Last night, at the volcano…

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Milky Way Above Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200
16 mm

Sitting here on my balcony above Hilo Bay, it’s hard to believe that 10 days ago I was photographing sunrise lightning on a chilly morning at the Grand Canyon. But there’s Mauna Kea, and over there is Mauna Loa. And it’s 6 a.m. and I’m in shorts and flip-flops, so this really must be Hawaii. Ahhhh.

Oh yeah, it’s all coming back to me…. Last night I took my Hawaii workshop group up to Kilauea to photograph the volcano beneath the stars. I always stress about this shoot in particular because the opportunity to photograph the glow of Halemaumau Crater beneath the Milky Way is what brought many of the workshop participants to Hawaii in the first place. My stress is due to factors largely beyond my control: clouds, inadequate equipment (“The guy at Best Buy said this tripod should be fine”), technical problems (“Oh, I thought a five percent battery charge would be enough”), and just plain user error (“It looked sharp in the LCD”). Each year I do my best to mitigate as many problems as I can: I send copious reminders (“Don’t forget to bring…”) and how-to documents (starting months in advance), give a night photography training session the afternoon of the shoot, do a group equipment set-up and checklist in the parking lot before we walk out to the view point, and frequently check on participants during the shoot. But while all that preparation seems to help, so far I haven’t been able to do anything about the weather. The best I’ve been able to do is time my primary volcano shoot early enough in the workshop to allow us the option of returning in the event of a mass fail.

So yesterday afternoon we drove up to Kilauea, stopping first at the Visitor Center (I’m something of a souvenir T-shirt addict), then walking through the lava tube (always a hit), before wrapping up the daylight portion of the day with a really nice sunset at the Jaggar Museum (the closest point from which to view the caldera). Then we headed to dinner beneath a tantalizing (traumatizing) mix of clouds and sky—were the clouds incoming or outgoing? Dinner was great, but I’d have surely enjoyed it far more if I’d have known we’d leave the restaurant and see starry skies. And stars there were, millions and millions (or so it seemed). Phew.

Once the stars did their part, the rest of the night was up to me—despite all the preparation, I know from experience that basic photography skills such as composition, camera adjustments (even though I’d given everyone starting exposure values in the parking lot, most people usually need to tweak something), and (especially) finding focus, become completely foreign in the near absolute darkness of a moonless night. These problems are compounded by the fact that a flashlight, while necessary to light the path to the location, is absolutely taboo once we’re there (their light can leak into others’ frames, and flashlights make it almost impossible to adjust to the darkness)—instead we rely on the soft glow of our cell phone screen to see our controls.

I started with a test exposure to verify the exposure values I’d had everyone set earlier. So far, so good. Then the real fun began—for the next 45 minutes I bounced from pleading shape to pleading shape (faces are unrecognizable): “My camera won’t focus” (Try auto-focusing on the caldera—if that doesn’t work, we try creative solutions such as auto-focusing on a flashlight 100 feet up the trail or a best-guess manual focus on the caldera rim); “My camera won’t shoot” (Turn off autofocus);“ Is this image sharp?” (Magnify the LCD and zoom in on the stars or caldera wall); “My picture is black” (The correct exposure is 30 seconds, not 1/30 second). And so on. (I should make clear that these problems were more an indication of the disorientation caused by the darkness than a reflection of the photographer’s skill.)

But slowly the cries for help turned to exclamations of joy as successful images started popping up on LCDs. Pretty soon I was wandering around looking for someone who needed help, anyone…. When it finally became clear that my offers to help were more of a distraction, I returned to my camera (no small feat in the dark) and tried a few frames of my own. While I had no illusions of getting anything new (or even anything much different than what others had), I tried several variations. Most of my images were oriented vertically to maximize the length of the serpentine Milky Way, and to minimize the black void surrounding the glowing crater. I also varied my focal length a bit, and played with my ISO and shutter speed settings so I could choose later (with the benefit of a larger screen) between more noise, less star motion and vice versa.

In addition to the photography, I always make a point to stop everyone and remind them to simply appreciate what we’re viewing. The orange glow is molten rock, the newest material on the Earth’s surface; overhead are pinpoints of starlight that originated tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. It’s both humbling and empowering.

We finally wrapped up a little before 11. Everyone seemed quite happy (okay, downright giddy) with what they’d gotten. At breakfast this morning a few people said they’d checked their images after returning to the hotel, but most said they just collapsed into bed. Nevertheless, I’m already starting to receive whispered requests to return to Kilauea one more time. I won’t take a lot of convincing.

*    *    *    *

:: Join me next year as we do this all over again in the 2014 Hawaii Big Island Volcanoes and Waterfalls photo workshop ::

11 Comments on “Last night, at the volcano…

  1. Great shot, and an inspiration. I’n at Mono Lake right now and I think I will try your exposure settings on the stars out by the South Tufas a little later. I was out there last night, but became frustrated with what I was able to see in my 5D Mark II LCD. Wish me luck.

  2. Sorry, Left out my details for the Septermber 6, 2013 post above. We met in Sacramento while you were doing a workshop as the full moon rose over Old Sacramento.

  3. Hi Gary,

    I live in Mammoth Lakes and we took a trip to the Bristlecones and White Mountain last weekend and attempted to get some Milky Way shots. I found that after 10-15 seconds the stars appeared like dashes instead of dots. How is it that yours came out so clear? And, thanks for the advice on focusing. We tried the flashlight thing too! Beautiful work. I always enjoy reading your blogs and learn something new every time.

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  5. Hey, Gary. Can’t get enough of your incredible imagery. I tried the exposure settings that you used for this Hawwaii Milkyway on the South Tufas at Mono Lake two nights ago and over Lake Tahoe last night with amazing results. Thanks for sharing your recipe with the world. So many pro’s don’t these days. Can’t wait to post a couple in my low light gallery of my web site. May have ro join you on one of your workshops soon.

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