Eye on the sky

Clouds at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

Infinite Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

I returned couple of weeks ago from a week on Kauai where I assisted Don Smith with his workshop. Kauai used to have the reputation as Hawaii’s “quiet” island, and while it still may be a little more peaceful than Oahu or Maui, Kauai is certainly no longer a secret. But extensive and ongoing (painstaking) research has shown me that despite the crowds, it is possible to enjoy quiet on any of the Hawaiian Islands.

We were based near Kapaa, at a beachside resort teaming with people throughout the day and well into the night. Most of our Kauai sunrise locations had been a 30-45 minute drive to fairly remote spots, but following a fairly late night, Don and I gave the group a break and scheduled our sunrise shoot for the beach behind our resort—just hop out of bed, throw on some shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, and we’d be in business.

As far as I know, this east-facing beach doesn’t have a name. While its pure white sand is dotted with volcanic rocks and lava shelves that wax and wane with the tide, this is not a destination that draws photographers on its own merits. But despite its lack of notoriety, this a pretty little beach was more than worthy of our attention. And concern about competing for turf with the crowds at our resort turned out to be completely unfounded. As I’ve learned in Yosemite, and verified at many other crowded locations, rise at sunrise and you can pretty much have the world to yourself. “Our” beach that morning was no exception.

Send in the clouds

I call what I do “landscape” photography, but “land” is really only half the picture (literally). It’s easy to focus so much on the scene we came to photograph that we completely overlook what’s going on overhead. While the physical qualities of most landscapes are pretty static, the sky can change, sometimes dramatically, from one frame to the next. Clouds, moon, stars, color—some or all of these dynamic features are often primary subjects in need of a foreground, no matter how prosaic. Put a rainbow over any tree, or a small moon over a small New Mexico town, and you might just end up with something special.

Our sky this morning was a tapestry of dark rainclouds overlain by a diaphanous veneer of thin clouds, broken by patches of blue. I walked up the beach looking for a foreground to complement the quickly changing sky, finally settling on a solitary lava pyramid protruding from the pristine, surf-wash beach. Setting up my shot I noticed that the receding waves left a glossy sheen that reflected the sky. The calm simplicity of the foreground juxtaposed against the complex beauty of the sky was more than just visually appealing, the quiet beach, warm air, cooling breeze, and elegant sky were personally soothing and I wanted an image that conveyed that.

Discard the “rule” of thirds

One of the creative decisions a landscape photographer needs to make with each image where to put the horizon. Near the top? Near the bottom? In the middle? Or maybe no horizon at all. Many photographers, especially those constrained by the shackles of camera club competitions, will automatically put the sky at the 1/3 or 2/3 line of their image’s vertical axis. This may be great for beginners who automatically bullseye every scene, but aspiring photographers need to graduate from prescribed formula to creative choice.

My feeling has aways been to favor the aspect of the scene with the most appeal. Great sky? Low horizon. Great foreground? High horizon. How low or high? That depends on the relative merits of the sky and foreground—80/20 or 90/10 splits (in either direction) create a dramatic emphasis to the right scene. And is it okay to put it in the middle? Absolutely! Which is what I did here. Not only do the two halves of the scene move me equally, balancing them in the frame subconsciously conveys the tranquil equilibrium I felt that morning.

I’d love to say that the small white rock in the lower right quadrant was a conscious part of my compositional strategy, but it wasn’t. I was aware it was there, but its inclusion was a subconscious choice. This tiny rock is a great illustration of the rule of thirds true value. While I don’t think it should dictate composition, the rule of thirds often does explain why things work. In this case, without really thinking about it, I stacked two very different scenes to make this image. Place rule of thirds grid atop the bottom scene and it’s immediately clear that my two rocks (one large, one tiny) occupy balancing intersections. The large rock has enough mass to provide significant visual weight pretty much anywhere in the scene, but by virtue of its strong position, the small rock is able to balance its much larger counterpart.

Rule of thirds or no rule of thirds? Am I contradicting myself here? I don’t think so. Photographic “rules” earned their status for a reason and are not without value—we just shouldn’t be slaves to them. When you turn off your internal rule monitor and allow your creative instincts to take over, the organic compositions that follow will more uniquely reflect your experience of the moment and your emotions of at capture.

Join me in a photo workshop on Hawaii’s Big Island or Maui

A Gallery of Horizons

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