Photography & Filming

Night photography and ADHD: A personal story of triumph

I have ADHD. It’s rather pronounced. However, night photography has helped me immensely with its symptoms. This is my story.

I typically don’t share too many personal aspects of my life in my Photofocus articles. Most of the time, I am trying to share the sheer joy I have for photography, especially night photography. But much of this joy is because of the positive impact it’s had on my ADHD symptoms.

What’s ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. It also affects 2.5% of all adults, according to the American Psychiatric Association. And possibly higher, according to National Institutes of Health.

I’m one of those adults.

I am generally a very happy person. But inside, I wage war with a demon daily.

Symptoms of ADHD

Symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Emotional disregulation is often common. For instance, I can grow extremely agitated or frustrated when I am confronted with an impasse, lose items or have computer problems. I have destroyed two computer keyboards by smashing my fist into them. Instant e-waste.

Frustration and beyond

I once had an important job interview. That morning, my alarm clock decided not to work. I woke up very late. Realizing that I had missed the interview, I yelled, ripping my alarm clock from the socket and hurling it so hard that it stuck in the wall. In an instant, I had destroyed my clock, the wall, and any chance of getting a job with that company.

To others, I was irresponsible. I was furious with myself for months. Many years later, I still set two or three alarms whenever there’s an important reason to get up early.

How ADHD impacts someone’s life

People with ADHD are two to three times more likely to be arrested than those without ADHD. ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley discovered that adults with ADHD often experience a reduction of thirteen years in healthy life and eleven years in total life expectancy.

ADHD is considered a chronic and debilitating neurodivergent disorder. It’s specifically outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). It is known to impact the individual in many aspects. This includes academic and professional achievements, interpersonal relationships, executive decision-making, and daily functioning.

Are there different kinds of ADHD?

Yes. ADHD can manifest itself in three broad categories.

1. ​​Inattentive

Someone with this type of ADHD has challenges with staying on task, focusing, and organization. I have difficulty paying close attention to details. Unfortunately, I can make careless mistakes in school or job tasks. I also have challenges remaining focused, have difficulty listening and organizing tasks and work.

Outwardly, it looks like I am careless, daydreaming and messy. I don’t like being messy. But I am often woefully messy. And disorganized.

When I manage to get my work environment or home environment organized in some sort of way, I feel an enormous sense of pride. Since this looks normal, no one else ever understands why I feel this proud.

I find that when I am working on computers, I can organize myself far more efficiently. It’s physical items like my wallet, keys, socks, and … well, who am I kidding? Just about any physical item. I can lose any piece of paper at the snap of a finger.

2. Hyperactive/impulsive

Hyperactivity refers to excessive movement such as fidgeting, excessive energy, not sitting still and being talkative. I tap on tables, bouncing my leg up and down, fidgeting, picking at things and more. I am often restless and constantly “on the go.” And I sometimes must retrain myself from blurting out answers or responses before the person is finished speaking.

I can keep these under control. However, I must remain conscious of it. It takes awareness. If I am very comfortable around people, I sometimes will let go a little and allow myself to fidget more. It’s one less thing to have to control.

3. Combined

You guessed it! This means that the criteria for both inattentive and hyperactive/impulse are met as defined by the DMS-V Manual. Wheeee! I easily have the criteria of both. This is because if I am going to do something, I like to do it all the way!

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

RSD involves extreme emotional sensitivity and pain. As a kid, I wondered why I kept feeling rejected or heavily criticized by important people in my life. ADHD exacerbates this. Losing things and disorganization didn’t help with this either. Neither did being the only Asian person in the entire school.

I will talk more about RSD when we get to how night photography has helped me. Yes, that is coming!

Herculean effort

I “present” well. I’m friendly. I get along well with others. In school, I got good grades. I eventually earned a Master’s Degree. I taught Special Education for many years and won Teacher of the Year several times. Now, I also teach night photography workshops.

All of this obviously requires immense preparation, attention to detail, lesson plans, documentation, studying, and organization.

However, I often feel like I work three times harder than anyone else at studying, organizing, paying attention, and not growing frustrated.

I also have chronic back pain. This makes it even more challenging.

