And now for something completely different…

Raindrops on Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
100 mm
1/50 second
ISO 800

I can’t photograph much farther from my subject than I did on the Milky Way image in my last post. And I can’t photograph much closer to my subject than I did these raindrops on an orchid in Lava Tree State Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Early in the week I took my workshop group to Lava Tree State Park after our sunrise shoot on the Puna coast. We didn’t have great light (too much sun), but everyone liked the location so much that I tried to figure out a way to get them back. When we finally made it on our final morning it was raining quite hard when we pulled into the parking lot. No problem: rain showers in Hawaii tend to fall straight down, so it’s simply a matter of keeping an umbrella over the camera to take advantage of the perfect light.

Lava Tree State Park is a lush, quiet 3/4 mile walk with a variety of exotic subjects along the entire loop. With a few other workshop participants I beelined past huge ferns, ghostlike lava-encrusted trees, and a host of colorful flowers to a field of wild orchids at the back of the park. By the time I arrived the rain had stopped, but not before decorating the entire landscape with sparkling jewels of water.

After two weeks on the Big Island, I had a great variety wide landscapes, so I was really looking forward to taking advantage of another of the Big Island’s great macro opportunities. I wandered a bit until I found this lone, bejeweled orchid, drooping beneath the raindrops’ weight. Positioning myself with the orchid juxtaposed against a wall of shaded ferns, I went to work.

Figuring if I’m going to go macro, I might as well go nuclear, I twisted on my 100 mm and all three extension tubes. My macro is a pretty fast 2.8, but adding 72 mm of extension really cut the light—I knew I’d need to bump my ISO. Nevertheless, the wind was light to non-existent, and I had no qualms about bumping the ISO on my 5DIII to whatever I felt was necessary.

For me the world looks a lot different through a macro lens, particularly when extension tubes shrink it even further. And every image is a process of capture, refine, capture, refine—this is particularly true of macro photography, when even the slightest shift of composition, focal length, or focus can completely change an image—so it was a few minutes before I landed on this little scene. But when I did, I knew I had what I wanted and worked it to within an inch of its life. For about forty-five minutes I clicked variations of this basic theme: a little wider, a little tighter, slightly different perspective, and a variety of f-stops and focus points. I usually limit my depth of field in my macro images to blur the subject’s inessential (less compelling) elements, but it this case I liked the way both the drops and the micro-reflection they contained were sharp at f16.

I’m still in Hawaii, and as with the Milky Way caldera image, working without a mouse on my thirteen inch laptop, so I have no idea whether I’ve chosen the best version of this shot. But since I’m pretty happy with it, and it required virtually no processing, here it is.

Join me for a Hawaii photo workshop

 A close-up gallery

Wow, wow, wow…

Fire on High, Kilauea and Milky Way, Hawaii

Fire on High, Kilauea and Milky Way, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
15 seconds
ISO 3200
28 mm

In a life filled with special moments, a few in particular stand out for me. Near the top of that list would be my annual trip to Hawaii and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above an active volcano. I do this enough that it’s no longer novel for me, but it’s always special, and each time I get vicarious joy seeing my group’s reaction. And no Kilauea shoot was more joyful than this night.

After photographing a nice sunset at the caldera, my workshop group hightailed it to the Kilauea Lodge in nearby Volcano for dinner and to wait for total darkness. The sky was mostly cloudy when we went inside, but I’ve done this enough now to know that the clouds surrounding Kilauea often clear once the sun goes down. Stepping outside after dinner, we were thrilled to see that the clouds had indeed departed, exposing a sky that some in the group said was filled with more stars than they’d ever seen. (Camera or not, I encourage each of you to get away from town late on a moonless night and spend some quality time with the sky.)

We started our night shoot at the Jaggar Museum overlook, which offers the closest view of the caldera. I got the group set up with their exposures and focus and we stayed until I knew everyone had at least one successful image. Its proximity to the caldera makes the Jaggar overlook the most crowded place to view Kilauea, so I quickly hustled the group to another spot a little farther back along the rim where I knew we could align the Milky Way with the glowing caldera. By that time a few clouds had started to move back in, but I reassured everyone that some clouds would add some character to the sky and reflect the color from the volcano. Little did we know….

