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
F/2.8
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

One eye on the ocean, the other on the volcano

Gary Hart Photography: Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16mm
10 seconds
F/16
ISO 3200

September 16, 2014

It’s easy to envy residents of Hawaii’s Big Island—they enjoy some of the cleanest air and darkest skies on Earth, their soothing ocean breezes ensure that the always warm daytime highs remain quite comfortable, and the bathtub-warm Pacific keeps overnight lows from straying far from the 70-degree mark. Scenery here  is a postcard-perfect mix of symmetrical volcanoes, lush rain forests, swaying palms, and lapping surf. I mean, with all this perfection, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let me tell you….

Last month Tropical Storm Iselle, just a few hours removed from hurricane status, slammed Hawaii’s Puna Coast with tree-snapping winds and frog-drowning rain that cut electricity, flooded roads, and disrupted many lives for weeks. Touring the area in and around Hilo, it’s easy to appreciate Hawaiian resilience—thanks to quick action, hard work, and continuous smiles, most visitors would find it difficult to believe what happened here just a month ago. But on the drive south of Hilo along the Puna Coast, I witnessed firsthand Iselle’s power in its aftermath. There beaches have been rearranged beyond recognition and entire forests have been leveled.

But despite its impact, Iselle is already old news. This month residents of Hawaii’s Puna region have done a 180, turning their always vigilant eyes away from the ocean and toward the volcano. In late June Kilauea’s Pu`u `O`o Crater dispatched a river of lava down the volcano’s southeast flank. Since Pu`u `O`o has been erupting continuously since 1983, this latest incursion didn’t initially raise many eyebrows. But the flow has persisted, advancing now at about 250 yards per day. While this isn’t “Run-for-your life!” speed, it’s more like high stakes water torture because there’s very little that can be done to stop, slow, or even deflect the lava’s inexorable march. Residents of the communities of Kaohe and Pahoa can do nothing but watch, pray, and prepare—if the volcano persists, they’re wiped out. Not only that, the lava flow also threatens the Pahoa Highway, currently the only route in and out for the thousands of residents of the Puna region.

Recent reports of increased activity on Muana Loa have also notched up the anxiety. Lava from its last eruption, in 1984, threatened Hawaii’s capital, Hilo, before petering out with just a few miles to spare. Because Muana Loa eruptions tend to be larger and more explosive than Kilauea eruptions, any increased activity there is taken very seriously.

Had enough? Well, there’s more thing: With its funnel-shaped bay and bullseye placement in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hilo is generally considered the most tsunami vulnerable city in the world. Fatal tsunamis have struck the Big Island in 1837, 1868, 1877, 1923, 1946, 1960, and 1975. Yesterday my photo workshop group photographed sunrise at Laupahoehoe Point, where damage from the most deadly tsunami to strike American soil is still visible. That tsunami, in 1946 (before Hawaii became a state), traveled 2,500 miles from the Aleutian Islands to kill 159 Hawaiians, including 20 schoolchildren and 4 teachers in Laupahoehoe.

Despite this shopping list of threats and hardship, I don’t get the sense the Hawaiians want sympathy. Despite the unknown but potentially devastating consequences facing them, both imminent and potential, no one here is feeling sorry for themselves. There’s much talk about the current lava flow that will directly or indirectly impact every resident of the Big Island’s Hilo side, but no hand-wringing—life goes on and smiles abound. Indeed, everyone here seems to have sprung into action in one way or another, shoring up old long abandoned roads (the jungle claims anything left unattended with frightening speed), helping people move possessions to safe ground, offering temporary shelter, and whatever else might help.

The Aloha spirit is alive and well, and I have no doubt that it will persevere in the face of whatever adversity Nature throws at them.

About this image

My Hawaii photo workshop began Monday afternoon, but my brother and I arrived on the Big Island on Friday because I hate doing any workshop without first running all my locations to make sure there are no surprises. And this time it turned out to be a wise move—not only did I get a couple of extra days in paradise, I did indeed encounter surprises, courtesy of Iselle, when I discovered two of my go-to locations rendered inaccessible by storm damage. I spent Saturday searching for alternatives and by Saturday’s end had a couple of great substitute spots. That night we celebrated with a night shoot on Kilauea. (I was going to visit Kilauea anyway, but if I’d still been stressing about my locations, I probably wouldn’t have been in the right mindset to photograph.)

