The camera’s vision: Light

Gary Hart Photography: Tropical Sunrise, Hawaii Big Island

Tropical Sunrise, Hawaii Big Island
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
32 mm
1 second
ISO 200

Something I teach, write, and lecture on frequently (ad naseum?) is the photographer’s obligation to understand, not fight, the camera’s vision. Some people get this; others, not so much.

So here I go again…

Visual “Truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, our cameras) each have a unique vision of the world that’s based on the way we receive it. Our definition of “real” is biased toward the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion way our eye/brain system processes our universe, but it’s wrong to contend that the camera’s perspective is any less real than yours or mine.

The visible spectrum

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy surrounding us, what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is an insignificant fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths permeating the Universe. For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only waves in the very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

With tools that target specific wavelengths, doctors reveal subcutaneous secrets, astronomers explore our galaxy and beyond, law enforcement and the military use “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

The camera has its own frame of reference. While it’s sensitive to more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes see, the camera is oblivious to an entire dimension (depth). Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. But a camera has advantages—its narrow perspective (compared to the human experience) allows photographers to hide distractions outside the frame, and that “instant” reflected in a photo can actually be an accumulation of infinite number of instants.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths attempting to force their cameras to record the world the way their eyes see it—not necessarily bad, but extremely limiting. Not only is duplicating human vision with a camera impossible, doing so sacrifices the camera’s ability to reveal things the eye/brain misses.

Interpreted vision

Every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed. The processing can happen in a lab (remember those days?), the camera, and/or in a computer. But human visual input is also interpreted before we perceive it. Visual processing happens in the brain, which adjusts for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.

Of course human vision is a lot more complex than that, and while the eye/brain relationship might not be a perfect analog for the camera/computer paradigm, suffice to say, whether you’re looking at Yosemite in a digital print, on a computer screen, or through your own two eyes, the scene has been interpreted. And with interpretation comes bias.

Leveraging limitations

In many ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras, effortlessly pulling detail out of deep shadows and bright highlights. But savvy photographers know how to use their cameras’ limited dynamic range to hide distractions, emphasize the scene’s most important elements, and reveal washed out color.

In the image above, captured on the Big Island of Hawaii last September, I used my camera’s (relatively) narrow dynamic range to simplify a sunrise to its essential color and shape. I could have blended multiple exposures to bring the detail in this scene closer to what my eyes saw, but it wasn’t the scene’s detail that moved me. Instead, underexposing the shadows minimized detail in the trees and rocks and allowed me to reveal color that had been washed out by the rising sun. I was able to simplify an originally complex scene to the elements that I found most compelling: the very tropical outline of swaying palms, the

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

tenacious strength of rugged sea stacks, and the vivid color of a Hawaii sunrise, all mirrored in an abstract foreground reflection.

Instead, using my camera’s “limited” dynamic range, I blackened the superfluous detail that would have distracted from the qualities of the scene that I most wanted to convey.

In the poppy image on the right, the scene’s dynamic range was again impossible to capture with a camera—everything you see as white was blue sky or brilliant sunlight to my eyes. I chose to properly expose the poppy and let the sky blow out. The result was this beautifully backlit poppy isolated against a white background that was nothing like my view of the scene—but it was exactly what my camera saw.

Open your mind

So the next time you feel like labeling “real” or “not real,” or insisting that your camera do things it’s not very good at (just to satisfy your own perception of reality), remember that real is relative and far broader than your narrow perspective.

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Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t

(Or saw far differently)

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Haleakala Sunrise, Maui

Photographic vision: Motion

Gary Hart Photography: Gentle Surf, Ke'e Beach, Kauai

Sunset on the Rocks, Ke’e Beach, Kauai
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1 second
ISO 50

True story

I once had a photographer tell me that he didn’t like blurred water images because they’re “not natural.” The conversation continued something like this:

Me: “So how would you photograph that waterfall?”

Misguided Photographer: “I’d use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water.”

Me: “And you think that’s more natural than blurred water?”

Misguided Photographer: “Of course.”

Me: “And how many times have you seen water droplets frozen in midair?”

