PHOTOGRAPHING LAVA ENTERING THE OCEAN AND THE VOLCANO IN HAWAII
THE BEING BEHIND Big Island, Hawaii 2013
It has been on my wishlist for quite a long time to view and photograph the lava flowing into the ocean on Hawaii's Big Island, but for the past few years, the flow has not really been doing much. A couple of months ago, it finally broke through and is now providing surface activity and ocean entry where visitors can get close and witness this amazing spectacle. From the National Park side, it is a 6-8 mile hike each way across lava fields, which pretty much rules that option out. From the Kalapana side, it is approximately 2 miles hike each way, but this side is private property and there is a certain amount of state and landowner control, preventing people from simply walking in on their own to view the lava. So what is one to do? Here on Maui, I heard through the "coconut wireless" about a travel company called Poke-A-Stick Tours, that took people out to the lava. I called and spoke with Cheryl, owner/guide/host extraordinaire, and planned a couple of days with her afternoon sunset hikes out to the lava flow.
I flew over to the Big Island and made my way to the end-of-the-road, Highway 130, where the lava has taken over the road and oddly enough, where there are still a certain number of residents living. There were a couple security officers and a checkpoint preventing just anybody from going through. Before long, Cheryl pulled up on her ATV and met with me and a couple from Seattle. Our afternoon hike would just be the four of us, which was great considering she often takes 20 people out! We followed her past the gates and onto her private property, where we locked the gate behind us and readied ourselves for the hike. I instantly like Cheryl. She's my kind of people, I think to myself. Confidant, relaxed, comfortable being who-she-be...
The hike out to the lava takes us 90 minutes, or so. We stop occasionally and Cheryl tells us some of her interesting story, along with facts regarding the volcano and making sure to point out the wild orchid, one of the few things we see growing out here in the lava field.
Approaching the lava for the first time is a total trip. I'm a bit freaked at first because in my mind, I've always visualized lava as: this fast-flowing super-hot substance that will burn you up instantly. Step on the wrong surface that's only two inches thick and it cracks open and you fall into a river of lava and burn up instantly. Put your hand in lava and you pull out a hand-less stump! It's super dangerous and any step around the stuff could be your last. Well, as it turns out, it's not exactly like that. Cheryl kinda laughs at me when I tell her this is how I visualize it, and soon enough we are there beside surface activity and poking sticks in the stuff! In reality, this lava is like a thick pancake batter that moves very slowly - it oozes its way through and over and under already dried lava. Cheryl said something that made a lot of sense - "Mother Nature has a way of telling you when you're too close or it's unsafe, by being too hot." And that was totally true. When I poked a stick in the lava, the hair on my legs and face felt like they were burning off. There's no way I could have got closer. When I walked on lava that was only a couple hours old - it was hot and I knew I couldn't linger on it. You can tell what is safe and what is not by the heat coming off of it, but it is still very trippie and I walked around very...lightly, and very mindfully.
On this first trip out to the lava, I carried out all of my usual gear in my backpack, with tripod, and a big ol' Nikon 200-400 f/4 that I rented from LensRentals.com attached to my chest. It was 40 pounds of gear, and I certainly was not following the advice I offer students during my Maui photography workshops when I instill in them to "keep it simple". (See, I fall into the traps too!) I have always loved close-ups of the lava flowing into the ocean and had hoped to capture a photograph of this, but apparently was overdue for an expensive (and heavy) reminder that I should just stick to what I do. I should have just gone with my usual gear and kept my focal lengths to 24mm and 35mm - on the wide side where I am most comfortable and where I am most accustomed to seeing the world. I ended up wasting critical sweet-light fiddling with this massive 200-400 on a tripod/head system that's not really designed for such a big lens. Add the element of a fairly strong breeze, and every image I attempted to make with this lens was soft or blurred. To add to the frustration, next thing I know, Cheryl is telling me we gotta go. What?! The light is still good? Noooooo! Total failure! I cry to myself silently, as we begin the hike back. Of course, I totally understand why we are leaving when we are - the Seattle couple already seems a bit concerned with hiking out under the darkening sky, and obviously this trip doesn't revolve around me and some photograph I'm attempting to make.
