In a life filled with special moments, a few in particular stand out for me. Near the top of that list would be my annual trip to Hawaii and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above an active volcano. I do this enough that it’s no longer novel for me, but it’s always special, and each time I get vicarious joy seeing my group’s reaction. And no Kilauea shoot was more joyful than this night.
After photographing a nice sunset at the caldera, my workshop group hightailed it to the Kilauea Lodge in nearby Volcano for dinner and to wait for total darkness. The sky was mostly cloudy when we went inside, but I’ve done this enough now to know that the clouds surrounding Kilauea often clear once the sun goes down. Stepping outside after dinner, we were thrilled to see that the clouds had indeed departed, exposing a sky that some in the group said was filled with more stars than they’d ever seen. (Camera or not, I encourage each of you to get away from town late on a moonless night and spend some quality time with the sky.)
We started our night shoot at the Jaggar Museum overlook, which offers the closest view of the caldera. I got the group set up with their exposures and focus and we stayed until I knew everyone had at least one successful image. Its proximity to the caldera makes the Jaggar overlook the most crowded place to view Kilauea, so I quickly hustled the group to another spot a little farther back along the rim where I knew we could align the Milky Way with the glowing caldera. By that time a few clouds had started to move back in, but I reassured everyone that some clouds would add some character to the sky and reflect the color from the volcano. Little did we know….
Our second vantage point was completely empty, and the clouds couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d have commissioned them myself. For at least thirty minutes we photographed a jigsaw of cloud fragments drifting over the volcano, glowing like embers with the light of the churning lava but parting just enough to reveal the stars behind and frame the Milky Way.
Waiting fifteen to thirty seconds for an exposure to complete leaves lots of vacant time, which we managed to fill quite easily with laughter. Despite the hilarity, everyone managed to keep shooting until the cloud pieces assembled and the Milky Way rotated away from the volcano’s glow. But not before everyone in the group had an assortment of images like this (and memories to match). Besides the amazing images, I think my greatest pleasure came from the spontaneous exclamations of joy (“Oh my God!”, “Wow! Wow! Wow!”) I heard from each workshop student when the first image popped up on their LCD.
And for those dubious minds who don’t believe this image is “real,” I can assure you that this is pretty much the way the scene appeared on everyone’s LCD (and I have a dozen witnesses with their own images to prove it). To our eyes the scene was darker, not nearly bright enough for our eyes to discern this much color in the clouds (but no less beautiful). But boosting exposure to bring out more stars in the Milky Way had the added benefit of enhancing the caldera’s glow reflected by the clouds.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.