Tag Archives: Hawaii

How to Photograph Lava from a boat in Hawaii

Ask a hundred photographers going to Hawaii what are the top three things they most want to photograph and I’ll bet Lava will be on every list.  Specifically, photographing the lava entering the ocean from a boat is something many photographers would gladly trade a limb or two for.   Since this is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, you will want to make the most of it.   I certainly felt that way my first time but there was very little info on the internet about how to best do it…so I learned the hard way.  Fortunately, you won’t have to.  This article will tell you everything you need to know about how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Hot, Lazy, Lava River

Is this for you?

First of all, to see the lava ocean entry you have to go out into the open ocean in a relatively small boat.  This isn’t a pleasure cruise, it can get rough so if you don’t like being in a rocking/jarring boat, have back problems or if you are frail, then this might not be something you want to tackle.  In fact, some of the tour operators won’t sell tickets to folks who are pregnant, over 75 years old or weighing over 275 lbs.  They seem to take safety seriously and aren’t shy about turning people away that could potentially get injured (and sue them).2017 Hawaii 06 05 10204

With that said, I think this tour is absolutely incredible and unforgettable.  The experience of being watching new land be created from  50′ away is breathtaking and not something you will ever forget.    You will be close enough to feel the heat on your face and hear the explosions of the sputtering and sizzling hot lava as it collides with the chilly Pacific.  Nearly everyone in my family has done this tour and they all loved it.

And if you are a photographer, well you can create mesmerizing photographs that simply can’t be created any other way.  I’ve photographed lava from the air, ground and sea and I think images of lava taken from a boat are the most dramatic, impressive and beautiful.

Where is it?

The only location in the state you can see lava is on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The lava enters the ocean on the southeast coast (see map).  Most flights to the big Island arrive in Kona but Hilo also has an International Airport and it is quite a bit closer.how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Which tour to take?

As of July of 2017, there are only four tour operators licensed to conduct ocean tours within 300 feet of the lava entering the ocean: Lava Ocean Tours, Moku Nui Lava Tours, Kalapana Cultural Tours and Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours.  I’m sure you can find other tours and they will be cheaper.  But consider this:  it is at least a 20 mile ride on the open ocean to the lava:  Do you really want to take the chance on a unlicensed operator?  Plus, the Coast Guard has been known to board and shut down illegal operators 

So, which is the best for photographers?  Well, personally I prefer Lava Ocean.  The competition uses much smaller fishing-style boats, typically like the one I photographed at the ocean entry earlier this year (below).

2017 Hawaii 06 05 09521

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

LavaOne

Lava Ocean’s boat (the LavaOne seen here) is a modern 40′ aluminum catamaran designed specially for lava viewing.  The LavaOne is a more stable platform for shooting, gets you out to the lava 50% faster and I consider it a safer and better designed vessel.  It will cost you $20-$50 more.  But if you are going all the way to Hawaii for a bucket list item like this, then 50 bucks shouldn’t really be a consideration.  If money is tight, you can save $20 by paying cash rather than using a credit card.

To be candid, others don’t necessarily share my option.  They note that it is easier to shoot from both sides in the smaller boats.  Plus other companies may stay on site at the lava a bit longer.

By the way, I do not receive any kickbacks, discounted tickets or so much as an ugly, cheap t-shirt for my endorsement of Lava Ocean:)

 When to go:

Go NOW!  Lava has been flowing into the ocean for just over a year, but there is no way to know how long this will last.  For three  years prior to July 2016, for example, lava wasn’t flowing into the ocean.  So before you book a flight specifically to see lava entering the ocean, call or email Lava Ocean and make sure that the lava will visible during your visit.

I really don’t think that one time of the year is significantly better than another. Yes, the rainy season is from November until March and photographing the lava in a rainstorm is less than ideal.  But keep in mind that it rains a lot on this part of the Big Island…even during the dry season.

Lava is MUCH more visible and photographically dramatic at dawn or dusk.  Tours are scheduled throughout the day, but don’t even consider any of them except the dawn and sunset tours.  You will pay a premium of $70 or so compared to the daylight tours, but it will be worth every penny (which is why those trips sell out first).  Personally, I think the dawn tour is the better of the two, if for no other reason that the ocean tends to be calmer.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate.  In addition to the rain, the ocean can get rough.  If the waves are too high, the tours will be cancelled.  Schedule your tour early during your trip to the Big Island so that you have time left to reschedule if needed.how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Tips Before you go:

Get a room/hotel near Hilo or a bit south of it…this will save you a lot of driving.  The boat launches from Issac Hale Park…which is 45 minutes south of Hilo and a long 2.5 hours from Kona.  Driving on some of these roads at night isn’t fun, especially with intense fog that is common between Kona and the eastern part of the island.

Leave early.  As you approach Issac Hale Park, the roads get narrow and curvy…it will likely take longer to get there than your GPS tells you.

Have your camera and gear already set up and ready to go before you leave your room (more about camera settings later).  You really won’t have much time or opportunity to do so on the boat.

Tips for the Boarding Process:

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

You actually climb into the boat on the parking lot…

After you park, get out and look for a guy from Lava Ocean holding a clipboard and flashlight.  There might be a couple other tour operators there, so make sure you find the right one.

After you and the rest of the folks have checked in they load the boat.  You actually board in the parking lot and then they launch the boat at the park’s ramp.

One factor that will determine how many good shots you get will be where you sit on the boat. The seating consists of padded bench seats running down each side of the boat with three people in each seat and an aisle down the center.  You want to sit on the end of the bench seat against the side (gunwale) of the boat (away from the center aisle) so you have an unobstructed view with your camera. 

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

The best seats are right up against the side of the boat…not in the center or aisle seat.

Obviously if you are in the center of the bench seat or the spot closest to the center of the boat, you will have to shoot around your seatmates. Once the boat is underway, you can’t change seats or stand up, so it is really important to get a good seat.

So how do you get a good seat?

This isn’t like an airplane where your seat is pre-assigned.  They load the boat by age.  People over 60 years old board first and sit where-ever they want.  Then folks over 50.  Then everyone else.  If you are older, then you shouldn’t have any problem getting a primo seat.  If you are younger, here is what you do:

  1. Be there early…I’d suggest arriving 10-15 minutes before the check in time (in the summertime, check in is at 4:30am)
  2. When you check in, ask the captain/crew where they want you to line up for boarding.  If they don’t give you a specific answer, watch carefully and you will see when they bring the boat into the parking lot on the back of a trailer.  When the boat/trailer stops moving, walk over as close to it as you safely can.
  3. Most customers just mill around aimlessly after they check in.  Pay attention and move quickly to board ahead of the ‘herd’ when your age group is announced.
  4. The seats toward the back of the boat tend to provide a smoother and dryer ride, so those are preferred. However, if the only seats left on the sides of the boat are toward the front when you board, grab one of those instead.  You’re a photographer and this is likely a once in a lifetime opportunity…who cares if you get a bit wet and go home with a sore back?!

What to expect:

From start to finish, the tour takes about 2 hours.  The check-in/boarding takes about a half hour.  The trip to the lava takes about 30 minutes, you spend a half hour there and then head back.