Our second vantage point was completely empty, and the clouds couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d have commissioned them myself. For at least thirty minutes we photographed a jigsaw of cloud fragments drifting over the volcano, glowing like embers with the light of the churning lava but parting just enough to reveal the stars behind and frame the Milky Way.

Waiting fifteen to thirty seconds for an exposure to complete leaves lots of vacant time, which we managed to fill quite easily with laughter. Despite the hilarity, everyone managed to keep shooting until the cloud  pieces assembled and the Milky Way rotated away from the volcano’s glow. But not before everyone in the group had an assortment of images like this (and memories to match). Besides the amazing images, I think my greatest pleasure came from the spontaneous exclamations of joy (“Oh my God!”, “Wow! Wow! Wow!”) I heard from each workshop student when the first image popped up on their LCD.

And for those dubious minds who don’t believe this image is “real,” I can assure you that this is pretty much the way the scene appeared on everyone’s LCD (and I have a dozen witnesses with their own images to prove it). To our eyes the scene was darker, not nearly bright enough for our eyes to discern this much color in the clouds (but no less beautiful). But boosting exposure to bring out more stars in the Milky Way had the added benefit of enhancing the caldera’s glow reflected by the clouds.

Join me on the Big Island each September as I help my workshop group duplicate this amazing shot

A Big Island Gallery

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

Looking a little closer

Surf and Stone, Hana Highway beach, Maui

My print sales tell me that it’s the familiar, dramatic vistas that people are most interested in (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but what I most like photographing is the often overlooked details that make nature special. While I do my share of landscape retreads–because there are reasons these scenes are popular and I’m still a sucker for natural beauty–when left to my own devices, I could (and do) shoot stuff like this intimate Maui beach scene all day.

Because Maui and the Big Island have experienced the most recent volcanic activity (it’s ongoing on the Big Island), scenes like this are much more common than they are on the other major islands. I found these volcanic stones, polished smooth by sand and surf, on a small beach near Hana. I composed to capture the sea/land interaction that’s so easily overlooked in favor of the more dramatic surroundings. Once I found a composition I liked, I clicked twenty frames recording a variety of wave actions at different shutter speeds.

The Road to Hana

Serenity, Waterfall and Pool, Hana Highway, Maui
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
45 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 200

In my parents’ day, Maui’s “Road to Hana” was something to be achieved. Negotiating the narrow, undulating, muddy, potholed, serpentine, lonely jungle track was a badge of honor, something akin to scaling Everest or walking on the moon.

Today’s Hana road has been graded, paved, and widened just enough to accommodate a double yellow line that creates the illusion of space for one car in each direction. This sanitized road, now dubbed the “Hana Highway,” hosts a daily bi-directional swarm of tourists whose priorities range from not missing a single leaf, all the way to being the first to cross the finish line in Hana or back in Kapalua. Unfortunately, priorities (among other things) collide at each of the 56 bridges that, due to budget constraints, remain at their original one-lane width. Add to this mix laboring bicyclists, a sky that pinballs between blinding sunshine and windshield-obliterating downpour, an assortment of impatient and sometimes hostile locals (they’re the ones whose music you hear before their pickup rounds the turn), an occasional ten-wheel dump truck large enough to scrape roadside foliage with both mirrors, and  random mongooses that pop from the jungle with Wac-A-Mole predictability, and navigating the Road to Hana feels more like a Hope/Crosby movie than a tropical vacation.

But one thing hasn’t changed: The Road to Hana experience remains a living embodiment of the tired axiom, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Hana itself is a pleasant, Hawaiian town with nice beaches and a small but eclectic assortment of restaurants and lodging. But with every hairpin turn or precipitous drop on the way there, you can’t help feeling that you’ve plopped into Heaven on Earth. The Hana road’s 50-plus miles alternate between dark, jungle tunnels and cliff-hugging ocean panoramas, punctuated by waterfalls (some of which start above you and complete beneath you, on the other side of the car), colorful foliage, and the constant potential for a rainbow. And oh yeah—banana bread. The best banana bread you’ve ever tasted. Still warm.