We arrived to find the Milky Way glowing brightly above the caldera and immediately started shooting. Because I don’t have as many horizontal compositions of the caldera as vertical, I started horizontal. By the time I’d captured a half dozen or so frames, a heavy mist dropped into the caldera to quickly obscure the entire view (one more example of our utter helplessness to the whims of Nature).

In this frame I went quite wide, not only to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible, but also to include all of the thin cloud layer painted orange by the light of the caldera’s fire. This is a single click (no blending of multiple images), though I did clone just a little bit of color back into the hopelessly blown center of the volcano’s flame.

A Kilauea Gallery

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

 

Road trip!

Summer Night, Milky Way and Mono Lake

Summer Night, Mono Lake Beneath the Milky Way
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
15 seconds
F/2
ISO 6400

Sacramento isn’t exactly known for its scenery, but as someone who makes his living photographing nature’s beauty, I haven’t found any place I’d rather live (okay, so maybe Hawaii is close). Just listen to this list of scenic locations I can drive to from home in four hours or less (clockwise from southwest to southeast): Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, Monterey/Carmel, San Francisco, Point Reyes, Muir Woods (and countless other redwood groves), the Napa and Sonoma Valley Wine Country, the Mendocino Coast, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen National Park, Lake Tahoe, Calaveras Big Trees (giant sequoias), Yosemite, and Mono Lake. Not only is each a destination that draws people from all over the world on its own merits, just check out the visual variety on that list.

With a crescent moon due to grace last Friday’s pre-sunrise twilight, Thursday morning I checked my schedule and saw nothing requiring my immediate attention. I clicked through my mental location checklist for sunrise spots that offer view of the eastern horizon—Lake Tahoe and Yosemite would work, but they’re both crowded (and I have enough Yosemite crescent moon images anyway). Mono Lake? Hmmmm…. Not only would Mono Lake work for the moon, it should be dark enough there to photograph the Milky Way above the lake. Road trip!

Within a couple of hours my Pilot was packed, and by early afternoon I was motoring up Highway 50. Aside from my photographic ambitions, another highlight of a Mono Lake trip is the drive itself, which takes me near Lake Tahoe, over Monitor Pass, into the Antelope Valley, and finally onto US 395 beneath the sheer  east face of the Sierra crest all the way down to Mono Lake and Lee Vining. I pulled into town at about 6 p.m. and after a quick dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli (not to be missed—look it up), I was off to the lake. Let the adventure begin.

By far Mono Lake’s most photographed location is South Tufa—with great views of the eastern horizon, it certainly would have qualified for my sunrise shoot, but the best views of the Milky Way would require a view toward the southern horizon. Another problem with South Tufa is the crowds, even at night. Not only have I had to contend with light-painters there (sorry, not my thing), one evening I went down there and found the Japanese Britney Spears shooting a video. (That label is my inference—one of the crew confirmed that she was Japanese, the music sounded just like American Top-40 pop of which Britney was the current queen, and judging by the motorhome, full-size bus, two big-rig trucks, and 1/4 mile long cables snaking all the way from the parking lot to the lake, it was pretty clear this girl was a huge star.) So anyway, Thursday evening I simply opted for the view, peace, and quiet of Mono Lake’s north shore.

Traversed only by a disorganized network of narrow, poorly maintained dirt roads, navigating here is difficult even with a high clearance vehicle. While my Pilot is all-wheel-drive, it’s not designed for off road and I need to take these roads with extra care. My strategy at each junction is to take the spur that trends in the direction of the lake, but over the years I’ve become fairly familiar with this side of the lake and had a general idea of where I wanted to be that night. So far I’ve not found a road that will get me much closer than a half mile from the lake, nor have I ever found an actual trail to the lake—when I think I’m close enough to something nice, I just park and walk toward the lake.