On the way out it will be quite dark (if you are on the dawn tour).  Sometimes it can be very rough (another reason to have your camera already ‘dialed-in’ before you board).  Depending on how big the waves are and your attitude, the ride can be fun…a group of girls on my last tour squealed like they were on a roller-coaster every time we hit a wave (maybe it did get kinda old after a couple of hours).  On the other hand, some folks were tossing their cookies and asking the captain if he could turn the boat around before we even got to the lava.   Consider taking motion sickness pills if you are prone to sea-sickness.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

I didn’t go on the boat to photograph sunrises, but if you put one in front of me….

Once you get to the lava, the captain will spin the boat around every few minutes so that customers on both sides of the boat can see the show.  In other words, you will only be facing the lava for about half the time you are there.  When you are turned away from the lava, dry your lenses, check your photos and make sure your exposure and focus look good.  Then you can adjust your settings accordingly.  After that you can pass the time by taking photos of the sunrise and grumbling that the people on the other side of the boat get to face the lava more than your side…

Another thing you can do is take photos of the floating rocks.  Yup…I kid you not!  When the lava hits the ocean and solidifies it can get a lot of air trapped in it, so pieces of  will sometimes float right by you…sparking,  sputtering and sizzling the whole time. Pretty darn neat.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Ever see a floating rock? Here you go!

 

Photographing lava from a boat is kind of like photographing wildlife from a moving vehicle.  The action may appear anywhere in front of you and shooting with both eyes open will allow you to spot a new opportunities as they occur.  Keep scanning constantly.  Waves hitting the lava creates a lot of steam and will obscure some locations while other areas might clear up.

 

You will find that the 30 minutes there passes in an eyeblink.  When the captain starts to head home, pack your gear away because the ride back is usually rougher than the way out.  You can enjoy the view of the coast but unless you spot some dolphins your camera won’t likely miss anything particularly photogenic.

What to Bring:

Rain Gear…for you AND your camera

Although the boat does have a roof, you WILL get wet from the spray/waves even if it isn’t raining.  Your rain gear should cover your legs as well.

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

“Armageddon”  When the surf hits the lava, wild stuff will start to happen in front of your camera!

Keep your camera in something watertight during the trip.  When you arrive at the lava, you will likely be able to shoot without much fear of getting wet (assuming it isn’t raining or the seas are not incredibly rough).

Dress a bit warmer than normal:

Although you are in Hawaii, you might get cold, especially if you get wet.   Your feet will likely get wet as well, I wouldn’t wear sandles…something waterproof would be better.

Bring a small waterproof backpack or drybag

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

“Pele’s Creation” It is quite an experience to witness the birth of new land.

Anything you put on the floor of the boat will get wet.  Water sloshes across the floor and out the scuppers (holes above the floor that let the water flow out).  There is a small shelf under your seat that is raised above the floor that stays dry.  But it is narrow…maybe about 9″ tall so bring a waterproof bag/backpack for your camera gear that will fit on the shelf.  Keep in mind that the ride can be very rough, so be sure you have some padding around your cameras.

Lenses:

  • Bring your fastest glass…at least f2.8.  Since you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed in near darkness, slow lenses are going to struggle until the sun comes up.
  • Use zooms, not primes.  Your perspective is constantly moving and you are at the mercy of the captain and the waves, so a zoom is your only way of being able to selectively choose and frame your subject.
  • Since your time shooting is short, you don’t want to be changing lenses (besides the salt spray and rocking wouldn’t help) I usually bring two cameras: one with a wide angle zoom and the second with a long zoom.
  • Once the boat gets to the ocean entry point, it stays close to lava (often within 50′) so if you want to capture the whole scene you will need a the wide angle lens.

    2017 Hawaii 06 05 09404

    This wide angle shot gives you a perspective of the entire scene, but I found close ups with a long zoom to be more memorable.

  • It will be your long zoom that you will use the most.  Frankly, 90% of my total shots (and 99% of my favorite shots) are taken with the long zoom (Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 with a 1.4 teleconverter).  So if you only want to bring a single camera, put your long zoom on it.
  • I prefer not to use a polarizing filter shooting lava.  I don’t find that it helps colors/reflections enough to justify the loss of a stop of speed.

Camera:

  • Your camera needs to be able to handle a lot of dynamic range.  The lava can easily blow out your highlights and you can’t shoot HDR from a rocking boat.  I use my full frame Nikon D810 with a wide angle lens and a Nikon D500 with the 70-200.  how to photograph lava from a boat in HawaiiBoth handled the dynamic range well.
  • Select a camera with excellent autofocus ability. Again, this is like wildlife photography, lighting isn’t great, everything is moving and a camera without competant autofocus is not going to give you as many ‘keepers.’
  • I love my D810 but my D500 is my go-to camera for lava photography.
    1. It has wicked autofocus and it shoots 10 frames per second, which allowed me to capture a lot of the quick action of dripping lava.
    2. Also, the D500 is a DX, so that effectively doubled the focal range of my 70-200.  I need every bit of that range when shooting lava from the boat since about half my shots are usually taken at the longest setting.
    3. Although the dynamic range of the D500 doesn’t equal the full frame D810, I found it was capable of handling the lava.

Misc:

  • Have empty, large capacity memory cards and full charged batteries.
  • Have a number of easily accessible microfiber cloths ready in your shirt pockets. In addition to the rain and spray, you will probably run into clouds of steam at the ocean entry, so the microfiber will come in handy.
  • Since you are on a rocking boat, you will be handholding your camera…no need for tripods/monopods/gorilla pods

Camera Settings:

  • VR:  Since you are on a bouncing boat, you need to engage your Vibration Control (VR/IS).
  • Shutter Speed: Selecting a high shutter speed will also help eliminate vibrations.  This will also allow you to ‘freeze’ the action of the spray/waves and exploding lava.  I find the best results are between 1/500 and 1/1000th of a second.
how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

Check out the water dripping from the lava after being hit by a wave!

  • Manual/Shutter Priority:  Personally, I like to shoot in Manual and adjust my settings as I go.  If this isn’t something you do regularly, I’d suggest you use Shutter Priority.
  • Aperture: Shoot with your aperture wide open…you will need every bit of light you can get.
  • Auto ISO:   Use your Auto ISO setting.  The brightness of the lava constantly changes and using Auto ISO will allow your camera to use the best possible ISO without requiring you to continually change it yourself.   I adjusted my auto ISO so that 1600 was my highest setting and 200 was the lowest.  I usually find that the ISO settings on my shots start at 1600 when we first arrive on site and the Auto ISO gradually upgrades the setting to ISO 200 after sunrise.
  • RAW:  Shoot in RAW.  This will preserve every bit of data your sensor collects and will make your job a lot easier in post-processing when you are trying to tame the wide dynamic range.
  • White Balance: I leave my white balance on Auto and then adjust to taste in Photoshop.
  • Frame Rate:  Set your camera to its fastest possible frames per second setting.  Shoot a lot…you have to anticipate that some of your shots will be blurry because of the moving boat and long focal length.  The more shots you take, the better your chances that your auto-focus will produce some crisp shots.

Post-Processing:

  • Your main challenge will be controlling the dynamic range.  Use the Photoshop sliders for ‘highlights’ and ‘shadows’ and minimize blown out highlights while still showing some details in the darker areas of your images.
  • Noise will probably be a challenge, especially in areas containing steam or dark shadows…made worse if you are shooting at high ISOs.  I cut out the lava and surrounding rock, put it on the top layer.  Then I liberally use the noise reduction slider on the other, lower layer that has the steam/foggy areas.  This leaves the areas of lava and rock sharp which really contrasts against the ‘soft’, noise free steam/fog.
how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

The contrast between the ‘harsh’ lava/rock and the ‘soft’ steam/fog/ocean makes for dramatic images.