Sonya and I set out for Hana early Thursday morning—not quite as early as we’d planned, but we hoped early enough. Finding the first few miles beautiful and relatively easy going, we naively congratulated ourselves for our early start. But somewhere around mile-ten, as the curves tightened, the road shrank, and the photography improved, our pace slowed considerably and we found ourselves swept up in the tourist wave. Parking at every scenic turnout was a battle that often resulted in extremely, uh, “creative” solutions. Nevertheless, after a day packed with a year’s worth of scenery, we rolled into Hana at about 5 pm, equal parts exhausted and hungry.

Approaching Hana we’d glanced a sign for a restaurant called “Café Romantica,” offering “Gourmet, organic vegetarian food.” Since Sonya’s a vegetarian, and I don’t eat red meat, meals on the road are sometimes problematic and we were excited about the possibility of rewarding ourselves with a good meal. But the sign offered no specifics and despite our vigilance we found no hint of its existence anywhere.

Once we were comfortably ensconced in our (amazing) room, I pulled out my iPhone and looked up Café Romantica. I found it on Yelp, but no address, website, or phone number anywhere. The Yelp reviews were both amazing (nearly unanimous 5 stars) and intriguing (references to a truck beside the road and bizarre hours) enough that I knew we had to find it. Clicking the “Directions” link on Yelp returned a Google map with a dot on the road about ten miles south of town (in the opposite direction from which we’d arrived)–still no address, but at least solid clue.

In a perfect world we’d have taken an hour or so to clean up, enjoy the setting, and recharge after the drive, but one of the Yelp reviews warned the restaurant closes at 7:00, so we sucked it up and headed right back out. (This might be a good time to mention that the day prior Sonya and I had driven to the top of Haleakala. This is a harrowing drive in its own right, spiraling from sea level to over 10,000 feet in less than thirty miles. On the way down the mountain the brake warning light in our rental blinked on and off intermittently. And on the drive to Hana that morning, our tire pressure warning light had come on a couple of times.)

Twilight was fast approaching, but we felt confident in the Google map on my iPhone, with its bold red dot representing Café Romantica and a blue dot that perfectly pinpointed our location. I mean, even without an address, how hard could it be? Since there’s only one road in and out of town, I figured we’d just drive into the jungle until we found the restaurant where the dots meet.

I watched the road and the dashboard warning lights (so far so good), while Sonya monitored the dots, watching the blue dot inch closer to the red one far slower than we’d expected. It became immediately clear that the road out of Hana is even more challenging than the road into Hana. It’s narrower, shrinking to one lane for long stretches, and much rougher. And while the road into Hana seemed to be about 80-percent fellow gawking (but harmless) tourists, the only vehicles we encountered south of town were clearly locals who seemed to be enforcing their own secret roadway protocol, the prime principle being that, no matter what the hazard or consequence, we are to get out of their way.

About five miles (twenty minutes) into the jungle we rounded a particularly narrow corner to find ourselves headlights-to-headlights with a careening pickup who instantly opted for his horn instead of his brakes. After deftly braking and swerving, I glanced in the mirror and saw that pickup driver had finally discovered his brakes, and in fact had also stumbled upon his reverse gear and gas pedal and as accelerating back in our direction. I boldly applied the gas and disappeared around the next bend, then spent the next two miles with an eye on the mirror. (I’ll probably never understand that little encounter, but fortunately we never saw the guy again.) The road grew more remote with each turn, and we started imagining engine and tire noises–at one point I rolled down the window to see if I could figure out where that tire noise was coming from, but the road noise was drowned out by jungle sounds. My attention alternated between the road in front of us, the rearview mirror, and the dash, while Sonya kept a vigilant eye on the dots and we traded to “Deliverance” jokes to ease the tension.

