Interview with Spencer Thompson: On Building a Creative Career & Improving Your Long Exposure Night Photography
Want to improve your long exposure night photography?
Lucky for you, our friend Spencer shares his top 5 tips to help you step up your skills. We met Spencer at the RAW Vancouver event in January, where we were immediately drawn to his travel and night photography shots.
Spencer is a graduate student at the Centre for Digital Media, specialising in a Masters of Digital Media. As a recent graduate from the Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria, Spencer hopes to translate his knack for storytelling into the tech industry.
In his spare time, he feeds his photography passion — Stay tuned to the end of this post for Spencer’s top tips on capturing stellar night shots and his journey on his creative career.
What’s your biggest take away from participating in RAW Vancouver?
That my work is actually appreciated beyond my friends and family. You can get some kind of recognition online but when you have strangers coming up to you personally telling you how drawn they are to your photo, it really gives you confidence and validation that your work has an impact.
If I were to go back in time, I would work on my overall presentation to make it more professional (adding frames, appropriate price tags, relevant business cards).
How did you get into photography?
Honestly, I stumbled into it.
During my undergrad, I specialised in screenwriting within the Creative Writing program and was fascinated with writing environments. I loved how natural elements could set up the tone for a scene. I really only picked up the camera originally to help further my writing career.
Originally I was drawn to dark and eerie environments (at the time I was completely obsessed with The Walking Dead). I’d go and shoot algae and rust collecting on old cars or abandon things (really sounds weird now that I type it out).
This led into my fascination for long exposure photography. I was completely blown away how this technique could change your perspective on how you saw things.
From then on, I’d go shoot late at night to capture long exposures of vehicles, experimenting over highways, long windy roads, and different vantage points. Photography soon became my safe space where the only person judging me was myself, almost therapeutic in a sense.
I kept pushing myself to become better and better. It was really the first time where I have felt such a strong passion for something. I was never satisfied with my shots and still am not because I know there is always a way to take it one step further.
Who are some artists and makers who inspire you at the moment?
I am always blown away with what Calob Castellon creates. Always blending video games with reality—usually Mario influenced, but it looks so real. Incredible work.
Another photographer/filmmaker I really enjoy is @aero.h. He creates the most stunning environments. I always feel some sort of connection with his work. Very moody and minimalistic. His style is one of the reasons why I picked up a camera in the first place.
How do you get over creative blocks?
Hmm that is a tough one. At the moment I haven’t been posting very much because I find myself in a bit of a creative slump.
Most of my focus is in school but I also find it challenging to find different perspectives in Vancouver when there are so many other great Vancouver based photographers out there. It is pushing me to expand from my usual techniques and to use new ones to create innovative content.
I usually look at behance.com for inspiration whether it’s illustration or photography related. I don’t want to say “walks on the beach” haha but I do find myself going to the water to clear my head and to draw inspiration.
What is your professional background (jobs, schooling etc)?
I have a BA from the University in Victoria, majoring in Creative Writing (screenwriting specialisation) and minoring in Business.
I’m currently completing a Masters of Digital Media at the Centre for Digital Media through UBC, SFU, Emily Carr and BCIT.
What’s the oddest job you’ve had and what did you learn from it?
I worked as a fishing guide at Duncanby Lodge in Rivers Inlet, B.C., Canada for the past three summers. Before that, I worked as a dockhand for four summers at Murphy’s Sportfishing in Kyuquot, B.C., Canada.
I owe a lot to the lodge owners that hired me because I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those experiences. I would take two to three people per day on a 28 foot Grady White fishing vessel for a minimum of twelve hours a day.
You are constantly problem-solving whether it’s providing good customer service, addressing difficult customers, fixing boat issues on the go, thinking about where to go to find the fish in accordance with the tides and weather, etc.
Every day for three straight months you are constantly put in situations where you have to react and provide the best possible solution, it was an invaluable experience with amazing perks.
Can you tell us about your Digital Media Master’s program?
The Centre for Digital Media emphasises group work and finding solutions for certain technological problems as a team.
The students enrolled in the program come from a variety of backgrounds (cultural and professional) that replicates the dynamic within most tech companies nowadays. Students like myself value the experience to communicate and learn as a group and take advantage of the many different perspectives there are to create innovative solutions.
Why Digital Media? And what do you hope to get out of your program?
I chose this program as a way to translate my storytelling skills into the tech industry without diving into the movie industry.
After my undergrad, my passion didn’t align that with the movie industry/screenwriting but my passion still lied with storytelling. I knew that within the tech industry there was a lot of opportunity for this but I didn’t know how to take that next step to find my niche within the industry until I was introduced to the Centre for Digital Media.
I hope to learn how to work with many different interdisciplinaries within the technology industry and develop my design and leadership skills to ultimately pave my way into either Project Management and/or User Experience Design (still figuring that out).
What is your favourite part of living in Vancouver?
Being by the water has always been an outlet for me so I would have to say that. Everything is so accessible whether it’s the mountains or the ocean.
What is your next big project?
I want to combine long exposure photography with hyper-lapse videography — Taking the lion's gate bridge and making those light trails move while the camera moves across the bridge.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Trial and error. Bottom line.
If you find yourself enjoying photography but are discouraged by what you can create just keep on pushing and trying new things no matter how absurd it may seem.
I was shooting the most random stuff when I started out and it was absolute trash, but I kept wanting to get better and experiment with the many different variables that are required for good photography.
I’d also say good photo a lot of the time requires being in the right place at the right time. If you are trying to capture that fantastic sunset shot or a massive rolling fog bank en-route to Vancouver it all comes down to the right time, right place.
Look at the weather beforehand, check when the sun is going to set for that day and give yourself enough time to be there and experiment so that you are not just hoping things will turn out okay.
Spencer’s top 5 tips for night photography:
1. Learn to use the manual settings on your camera.
To do long exposure photography, it is all about finding the right balance between your shutter speed and aperture.
2. Experiment with long and open shutter speeds.
On most cameras, you can have your shot open for a maximum of 30 seconds which can be enough for photos that have lots of light movement in it (ex: cars going along the highway at night). BUT, if you want to shoot the stars in the sky you are going to need one of these to allow you to hold the shot open for as long as you want.
3. Right time right place.
Before you go and shoot at night make sure the weather is cooperating and that if there are actually stars in the sky and that the clouds aren't intruding your vision. If you are looking for the red in the sky after a glorious sunset, time it accordingly and put yourself in a situation to succeed!!
4. Visualise the shot beforehand and experiment.
Even if it's just thinking about how the shot will look in your head, it will go a long way into how the actual product will turn out. If it doesn't turn out the way you thought it would (happens all the time for me) then try a new vantage point or experiment with your shutter speed!
5. Don't doubt your night shots.
You may look at your photo on your camera screen after a long exposure and think "wow this looks like hot trash." DON'T!!! Half the process with night photography is editing.
Your shots still may look extremely dark, but just wait until you get home to import them into Lightroom until you make a final verdict. Simply boost the exposure slightly to see the full potential of a long exposure shot!
Want to join an online community to ask advice, get support, and collaborate with filled with amazing creatives like Spencer? Forget the FOMO, join our Kitty Gang Facebook group!