  • The raw colors on my images are usually pretty intense and rarely need much saturation/tweaking in Photoshop
  • Don’t forget to adjust your white balance.  Your shots will have a strong blue tint before the sun rises.

After the tour:

When you get back to Issac Hale Park, you might want to check out the hot springs there. It might be just the thing for your sore muscles if your trip was a bit rough.

If you are staying in Kona, you should check out Hilo while you are on the eastern side of the island.  The Hilo area has a number of beautiful waterfalls.  And of course, Volcanos National Park is also on the way back…you could easily spend a couple days exploring that incredible treasure.

Anyway, more about other Hawaiian photo ops later.  Now I must leave, it is time for my evening glass of wine!

Aloha!
Jeff

how to photograph lava from a boat in Hawaii

How to Photograph Lava from a boat in Hawaii

 

Posted in Hawaii, Lava, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , , , , |

A Landscape Photographer in Hawaii: 21 Days, 21 Photos

Earlier this month I was in Kauai for a couple weeks and another seven days on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Although my wife had some silly expectation that I would spend all of my time with the family, I did manage to sneak out and take shot or two (actually, more like 15,322 of them…but who’s counting?)

Yes, yes, I took a lot of family shots…and my wife hasn’t divorced me (yet)..but you read this blog because of your interest in landscape photography, so here are some of my favorite (non-family) images from the trip:

1)   Kauai is my favorite of all the islands.  It isn’t as developed as Oahu or Maui, plus it must have been made on a day when God had just bought a new camera because it is blessed with an incredible variety of photographic riches.  For example, Waimea Canyon isn’t what you would expect to see on an exotic Pacific island…

Waimea Canyon, Kauai Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Arizona?…maybe Utah? Nope…Kauai

2) I’ve loved the old Wai’oli church from the first moment I saw it years ago.  Built back in 1912, it is quaint, cute and very, very green.  It gets photographed by every single tourist that drives up to the north side of Kauai so it is hard to capture a shot that hasn’t already been done a million times.   So I thought a night image with the Milky Way rising behind it might be a new twist on an old favorite.  I like the result.

Wai'oli Hui'ia Church in Hanalei, Kauai Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

“Closer my God to Thee…”

3)  Then there is Hanalei Bay…which is simply postcard perfect.  The old pier makes a great foreground subject and the mountains in the background are breathtakingly riddled with waterfalls.  Although it may rain a lot on the north end of Kauai, the showers are brief and you are treated to rainbows as compensation.

Hanalei Bay with Pier under rainbow Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

“Floatsam in Paradise” One definition of paradise might be tropical beach covered with coconuts and hibiscus blossoms under a glimmering morning rainbow

4)  I made a trip back to Hanalei early one morning to capture a bright Milky Way hanging over the bay:Hanalei Bay, Kauai under the Milky Way Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

5) I was in heaven on the north shore of Kauai…dozens of incredible locations all within 20 minutes.  Queen’s Bath in Princeville, for example, is another beautiful spot.  This sunrise nicely lit up the sky and illuminated the twin waterfalls on the right side of the image.

Queen's Bath Kauai sunrise Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

6)  Of all the beaches in Hawaii, Tunnels beach is my favorite for photography:

Kauai Photo locations

Don’t put away your camera during the day!

7)  The Hawaiian name for the pyramid-shaped mountain peak is Makana, which means “gift from heaven.”  It was called ‘ Bali Hai’ in the movie South Pacific but no matter what name you use, it is dramatic and beautiful.

Tunnels Beach, Kauai at sunset Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Gorgeous day or night…

8)  Tunnels may have been my favorite, but there are no shortage of beautiful beaches.  Some of them, like Moloaa Beach (see below) are small in size (a total of three parking spaces) but pack a huge visual impact.Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

9) Others, like Anahola (below) are huge.  I was like a kid in a candy store.  Every morning at 4:30 I had to decide which beach to photograph…problems, problems, problems…Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

10) 11) & 12)  The NaPali coast on Kauai’s northwestern shore might be the most dramatic meeting of mountains and ocean in the world.

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations Kalepa Ridge

“Hanging Gardens”

I went on a couple hikes with my son and son-in-law to explore and photograph the area.  The first trek was on a trail called Kalepa Ridge.

 

Kalepa Ridge Trail, Kauai

“Almost Heaven”….apologies to John Denver

This wasn’t your average hike.  In some stretches the trail was only couple feet wide and fell away on both sides nearly straight down for over a thousand feet. But the views…my God!

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

“Cloud Walker” My son-in-law Scott leads the way on the knife-edge Kalepa Ridge.

13) The second hike we tackled was the Kalalau Trail.

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Early morning view of NaPali coast from the Kalalau Trail

I had read that many consider this to be one of the premier trails in the United States, in fact quite a number of folks consider it to be the best in the country.  Kalalau certainly lived up to its reputation…an incredible hike.

14) The trail is 11 miles each way and although we weren’t able to secure one of the scare permits for the whole hike, we were able to do the 8 mile round trip trek to the 300′ tall Hanakapi’ai Falls:

Hanakp'ai Falls Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Ryan takes a well-earned break

15) After two weeks in Kauai, we hopped over to the Big Island of Hawaii.  I would have loved to have stayed in Kauai longer, but there is one thing the Big Island has that Kauai doesn’t.  LAVA!!!

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Armageddon!

16) The Kilaeau volcano has been continously erupting since 1983 and photographing lava was certainly on the old bucket list!  We booked tickets on a boat that takes you out to where the lava pours into the ocean.  I booked this particular boat (LavaOne) because I had heard that it gets you close to the lava:

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

“Coming in Hot!”

17)   Well, it did….real close…like 20 feet away!  It was incredible to watch the lava pour into the ocean and explode on contact!

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Lazy Lava River

18) I had two cameras with me and shot non-stop for the twenty minutes the captain kept the boat on station.  You could feel the heat sweep across you in waves…I had a blast!

19) Ryan and I made a run down to the southern tip of the island where 75′ tall cliffs rise starkly from the ocean.  Some of the local kids were showing off and diving into the clear Pacific.  This young man was particularly graceful:

Kauai and Big Island Photo Locations

Ten frame sequence of a Hawaiian Cliff Diver

Ryan gave it a try as well.  I would have done it too… but, well someone had to take the pictures;)

20) Ryan and I wanted to see more lava so the next evening we took the land route out to the ocean entry location.  At the end of the trail, a group of 50 or so folks had gathered in silence and watched the birth of new land as the sun fell.  I found it to be a peaceful, powerful and profoundly emotional experience.  After an hour or so we turned around and headed back in the darkness 5 miles to the car (fortunately, we had rented mountain bikes, so the trip back was a lot faster than hoofing it!)

photo locations on Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii

“Midwife” A lone hiker is witness to Pele’s creation.

21) Of all the locations I had dreamed of shooting, the Kilaeau crater was at the top of the list.  It didn’t dissapoint.  I spent the better part of three nights photographing there.  Surprising, the view is a bit boring during the day, but at night the glow of the lava reflects off of the steam and low clouds and puts on quite a show.  The full moon was a bonus as well.

photo locations on Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii

“Lunar Limelight” The moon was so bright it caused a wicked purple lens flare. Kinda looks like the Death Star firing its superlaser!

Not a bad shot to end this blog with.

