Heaven and Hell

Gates of Hell, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Gates of Hell, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
4 seconds
ISO 3200
27 mm

Caving to demand, I took my Hawaii workshop group back up to Kilauea last Thursday night. While we didn’t get stars this time (not even close), we found something that was equal parts different and cool. If the first night’s display was Heavenly, the reprise was Hellish. We finished Tuesday with a new appreciation for our small place in this magnificent Universe; Thursday we were left awestruck by the power of nature’s creative force churning beneath us.

Everyone was thrilled to have the dark, clear skies we saw Tuesday night, but given that this was the first time doing night photography for most of the group, everyone wanted another opportunity apply their new-found skill. Before departing, I reminded them of Mother Nature’s fickle inclinations, and warned them that repeating Tuesday’s clear skies was far from a sure thing. However, I told them, clouds can be pretty cool too. They were dubious, and somewhat disappointed upon arrival—until the first images popped up on their LCDs.

Believe it or not, these images from our two volcano nights are pretty much what we all saw on our camera LCDs (very little processing necessary). They’re a good reminder of our camera’s ability to show aspects of the natural world that are missed in the human experience. A frequent photographer’s lament is the camera’s limited dynamic range (the range of tones between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights), but one advantage a camera does have over human vision is its ability to accumulate light over time. On Tuesday night, our sensors pulled from the darkness stars that were invisible to the naked eye (and also nicely brightened the Milky Way); on Thursday night, a long exposure revealed unseen cloud detail illuminated by Halemaʻumaʻu’s orange glow. Also, on Tuesday night so much of Kilauea’s glow escaped into space that the caldera floor (beyond the inner crater) remained nearly black despite a lengthy, high ISO, large aperture exposure. But on Thursday night the clouds reflected the volcano’s light back to Earth, bathing the caldera floor in an orange glow that our cameras captured beautifully.

Our cameras also allowed us to infer one more difference between the two nights: The crater glowed significantly brighter on Thursday night. I learned from a rim-side chat with a naturalist on Tuesday that Halemaʻumaʻu’s luminosity varies with the composition of its output—the higher the ratio of sulfur gas to water vapor, the brighter it glows. While this difference is sometimes difficult to detect with the naked eye from one night to the next, it became obvious when I realized that in Tuesday’s images the highlights in the crater’s burning core were recoverable in Lightroom, while the same bright region in Thursday’s images was hopelessly blown at the same exposure. Fortunately, on Thursday night I opted for a shorter shutter speed to better “freeze” Halemaʻumaʻu’s gas plume—this left the caldera a little dark (but still brighter than Tuesday), but really reveals the plume’s character.

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
ISO 3200
16 mm

8 Comments on “Heaven and Hell

  1. Your photos are of course the very best, but the descriptions and tips you provide are what keeps me coming back to your posts in order to learn from the master! I do have a question regarding the night shoots at the crater – where did you locate the group for these sessions? Thanks Gary.

    • Thanks, Pat. The best place to view the caldera is the Jaggar Museum, though to photograph the Milky Way we move along the caldera rim a bit until they line up—the exact location will vary with the month and time. Also, brightest part of the Milky Way is in Sagittarius, which is visible only during the summer months (more or less).

  2. Another amazing moment in your photo trips Gary. The Volcano on both nights look still different from the shots we took on our trip to Hawaii 2 years ago. The wonder of nature and your knowledge of how to best capture it is ever amazing.

    On another note: I just turned 65, Sherm turned 70 and we are about to celebrate our 45th anniversary. We therefore decided to splurge this year on a photo trip. We are going to Antarctica in November with Joseph Van Os. Some friends of ours took a similar trip 25 years ago and seeing their photos made us want to go someday. Wish us luck in the photography realm. White balance will be important in all that snow.

    Take care, Marilyn and Sherman Eaton

    Sent from my iPhone

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