Night Photography: An Interview with Joe Reifer

A Newport Custom with No Key reaches out -- by Joe Reifer
A Newport Custom with No Key reaches out -- by Joe Reifer

[On a note related to the interview, the image above contains light painting in 2 places. Can you tell where?]

A short while ago I was contacted via email by Mark Welker, who interviewed me for a college photography class. The interview  included my ramblings about night photography, light painting, and location access. Here it is:

To start off could you give me a brief bio with some of your history with photography. When did you first start taking pictures, educational background, major influences, when did you start making money/doing shows, etc.

I got interested in street photography in college, and learned traditional black and white printing from a friend. I started as a music major in school, and ended up with an English degree. I worked in a custom black and white lab for awhile, and enjoyed shooting with crappy thrift store cameras. After college I didn’t do much shooting beyond regular snapshots, because I was focusing on playing music. In the late 90’s I started a project documenting peeling billboards in my neighborhood, inspired by my love of collage artists like Rauschenberg. Around this time I became friends with professional photographer Jay Watson, who was instrumental in reawakening my interest in photography.

A short while after I picked up the camera again, my Dad became interested in attending landscape photography field workshops and invited me along. Even though I was more interested in street photography, these workshops were a big help improving my technical skills.

Through a job I had at the time I did a 3 day editorial portrait shoot for Schwab in 2002, and started learning more about the business aspects of photography. I did some more event and portrait work, and learned to use both small flashes and studio lighting. In 2004 I attended one week workshop with lighting wizard Joe McNally that gave me a quantum leap in my understanding of how to shape light.

I’ve enjoyed exploring historical sites and abandonments since I was young. In 2004 I discovered Troy Paiva’s book Lost America, and the Nocturnes night photography group. All of these elements coalesced, and I started shooting abandoned places at night. I’ve been shooting every full moon since.

I’ve done both solo and group shows a couple of times a year since 2004. As far as influences, there are too many to list. I love looking at photography and art books for inspiration. For the last few years I've also had a day job in the photo industry that involves interacting with a wide variety of businesses and photographers who sell images online.

1. How did you first discover light painting, and why have you pursued it as a photographic style?

The combination of Troy Paiva’s book and the Nocturnes workshops were what led to my interest in light painting. I met Troy in 2005 through the Nocturnes, and we've done a lot of shooting together. Troy uses a lot of otherworldly bright colors in his light painting work -- it's a very distinctive look. I’ve worked really hard over the last five years to develop my own style of light painting that primarily uses natural fill or warm white light.

When full moon exposures for areas of medium tonality are 5-10 minutes long at f/8, you'd need an extremely long exposure to expose for the shadow areas. Being able to bring up the tonal values of the shadows with some subtle light painting is often a necessary part of making dynamic night photographs. Light painting can also add a glow to the subject that brings a surreal element into the mix. And physically walking through the image during the exposure and adding light is a really fun!

2. How do you find and get access to the locations you photograph?

Networking with other photographers, and research are necessary for finding interesting places to photograph. The research can range from online searching, print publications, or just driving around on small Interstate bypass roads out in the desert.

Assessing the difficulty, safety, and means of accessing abandoned sites is a complex question. Sometimes accessing abandoned sites is as simple as walking right in – at other times it’s more appropriate to ask permission from property owners. My primary motivation is to make images of interesting locations. I’m not doing this type of work for the thrill of going where I’m not supposed to be -- the access issues are a means to an end.

3. What sort of pre-planning goes into your photography? What special considerations do you make working on a light painting.

Scouting locations in the daytime is the best way to see all the details. I like shooting during the daylight hours to get a feel for the rhythm of a location and to start blocking out my night shots. Paying close attention to the moon schedule is important for visualizing what parts of a scene will be lit by moonlight, and what parts may need some additional lighting.

Weather is also a factor -- when the sky is clear I favor longer exposure times for star trails, typically 5-10 minutes. For fast moving clouds, shorter exposures in the 2-3 minute range work better.

4. Could you describe the process of creating a light painting from start to finish?

A good night photograph starts with a good composition. A proper exposure is easy to calculate with a digital SLR, and essentially becomes an aesthetic decision determined by how much star or cloud movement is desired. The next question becomes: "does this image need any light painting?" I often start with an exposure that has no light painting at all. Depending on the complexity of the shot, I may do 2-3 versions with light painting. The moonlight-only exposure is useful for determining how well the light painting worked, and can also be useful in post-processing.

Recently I've been experimenting again with using a remote release timer to do all 3 light painting versions of the shot with only a split second interval between takes. This allows me to stack the sky portion of all 3 shots together for longer star trails. The key to this technique is to have the shortest interval possible between takes so as to not form gaps. Here's an example of three 6 minute shots stacked together in the sky.

5. Could you share one of your more useful learning experiences, or some non-obvious tips for someone starting out with light painting.

Photographers that are new to light painting tend to overdo it -- light painting is really fun, so it's hard to know when to stop. One of the most important concepts for making interesting night photos is to not light everything. Start by using a flashlight for no more than 10% of the exposure time. Depending on the power of your light source and how close you're standing to the subject, you may only need to add light for a few seconds.

6. What do you consider your essential equipment for night photography, and why those tools over alternatives, particularly with regards to light sources.

A digital SLR, 1-2 lenses, cable release, sturdy tripod and a flash/flashlights are the basic equipment. For light painting I have two primary flashlights -- one medium power (Gerber LX 3.0), and one high power (Streamlight Stinger). These limitations have allowed me to learn how much time to light paint because I'm used to the amount of power and falloff that my lighting provides. My other favorite tool is a CTO gel (color temperature orange). A lot of my night work is shot at a color balance of around 3500K. A CTO gel takes the daylight color temperature of flash or the cool blue of an LED flashlight and helps the color blend well with the scene. My goal with light painting is to enhance the scene without overwhelming the content with effects.

7. Do you think your experience with light painting and night photography has effected any "regular" photography you do, and if so, how?

Definitely. Other than when to add light, and how much light to add, another important consideration is the lighting direction. Using an oblique angle to add form to the subject is a concept that Troy and I really emphasize in our night photography / light painting workshops. These concepts can easily be applied to portrait photography, product photography….all kinds of photography.

8. What do you want people to get out of your photography?

A window into a world that looks like a lot like ours, but may be just a bit more mysterious and surreal. I hope the mix of documentary and other-wordly elements of the night blend together to give the viewer a sense of wonder, a different way of looking at the world.

9. What's been one of your favorite or most memorable experiences while out working on one of your light paintings?

There are so many stories….but what it really boils down to is just enjoying the meditative feeling that's possible when waiting for a long exposure to accumulate. There's a lot of time to really absorb the atmosphere of a location. This feeling can be adrenaline charged, lonely, exciting, beautiful, scary, and peaceful, all at the same time.

10. What question(s) should I be asking, but haven't?

Thanks for asking me to participate in the interview! I just wanted to say that I feel really lucky to be part of the strong night photography community in the Bay Area. I've really enjoyed the camaraderie of shooting with other photographers who are interested in the same types of locations. Night photography attracts a strange and interesting breed of photographer, and I'm happy to call many of these folks friends.