I know this was a short article and not long on details.  I plan to write follow-up blogs about the spots I photographed in Hawaii but haven’t decided on which ones yet.  Let me know if a particular location interests you and I’ll select the next topic based upon the feedback I get.

Aloha!
Jeff

 

PS:  If you would like to see more of my photographs from Hawaii, just click on this link!   If you are specifically interesting in Milky Way photography in Hawaii, check out this article. Finally, if you really liked the shots of NaPali, you might want to see some aerial views I shot from a helicopter.

 

A Landscape Photographer in Hawaii:  21 Days, 21 Photos

Kauai and Big Island Hawaii Photo Locations

photo locations on Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii

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Maui’s Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand Beach): Photo Tips and a Warning…

I’ve done some crazy things to get a good photo:  hung out the open doors of helicopters, snorkeled with sharks, hiked across a 105°F desert…but the most dangerous (ie.stupid) thing I may have ever done was to make the short walk to Kailaulu Beach in Hana.

20130901_Hawaii_0011

The ominous nature of this spot really manifests itself in this black and white image. Click anywhere on the shot to see it in full resolution.

Locally known as the “Nude Beach” or ‘Red Sand Beach’, Kaihalulu is a crescent-shaped beach with, yes, red sand.  It is an incredible setting…the beach is actually cut out of the side of the Ka’uiki Head volcanic cinder, the water is an iridescent blue and a wicked line of lava ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ thrust up through the surf across the neck of the cove.  It was one of the “must-photograph” spots I had selected L-O-N-G before my trip to Hawaii last year.

I had read everything I could find about Kaihalulu, checked-out Google Maps and even arrived in Hana the afternoon before so I could walk the path (a short half mile hike) in the daylight.  Okay, so what made this so darn  ‘sketchy’ you might ask ?   Well, first of all, it turned out that I couldn’t scout the trail after all…the area was blocked off because of a baseball tournament.  Not ideal, but no bid deal, right?…so I show up the next morning with my headlamp and find the trail.  Wait a minute, my mistake…I said ‘trail’…do you consider something less than 6″ wide a trail?   And to make it really entertaining, this trail hugs the side of a dirt cliff with nothing to break your fall except insanely sharp lava boulders in the surf about 50-75’ below.  I really should have turned around….I mean…I really should have listened to that little voice inside me…but I was focused on the shot…and I continued.

As I decended the trail to the beach, it was clear that I had at least two more challenges.  First of all, the cloud cover was intense and the sun, which should have already been visible, was MIA.  Second, the photographs that had inspired me to trek to this beach featured the sun rising behind the ‘Dragon’s Teeth’…which make for a dramatic silhouette. However, after moment or two it was clear that the sun was going to rise so far to the east that the side of the cone/cliff would block it from view.  I had make a rookie mistake, I hadn’t checked where the sun would actually rise at the time of the year I was going to visit. (FYI…I was there in November, so I would guess you would need to hit this spot in the summer months in order to have the sun shift enough to the right to place it behind the ‘teeth.’

Maui's Red Sand Beach: Photo Tips

Check out that red sand…and see if you can spot the crescent moon!

Just the same, I was stoked and it was an breathtaking scene.  Then, the cloud cover had pity on me and started to split up so I was able to get to work and capture a few different perspectives.  HDR was very helpful because everything in the cove was shaded by the cone wall between me and the sun.

After too short of a time, the morning color faded away and I started to head back to the car to meet my (very patient) wife who had understandably decided to stay put and enjoy a nice book while I was off on my silly little trek.

Believe it or not, I actually had more trouble making my way back in the sunlight than I had getting to the beach the dark.  Maybe I wasn’t concentrating as much, maybe I was over confident…I don’t know…but I damn near slipped where the trail was at it narrowest point on the side of the cliff.  Boy…that jump-started the old adrenaline again!  I was shaking my head at my stupidity when who did I see waiting just around the bend of the trail?  It was my wife…who was worried about me (god bless that woman)!  She had the good common sense not to go on a slippery, narrow trail hugging the side of a cliff…like she told me later:  at least she would be able to tell the recovery team where to look for my body.

20130901_Hawaii_0008-0014_HDR

Love those dragon’s teeth…quite the view.

If you decide to photograph this spot, I hope this blog inspires you to be very, very careful.  I would NOT try to make the walk the beach in the dark unless you had made the trip previously in the daylight.  Don’t make this hike alone.  I would also suggest that you try to reach the beach by walking along the shoreline (if it isn’t high tide and the surf isn’t too rough)….as I mentioned, the path further up the slope can get washed out and can be treacherous.

UPDATE: I just read a post by a paramedic who works in Hana.  He mentioned that in just the past year they have had six rescues of tourists who have hurt themselves on this trail…including one broken back.  Use good common sense.

How To Find Kaihalulu Beach:

  • See this link to a Google Maps view of the area.
  •  Park near the end of Uakea Road near the field by the Hana Community Center.  The trail will be on your right (south) at the edge of the grass parking lot.  Sometimes the trail is overgrown…so it might not be easily visible if it hasn’t been recently cleared.
  •  If you end up at the ruins of an old graveyard (the Japanese cemetery) , you’ve gone the wrong way.  Go back and look for a trail that heads down hill.  Again, I’d suggest you stay down near the ocean’s edge as long as you can rather than use the paths that are higher up.

 

A few suggestions:

  1. Plan to spend a night in Hana.  Nearly all the hotels on Maui are on the other side of the island and the famous ‘Road to Hana’ is not something you want to drive in the dark.
  2. There is only a single ‘traditional’ hotel in Hana, the Travaasa Hana…but it is not cheap.  However, if you look on Trip Advisor under ‘specialty housing’ you can find accomodations for less than half the price of the Travaasa.  In most cases, these are small bungalos rented out by local residents, so they are not the spic and span hotel rooms you might be used to…but you can save a bundle.
  3. There are two other great sunrise locations in Hana and they are so close together, you can easily cover at least one of them after getting your shotatKaihalulu:
    • Hana Beach Park is only a few minutes away from Kaihalulu
    20130901_Hawaii_0058-0068 crop skew_HDR

    Hana Beach Park…you can drive right up to this spot…

    •  Kōkī Beach Park is only about ten minutes away and you can get great shotsthatincorporateAlau island which is right off shore

      20130831_Hawaii_0743

      Alau island makes a wonderful focal point at this spot.

  4. After you get your morning shot, head down the road to Haleakala National Park.  There is fantastic photography available there.  The famous Ohe’o Gulch, the Pipiwai Trail that runs though the photogenic Bamboo Forest and the incredible falls at Waimoku .  The park can get crowded, but most of the tourists don’t show up until mid-day (because they have to drive from the other side of the island), so you will have the place to yourself most of the morning.

There you have it.  Hana is a ‘target-rich environment’ for any photographer.  Take my advice and spend at least a full day or two here, there is a wealth of photo ops nearby.

PS:  Yup, Kaihalulu really is a nude beach.  Funny, I didn’t see anyone there at dawn, but if you show up a bit later the scenery might be more exciting than you bargained for!

Aloha!
Jeff

Maui’s Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand Beach):  Photo Tips and a Warning…

Posted in Hawaii, Landscape Photography Also tagged , , , |

Little Surprises: Little Wailua Falls…Maui’s Subtle Hidden Treasure

One of the lessons I’ve (painfully) learned over the years, is to be open to the unexpected and unplanned.  Honestly, it isn’t an easy lesson for me.  By nature, I’m a planner..perhaps excessively so (at least my wife THINKS so!).   My perspective has always been:  This might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip…what if there is a killer photo op two miles away but I don’t know about it!  So often I leave on a trip with a twenty page itinerary complete with maps, notes, GPS coordinates and more.

