Happy Earth Day to You

Gary Hart Photography: Bamboo Sunstar, Maui, Hawaii

Bamboo Sunstar, Maui, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
.4 seconds
ISO 100

I have many “favorite” photo locations—many are known to all; others aren’t exactly secrets, but they’re far enough off the beaten path to be overlooked by the vacationing masses. And while I always like to have a spot or two at my favorite photo destinations where I can count on being alone, I’m usually happy to share prime photographic real estate with a kindred spirit.

But. In recent years I’ve noticed more photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world: Starting from the time we leave home we consume energy that directly or indirectly pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases that precipitate climate change. And once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic–not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indiginous flora and fauna.


A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service (to name just one public caretaker) does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that I’m not the problem–I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch, check out this admonition from Arches National Park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is tapped–as evidenced by the direct correlation between the islands with the most black sands beaches and the islands with the most recent volcanic activity.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite special (and photogenic!). Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular, I’m afraid) trampling meadows, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.


Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label to anyone with a tripod or big camera, and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, potentially bringing restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. So if you like fences, permits, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there. But if you’re like me and would prefer unrestricted access to nature’s beauty, please respect your surroundings and consider the ramifications of your actions.


Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into the center console as you drove away from the entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact–believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to form. Whenever you see trash, just pick it up even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.


A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.

About this image

My favorite places to visit (and photograph) are the usually ones that are different from any place I’ve seen. Near the top of that list is the bamboo forest near Ohe’o Gulch on Maui. Conditions permitting, I make it a point to get my Maui workshop group here during our two-day stay in Hana, and it never disappoints.

On last year’s visit it rained for most of the walk up to the forest, and well into our stay there—not a torrential downpour, but enough to make photography tricky. Since overcast sky provides the best light for photographing in this incredibly dense, dark environment, so I welcomed the challenge. The rain stopped and patches of blue sky appeared just as it was time to leave. Despite the extreme dynamic range, before packing up I couldn’t resist trying a few frames to see if I could capture the diaphanous glow of the backlit bamboo leaves.

To emphasize the backlit leaves, I attached my Sony 12-24G to my Sony a7RII and pointed straight up. I moved around a bit until I found a couple of leaning bamboo stalks to add a little visual tension to my frame. I was so focused on my immediate surroundings that it wasn’t until a sunstar appeared in my viewfinder that I realized the sun had popped out. Positioning myself to place a bamboo stalk between the sun and my camera, I composed this scene, stopped down to f/18, and waited for the sun to pop out.

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Things on Maui are looking up

Bamboo Sky, Maui, Hawaii

Bamboo Sky, Haleakala NP, Maui

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I love seeing something I haven’t seen before. For a life-long Mainlander, Hawaii is rife with these opportunities: boiling calderas, rivers of lava, volcanic beaches, dense jungles teaming with color and exotic wildlife, and a seemingly infinite variety of waterfalls. But none of this quite prepared me for Maui’s bamboo forest.

I knew of the bamboo forest, both through word-of-mouth and from travel guides, but everyone said the hike up, while relatively short (true) is pretty grueling (not so much). Since a workshop group can only travel as fast as its slowest member, and workshop scouting is usually my priority on Maui, I’d heeded warnings and avoided the forest on previous trips. But on this visit I vowed to hike up to the forest to see for myself. I’m so glad I did.

The trail starts at Haleakala National Park Kīpahulu Visitor Center, also home to the ‘Ohe’o Gulch (popularly know as the Seven Sacred Pools). After a mile of steady, moderate climbing I came to a pair of bridges across a set of waterfalls at the junction of two creeks—quite photogenic when not swarmed with adventuresome divers plunging into the inviting pools below. The view from the downhill side of the bridge looks straight up a mountain covered with bamboo as far as the eye can see (a great spot to catch your breath).

Immediately across the second bridge the trail climbed briefly, and with a final twist deposited me into a different world—for the next hour or so I wandered a narrow tunnel in amazement, gazing up at vertical stalks so densely packed that in many places it was difficult to stray from the trail, and occasionally trying to capture the scene with my camera.

With the horizon in all directions replaced by receding stalks of bamboo that seem to extend without end, I found the forest quite disorienting. Much of the sunlight striking the bamboo at the top didn’t make it to the forest floor, giving the entire scene the incongruous feel of dusk, though it was midday. The sparse light that did filter through did so in splashes that danced on the forest floor with the swaying bamboo. Occasionally the breeze stiffened enough knock the tops of the bamboo together, sending hollow echoes like amplified wind chimes overhead.

Soon the grade eased and a long boardwalk transported me above the ubiquitous mud that forms on this relatively level stretch. After about 2/3 of a mile I exited the bamboo tunnel and soon found myself face-to-face with Waimoku Fall, a 300+ foot cataract that (believe it or not) seemed anticlimactic after what I’d just walked through.

Back at the car I came to two conclusions: I have to get my group up there, and I hadn’t yet figured out how to photograph it. While I was pretty sure not everyone in the workshop would complete, or even attempt, the hike, I was pretty confident those who did would find it worth the effort. Fortunately, the trailhead’s location at ‘Ohe’o Gulch made it easy for me to give everyone options: We’d photograph sunrise as a group at the pools, then everyone would be on their own to try the trail (it’s a nice hike, complete with a waterfall and regal banyan tree, even if you don’t make it to the bamboo), explore the pools further, or browse the Visitor Center, until we met again at 10:00.

And that’s just what we did. About half the group made it as far as the forest, and few even went as far as Waimoku Fall (they agreed that their time would have been better spent photographing the bamboo). After making it to the forest I dropped my backpack and walked back down the trail to encourage and/or assist those following. By the time I made it back up to where I’d stashed my gear I didn’t have tons of time for photography, though I was able to spend a little time exploring a hidden creek that I’d like to return to.

Briefly venturing off the trail and into the forest (no small feat with a loaded backpack and tripod), I was able to attempt some straight up compositions I hoped would capture the sense of parallax distortion the towering bamboo gave me. With my widest lens I lowered the camera near to the ground and pointed it upward. This gave me parallax effect I sought, but I wasn’t completely satisfied until I included a tilting bamboo stalk cutting diagonally into the frame.

A look at the exposure settings should give you an idea of how dark it is among the bamboo (the sky in my image is hopelessly blown). The utter calmness of this second visit (no knocking bamboo this time) allowed me to avoid f-stop and ISO compromises, instead going with a four second exposure without motion blur. One more great thing about composing straight up is that there’s no real horizontal/vertical component to the frame—this allows me to rotate the final image either way to suit whatever orientation I need.

Bamboo Sky, Maui, Hawaii

Bamboo Sky, Maui, Hawaii

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