Misguided Photographer: “Uhhh….”

Photographic reality

The truth is, “natural” is a target that moves with the perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, multi-sensory reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly processes as quickly as it comes in. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view a rectangular box, and compresses those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.

Despite the creative opportunities in their hands (or on their tripod), many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to reveal overlooked aspects of our complex natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.


While a still image can’t display actual motion, it can convey an illusion of motion that, among other things, frees the viewer’s imagination and establishes the scene’s mood. Nothing like our experience of the world, a camera can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or combine a series of instants to convey a pattern of motion.

Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the continuum that connects these extremes of motion will fall: The sudden drama of a crashing wave, or the soothing calm of soft surf; the explosive power of a plunging river, or the silky curves of tumbling cascades. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the action enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.

Blurred water

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 to blur it (which is why I have very few images of water drops suspended in midair).

In addition to freezing motion or revealing a pattern of motion, an often overlooked opportunity is the smoothing effect a long exposure has on choppy water. I photograph at a lot of locations known for their reflections, but sometimes I arrive to find a wind has stirred the water into a disorganized, reflection thwarting frenzy. In these situations a long exposure can often smooth the chop, allowing the reflection to come through. Rather than the mirror reflection I came for, I get an ethereal, gauzy effect still captures the reflection’s color and shape.

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

  • The water’s speed—the faster the water, and the (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display obvious 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. That’s 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. (This is as it should be—when composition doesn’t trump motion, the result is often a gimmicky image without much soul.)

You have several tools at your disposal for reducing the light reaching your sensor (and thereby lengthening your shutter speed), each with its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Reducing ISO: Since you’re probably already at your camera’s native ISO (usually 100), this option usually isn’t available. Some cameras allow you to expand the ISO below the native value, usually down to ISO 50. That extra stop of shutter duration you gain comes with a (very) slight decrease in image quality—most obvious to me is about 1/3 stop of dynamic range lost.
  • Shrinking your aperture (larger f-stop value): A smaller aperture also buys you more depth of field, but it also increases diffraction. Also, lenses tend to be less sharp at their most extreme apertures. As a general rule, I resist going with an aperture smaller than f11 unless it’s absolutely necessary. That said, I often find myself shooting at f16 (and only very rarely smaller), but it’s always a conscious choice after eliminating all other options (or a mistake).
  • Adding a 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 orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
  • Adding a 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 in midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—because I prefer the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down), I live with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
Before Sunrise, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Before Sunrise, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Here a 3-second exposure smoothed a wind-induced chop and restored the reflection.

Because blurring water depends so much on the amount of light reaching your sensor, I can’t emphasize too much the importance of actually understanding metering and exposure, and how to manage the zero-sum relationship between shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO.

Read my Exposure basics Photo Tips article

I use Singh-Ray filters

Bracketing for motion

Back in the film days, we used to bracket (multiple clicks of the same scene with minor adjustments) for exposure. But in today’s world of improved dynamic range and pre- and post-capture histograms, exposure bracketing is (or at least should be) limited to photographers who blend multiple exposures. Today I only bracket for scene changes that will give me a variety of images to choose between later.

Often my scene bracketing is for depth of field, as I run a series of clicks with a range of f-stops, then decide later whether I want a little or a lot of DOF. But my most frequent use of scene bracketing is to capture a variety of water motion effects. I start by finding a composition I like, then adjust my shutter speed (compensating for the exposure change with ISO and/or f-stop changes) to get different motion blur.

River and stream whitewater is usually (but not always) fairly constant, so my adjustments are usually just to vary the amount of motion blur. But when I’m photographing waves, the timing of the waves is as important as the motion blur. It helps to stand back and observe the waves for a while to get a sense for any patterns. Watching the direction of the waves and the size of the approaching swells not only allows me to time my exposures more efficiently, it also keeps me safe (and dry).

Star motion

Few images validate the power of the camera’s unique vision better than a scene etched with the parallel arcs of rotating stars (yes, I know it’s actually not the stars that are rotating). Nothing like human reality, the camera’s view of the night sky is equal parts beautiful and revealing. (Can you think of a faster, more effective way to demonstrate Earth’s rotation than a star trail image?)