On the other hand, I honestly have to admit that much of my best work has been the result of an unplanned opportunity (or flat-out, total mistakes).  Like this shot below:

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

To see this shot in full resolution, just click on it with your mouse.

I love this photograph.  Of the dozens or so huge, magnificent, incredible waterfalls I photographed on a recent trip to Hawaii, this quiet, secluded, almost miniature cascade is by far my favorite.

It happened like this:  My wife and I had stayed overnight in Hana so I could get some sunrise shots.  I had planned to photograph Wailua Falls (about 7 1/2 miles south of Hana) since it was right on our the way to the trailhead for a hike we were making later that morning to Waimoku Falls (another 400′ tropical wonder). When we got to Wailua Falls (here is a link to a map on Google Earth) it was obvious that over 99% of the photographs falls are taken from the bridge which runs right in front of it.   So I decided to hike down to the base of the falls and get a shot with a different perspective…but I made a mistake.  I knew from my pre-trip research that there was trail from the bridge to the falls but I didn’t know where it started.  I looked around and spotted one just past the bridge (west) on the ocean side (south) of the road.  After ten minutes of slipping and sliding down a wet and muddy slope, I had worked my way back to the bridge…which is where I found this delightful little pool.  As it turns out, I couldn’t get any closer to the big falls from this trail (apparently, the correct trail is on the other (north) side of the road).

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

View from the other side of the pool

And here is where I got my second unplanned gift.  The best thing (to me) about this shot are the streaks caused by the the swirling leaves in the pool.  I had seen this before in work done by other photographers, but I hadn’t ever done it myself.  Honestly, I didn’t even notice at the time that the leaves were moving. But since the spot was very dark, I took a series of seven bracketed shots hoping that HDR would be able to capture what little light there was.  A couple weeks later when I processed the shot with HDR , I was shocked to see that the slowly moving leaves were now wonderful looping swirls of color.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that that seven shots, taken over a two or three minute timeframe, would transform the languidly moving leaves into mesmorizing streaks of color.

So there.  I didn’t know this little falls even existed and I had no idea that the HDR would result in the beautiful leaf swirls.  Despite that, the result was far better than my hundreds of well-planned shots of other, more impressive and well-known waterfalls.

The moral of the story?  Planning is vital and it will dramatically increase your chances of great captures, but don’t be a slave to your plans or ‘pre-visualized’ shots.  Keep one eye open for the unexpected…and see what happens!

Have a great Holiday and may all your surprises be happy ones!
Jeff

PS: Here is a shot of Waimoku Falls from later that same morning.  It is an incredible vista (yes, that little green dot at the base of the falls is my long-suffering wife Anita waving at me)!

Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls...Maui's Subtle Hidden Treasure

A human figure sure helps you get a sense of scale! Click on the photo to see it in FULL resolution!

 Little Surprises:  Little Wailua Falls…Maui’s Subtle Hidden Treasure

 

Posted in Hawaii, Landscape Photography, Waterfalls Also tagged , , |

Milky Way Photography Tips with an Hawaiian Twist!

Photography isn’t exactly a new art form.  One of the downsides of shutterbugs working their craft for a hundred years or so is that it is now challenging to come up with something new.  You are constantly reminded of this fact when you read articles and blogs (mine included) that contain repeated references like: “Don’t take the standard tourist shot,”  “Find a unique perspective,” “Put your own spin on the image.”

Well, space photography is  something new.  Sure, astronomers have photographed the stars since cameras were invented but it wasn’t until after the amazing photos from the  Hubble Space Telescope  were released in the early 1990s that the public was fully aware of the mind-blowing beauty contained in the heavens.  More recently, we’ve seen incredible shots of the Milky Way on the internet taken by amateurs (not astronomers).  Like many folks, I found these photographs to be absolutely enthralling,  I also found it difficult to believe that these photos were taken by regular people instead of professionals with expensive equipment.

This wasn’t possible until recent technological improvements in camera sensor ISO capability (the ability to capture faint light).  Now, anyone with a newer, good quality DSLR, a decent wide angle lens and a tripod can take shots like this:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-06-0594-combo-4-glow2

“Midnight Run” Alpha Centauri? Vulcan?      Nope: One of the ‘sailing stones’ at Death Valley’s famous ‘Racetrack’

 

But there IS a catch (isn’t that always the way?)

Blue Sky

Screen shot of the Blue Sky website showing light pollution in the Hawaiian Islands.  You can zoom in as much as you want to find ideal night photoraphy locations

Most of us live near urban areas that have so many lights that the Milky Way is ‘washed out’ at night.  Therefore,  You first have to find a location that isn’t smothered by light pollution.  One quick way to do that is Blue Sky.  This is a free access website (see screenshot to the right) that allows you to zoom in easily on any location in the world and see where light pollution isn’t a problem. Once you know where to go, all you need is a moonless night with clear skies and you are good to go! Okay, okay, there are a few other things you need to know but seriously, it really isn’t all that difficult and I’m going to let you know what you need to learn.

 

Tips for Milky Way Photography:

Equipment

  1. The camera.
    1. Full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  Their large sensors are ideal for Milky Way photography
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Milky Way shots.
  2. You will need a tripod.  A solid one (especially if it is breezy where you will photograph).  If your tripod is tall, you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.

    2015 PAC NW 08 07 0176

    Crater Lake Oregon during the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower.

  3. A cable or wireless shutter release will come in handy.
  4. Lens:  Fast and wide!
    2015 Northwest 06 20 903

    Palouse Falls, Washington. It took a serious flashlight to light up the falls in this image!

    • The Milky Way isn’t bright, so the faster your lens, the better.  Personally, I think f/2.8 lenses (or faster) are ideal. Anything slower than f/3.5 will make it difficult to get a good image.
    • The Milky Way is WIDE…it can stretch from horizon to horizon.  So, ideally, you need a wide angle lens.
      • If you have a full frame camera, then I’d suggest a minimum of a 16mm lens.  My preferred lens is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.  However, there are a number of expensive options…for example, I’ve also used a Sigma 16mm fisheye f/2.8f lens with good results.
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a 8 or 10mm fisheye might be your best bet.  A regular 10-12mm would work as well, but it will be difficult to get the full Milky Way in the shot.
    • A second option is to take a series of smaller, overlapping images and just stitch them as a panorama  using the ‘photomerge‘ function in Photoshop.
  5. PhotoPills.  There are Apps for your smart phone that allow you to see exactly where the Milky Way will be visible in the sky.  They will also let you select different dates/times and locations (so you can preplan a shot). These tools are critical to preplanning Milky Way shots. IMO the best of the bunch is one called PhotoPills.   For $9.99 you will buy a tool that will dramatically improve your Milky Way photography (no, I don’t get a kickback…unfortunately).  In the past I also used the Star Walk and Sky Safari apps but PhotoPills is superior.
  6. Photoshop.  If you really want to capture a great shot of the Milky Way, you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program.  Your shot right out of the camera can be impressive, especially if you’ve never photographed the galaxy before, but just a little bit of work in Photoshop can make your shot a knockout!
  7. A Headlamp AND a Flashlight.
    • You will need both hands to manipulate your camera and a headlamp is the perfect solution.  Get one that has a red light.  Red light won’t ruin your night vision and that of any nearby photographers.
    • If you are blessed to have a good foreground, a good flashlight will allow you to illuminate it.

