Ron Pinkerton is a gifted night photographer who incorporates his love of the desert and its rich history in his images. These can be seen in his monograph “The Last Stand” or his museum photography exhibition entitled “Made in the Mojave.”
An early love for the desert
“When I was a kid, my parents were rock hounds,” Ron said. “We spent a lot of our weekends camping and looking for different minerals. We lived in the San Fernando Valley, which meant that the Mojave Desert was nearby. The Mojave is full of abandoned mines and a rich variety of exposed mineral specimens, so it was a favored destination for us.
“I learned a love for highway culture on those trips too. The towns we passed through, and the gas stations and cafes we stopped at were all part of the adventure. I scoured the coin returns of pay phones and soda machines for loose change, and asked for the free stickers and road maps that used to be available at every gas station. Call it luck or call it kismet, I fell in love with the desert at an early age, and it stuck (though I have since given up scouring coin returns for loose change).”
Influences from the desert to science fiction
These desert adventures for the past 50 years have also given Ron a keen sense of history. During his visits with his family, Ron received a Kodak Instamatic camera for his 10th birthday, sparking a lifelong interest in photography. This was further informed by viewing painting, graphic arts and Medieval illuminations. However, for his night photography, it was more the “weird factor,” stemming from “lowbrow” art, science fiction and surrealism.
As with many, Ron also has a love of 1950s automobiles and abandoned road culture. He has created light painted images of hundreds of these subjects.
Learning night photography through workshops
Ron has taken various photography workshops, from learning light painting during night photography to storm chasing. I asked him about what attracts him to this hands-on approach as opposed to books or videos. “In my day job, I work as a curriculum developer, so I think a lot about how people learn,” he said.
Ron notes that it is largely personal preference, adding, “For me personally, the workshop experience is the only way I could have gotten launched into night photography. I like the immediacy of the give and take with a good instructor. I like the critique/feedback sessions. And I like the camaraderie of shooting with like-minded individuals. I took my first workshop with Troy Paiva and Joe Reifer back in 2012.”
Ron continued taking workshops.
“I had the basics down, but a good critique is always helpful for further growth. I also made friends and found future shooting partners in those days. Books and videos are absolutely valid ways to learn or expand your techniques, but for me, it was all about the immediacy of shooting in a workshop environment.”
Creatively painting with light
Light painting was one of the techniques Ron learned about in the night photography workshops. This is a technique used by many night photographers to illuminate foreground subjects while the camera shutter is open during a long exposure.
More opportunity for creativity
Ron notes, “I find lots more opportunity for creativity because I’m in control of the light and the colors in a way that just can’t happen with daylight photography. I suppose certain kinds of studio photography give you some latitude in those areas, but I find the studio asks for more technical discipline than I’m prepared to give.”
Ron notes that night photography is comparatively looser.
“You and any shooting partner are probably in a remote location (with or without permission). After some basic technical rules, you are free to make it up as you go along. Composition, lighting and subject choices flow with a kind of spontaneity. I find that I am very much in the moment when I shoot at night.”
The weird factor
Certainly, light painting can create strange, surreal images, frequently achieved through bold colors.
“First, I think the bold colors add to the ‘weird factor,’ and I have a hard time seeing light painting as not striving for a little weirdness. Secondly, we all respond to colors in emotional ways. The bold colors can be used with the intention of evoking a particular response on the part of the viewer.”
Choosing which colors to light paint
Ron uses a ProtoMachines light painting device capable of producing infinite colors. Ron discussed how he goes about choosing which colors to use in his light painted images.
“Sometimes the subject just screams it. You look at the paint job on the car, and you know that orange is the only color that makes sense.”
Other times, however, Ron might photograph the subject several times using different colors.
“Some nights I try to move through the spectrum before the night’s over. And some nights, it seems like every shot calls for red. Or blue. Or whatever. Clearly something is happening in my emotional subconscious when I keep harping on a color, but I’ve never tried to analyze it. I just go with it. If it’s a ‘red night,’ that’s what I do. I’m not sure that always serves me best aesthetically, but it feels right when I’m shooting.”
Ron also notes, “Using multiple colors in a scene usually takes me from the emotional approach to a more cerebral one. A little knowledge of the color wheel and complementary colors will serve you well in making color choices, and will help you make more subtle choices that can really set your pictures apart.”
Methods of illuminating subjects
“When I started out, I relied on a selection of flashlights, an off-camera strobe and a fistful of colored theater gels. Several years ago, I bought a Protomachines LED flashlight. It allows me to dial in any color at any intensity. Since I started using it, I have never looked back.”
The rest of his lighting comes from the nearly full moon. “Color me claustrophobic, but I don’t enjoy shooting inside abandoned buildings, or on moonless nights. For me, the moonlight is a key component of my pictures. Every January I mark the full moon cycles on my calendar for the coming year, and those days become reserved for photography.”
Incorporating star trails into the composition
Another component of composing photos for night photography is incorporating star trails, showing the movement of the stars created by the rotation of the earth over several minutes or more. Depending on which way the camera is faced, star trails can look quite different.
“I give thought to controlling the shape of star trails by adjusting the camera position. For me, that generally means looking for a north-facing composition to build circular trails.”
Stay tuned for part two of this interview with Ron Pinkerton.