However, I also have hyper-focus, another manifestation of ADHD. If engaged, I can maintain an incredible amount of focus on a single task for hours, so much so that I often forget to eat.

Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA, is my spiritual home for night photography.

Night photography makes my life shine brighter

I discovered night photography around 2012. I stayed out all night in Joshua Tree National Park and Owens Valley, photographing, experimenting, exploring and light painting. Bang. I was instantly hooked.

Where had this been all my life?

I could hyper-focus on one single thing, and that was creating an image in the dark. Yes, the dark, the beautiful darkness. So free of distractions! And quiet. Beautiful. Calming. Creative. Yes.

I would light paint, then run, yes, run back to the camera. Boom. An image! Instant dopamine payoff! People with ADHD often have a deficiency of dopamine. This can affect their sense of reward, happiness, alertness and more. If someone invents a dopamine smoothie, I’ll be first in line.

Well, this was immediate gratification! Even if the photo sucked, I had created something. I would create it again, only better.

Minutes would become hours, and smiles would become giant grins.

Nelson Ghost Town, NV.
The joy of light painting. Nelson Ghost Town, where we will have a night photography workshop in May 2023.

The joy of light painting

What helped with this intense gratification was light painting. I find illuminating a subject over time so satisfying. I run back to the camera, and I can see the immediate fruits of my creativity. “Yes! Perhaps a little more light over here, a little less light over here! Let’s try it again!”

Minutes would become hours, and smiles would become giant grins.


At home, at work, I tried to maintain this. But the reality was that some things were in one room, some on the table, some in the file cabinet, some in the drawer, and some … well, I’m not sure.

Night photography was different. I kept everything in one bag. One bag. I began keeping everything in that bag all the time. I wouldn’t unpack it when I got home. It remained there, that all-important bag. Everything in the same place, the same side, the same pouch. Instant, natural organization. Camera here, cables there, light on top, batteries over here. Perfect.

In my camera bag, I know where everything is. I am organized. In this one small little area, I feel neurotypical.

Sense of belonging

I am lucky. I have always had some good friends.

But it’s not often that I really feel like I belong to a group of people, a group of friends. Sure, maybe we grew up together, maybe we went to high school together. But being a general creative weirdo, what else could make me feel more of a kinship, a bonding, a tribe, a family?

Few of them shared my joy of creating strange music, and none of them even understood night photography.

I began posting my night photography creations on my website and on social media. On Facebook, I discovered groups. There were other people creating weird night photography images with light painting. I couldn’t believe it.

Reducing Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Organically, we began interacting. It turns out that night photographers are some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most helpful people. Over time, I began feeling like I belonged. This was extremely comforting. To think that there were other people venturing out into the night, waving flashlights around to create an image!

I’ve made friends with night photographers from Facebook and elsewhere. We join up, find great taco stands and venture out into the night. We explore fantastic abandoned locations and beautiful landscapes, and stay out all night creating. Sometimes, we go on epic 9-day trips together. Three of us created the Nightaxians YouTube Podcast.

Nightaxians aka The Notorious RGB.
The Nightaxians, aka the Notorious RGB. This is a photo of my immediate night photography family. This is Mike Cooper, Tim Little, and me. This may also be the only photo in existence that uses every product ProtoMachines has ever made. This is a photo taken in a ghost town in Pennsylvania in 2018. Photo by Tim Little of Cape Night Photography.

This as well as playing music has largely addressed my RSD. Don’t get me wrong. I still feel it. But it’s kept well in check.

The beauty of the night

When photographing, the loudest thing would often be the Mojave breeze. Sometimes, the night would be so quiet I felt like I could almost hear the stars moving. Pure, delicious silence, I am enveloped in darkness, without the crackle of distraction, traffic, noise, or sunlight making everything visible.

“Only us night photographers are awake. The night is ours. One more photo, maybe this time I kiss a little red light off the far edge. Yes, that feels right.”

Minutes become hours, and smiles become giant grins.

Joshua Tree National Park at night.
Joshua Tree National Park at night.

The luxury of night photography

Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.”

Michael Kenna in “Photographer’s Forum Interview” — Winter 2003 by Claire Sykes

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