Technique on Site

  1. LOCATION:  As I mentioned before, you need to find a spot that isn’t saturated with light pollution.  That doesn’t mean that you have to find a location that doesn’t have a town in sight…a glow or two on the horizon can be a nice touch
  2. WHEN:
    • Ideally you want a moonless or near moonless night.  A full moon is so bright it overwhelms the Milky Way and makes it difficult/impossible to photograph well.
    • Keep in mind that even if there is a full moon, you can shoot the Milky Way if there is a ‘window’ at night before the moon rises (or after it sets).  The apps I mentioned earlier will let you figure out if that is a possibility.
    • If the moon isn’t full and it is located away from the Milky Way, then you can still get a solid shot.  In fact, a bit of moonlight can help illuminate your foreground.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasnt' so bright it washed out the Milky Way.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasn’t bright enough to wash out the Milky Way.

    • Obviously you also want clear night…no one wants to see half the galaxy hidden by clouds.
    • Although the Milky Way is visible through-out the year, the most prominent features (the galactic plane or core), are best viewed in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months (May through September).
  3. FOREGROUND:
    • A shot of just the Milky Way is cool but your shot can be supercharged if you include a foreground element.
      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      The red traffic light at the entrance to Launiupoku Beach Park on Maui provided the dramatic foreground lighting!

      Trees, mountains, buildings…scout out possible locations during the daylight.  The elements that make for a splendid sunrise or sunset shot work every bit as well for Milky Way shots.

    • If you are going to show anything in the foreground, it will need a bit of light to make it visible in your shot.  Ambient lighting might be enough (see shot to the right) but a bit of ‘light painting’ with your flashlight can often result in dramatic images.
  4. CHECK YOUR COMPOSITION:
    •   Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect.

Camera Settings

  1. Shutter Speed.
    • Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in 25 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  You want to have as long an exposure as possible (to capture more stars and detail) without resulting in ‘star trails’ (when stars no longer appear as round spots, but instead become a streak…because of the earth’s movement).  The rule of thumb is about 25 seconds but try some test exposures to see just how long you can expose your sensor.  With my D810 and the 14-24mm lens, I start seeing star trails after about 25 seconds, but remember,  every camera/lens combo will be different.
    • The shot below shows an extreme example of star trails…nice in its own way but not ideal for Milky Way shots:

      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      Star Trails over Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona. This is about a 2 hour exposure…far more than you want to try for a Milky Way shot.

  2. Shoot in RAW.   If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

  3. Focus.  Your autofocus won’t work well at night, so you will need to switch to manual.  Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a piece of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you start your Milky Way shots.  Otherwise, you could bump the lens during your shoot throwing all future shots out of focus (of course, you should also review EVERY shot at full magnification to be sure…but I have a hard time remembering to do this myself).
    • If you don’t get a chance to do this before it gets dark, focus manually on a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp.  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape to hold it in place.
  4. ISO. You will have to boost your ISO far higher than you do during daylight shooting.  With my Nikon D810, the ISO sweet spot for night photography is between 2200 to 3500, with my best results at the upper edge of that range.  Although the higher ISO does result in more noise, it also captures more of the color that makes the Milky Way so beautiful.  If your camera isn’t as light sensitive as the D810, you will likely have to shoot at a higher ISO.
  5.  Aperture.  Use the widest aperture you’re lens has since you want to capture every bit of light you can during those 30 seconds. I consider f 2.8 to the minimum.
  6. Try a Panorama!  Capturing the entire arc of the Milky Way makes for a powerful image.  Take a number of overlapping shots from one horizon to the other and then stitch them together in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.  The streak you see in the image was a meteor that zipped by during my exposure.

Now, once you have everything mentioned above set up, take some test shots.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes only 30 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing (Photoshop Wizardry)

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

This is where the pure technique ends and the ‘art’ begins.  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but this really isn’t science.  Sometimes I’ll work on two frames taken a minute apart with the exact same camera settings but end up with totally different results depending on what I end up doing in Photoshop!  Here are the basics:

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 2800 and 3800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try tweaking up your exposure and see if it allows you to see a lot more stars.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Hue//Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real creativity comes in and you can easily spend more time tweaking these adjustments than all the others combined.  Your goal here is to find the colors inherent in the Milky Way and coax them to be a bit more visible.  Sometimes I’m shocked how easy it can be to create a stunning image with these adjustments.  And then other times I spend a half hour and get nothing but mediocre results…  If so I just take a break and then come back a bit later and try again!
  5. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Milky Way so that your adjustments don’t give you unintended and undesirable results in your foreground elements.
  6. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your shot…there is no way around it with current levels of technology.  I usually find that I can adjust the luminance slider in Photoshop’s noise control panel up to 50-80 or so (with the detail slider also around 70) without significantly degrading detail.  Noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements than in the star field, so often I put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

Again…this part of the process is the most creative but it can be time consuming.  Don’t get frustrated if your  results aren’t immediately what you had visualized.  Take your time.  Experiment. Have fun!

Tips if you find yourself in Hawaii and you want to try some Milky Way (Hoku-noho-aupuni) photography20130906_Hawaii_2004

  1. Oahu is your worst bet for Milky Way photography in Hawaii.  This where most of the folks in the state live and a quick look on the Blue Sky website will show you that it also has the nastiest light pollution of any of the islands.  However, there are some pockets in the mountains and on the west coast around Kaena Point that are pretty good.
    • If can’t visit the other islands, well the good news is that Oahu isn’t ideal, it still probably has less light pollution than you see at home, so get a bit away from Honolulu give it a try!
  2. All of the other islands are great…heck, they are fantastic!  There will be some light near the larger cities (Kona on the Big Island, Lahaina on Maui, etc) but a short twenty minute drive along the coast will usually get you clear of the light.
  3. Higher is better!  There is a reason that observatories are built atop mountains…when you are at 10,000 feet above sea level, 95%+ of the earth’s atmosphere is BELOW you…which results in a better view of the stars.  In Hawaii, there are three possibilities:  Mt.Haleakalea (on Maui), Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (both on the Big Island).
    •  Mauna Kea
      • The Onizuka Visitor Center.
        • This is your best bet for Milky Way photography on Mauna Kea.
        •  The road all the way to the Visitor’s Center is paved and your rental sedan will have no problems getting there.
        • Get away from the main building and scout for a location that gives you a view of Mauna Loa and the Milky Way
      • The Summit
        • At 13,000′ and 360° unobstructed views, this would be the ideal spot for Milky Way photography. Unfortunately, you are only allowed on the summit of Mauna Kea between dawn and dusk.  Rangers drive around and ask you to leave 30 minutes after sunset (this ensures that tourists don’t inadvertantly shine flashlights at the multi-million dollar telescopes at the summit).
        • Be aware that sections of the road from the Visitor’s Center aren’t paved and it is very steep.  4WD and high clearance vehicles are recommended.  If you drive to the summit, be aware that you are violating your car rental agreement and you will be on the hook if you have any problems.
    • Mauna Loa
      • You can’t drive to the 13,600′ summit of Mauna Loa.  The road is gated closed at the weather observation station (at 11,000′) and from there it is a tough 6 mile hike to the summit.
        • There is a cabin near the summit (reservation required), so you could spend the night and get a Milky Way shot.
      • The road to the summit is on the northern flank of the mountain, which means that the bulk of Mauna Loa effectively blocks your view of the Milky Way to the south.
      • Frankly, I’ve never seen an outstanding photo of the Milky Way taken from Mauna Loa.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there are much better locations on the Big Island that require a lot less work.
      • FYI…if you plan to research a visit to Mauna Loa keep in mind that a lot of tourists (and photographers writing blogs) get Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea confused.
    • Haleakala
      • I think Haleakala is your best best for high altitude Milky Way shots in Hawaii.
      • You can easily drive right up to the summit on paved roads in a rental car.
      • Haleakala National Park, is open 24/7   365 days/year, so you can photograph at night with no restrictions.
      • Some hints and suggestions for photographing at Haleakala:
        • It will be COLD.  Seriously.  It was 88 degrees when I left my hotel in Kaanapali and it was below freezing at the summit (I actually got ice on my camera).  Gloves, hat, jacket and a thermos of hot chocolate are good ideas (it was kinda funny packing my parka and ski pants for a trip to tropical Hawaii!)
        • The summit is occasionally surrounded by clouds.  Be patient.  On my last visit, the last mile to the summit was completely socked-in by fog/clouds…I could probably have walked faster than I drove.  But it did clear up about 30 minutes after I got to the summit.
        • I think the best spot to photograph the Milky Way here is from the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit.  You can include the observatories in your shot from this location (the observatories themselves are not open to the public).
        • Plan on a full night.  It takes a while to get to the summit from most of the island’s hotels.  Plus the road to the summit is full of switchbacks and it isn’t lighted.  It took me over two hours each way…so you won’t be getting much sleep after you get back.  You might want to drive up to the summit in the daylight, photograph the sunset (although the sunrise is a better shot) and read a book for a couple of hours while it gets good and dark.
        • It is often be WINDY here.  Try moving around to find a spot where the wind is blocked.  You will need a sturdy, heavy duty tripod.  If you only have a small travel-tripod with you, hang some serious weight on your tripod to avoid the ‘shakes.’

