Updated: Nov 2021
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. And shooting lava entering the ocean from a boat is something many of them 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.
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).
With that said, I think this tour is absolutely unforgettable. The experience of watching new land be created 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.
Which tour to take?
As of Nov. 2021, there are 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 one is your best choice? Well, it depends on your priorities. If photography is your primary goal, then go with one of the last three options. They use smaller boats (like the one I photographed below) which allow you nearly unobstructed views. Plus, they tend to be cheaper and stay at the lava longer than Lava One does. Kalapana Cultural Tours seems to be particularly well regarded by photographers.
But if comfort and safety are your primary considerations or if you are bringing your family, you might prefer Lava Ocean. Lava Ocean’s boat (the LavaOne seen here) is a modern 40′ aluminum catamaran. It is faster than the other boats and will get you out to the lava 50% faster. Unfortunately, 2/3rds of the seats on Lava One have obstructed views, so unless you get one of the seats right on the side of the boat, you will be photographing over and around other people.
When to go:
When the lava is flowing into the ocean! I know that sounds like a flip response, but it isn’t. Tourists sometimes think that lava is always flowing on the Big Island, but that isn’t the case. So before you book a flight specifically to see lava entering the ocean, contact the tour operators and confirm that the lava will visible during your visit. Remember, sometimes when the volcano (Kīlauea) is active, lava isn’t flowing into the ocean.
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 usually pay a premium 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.
Here are some sources for up to date info about volcanic activity on the Big Island:
Tips Before you go:
Get a room/hotel near Hilo or a bit south of it…this will save you a lot of driving. Most tours launch 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 Isaac 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 on Lava One:
If you are on one the other 3 operators, then boarding is straightforward and uneventful…just do what the captain says.
However, if you are on Lava One, you need to be paying attention and take some specific steps to ensure you get a good seat.
Where you sit on the boat will be a primary factor determining how many good shots you get. 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.
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 on LavaOne?
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:
- Be there early…I’d suggest arriving 10-15 minutes before the check in time (in the summertime, check in is at 4:30am)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 on LavaOne, and about an hour longer on the other 3 companies. The check-in/boarding takes about a half hour. The trip to the lava takes about 30 minutes for the faster boats. Lava One spends a half hour at the lava and heads back, the other companies spend a bit longer there.
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.
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…
When Pigs Fly and Rocks float…
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.
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 your time here will pass 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.
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 sandals, something waterproof would be better.
Bring a small waterproof backpack or drybag
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Select a camera with excellent autofocus ability. Again, this is like wildlife photography, lighting isn’t great, everything is moving and a camera without competent autofocus is not going to give you as many ‘keepers.’
- I love my full frame Nikon but my D500 is my go-to camera for lava photography.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Topaz DeNoise AI is my go-to solution to address noise. If you only have Photoshop, try cutting out the lava and surrounding rock, put it on the top layer. Then 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.
- 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!