Troy Paiva’s Lost America, Discovered Niche


Photography: Troy Paiva

It’s clear that the low cost of digital cameras and the marketing power of the Internet have created new opportunities for photography enthusiasts. Not only can almost anyone now use professional-grade equipment to create sellable images, they can also make those images available to buyers through stock sites, Flickr streams, Blurb books and a whole bunch of other avenues too.

But that creates a problem. With so many people shooting and selling, the supply is huge, the competition is intense and it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd.

One solution is to pick a niche. We’ve already seen that niche marketing can be a useful way to sell images through your website or even your own personal stock site. But it can also be a way to sell photography books and create a name for yourself in one chosen area.

That’s the route taken by Troy Paiva, author of Lost America, a collection of photographs of America’s abandoned spaces. Originally published by Motorbooks in 2003, the second edition of Troy’s book has already sold out and used copies now change hands for as much as $100 each.

Like many of today’s photographers though, Troy’s professional background isn’t in photography. When he started shooting film in 1989 (he only moved to digital photography in 2005), Troy was working as a graphic designer and illustrator.

“I was in a heavily art-directed job for Galoob Toys,” he told us. “I was desperate to find a new artistic outlet where I could do what I wanted without anyone telling me to ‘Make that blue, not red!’”

When Troy’s brother, a photography student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, told him about a night photography class he was taking, Troy was hooked.

“I saw that this technique was perfect to capture the atmosphere of the abandoned places I was already exploring…

Night photography is special because you are capturing a chunk of time that is measurable in human terms. Minutes-long exposures allow the stars to spin in the sky, and trees and clouds to blur in the wind. People moving through the frame never appear, while planes and cars leave trails of light. Night photography allows you to feel the weight of time in these timeless locations… I hit the ground running and never looked back.”

Shoot with Hand-Held Lights and a Full Moon
Many of the images that Troy has taken using the techniques he learned in the class can be seen at his website,, where he also explains how he creates his photos. Shot under a full moon in the ghost towns, aircraft boneyards and backroads of the western United States, Troy’s images use long exposures and gelled lighting to create lurid, atmospheric and genuinely unique images.

He describes his technique as low-tech. Hand-held lighting lets Troy travel with minimal equipment and nothing is synchronized to the camera.

“I just pop a few flashes or wash the scene with a flashlight. It’s a very unsophisticated and seat-of-the-pants thing.”

And clearly very effective too. But perhaps one of the most important reasons it’s so effective is that Troy clearly knows his subject. He has been exploring the desert since his mid-teens, knows where to find good locations (although he now has lots of help from other urban explorers) and understands how to shoot at night safely and legally. (On his website, Troy points out that he always tries to get written permission from the property owner and notes the risks of falling through the rotting floorboards of an old building. “There’s a lot of ways to get hurt in abandoned places at night,” he warned.)

You’ve Gotta Love Those Ruins

Photography: Troy Paiva

But for Troy, Lost America is also a very personal project, and he seems genuinely moved by the ruins and rust heaps that he finds. Although he says that his work began as an attempt to chronicle the fading American roadside.

“the scope has grown into encompassing all places and objects abandoned, derelict and American. Like most urban exploration photography, it’s about history, but unlike most UE photography, it’s also about capturing and enhancing the atmosphere of these places as they are now.”

That’s especially true of the images of aircraft boneyards, whose epic scale Troy describes as “overwhelming.”

It’s that love of the subject that’s really key to successfully marking out your niche. It means that although he’s been shooting the same subject for almost 20 years, Troy clearly isn’t bored with it, and that pleasure comes through in the dedication he puts into the images too.

You might not need to creep around abandoned buildings in the middle of the night to shoot sellable niched photos, but you do have to love what you’re doing.

Take a look at the Lost America photographs in Troy’s Flickr stream and keep an eye out for his new book “Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration” to be published this year.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Nate Moller Said:

    This is a great article. I am new to photography but my partners have been taking niche photography pictures for some time. We focus on cheer, dance and action photography.

    I'd love to put together a "Best of Highlight Sports Photography" book and market it to our current clients, along with the entire industry.

    I look forward to following this blog more. Great information.

  2. La Roach Said:

    Hi - I've just started a series on my blog on selling to your niche market. It will be an 8-part series explaining how to identify, find and sell to a niche. Stop by to read more. BTW - I make my living from marketing and have applied the same core concepts I use in my work to my hobby - microstock photography.

  3. Mike Panic Said:

    Several years ago a friend of mine fell in love with Troy's work and started to do similar stuff, with his own twist. Worth checking out,

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