          2013 Hawaii 09 04 0745

          A shot of the observatories on top of Haleakala. Lord it was COLD!

  4. Photograph from the shore
    • Although photographing the Milky Way from 10,000 feet is technically ideal, don’t ignore potential shots from sea level too.  Hey, you are in paradise…photograph the Milky Way rising from the surf with some palm trees swaying in the breeze…I mean, you can’t do this back home in Cleveland, so go for it!
    • All of the islands have beachfront parks loaded with coconut palms that are great night photo locations.   Beaches on the southern side of the islands have a clear view of the Milky Way (which is located to the south) but even locations on the eastern or western coasts can work IF they have a view to the south.
    •  A lot of the beachfront hotels have lavishly landscaped grounds that are illuminated at night…and they also provide public access to the ocean.  So even if you aren’t staying beachfront, you can photograph from these locations.  Their night lighting will illuminate foreground subjects without the need for you to do so.
    • Scout around during the day for southern facing locations with interesting foregrounds.  The islands of Hawaii have some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and there are untold numbers of potential locations for Milky Way photography.

      2013 Hawaii 09 06 1305

      The walkway at the Sheraton Kauai Poipu on the south side of the island

  5. How about a photo of the Milky Way and lava!
    • I have seen amazing photos of the Milky Way taken on the Big island that feature the lava glowing in the Kileaea crater in the foreground.
      • You can get this shot in Volcano’s national Park in the southern part of the island
        • The park is open 24/7 365
        • Two great locations are the Jagger Museum or the nearby (and less crowded) Kilauea Overlook
        • The volcano has been active since 1983 but the lava isn’t always visible in the Kileaea crater.   Don’t plan a trip just to get this shot without first going on-line to confirm that the lava is visible.  Check this link to get the latest updates.
      • If you really want an adventure, hike out to the lava field during the day and photograph the Milky Way after sunset with hot, red lava as your foreground
        • Unfortunately, often the lava flow isn’t visible…it runs in ‘lava tubes’ all the way to the ocean.  Check this link to see if you will be able to see lava before hiking 4 miles out there.

There you have it.  A quick primer on Milky Way photography.  Wow, I originally thought I’d sit down and rip off a quick blog between coffee and breakfast…now it’s 3pm and my daughter just got home from High School!  Time to do some chores and earn my keep.

I’m sure you will love photographing the Milky Way…the results will astound your friends and family!

Take care,

Jeff

 

 

 

 Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

 

 

Posted in Hawaii, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , |

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

I’ve just returned from a two week photo extravaganza in Hawaii and I have a lot of photos, stories and tips that I’m dying to share with you.  After the first ten days or so, I was starting to think that my biggest problem would be deciding what I would write about first, but that turned out not to be an issue after my wife and I did a night snorkeling Manta Ray tour!  Holy crap…this was one of those kick-you-in-the-head incredible events that leave you positively giddy!  I mean it was otherworldly, graceful, enthralling, ethereal, beautiful, exhilarating,…and another hundred adjectives that elude me right now.  Read on to learn more about an experience you will be adding to your bucket-list.  This article will give you some pointers and tips that will ensure you make the most out of your trip and also help you take incredible photographs to keep along with your memories.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Just imagine this big guy shooting up at you from the ocean floor! (Click on the photo to see a full resolution image)

So, what makes this so impressive?  Well, start by looking at the photo above.  Imaging laying on the surface of the ocean, at night, and you start to notice shadows moving on the periphery of your sight, then this massive, but impossibly graceful apparition swoops up from the ocean floor, slowly opens its huge mouth and heads right toward you.  Then, inches away from your nose, it turns away and silently glides back into the darkness while your body rocks from the water displaced by its passage.  Now imagine four or more of these creatures doing this same ballet repeatedly over an hour.  Oh, and by the way, when I say massive, let me clarify…many of these suckers are easily 12′ or more from wingtip to wingtip and can weigh 2,000 lbs.   The captain on our boat referred to one local Manta they call Big Bertha that is more than 20′ across!  If you would like to read more about Mantas, check out this link.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Almost like you are on another world having a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind!”

Absolutely insane.  This was without a doubt, the most incredible thing I did in Hawaii (which is truly saying a lot).  Not only that but my wife ALSO agreed that it was the highlight of our trip…which is perhaps an even more impressive fact:)

Okay, I’m assuming you want to give this a try this now, so here are some answers to some questions that often come up:

Is it safe?

Mantas eat plankton.  If they mistakenly get a fish in their mouth, they spit it out.  They certainly don’t dine on Homo Sapiens. Also, unlike, stingrays, mantas don’t have stingers (so don’t concern yourself about a repeat performance of the sad story of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin).  Put it this way, the nickname for Mantas is the “butterfly of the sea”…gentle, non-aggressive, no worries.

One other thing, there are two locations that most of the tours go to…one is by the Sheraton at Kona and the other is near the airport.  Both locations are within 100′ of the shore, so it isn’t like you are heading out a couple miles to sea.  If the boat sprang a leak you could swim ashore in two minutes.   Also, the Kona coast is pretty calm so unless you are very susceptible to seasickness, you can leave the Dramamine at home.

Sharks?

Some folks have a real phobia about sharks…but attacks are rare. Your chances of getting hit by lightning is much higher and a fatal traffic accident while driving to the marina is even more likely.  I did an internet search and couldn’t find a single record of a shark attack during a night manta ray dive.  I’d worry about other things instead.20130912_Hawaii_3625

Is it difficult?