It was about a half hour before sunset when I parked my Pilot in a wide spot near the end of a long dirt road. On most visits I’m out there navigating in the dark before sunrise, so it was nice to actually be able see beyond my headlights while hunting for a spot to shoot. Exiting the car I was blasted by the less-than-pleasant but tolerable smell that is distinctly Mono Lake. It’s there year-round, but seems to be worse in summer.

With nothing to block my view, the lake was in clear sight. Lacking a trail, the route is pretty much a matter of picking a point on the shore making a beeline there. My first few steps dropped me down a short but fairly steep slope into the basin of the ancient Mono Lake. From there it flattens to a gentle slope, first through coarse volcanic sand, and then into a band of tall, soggy grass that eventually peters out into a soup of gray muck. Depending on the location I’ve chosen and the lake level at the time of my visit, the consistency of this muck ranges from damp sponge to shoe-sucking wet cement—this year’s muck fell closer to the wet cement side of the continuum, but my high-top Keens were up to the task. And thankfully, I found large areas where the mud had been baked solid enough to walk on without sinking.

The other feature of note out here is the calcium carbonate (limestone) rocks embedded in the lakeshore (they’re the same makeup as tufa, but a different shape than the more striking South Tufa formations). While these make a great platform for sitting and keeping a camera bag out of the mud, in summer they are literally covered with little black alkali flies. Yes, I said literally covered—the flies are so thick that some rocks are black and any shot that includes a rock starts with shoeing the flies if you want to capture it in its natural gray state. (These flies would be a much worse than a mere annoyance if they were capable of flying higher than one foot above the ground.)

My plan for this trip was to photograph sunset, hang out lakeside waiting for dark, do an hour or so of night photography, return to my Pilot and sleep in the back (air mattress and sleeping bag, thank-you-very-much), then rise at 4:30 and return to the lake in time for the moonrise and and sunrise. I made it down to the lake in time to photograph a sunset that was nice but nothing special by Mono Lake standards. As I waited for dark a warm wind whipped the lake surface into a froth, and I soon became concerned about the thin clouds converging overhead—rain was not a concern, but it started to look like my Milky Way aspirations might be thwarted. Nevertheless I hung out (where else was I to go?) and was eventually rewarded when most of the clouds moved on to mess with some other photographer’s plans.

While not nearly as spectacular as my recent Grand Canyon dark sky nights, there were far more stars than any city-dweller can ever hope to see. An occasional meteor darted into view (see the small one at the top of this picture?), and a few satellites drifted overhead, but the main event was the Milky Way, which poured a river of white that spanned the sky from Scorpio in the south to Cassiopeia in the north. While Lee Vining has not quite achieved sky-washing megalopolis status, it nevertheless created an annoying array of  discrete light of varying intensity and color that were more than I wanted to try to deal with in Photoshop. But I found that the farther east along the lakeshore I moved, the less these lights aligned with my scene.

I was having so much fun that I stayed out there until the Earth’s rotation had spun the Milky Way into closer alignment with the Lee Vining “skyline,” sometime after 11:00. By then I really had no idea how far east I’d wandered, so as I trudged back to the car in the pitch black I was extremely thankful (and self congratulatory) for the foresight to have mentally registered my bearings in daylight. While my headlamp guided each next step and illuminated the ten-foot radius of my dark world, navigation was solely by the North Star, which I kept off my right shoulder. I had no illusions that this method would allow me to pinpoint the car in the dark, but my hope was to get close enough that clicking my key fob would activate my horn and lights. For quite a while the key was answered by nothing but crickets, and about the time I started worrying that I’d miscalculated my position and would be spending the night in the mud with the flies, my car flashed and beeped about 100 yards to my right. Hallelujah. Not exactly a bullseye, but close enough.

The next morning came much too early, and while I didn’t get any moon pictures that made me particularly happy, the sunrise was off-the-charts and (along with the Milky Way) more than enough justification for an eight hour roundtrip and less than four hours of sleep. But that’s a story for another day.