Here are the factors that determine the amount of stellar motion:

  • Exposure duration: The longer your shutter is open, the more motion your sensor captures.
  • Focal length: Just as it is with terrestrial subjects, a longer focal length shrinks the range of view and magnifies the stars that remain.
  • Direction of composition: Compositions aimed toward the North or South Poles will display less star motion than compositions aimed toward the celestial equator. That’s because, due to Earth’s rotation on its axis (an imaginary, infinite line skewering our North and South Poles), everything in the sky rotates 360 degrees, around the Poles, in 24 hours. But the farther a star is from a Pole, the greater the visual distance it needs to cover to complete its circuit (it appears to move faster).

As with water motion, you can choose between a long exposure that exaggerates stellar motion, or a shorter exposure that freezes the stars in place to display a more conventional night sky (albeit with more stars than our eyes can discern).

Read more in my Starlight photography Photo Tips article

So what’s the point?

In the static world of a photograph, it’s up to the photographer to  to create a sense of motion. Sometimes we achieve this with lines that lead the eyes through the scene, but even more powerful is an image that uses motion to tap its viewers imagination. Your handling of the motion in your scene is a creative choice that’s enabled by your technical skill.

For example

I captured this beach sunset at Ke’e Beach on Kauai last month while co-teaching a workshop with Don Smith. I’ve photographed enough at Ke’e to know there are a couple of very different options there. One option is to follow a short trail west, toward the Na Pali Cliffs, to a rocky section of coast where the waves crash and large, rounded boulders predominate. But I’ve always preferred the calmer scene to the east, along the smooth beach, where the water is shallow and the surf laps gently at wave-carved sand and basalt.

So while Don led most of the group toward the rocky shore, I guided a small handful of outliers about a quarter mile in the other direction, up the beach, beyond the activity and around a bend until we had the pristine beach to ourselves. After a little time spent trying assemble the scene’s variables into a cohesive composition, we settled down and went to work. I finished with several dozen clicks of this composition, or something quite similar, each with different wave action—approaching, breaking, receding—and motion ranging from still to extreme blur.

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A gallery of motion

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Chased by rainbows

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow and Surf, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Rainbow and Surf, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
ISO 50

Okay, you might guess that as a nature photographer I spend a lot of time chasing rainbows. True, but I swear that in Hawaii it feels like rainbows are chasing me. Hawaii is the only place I’ve ever been where rainbows just appear with no warning, where I can be standing in full sun beneath a handful of puffy clouds, glance toward the horizon, and do a double-take—where’d that come from?

Because of Hawaiian rainbow’s seemingly spontaneous inclinations, the first thing do after landing at a photo site on the Islands is run through my rainbow checklist:

  • What’s the elevation of the sun? If the sun is lower than 42 degrees above the horizon, a rainbow is possible—the lower the sun, the higher and more complete (greater arc) the rainbow will be. If the sun’s near the horizon, a towering, nearly half-circle rainbow is possible; if the sun is higher, closer to 42 degrees, only a horizon-hugging, flatter rainbow is possible.
  • What’s the direction of the sun? A rainbow always appears directly opposite the sun—the best way to determine where it will appear is to find your shadow, which will point directly toward the rainbow’s center (and its apex).
  • If a rainbow does appear, where do I want to be? Armed with the answers from the first two questions, I know whether a rainbow is possible and exactly where it will appear. Now all I need is a composition for it. Pre-planning my rainbow composition prevents the Keystone Cops panic that typically ensues when a photographer looks skyward and spots a rainbow, but has nothing to put with it.
  • (Notice there’s no mention of rain here—I realize a rainbow requires rain, but in Hawaii the randomness of rainbows is a function of the rain’s fickle nature. Rain can be far enough away to be invisible, or it can sneak up on you with no warning. In other words, if I used the presence of rain as a criterion, I’d be defeating the entire purpose of the checklist.)

