Southern-based night photographer Mike Cooper has covered broad expanses of the Midwest and Southern United States, offering fantastic glimpses of abandoned places lit by the moon, stars and handheld light.
Mike illuminates these mysterious, forgotten locations with often colorful lighting, creating the image in-camera. The results are otherworldly. He has two upcoming books that will showcase these worlds.
Light painting is a key component of the night photos Mike creates, illuminating the subject in creative ways. “I feel like I’m a participant in the making of the image, not just pushing the button and having an image appear,” says Mike. “When you light a subject in a certain way, you have the opportunity to give it a different feel or highlight something that might not otherwise be noticed.
“You can set your camera up in the exact same spot as someone else, aimed in the exact same direction, and end up with two completely different photographs. It is also very relaxing to stand behind the camera while waiting for the exposure to finish and enjoy the quiet of the night surrounded by stars and maybe a distant coyote.”
Illuminating the night
Mike approaches interiors and exteriors differently. “When I am lighting interiors of buildings I tend to try to light them evenly instead of having one part of the room well lit with the light tapering off into a more shadowy area on the other side of the room/building. When I do exterior shots, I usually focus most of my lighting on one area and allow the light to fade away on the sides to allow for more shadows.”
A bold, vivid palette of colors
Mike elaborated on how he lights the inside of structures. “I really like to use a lot of light and bright colors on my interior shots so that they really pop from the rest of the scene. Being able to add some color and use an unexpected shade in order can make someone see a subject differently.”
Embracing the lime
Like many of us night photographers who illuminate our subjects, Mike has his favorite colors. “I almost always find myself defaulting toward green or lime and I need to really push myself toward using other colors. I then try to make color choices based on what colors I haven’t used recently, unless, of course, the subject in front of me is begging for a shade of green! Sometimes I will take a picture using one color and then try it again with green … because why not?”
Mike elaborated further about his approach to lighting interior and exterior settings differently. ”When the front of a subject needs some light to fill in some of the shadows, I tend to use either a natural white or gold. The white tends to look similar to the color given off by the moon and gold will tend to give a little color to the shadowed area while not being too overpowering.”
Gold also imparts warmth. Many night photographers choose warm lights for this very purpose.
Mike was inspired by night photographer Troy Paiva’s vividly lit photos, noticing that their more exotic appearance than his day photos of the same locations. “My biggest and earliest influence would definitely be Troy Paiva, followed by Mark O’Neill.”
“I had also found some photographs that Mark had taken in Europe that were incredible. Even though I was just a beginner with a lot to learn, he was very supportive of my efforts to learn and was quite approachable when I had questions. He even invited me to join him on a trip to Bulgaria to photograph Communist-era ruins in the former Soviet bloc country.”
Mike has a favorite subject for his photos: Outhouses. His reason is particularly touching.
“I have been fascinated with outhouses since I was a little kid and my grandfather used his WPA outhouse every morning even though the house had a modern bathroom. There are so few of them still around that if I find one, I can’t help but want to photograph it as some sort of connection to my grandpa.”
Mike excels at finding fascinating locations hiding in Texas, Louisiana and Kansas. He begins with finding subjects that have an interesting history, looking for a unique perspective from these places.
Mike explains, “I belong to a number of Facebook and other social media groups for abandoned sites. I regularly search photos posted in these groups to identify potentially interesting locations and then I use Google maps to determine if the buildings are still standing and, if so, how they can be accessed.”
Accessibility to locations
Accessibility is always a challenge among night photographers, especially in the dark. “Some locations are difficult to access because they require a long hike to reach the site. It can get more challenging on especially remote areas if you have to identify a new route when you encounter unexpected road closures or, worse yet, places where the road that you had found on Google maps is now simply gone.”
Mike will also drive long hours to the locations he finds.
Bucket list destinations with radiation, alligators and Soviet monuments
“The top position on my night photography bucket list is Chernobyl, although I don’t think my wife would ever agree.”
Given that one cannot touch anything or put anything down there, Mike’s wife is probably right. Unfortunately.
“The next location — one that doesn’t require a Geiger counter for safety purposes — would be the former Six Flags Jazzland in New Orleans.” Mike spoke of rampant vandalism, also noting, “It is reported to have a high alligator population, therefore lessening my interest somewhat.”
Mike also mentioned the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria. “There are some really interesting Communist-era statues and buildings I would love to shoot.”
He also wants to photograph the Northern Lights.
Handy phone apps
Night photographers like to determine where the moon and stars will be at specific hours to aid in their composition and lighting. Smartphones have many apps that are helpful.
“The app I use the most in night photography is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. I use it to determine the rising and setting times of the moon as well as where the moon will be located in relation to my target. I also recently got PhotoPills but I have not yet had a chance to become very familiar with it.”
Strangeness in the night
Every night photographer has unusual experiences. It’s part of the experience.
Mike notes, “The weirdest place I have photographed is a prison that closed in 1995 after being in use for more than 100 years. Imagine yourself walking around in the dark, with bats flying around your head, in an old, cold, stone Gothic-style building. As you try to identity the odd sounds you are hearing, you remember that many people have died here, including both murderers and murder victims.”
Stay tuned for part two of my interview with Mike Cooper.