Return to Paradise

Gary Hart Photography: Surf on the Rocks, Puna Coast, Hawaii

Surf on the Rocks, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
4 seconds
F/11
ISO 50

I’m still working my way through my Grand Canyon images, but because life goes on, I “had to” spend the last week leading a workshop on my favorite Hawaiian island, Hawaii. (It’s a tough job, but…)

Until last year, I’ve spent a week each year since 2010 on Hawaii’s Big Island. And while I’d love to blame COVID for the missed year, it just so happened that I’d decided to take a break from Hawaii way back in 2019, well before COVID was even a twinkle in some Asian pangolin’s eye.

Just to be clear, it wasn’t that I’d fallen out of love with the Big Island. It was more that in recent years, on each Hawaii trip I had to work around wind, flood, or lava damage that closed or altered some of my locations. (That’s just the way things go for a volcanic island in the middle of an ocean.)

After dealing with those problems, the final straw came in August of 2018, with the cessation of Kilauea’s eruption, and I decided to remove the Hawaii workshop from my schedule. But during that one-year Hawaii hiatus, I realized that I’d come to believe that the eruption, and especially photographing the Milky Way over the eruption, was the main reason for my Hawaii workshop. It took missing a year to realize how much I missed everything else on the Big Island.

I scheduled my 2021 Hawaii Big Island workshop more than a year ago, never thinking at the time that we’d still be dealing with a global pandemic. Nevertheless, people signed up, and I can say now that we were able to pull it off without any trouble—not from COVID, or Mother Nature. The Hawaii COVID protocols are strict but reasonable, and more seriously enforced than I’ve observed on the Mainland, which actually helped everyone feel safer. And all my locations were open, albeit with a few detours around freshly poured lava (from 2018).

I’ve spent quality time on each of the primary Hawaiian islands except Oahu, and while I love them all, I’m especially drawn to the Big Island. When most people think of Hawaii, they think of palm trees, ukuleles, luaus, and sandy beaches. That’s not my Hawaii: I can get my palm tree fix in California, have never been to a luau, don’t really care for Hawaiian music (sorry), and generally prefer the mountains to the beach. But I love clouds, waterfalls, rainbows, lush (and colorful!) foliage, and all things volcanic—all prominent features that the Big Island, especially the  Hilo side, has in spades.

My favorite scenery in Hawaii is probably the Puna Coast, a stretch of rugged volcanic coastline south of Hilo. Immediately downhill from Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, virtually none of the Puna real estate is older than 200 years—some of it is much younger.

Every square inch of Hawaii is a lava flow, a fact that’s never more obvious than along the Puna Coast, where the basalt is so young that it has had little time to weather and erode. Paralleling the coast on Highway 130, the relative age of the land at any given location is obvious if you know what to look for. The youngest lava is exposed for the world to examine, empty black plains of jagged aa (pronounced ah-ah) and ropey pahoehoe (pronounce every vowel: puh-ho-e-ho-e) that achieved their distinguishing characteristics not by virtue of different chemical compositions (they’re identical), but by their temperature at the time they cooled and hardened.

Side note: I used to struggle remembering which lava was which until I realized that “Ah! Ah!” is the sound I’d make if I were to walk on aa barefoot. (Aa is also an essential Scrabble word, BTW.)

With humidity off the charts, and rain a virtual daily event, it doesn’t take long for foliage to establish a foothold in Puna’s fresh lava. And the more the lava ages, the more it’s smothered with green—overwhelmed by trees and shrubs that advance at a somewhat slower, but seeming just as relentless, pace as lava.

On every visit to Hawaii, I make at least one drive down Highway 130 all the way to the end (and back), stopping randomly (and frequently) to walk out to the ocean in search of fresh views to photograph. At each stop I find some version of rugged cliffs, tide pools, or an occasional black sand beach under constant attack by water that seems to fluctuate between blue-green and green-blue, depending on the water’s depth and the cloud cover overhead.

A few years ago I found the view in this image while exploring one of the densest stretches of foliage (oldest lava) on the entire coast. Somehow this spot has managed to dodge Pele’s fire long enough for a tree tunnel to canopy the road, and for the surrounding trees to become so crowded that they appear ready to leap into the Pacific.

Another feature I love at this spot is the large chunks of lava shed by the nearby cliff, then rounded by collisions with the pounding surf and their boulder brothers. The waves here are especially violent, sometimes leaping higher than the surrounding 20-foot cliffs, that with each wave you can hear the rocks knock together.

All this persistent, violent surf makes managing the explosive wave motion an essential part of photographing here.

I digress

A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion. While nothing like our own experience of a world in motion, a well framed and exposed still image can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or accumulate a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion. A still image’s rendering of motion can establish the scene’s mood and stimulate the viewer’s imagination into a greater sense of being there.

Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the freeze-blur continuum an image falls: The sudden drama of a wave caught mid-crash, or the soothing calm of soft surf. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the waves enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.

One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it.

The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:

  • The water’s speed—the faster the water, and (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display a lot of motion blur), the greater the blur
  • Your focal length—the longer the focal length, the greater the blur
  • Your distance from the water—the closer the water, the greater the blur
  • And of course, the shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur

Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition.

Since motion blur increases with the duration your shutter is open, blurring water means reducing the non-shutter light reaching your sensor. Here are the tools at your disposal:

  • Reduce the ISO: The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light the sensor is, requiring a longer shutter speed to achiever proper exposure.
  • Smaller aperture (larger f-stop value): The aperture is the opening that allows light to enter, so it makes sense that the smaller the opening, the less light will enter for any given length of time, also requiring a longer shutter speed to compensate.
  • Polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
  • Neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
  • Tripod: Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.

Back to Puna

There’s only one obvious composition at this spot, but it’s such nice composition that I’ve added this spot to my Hawaii workshop “don’t miss” list. This year, that shoot came on the workshop’s final afternoon, on our way to the day’s sunset location.

The best vantage point here is atop a small prominence that juts into the surf; it offers just enough room for a group of a dozen or so photographers to set up tripods and capture their version of the scene without anyone feeling crowded (or, more importantly, without plummeting into the churn below).

With the group safely engaged, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and 16-35 GM lens and set about photographing this scene using a variety of shutter speeds. I started with fast shutter speeds that froze the waves mid-crash, then added my Breakthrough Dark CPL (a 6-stop neutral density filter that is also a circular polarizer) to blur the water to a gauzy haze. But I quickly realized that getting the blur effect I wanted wasn’t quite as simple as attaching a neutral density filter and going for the longest possible shutter speed.

I love the rounded boulders in the foreground, but found that when I went with a really long shutter speed, the boulders disappeared beneath the accumulated foam of multiple waves. Because the sun was low, and the scene was further darkened by clouds, I figured I could still get decent blur without the neutral density filter, and replaced it with a standard Breakthrough polarizer.

After a little bit of playing, I found that a properly timed four-second exposure gave me the blur effect I was looking for, without obliterating the boulders. Of course each wave is different, both in size and angle of attack, so once I found the shutter speed that worked, I captured at least a dozen frames, picking the one I liked best when I could view my images on a bigger screen.

This day ended with a nice sunset a couple of miles up the road, followed by an even nicer Milky Way shoot. But that’s a story for a different day.

Just scheduled: 2022 Hawaii Big Island Waterfalls and Volcanos

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It’s All a Blur

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