This simple exercise served me well a couple of weeks ago on Maui when, while photographing a wave-swept rock on the Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach near Hana, a vivid rainbow segment materialized above the eastern horizon. There had been no hint of rain, so I was pretty focused on my subject and not really thinking about rainbows. But since I’d run through my routine rainbow checklist earlier, I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. In this case it was a simple matter of shifting to the other side of the rock I’d already been photographing and back up the beach a little bit.

A horizontal composition allowed me to balance the rainbow with “my” rock while including enough of the lush, palm tree studded peninsula to infuse a tropical feel. The next (easily forgotten) step was to ensure that my polarizer was properly oriented (a mis-oriented polarizer will erase a rainbow). Finally, timing my click before the waves swept too far ashore allowed the black sand beach play a prominent role in the bottom third of my frame.

Want to learn the how, when, and where of rainbow photography? My Rainbows Demystified article in my photo tips section is a good place to start.

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 A Gallery of Rainbows

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Going with the flow

Gary Hart Photography: Sand and Foam, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Sand and Foam, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/3 second
ISO 100

One bad apple

Believe it or not, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. My answer has always been an immediate and emphatic, No. That changed in a recent workshop, which got me thinking that a successful photo workshop is as much about the people as it is about the location and conditions. And while one bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch, it won’t if I do my job.

In the (unnamed) workshop in question, it soon became clear to everyone that my problem participant (who I’ll call PP) was just an unhappy person who wasn’t going to be satisfied no matter what I did. When PP’s complaints started, my first reaction was that I needed to fix something I must be doing wrong, but when I started getting complaints about PP from other workshop participants, my focus had to change—it’s one thing to have an isolated disgruntled customer, but when that customer affects the experience of the entire group, my priority has to be the group.

For example

A successful photo workshop requires flexibility. Certainly in the timing and location of the shoots (which vary with conditions), but also flexibility of standard operating procedure as circumstances dictate. For example, over the years I’ve observed that much of the group connection happens in the vehicles, on the way to and from a shoot, and I’ve found that nothing enhances group chemistry better than getting everyone to ride with different people each day. But after watching participants pretty much trample each other to avoid riding with PP, I relaxed my switch vehicles “rule.” It seemed PP had found a comfort zone with two other participants who seemed satisfied with the arrangement, and I was quite content to not disturb that.

On the other hand, I can’t allow someone’s unhappiness to affect my role as a teacher and leader. I’ve learned that it’s never productive to take these things personally—I’m sure this person was struggling with things far more important than photography, and I just happened to get caught in the crossfire. Looking at it that way, I was actually able to feel compassion for my antagonist, and continue giving her the assistance she needed. We achieved a civil detente during our shooting and training time that allowed PP to get questions answered, and the rest of the group to shoot and learn without distraction.

It didn’t hurt that the rest of the group was relaxed and positive (as most groups are). We ended up with lots of truly special photography, many memorable moments, and tons of laughs—great images were made, new friendships formed, and old friendships recharged. (That several from this group are already signed up for future workshops is an endorsement that speaks even more clearly than the “Thanks for a great workshop” kudos I always appreciate.)

The big picture

One bad customer experience notwithstanding, to say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with nearly 20 years of technical communications experience (training programmers, tech writing, tech support), and thirty years of photography experience. And as a California native who grew up camping, backpacking, and (later) photographing all of my initial workshop locations (Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, Death Valley), I was intimately familiar with my subjects. Piece of cake, right?

The big unknown for me was the people—I like people, but would every group feature a PP (or two)? (I also underestimated the business side of things, but that’s a different story that at least has a happy ending.) I mean, no longer would I be lecturing programmers and IT geeks in an air conditioned training room, delivering a canned presentation I’d offered countless times before. Leading photo workshops meant herding a group of individuals possessing a broad range of fitness, skill, equipment, expectations, and needs, through remote areas in extreme, unpredictable conditions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out, not too much. First, I’ve always felt that my best photography memories often come in the most extreme conditions. And guess what—most other photographers feel the same way, and will gladly endure extreme conditions in exchange for great photography. They’ll also forgive difficult conditions that prevent potentially great photography: a downpour that makes photography impossible, clear skies that bathe beautiful scenery in harsh light, clouds that block a much anticipated moonrise, and so on. The key for dealing with difficult conditions is to always have a backup plan (or two).

