Timothy Little makes a living specializing in night photography and light painting. I sat down with him and talked with him about how he explores a world lit by moonlight, stars and street lamps, by his home in Cape Cod, MA and in the southwestern United States.
Tim is able to illuminate subjects with handheld lights to create riveting, often colorful images while remaining as organic, creating the image in-camera.
Moods of the moon cycle
“I really enjoy sampling all of the different moods the moon cycle can create, the holiday lights of the season or how a lighthouse paints the nearby landscape,” said Tim. “When I first started, everything was ‘just at night.’ But now I think night photography is much like a language with different dialects. A moonlit junkyard and a moonlit shoreline have too very different vibes.”
The magic of lighthouses
Lighthouses evoke potent experiences for Tim, whether the smell of the salt air or the distant ringing of buoy bells.
“There were [no lighthouses] where I lived in the Berkshires, so they came with a lot of magic and mystery. I don’t think I ever grew out of that. There’s something romantic and artistic about a classic New England lighthouse. You just can’t get a bad shot and if you can put a moonlit or starry sky behind it … that’s a winning combination.”
When buildings are blank canvases for color
“Any place or subject that is abandoned makes me want to throw interesting colors at it. White or gray building exteriors or interiors are like a blank canvas, while silver, shiny or dark surfaces can be challenging.”
Tim also often approaches lighting differently depending on the subject. “When I am out west, I light up buildings and cars and get crazy with the colors. But when in New England, I am a bit more conservative and may use warm whites to help accent a lighthouse tower or foreground.”
Intrigued, I asked how he determines what colors to choose for compositions.
“Red always makes a nice pop on a moonlit night when you contrast it to that deep blue sky. I think green works well in that way too.”
Experimenting with colors
Tim began straying from primary colors in 2015, experimenting with teal, orange, violet and pink.
“It really changes the mood of a subject. Changing the colors can quickly change the feel of the composition even if you don’t move your tripod or change your camera’s settings. It’s very impactful.”
One of his experiments yielded particularly rewarding results.
“I once shot an old gas station using teal and green. I liked it so much that I now have a series in which I light various gas stations in that combination. Photographers I shoot with know that I have a specific color that I refer to as ‘gas station teal.’”
Making a living at night photography
Not many make their living as a night photographer. During the pandemic crisis, Tim’s advice is more salient than ever.
“The key for anyone trying this is to make sure you have a multi-pronged approach because no one thing will always have momentum. Selling art, teaching workshops and leading one-on-one guided night tours has been a successful trifecta for me. Each appeals to a different type of client but they all share the connection in the form of their interest in night photography.”
Tim’s background as an executive in the finance industry informs some of his approaches. “Much of my people management, sales and training skills transfer well into what I do now.”
Why should we take a workshop?
“Photography is a very hands-on experience and many people learn by immersion. There are only so many cooking videos you can watch before you need to start warming your own oven. The ‘aha’ moments don’t necessarily happen sitting in front of a computer.”
Seeing the results just after trying out a technique is invaluable. “And if you’re with an instructor that’s excited about helping you and celebrating your own successes in the moment, your experience and learning goes to the next level.”
He also points out that having other workshop participants from various backgrounds and artistic styles can create a richer experience as well.
Tim regards night photography as a meditative retreat from a busy, sunlit experience. “Something about being outside at night, the world feeling quiet and devoid of people feels very Zen to me.” He also points to the benefits of being able to have a fresh approach in a heavily photographed tourist area.
To augment his experience, Tim often listens to Hearts of Space to create his perfect soundtrack for night photography. “Synths, the African kora, and handpans all make great music for artistic adventures under a starry sky.”
Something that sets Tim’s work apart is his strong and varied use of foreground subjects.
“Obviously a great sky is important but you really have to have a no less impressive subject. If I see that a location has not been shot at night before I will do it. Also, if the location subject is temporary or has its days numbered — those become priorities.”
Finding abandoned locations
But just how does he find these locations? Turns out … lots of research — including connecting with people who have already photographed there — and surveying maps. Many of the areas are abandoned and in a state of flux.
“It’s a major bummer to drive all that way and find nothing but a foundation or a giant new fence,” Tim says. “We want to get the most out of our time there so we may spend several weeks mapping out a route that takes us to two or three places each night, putting us within an hour or two of a hotel and within four or five hours’ drive of the next night’s location.”
Safety and communication
“Shooting with other people is always a good idea in case something unexpected happens like an accident or injury. A lot of locations are outside of cell service and even just staying in touch with photographers within the same area can be a challenge. I’ve been using two-way business walkie talkies on our shoots for everything from ensuring what I am doing isn’t impacting another photographer to warning each other about potential hazards.”
And remaining mobile is important. “My motto is to travel simple, deploy quickly and don’t over-engineer what should be an enjoyable experience.”
Strangeness in the night
Every night photographer has unusual stories to tell. Tim talks about one at the “Kill Bill Church” in Antelope Valley.
“We spent maybe an hour there overnight and I think we spooked the neighbors because they kept coming out and pointing lights in our direction. A few weeks later, we found out that law enforcement had found a body very close to where we were and it had been there for quite sometime. A bit creepy to think that it was there while we were photographing.”
Stay tuned for part two of my interview with Timothy Little.