I quietly hike back. I look at the thoughts stirred within myself and regain a calm and center. I've got another chance. Learn from this. What did you do wrong? What do you have to do differently? What is the best approach? I review to myself. By time we are nearly back, I find an opportunity to speak with Cheryl without the others hearing and am able to express to her, calm and authentically without the annoyance from earlier in me, "Cheryl, I am over here to create a dynamic photograph. That was torture leaving there when we did - but I totally understand why we did. What do I have to do to stay out there longer? To stay an extra hour? What do you suggest?" She graciously told me she'd try and help me figure something out and to call her the next morning.
The next morning, she tells me she's hooked me up and we make plans to go back out the following day. I could hug her! Now, I've got to figure out photographically what adjustments to make. I decide to leave the 200-400 in the car for the rest of the trip, concluding that I simply won't be able to keep it still enough for sharp images and that I should just stick to what I know, and what I do.
The following afternoon, I hike back out into the lava with Cheryl and a group of about a dozen others. I have left the large lens behind and focus my attention on the gear I have, and placing myself in a dynamic spot. I choose a spot along the cliffs, being sure to keep a good two feet between myself and the edge. The ground is hot, but not so hot to the touch that I'm worried to place my backpack at my feet. With tripod set, I stay in this spot for the next 45 minutes. A number of times, I feel the bottom of my shoes with my hand because it sure feels like my feet are heating up, but each time I do, they don't feel like they are melting, so I stay put. Looking over the edge, the lava is flowing down the side of the 60 foot cliff right below me, so I fully realize the lava literally is flowing beneath my feet. How far beneath my feet? Could this entire piece of cliff just fall off? Is the ground getting hotter? My mind has trouble settling, but I persevere. It's nearly dark, I've been shooting this spot for the past 45 minutes, and my feet are uncomfortably hot, so I finally decide it's time to move. I pick up my pack and it's too hot to the touch! My jacket that was between the pack and the ground feels like it's partially melting. I move to a cooler spot and allow my gear, my body and my thoughts to all simmer down.
Cheryl and her group has left, and she's kindly arranged for me to tag along with another group back to my car, allowing me an extra couple of hours. As darkness falls, I realize that ideas I had for capturing the lava under a starry sky isn't really do-able - the brightness of the lava and the darkness of everything else is way too much dynamic range and even trying to blend multiple exposures seems pointless. I spend the last hour mostly enjoying the beauty of the lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean, with a star-filled sky above, thankful for the moment, the place, for life. It's time to surrender to the fact that photographically - I got what I got and it is what it is. I'll hike out of here in darkness and tomorrow, it's back home.
By the time I make it back to my car, it's 10pm. I woke up this morning at 3:20am (!?) to experience the lava by boat (see story HERE). You'd think I'd be B-lining it back to my place to sleep, but I suppose I'm so buzzed from the close-encounters-to-hot-lava experience that I'm not ready to call it quits, not yet, so I turn left instead of right and proceed to make the 75 minute drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I follow the red glow in the sky in search of one more image before throwing in the towel.
INFERNO Big Island, Hawaii 2013
I was thankful for the company of another photographer from Florida while I spent nearly an hour making this image. We chatted casually while both working out the exposure. This was a challenging image to make due to the extreme dynamic range difference between the bright light coming from the glowing lava lake and the dark surroundings. After some experimenting, I attached my filter holders and ended up with 5-stops of graduated neutral density filter used from the bottom up. This controlled the brightness enough and resulted in an optimal exposure. I also experimented some with using a black card (actually, a black Lee filter case) in front of the lens - moving it slowly to essentially dodge the light from hitting the sensor, and I think this technique worked well enough given the circumstances. Once I was confidant I had a shot, I called-it (for reals this time) and made the 75 minute drive back to Hilo, and my awaiting bed.
A deep and satisfying sleep was the fitting end to an exhausting and magical experience photographing Hawaii's active volcano and lava flow.
The title of the image at the top of the post, The Being Behind, was inspired by these words by Eckhart Tolle:
If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what is left is who you are - the Being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality rather than something that is already defined. Give up defining yourself - to yourself and others. You won't die. You will come to life.