But what about simple human diversity? Surely combining a bunch of people with so many differences would be a recipe for disaster. Concerned about mixing struggling beginners with impatient experts, I originally toyed with the idea of minimum equipment and experience requirements. What a mistake that would have been. While most of my workshops include photography skills ranging from enthusiastic beginner to experienced pro or semi-pro, rather than create tension, these differences create a synergy as the experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with anyone who will listen.

Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from every continent except Antarctica, and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. I’ve had doctors, lawyers, programmers, accountants, veterinarians, athletes, dentists, clergy, CEOs, writers, actors, musicians, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, and on and on. In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve had a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had gays and lesbians, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a woman in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, and a 9/11 survivor.

The common denominator transcending all this disparity? A passion for photography that unites strangers long enough to overcome superficial differences and appreciate deeper similarities: a love of family, friendship, nature, sharing, laughter.

Going with the flow (about this image)

I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. Clearly that’s not true, as people love to point out all my flowing water, lightning, and star trail images. But adding motion to a static landscape does introduce a new layer of complication. How we deal with that motion is equal parts aesthetic instinct to convey the illusion of motion in a compelling fashion, and the technical skill to simultaneously expose properly and freeze the motion at the right time, or blur it the desired amount.

When dealing with surf I usually start with finding the right composition. When I’m satisfied with my composition, I move on to my depth of field decisions (f-stop and focus point), then meter the scene. Only when my composition and exposure are ready and waiting atop my tripod, do I start think about clicking my shutter.

Rather than one or two clicks and done, when I really like my composition I sometimes (often) click several dozen times before recomposing, varying the wave action and shutter speed with each click. (Since my exposure is set, changing my shutter speed requires a compensating ISO and/or f-stop adjustment.) Despite the fixed composition, this approach uses the motion of the waves to make each frame different from the others, often significantly different.

Following each click, I evaluate the image on my LCD for small composition and exposure refinements, and to better understand my camera’s translation of the waves’ motion. It’s not long before I have an idea of what type of wave to look for, when to time my click, and the shutter speed that creates the effect I want.

On Maui’s Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach (near Hana) a couple of weeks ago, I used a rock protruding from the black sand to anchor my foreground. I chose a vertical composition to give the rock more of my foreground than a horizontal frame would have, and to allow me to include more of the sky, which I thought had appealing clouds.

Most of the waves petered out far short of the rock, but I soon realized that the waves that worked best were those that came far enough up the beach reach or even encircle the rock. I also decided that the waves that advanced farthest created their nicest effect on their way back out. With these insights in place, there was nothing more to do watch, wait, and click. Every once in a while a wave would slide just far enough up the beach to tickle my (bare) toes and I’d click a couple of times.

Perhaps mesmerized by the rhythm of the surf, I completely misjudged the incoming wave captured here. While no earlier wave had even reached my ankles, this one soaked me well above my knees and drenched most of my shorts. By the time I realized I was going to get wet it was too late to retreat, so I just rode it out, managing this click as the wave washed back out to sea (without me or my camera, thank-you-very-much).

(And I wish I could take creative credit for the wave exploding against the rocks in the background, but that was just fortunate timing.)

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A Gallery of Sand and Surf

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Channeling Wile E. Coyote

Gary Hart Photography

Maui Reflection, West Maui, Hawaii
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
ISO 100

“When you want something badly enough, a few mishaps are no deterrent.” Wile E. Coyote

Discovery (September 2012)

Scouting locations for my Maui workshop, I scrambled cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui’s north side, trying to make my way to a series of lava-rock, reflective tide pools. Once I’d descended to ocean level, reaching the pools still required hopscotching across wet basalt that was a disconcerting hybrid of banana peel slippery and razor sharp. As beautiful as the scene was, I decided access was far too dangerous for a group.

Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the rugged shoreline, eventually finding another group of connected pools elevated above the surf on a lava shelf. Even more varied and beautiful than the original location, I initially thought this spot wouldn’t be suitable for a group either. But climbing back to my car I stumbled upon an overgrown, unpaved “road” (maybe once upon a time used by vehicles) through the jungle and in the general direction of the main road (up).

After hiking a couple of hundred yards, I parted a branch blocking my progress and found myself back at the highway (“highway” in this case is the one to one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved Highway 340 circling West Maui), not too far from my car. So, maybe these tide pools could be accessed by a group. Fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the highway, I saved its position on my GPS and made a mental note to return.

Fool on a hill (March 2013)

The day before my next Maui workshop started, I picked up my friend and fellow photographer Don Smith at the airport. I was particularly excited to share the West Maui tide pools I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Edmund Hillary of landscape photography—there are signs down there that indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went.

Highway 340 circling West Maui will void most rental contracts, even on the best of days. This day the steady rain that had been falling all afternoon seemed to increase with the road’s remoteness, and I found myself wishing for another speed on the windshield wipers as we slalomed around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.

Undeterred, we soldiered on. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we sloshed past, occasionally pausing my narrative long enough to reassure him that the highway was indeed navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, promising a worthy payoff at the promised destination.

Closely monitoring my GPS (almost as if I had a brain), at the point of the hidden intersection I veered left into a gap in the trees with surgical precision. Between rapidly oscillating wipers the narrow track at first unfolded just as I’d remembered it, before suddenly narrowing, dropping, and twisting to the right. Dense foliage scraped both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud—before Don could finish a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” it dawned on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier had been to park at the top and walk down. Oops.

Propelled by momentum, and without the benefit of traction, gravity was now in charge (remember the jungle slide scene from “Romancing the Stone“?). Steering seemed to have less influence on our direction of travel than it did on the direction we faced, so I quickly gave that up. If it weren’t for the road’s deep ruts, I’m sure we’d have careened into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a bowling ball size boulder and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. After the longest hundred yards of my life, the slope moderated somewhat and the car slid to a stop.

After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, Don and I scanned our surroundings. With the car pointing in the the wrong direction (down), I knew getting out started with somehow turning around. A little farther down the slope I spotted a flat, clear space with a short Y-spur that, if we could reach it, might enable us to backup and turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had 4WD). When we didn’t find it, Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui SUVs.

With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the tires spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to evaluate our predicament—we were stuck on a road that was soon to become a creek, supported by four mud disks where the tires used to be. Hmmm—that would explain the whole no traction thing. Scraping the tires clean would have been of little value because the next revolution would simply reapply a new layer.

With Don pushing, I found that cranking the wheels 90 degrees gained just enough traction to free us and I gingerly rolled the car further downhill and into the open space and down into the Y’s left spur. Yay! With only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I backed slowly and pivoted into the Y’s other spur until the car was turned around and pointed back up the slope we’d just descended.

Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time in the direction of freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest point it curved hard-left but banked steep-right—not exactly a design that would be embraced at Daytona.

I inhaled and goosed the gas and we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum and coming to a stop no more than fifty feet up the road. This time the car was skewed 45-degrees, its left-front fender in the shrubs on one side, its right-rear fender in the shrubs on the other. When I gave the car gas, the tires spun hopelessly.

More stuck than ever, we started strategizing Plan B—with an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down, in the rain, a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.

While Don trudged up the road to implement that plan, I stayed with the waylaid car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. Surveying things more closely, it occurred to me that since the road was quite narrow, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom. If I’d only remembered my Acme Rocket Skates….

With nothing else to do, I decided to take rescue into my hands one last time. Rather than apply the brute force, gas pedal to the floor approach, I put the car in reverse, gave it just a little gas, and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free and returned more or less back in the ruts. I applied a little more gas to get it rolling, then let gravity and the rutted road roll me back to the level clearing. Without allowing it to lose momentum, I added a little more gas and rolled all the way to the far back end of the clearing, where I found a small section that was less mud and more gravel.