By the time our dots merged, darkness was almost complete and we were pretty much resigned to the reality that our dinner plan had descended to wild goose chase status. According to Yelp, Café Romantica clings to a remote, vine-covered cliff about two hundred vertical feet above the Pacific—there’s not enough room there for a toaster, let alone an entire restaurant. But at that point we were just happy to find a place wide enough to turn around.

The drive back in the dark was less eventful (and no doubt due to my vigilant scrutiny, the previous day’s warning lights never did return), though at one point we were tailgated by a group of partying teenagers who pushed us along until I found a place wide enough to pull over safely. Needless to say, we were quite hungry by the time we rolled into town at around 7:30. Given Hana’s limited selection of restaurants, its reputation for shutting down early, and our specific culinary needs, we inventoried the food we had in the car and decided rice cakes, graham crackers, and fruit could get us to breakfast without starving.

About two blocks from our hotel a string of lights on the left caught my attention and I slammed on my brakes while my brain struggled to comprehend what I saw. Suspended above a small motorhome on an otherwise vacant lot was an awning with the words, “Café Romantica.” It was so close to our room that the walk there would have been shorter than the walk to our car had been. Besides a man putting away chairs and tables at the back of the property and a woman puttering inside the motorhome, we couldn’t see much activity. Nevertheless, I executed a quick u-turn and parked out front.

The motorhome had an attached awning covering a short counter with three or four stools. Behind a sliding window above the counter puttered the woman. I approached the window, crossed my fingers, and asked if they were still open. She shook her and apologized politely, explaining that she was almost out food. But as I started to summarize our futile hunt of the last hour she must have heard the desperation in my voice, because immediately her face warmed and she reassured us in a most maternal tone that she’d take care of us. She introduced herself as Lori Lee and asked where we were from.

About then another couple walked up, and rather than turn them away, Lori Lee rattled off to the four of us a handful of the most mouth watering, eclectic vegetarian entrées imaginable: rellenos, quiche, curry, …. She qualified each offering with the proviso that she only had one or two servings of each, but since they all sounded so good, the four of us had no problem negotiating who’d get what.

Lori Lee entertained us with friendly conversation as we sipped a wonderful soup (that also gave us great hope for what was to follow) she’d offered to hold us over until dinner was ready. Rather than make you watch me chew, I’ll just say that dinner was so good that we ordered dessert (something we never do), and even added one of her remaining entrees to-go for lunch the next day.

One of my tenets is that things always work out. I have to confess that our drive that evening severely tested my conviction, but without our little misdirection adventure, Sonya and I would have been deprived of probably the most memorable experience of our trip, and a restaurant experience I’ll never forget.

A few words about this picture

This little waterfall is just one of dozens visible along the entire length of the Hana Highway. Many are quite dramatic and stimulating; others, like this one, are more subdued and soothing. I must admit that by the time we pulled up to this fall I was verging waterfall overload. I’d found that my 70-200 lens worked best for most falls because it allowed me to isolate aspects of the scene and also to surgically remove tourists at some of the more popular falls, and I’d started exiting the car without the rest of my gear.

But cresting the small hill that provided a vantage point, I realized I’d left the car with only my 24-105 lens. Rather than walking back to the car (a hike all of maybe 150 feet), I decided to pick my way down to the pool’s edge. And had I not done that, I would have completely missed the beautiful rocks just beneath the water’s surface.

To ensure sharpness throughout the frame, I stopped down to f16, dropped to my knees, and focused on the large rock visible just beneath the surface (behind the protruding rocks). I carefully oriented my polarizer to remove glare on the nearby water and rocks, but not so much that I lost all of the fall’s reflection in the quiet water. I clicked several frames, all vertical. Some included the entire fall, but I like the mystery of this composition, the way it lets you imagine the rest of the fall and the scene surrounding it.

About thirty seconds after I snapped this a teenage girl jumped into the water right in front of me and the shot was gone. Fortunately I had all that I needed and I returned to the car a happy photographer.