No…we had boy and a girl under 7 years old on the tour.  You basically float on the surface while breathing thru a snorkel about ten feet from the boat. Most boats have large floating platforms (see photo to the right) with hand grips you hold onto (so you don’t even have to really swim).  This float has lights that shine down into the water…which attracts the plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas (and the mantas attract the tourists)!

By the way, the two kids didn’t have a good time for the first five minutes.  The reality of floating in the ocean at night wasn’t as cool as they had anticipated.  Once the Mantas showed up they settled down and had a great time.  Obviously folks that hate the dark or the ocean might not enjoy this as much as most.

Is it expensive?

My wife and I paid $90 each.  For a bucket-list item, that seems cheap to me!  Of course, you still have to get to Hawaii…which is anything but cheap.

Where can I do this:

The Big Island in Hawaii near Kona is the only spot in the Hawaiian Islands that I’ve heard of.  However, if you ever get to Australia, Bora-Bora or the Maldives, I understand that you can do night dives with Mantas there as well.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Here is a critical Thing to Know:

Not all tours are the same.  Some of the folks we saw on another tour were given glow sticks and a cheap underwater flashlight to attract Mantas (their boat didn’t have the lighted floating platforms).  Needless to say, those folks didn’t see many mantas and probably didn’t have a memorable experience.  When you are deciding which tour to take, be sure they use the lighted platforms.  We used a tour operator named “Sunlight on Water“…they did a fine job (no, I don’t get kickbacks from tour operators…wish I did though).

One other thing, I was checking out Trip Advisor and saw that some folks on other tours didn’t see a single manta when they went out.  Being wild creatures, no operator can guarantee sightings, but if your tour operator knows what they are doing and have the right equipment, you should have a very high chance of success.

Other hints:

Most of the tours start about an hour before sunset (so the actual start time depends on the time of year).  You will be told that your tour will be about 3 hours long, but your time actually in the water will probably be 45 minutes to an hour)

Bring a towel and some dry warm clothes to change into when you finish your dive (yes, it is Hawaii and the water is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is less than 98.6 and you will feel a chill by the end of your time in the water.)

Our tour operator supplied a wetsuit, snorkel gear and gave us hot chocolate on the way back to the harbor.  Check to see if yours does the same.  It really is nice to have something to get the taste of saltwater out of your mouth.  Our tour also had a warm fresh water shower right on the deck which was great as well.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Don’t use a Flash!

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Backscatter at its worst…

I know this seems counter-intuiative, it would seem to be common sense to use a flash at night, especially underwater.  The problem is that using your flash/strobe will result in backscatter because of all the plankton (backscatter is a term used to describe when an underwater flash illuminates small suspended particles in the water resulting in thousands of little specs of light in your photo…see example to the right).

The tour operators told me all this, but I had lugged my strobe nearly 5,000 miles and I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, even though I had my strobes set up on the arms set as wide as possible away from the camera housing, I still got terrible backscatter.

If I ever have a chance to try this again I might try to have an assistant hold another flash unit off-angle about six feet away and trigger it remotely.

The floating platform actually generated a lot of light…enough for me to get great shots without the flash.  And since those lights are shining straight down and you will be off to the side, the backscatter won’t fill your frame.

 

Take the first 15 minutes to Experiment

This will be difficult advice to follow.   You will be so excited and overwhelmed by the mantas that you will want to capture every moment.  Trust me that the action will get better the longer you are in the water (you often get in the water right at sunset and it takes the mantas some time to be attracted to the lights).  Use these first minutes to try different camera settings (ISO/Shutter speed/exposure) to get your camera ‘dialed-in’.  It is more important to finish the night with a couple dozen killer shots than to review you work the next day and see that you got 200 frames, but they are all mediocre.

ISO

I shot with an ISO of 800 on my Nikon D700, which has very good high ISO resolution.  This is one of those settings you will want to experiment with during those first 15 minutes to see how low you can keep your camera’s ISO and still have good exposure on the mantas.

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Looks like one of those old WW2 movies with the British bomber caught in the spotlights above Berlin!

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW (as opposed to JPEGs), do it.   There can be a substantial dynamic range between the areas illuminated by the spotlights and the shadows and manipulating a raw file in photoshop will give you the best chance of coaxing those details out of the shadows and avoiding the ‘blow-outs” in the highlights.

Use Shutter Priority

The Mantas move slowly and I found that a shutter speed of 1/250 successfully froze their motion.  In retrospect, I think you could probably get away with as low as 1/100th.

Use a fast Wide Angle Lens

The Mantas will get close.  By close I mean that they bumped my underwater camera housing a couple times!  Coupled with the fact that they are huge, a wide angle lens will be ideal.  And since there isn’t much light, the faster a lens you have, the better.  I used a f2.8 15mm Sigma Fisheye and it did a tremendous job.20130912_Hawaii_3537 crop

Try a Video

The Mantas  perform what you would swear is an underwater ballet…it is incredible (and I’m not even a fan of the REAL ballet).  Still photos are great, but they fail to capture the grace and fluid movement of the Mantas.  If your camera has the ability to record video, you might want to give it a try.

Post Processing

Since your shots are taken at night with limited lighting, you will have to invest a significant amount of time in photoshop to develop high quality prints.  A full review of processing underwater night photos is beyond the grasp of this post, but here are some guidelines:

Adjust your white balance.  Fortunately, mantas are white on the bottom, so you have something on which to click your white balance tool and get an initial setting.  I found that a color temp of 11,ooo or so was close to correct if the manta was close to the dive platform, but I had to increase the setting up to 30,000 if it was near the sea floor and away from the lights.

Then use your Fill Light tool to reveal some of the details lost in the shadows and also adjust your Exposure as needed.

You will likely spend some time with noise control.  I had to move the Luminance slider all the way up to 50 or so to get the noise level down to an acceptable level…far more than you would dream of doing with a typical daylight shot.  I also found it helpful to cut the manta out and put it on a separate layer, which allowed me to use even more drastic noise control on the background while maintaining detail on the ray.

 

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Here’s a good view of a Manta starting its “roll” below the floating light platform…you can also barely see some snorkelers holding onto the platform.

Capture ALL of the Manta

Don’t come home with shots only of the bottom of the Mantas.  I say this because if you are not careful, you will end up with most of your shots showing something similar to the photo above.  The reason is because the Mantas have a particular ‘dance’ they will perform for you repeatedly.  They swoop in along the sea floor until they are right below the lighted platforms. They then swoop straight up scooping up plankton (you will be shocked how big their mouths are…and you will see ALL the way down into them).  Just before they get to the surface (and you), they flip upside down (exposing their bottom side to you) and spin away.

After my first ten minutes I reviewed the shots I had taken and saw that 90% of then showed the bottom of the rays.  After that I concentrated on getting shots of them during their ‘approach’ BEFORE they did their flip.

One last thing

Don’t get so wrapped up in taking photos that you fail to take a moment to appreciate just how magnificent this experience is.  About 50 minutes into our swim, I heard some folks shouting and hollering loudly so I popped my head up to see a new group of snorkelers that just joined in the fun.  These folks were so excited that they literally couldn’t restrain themselves.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I was raised with the old-fashioned ‘real men don’t show emotion’ mindset…but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I put my camera aside for a couple moments and let go of a couple little ‘woops’ myself!

I really hope you get swim with the Mantas someday.  If so, I know you will find the experience to be as mind-blowing as I did!
Jeff

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Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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