I’d given myself about 30 feet of relative flat for momentum before reaching the hill. With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and eased the accelerator down, adding gas just slowly enough to avoid losing traction. By the time I reached the hill the pedal was all the way to the floor and I had enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Past the crumpled shrubs and protruding rock I shot—as the road steepened my speed dropped and I could feel the wheels spinning but I just kept my foot to the floor. Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to zero but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who sprinted ahead and turned to cheer me forward.

By now the fishtailing exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as there was still forward motion. About 20 yards beyond the curve the road leveled and I felt the tires grip rock—freedom! Not wanting to stop until my tires kissed actual pavement, I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I rocketed past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.

If at first you don’t succeed (March 2015)

Despite the traumatic memories, I’ve added this location to my Maui workshop rotation (but now we walk down, thank-you-very-much). Nevertheless, for various reasons this location has managed to thwart me—I’d never captured an image that completely satisfied me. The first year our shoot here was washed out by a deluge that made the road impassible even on foot. Last year we were inhibited by persistent showers that were compounded by camera problems.

But this year I gave it another shot, leading the group here at the end of a long day that started with a 3:30 a.m. departure for Haleakala. Dark gray clouds hung low and delivered tangible flecks of moisture, and I feared they’d let loose before the group had a chance to get established. The road was muddy and a little slippery, not like it was for my misadventure, but enough that a few people bailed and called it a day.

The handful who stayed were rewarded with mirror-calm tide pools surrounded by exploding surf. The clouds didn’t permit enough sunlight to color sky, but they retained enough definition and texture to be photogenic. As I moved around to work with each of the workshop participants, I fired a few frames of my own, eventually landing in the spot you see here.

I decided to go with my 16-35 lens to exaggerate the pool at my feet. Following my general policy to place the horizon line separating foreground and sky on the part of the scene with the most visual interest, I gave almost all my frame to the foreground. I rotated my polarizer to a midway point that reflected the sky but still revealed the submerged basalt. Satisfied with my composition, I stood back and watched the surf, timing each click with the most violent collisions.

I captured several more “keeper” images—enough, I think, to more than make up for previous failures (and mishaps) here. Sleep was no problem that night.

A Maui Gallery

Aloha from the top of the world

Gary Hart Photography: Top of the World, Haleakala Volcano, Maui

Top of the World, Haleakala Volcano, Maui
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
.4 seconds
ISO 100

March 4, 2015

Just a quick update from Maui, where I’m in the midst of my annual Maui workshop (and because there’s nothing better to do when you wake up at 4 a.m. than post a blog). Before the workshop started I held my breath as I warned my group that on our first morning we’d need to leave at 3:30 to photograph sunrise from the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala. Not only that, they should pack for temperatures in the 30s and wind. Oh yeah, and there’s a chance that the summit would be engulfed in clouds and we’d see absolutely nothing. The only defense I could offer the insane start time was that everyone needs to watch the sun rise from Haleakala at least once in their life.

Yesterday was the day. To ensure that we’d all be able to find a place for our tripods, we arrived an hour before the 6:45 sunrise. Exiting the car at the Haleakala Visitor Center vista, I looked upward, found a sky filled with stars, and immediately whispered a quick thank you to the photography gods. In addition to clear skies, relatively calm wind made the 35 degree temperature feel downright balmy.

It seems that each time I do this, Haleakala’s a little more crowded. Some in the group stayed with the masses lined along the rail at the primary view; those who didn’t mind a short but steep climb in thin air followed me a few hundred yards up a nearby trail to an elevated, less crowded view.

By the time the sun rose, I’d been playing with compositions long enough to have a pretty good idea what I wanted to do. Because of the scene’s extreme dynamic range, I decided to use my new Sony a7S, adding a Singh-Ray 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter, a combination that allowed me to capture this shot with a single click. I’ve never been able to capture so much foreground detail, while retaining color in the sun, in a single frame. To get the sunstar, I stopped down to f20 and clicked just as the sun peeked above the horizon.

