over the years. “In 1990, the awareness that any of this was worth even taking pictures of, let alone saving, was minimal at best. Now so many of those early subjects have been lost and mythologized and it gives these ‘deathbed’ portraits more gravitas. I’ve changed too. When I started I ‘got it’ on the most basic level, but it’s been interesting to watch the meaning of my old pictures evolve to become a bridge to these places’ pasts.”

Troy Paiva’s work can be found here:

Many of Troy’s books are available on Amazon.