Join me in my

2013 Maui photo workshop, March 11-15

Sunrise on the rocks

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Puna Coast, Hawaii

Dawn, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 100

I “discovered” this unnamed beach while scouting locations for my Hawaii workshops. It wasn’t on any maps or in any guidebooks, it was just there, tucked into a narrow strip separating the churning Pacific from lush Kapono-Kalapana Road. Through the trees the beach looked promising, so I pulled into a wide spot and explored more closely. A pair of children’s shorts draping a branch near the road, and a warning sign nailed to a tree, were indications that this not a secret location. I feared the sign would threaten severe consequences to anyone who dared trespass, but it simply said, “Private property: No camping or fires. Please enjoy.” So I did.

I’ve probably photographed this beach a dozen times since then. The hanging children’s clothing is always different: shoes, shirts, a swimsuit, but the sign stays the same. For the last few days, on each visit to locations I scouted before the workshop, I’ve scoured the rocks for a lens cap that disappeared somewhere early in my visit to the island. While I have no real hope of finding my lens cap, it’s a great reminder to look more closely at the beauty right at my feet. In Hawaii it’s easy to get distracted by the turquoise surf and billowing clouds, but it’s the jewel-like pools, pillow-shaped rocks, and emerald green moss within arm’s reach that make me feel like beautiful images are possible here any time, regardless of conditions.

This morning’s workshop sunrise was maybe my sixth time here in the last two weeks. The sky was nice but not spectacular, so I decided to emphasize the basalt pillows and quiet pools. I put on my widest lens (17-40) and dialed it out to 19mm to exaggerate the exquisite foreground. The pre-sunrise sky reflected nicely in the pools, but wasn’t yet sufficient to illuminate the black lava. To bring out the character in the nearby rocks, I used a two-stop graduated neutral density filter that held back the much brighter sky enough to expose the foreground detail. Because it was still too dark for a shutter speed that would freeze the violent waves, I opted to blur them into a gauzy mist that (I hoped) would create an ethereal mood. The result was a ten second exposure at f11 and ISO 100.

As we pulled away, an older gentleman hurried across the road to flag me down. I feared we’d inadvertently disturbed his peace, but he was simply wanted to express his admiration for our enjoying the beach so early. He gestured to a home mostly hidden behind dense foliage and said this was indeed “his” beach (technically no beach in Hawaii can be private) and that he was glad we enjoyed it. Then he reached into his pocket and handed me a small black disk, “I found this a few days ago.” I took my lens cap and thanked him for his generosity.

A Big Island Gallery

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



Sunset, Any Beach, Hawaii

The last few years I’ve spent quite a bit in Hawaii, but I really can’t say which island I prefer. All have gorgeous around-the-clock weather, more waterfalls than you can count, dense and colorful rain forests, and spectacular volcanic beaches. More recently my photographic attention has been focused on the Big Island and Maui, but I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. Both have lots of rain forests and waterfalls. The Big Island has Kilauea and is much less crowded (especially the more photogenic Hilo side); Maui has Haleakala and the breathtaking Road to Hana. But rather than leave you hanging, I’ll continue my extensive research on this question and will gladly keep you apprised of my findings.

I return to Hawaii’s Big Island for one or two workshops each September, and starting March 2013 I’ll offer a four-day Maui workshop that includes two nights in Hana. There are more places to photograph on Hawaii than there’s time to photograph, so my Hawaii workshop schedule is a bit problematic. We certainly squeeze in lots of photo time, both day and night, but the Islands’ slow pace is infectious–it’s simply impossible not to spend time hanging by the pool and strolling by the beach, so I need to factor in quality downtime for my participants. And then there are those Mai Tais….

Check out my website for more info on my Hawaii photography workshops.

Akaka Fall is the centerpiece of Akaka Falls State Park, a lush, tropical rainforest splashed with reds and yellows so vivid they almost hurt your eyes.

Hawaii isn’t just endless sand beaches. The Big Island and Maui in particular have miles and miles of volcanic beaches like this–short on sand, but long on drama.

This is just one of what seems like hundreds of waterfalls on the Road to Hana, Maui—you’ll quickly realize that some waterfalls exhilarate, while others soothe.

This is the Kilauea Caldera on the Big Island. I can’t imagine anything more breathtaking than peering into an active volcano, unless maybe it’s peering into an active volcano at night.

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