Our sunrise success was a great start to what proved to be a wonderful (albeit long) day of photography. We descended the mountain shortly thereafter, and after a quick Starbucks recharge in Kahului, wrapped up our morning with a nice shoot in the lush Iao Valley. The afternoon included a sensor cleaning seminar, a blowhole (accented with a few whale sightings), and a cloudy but beautiful sunset on a hidden volcanic beach.

Today it’s the Road to Hana….

A Maui Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Announcing my 2016 Maui Tropical Paradise photo workshop

A small dose of mind-bending perspective

Gary Hart Photography, The Milky Above Kilauea Volcano

Earth and Sky, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
20 seconds
ISO 3200

So what’s happening here? The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater inside Hawaii’s Kilauea Caldera, reflecting off a low-hanging bank of clouds. The white band above the crater is light cast by billions of stars at the center our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars here, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. Partially obscuring the Milky Way’s glow are large swaths of interstellar dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that we imagine into mythical shapes—the constellations.

The Milky Way galaxy is home to every single star we see when we look up at night, and 300 billion more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth. Our Sun, the central cog in the solar system that includes Earth and the other planets wandering our night sky, is a minor player in a spiral arm near the outskirts of the Milky Way. But before you get too impressed with the size of the Milky Way, consider that it’s just one of 500 billion or so galaxies in the known Universe—that’s right, there are more galaxies in the Universe than stars in our galaxy.

Everything we see is the product of light—light created by the object itself (like the stars), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets). Light travels incredibly fast, fast enough that it can span even the two most distant points on Earth faster than humans can perceive, fast enough that we consider it instantaneous. But distances in space are so great that we don’t measure them in terrestrial units of distance like miles or kilometers. Instead, we measure interstellar distance by the time it takes for a beam of light to travel between two objects—one light-year is the distance light travels in one year.

The ramifications of cosmic distance are mind-bending. Imagine an Earth-like planet revolving the star closest to our solar system, about four light-years away. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to the planet’s surface, we’d be watching that planet’s activity from four years ago. Likewise, if someone on that planet today (in 2014) were watching us, they’d see Lindsey Vonn claiming the gold in the Women’s Downhill at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and maybe learn about the unfolding WikiLeaks scandal.

In this image, the caldera’s proximity makes it about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—the caldera and I are sharing the same instant in time. On the other hand, the light from the stars above the caldera is tens, hundreds, or thousands of years old—it’s new to me, but to the stars it’s old history. Not only that, every point of starlight here is a version of that star created in a different instant in time. It’s possible for the actual distance separating two stars to be so great, that we see light from the younger star that’s older than the light from the older star.

So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective. It’s easy (essential?) for humans to overlook our place in this larger Universe as we negotiate the family, friends, work, play, eat, and sleep that defines our very own personal universes. I doubt we could cope otherwise. But when I start taking my life too seriously, it helps to appreciate my place in the larger Universe. Nothing does that better for me than quality time with the night sky.

About this image

My 2014 Hawaii Big Island photo workshop group made three trips to photograph the Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way. On the first night we got a lot of clouds, with a handful of stars above, and just a little bit of Milky Way. Nice, but not the full Milky Way everyone hoped for. So I brought everyone back a couple nights later—this time we got about ten minutes of quality Milky Way photography before the clouds closed in. The following night we gave the caldera one more shot and were completely shut out by clouds. Such is the nature of night photography in general, and on Hawaii in particular. This image is from our second visit.

My concern that night was making sure everyone was successful, ASAP. I started with a test exposure to determine the exposure settings that would work best for that night (not only does each night’s ambient light vary with the volcanic haze, cloud cover, and airborne moisture, the caldera’s brightness varies daily too). Once I got the exposure down and called it out to the group, most of my time was spent helping people find and check their focus, and refine their compositions (“More sky! More sky!”). Bouncing around in the dark, I’d occasionally stop at my camera long enough to fire a frame, never staying long enough to see the image pop up on the LCD. I ended up with a half dozen or so frames, including this one from early in the shoot.

Join me on the Big Island next year

Learn more about starlight photography

A starlight gallery

Click an image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide show

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