 

Photo Tip: Read more about starlight photography

 

A starlight gallery

Inside the Grand Canyon: By the light of a billion stars

 

Milky Way, Grand Canyon

Milky Way, Grand Canyon (Tyndall Dome, Wallace Butte, Mt. Huethawali)
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
30 seconds
F/2
ISO 6400

It occurs to me sharing the full story of this image will require me to share delicate details not normally seen in a photo blog.

(So consider yourself warned.)

But before getting to the details of this image, let me just say that among a very long list of life-highlights and personal firsts, probably my very favorite thing about spending a week at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was going to sleep to the beneath a sky brimming with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life.

After dark, day one

(Foolishly) imagining that my home bedtime reading habit would transfer seamlessly to the Grand Canyon, I’d packed several books to drift off to sleep to. But just five minutes into the first night I discarded that folly and simply basked in starlight, utterly mesmerized by the volume and variety of stars, constellations, planets, meteors, and satellites overhead. I fought sleep like a two-year-old at nap time—if I would have had access to duct tape I’d have considered taping my eyelids to my forehead.

After dark, day two

Topping off a long but relatively quiet day on the river, on our second night Wiley navigated our rafts into a fantastic campsite with a wide downriver view that opened to the southern sky. Immediately after dinner (before the darkness made composing and focusing extremely difficult) I had everyone line up along the river to set up their shots and focus. I gave a little orientation to everyone who was new to night photography, then we all just kicked back and waited for nightfall.

When the sky darkened and the stars popped out, we had a blast photographing star trails and pinpoint stars above the river. By 11:00 or so, long before the Milky Way rotated into view, everyone was ready for sleep. When I told the group that the best time to photograph the Milky Way would be between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., there wasn’t a lot of interest. Following a long day in the sun that had started at around 5:00 a.m., the sleep was indeed as wonderful as you might imagine, but the next morning those of us who woke fully rested started having second thoughts when we saw the images captured by the few who rose at 2:00 for the Milky Way. Oh well.

After dark, day three

Day three was all about the rapids, which seemed to come fast and furious all day, rarely allowing more than a few minutes of calm water before we had to hold on tight and “suck rubber” for the next one. Unkar, Hance, Crystal, the gem series, to name just a few, were equal parts thrilling and chilling to us whitewater novices. And also physically draining.

At about 5:00 p.m., equal parts exhilarated and exhausted, we staggered into camp near the canyon’s 110-milestone. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help notice that while southern horizon was partially obstructed by the canyon walls, there just might be enough sky there for some of the Milky Way’s brilliant core to appear. Even so, not even another fantastic dinner could completely recharge the group, and for most the visions of another night photography marathon quickly succumbed to the gravitational pull of cot and sleeping bag. Nevertheless, I was one night smarter.

(Now for the delicate part.) I’ll start by going back to the orientation delivered by Wiley, our lead river guide, as it pertains to the evacuation of, uh, personal liquid waste: Peeing. Contrary to everything I’d learned from a lifetime of camping and backpacking, Wiley gave us very explicit instructions to pee nowhere but in the river. That’s right. Apparently the Colorado River’s volume will sufficiently dilute the pee of the several hundred people enjoying the Grand Canyon from the river any given time; the alternative, we learned, would be all these visitors targeting riverside rocks and trees to turn each campsite and trail into a giant litter-box. To achieve this goal the women were issued handy little buckets that allowed them to evacuate their bladders wherever they felt comfortable, then discreetly deposit the contents in the river; the guys, on the other hand, were expected to simply apply the tried and true ready-aim-fire approach.

Wiley had also admonished the group about the hazards of dehydration, imploring us to consume copious amounts of water day and night. While this strategy achieved the desired effect (no one in the group succumbed to dehydration), an unfortunate byproduct was nature’s inevitable call in the, uh, “wee” hours of the morning.

But what could all this possibly have to do with photographing the Milky Way?

Knowing that there was a pretty good chance I’d be trekking down to the river at around two or three in the morning, the last thing I did before crawling into my sleeping bag that night was mount my camera on my tripod, attach my 28mm Zeiss f2 (my night lens), focus it at infinity, and dial in all the exposure settings necessary for a Milky Way shoot. Genius!

When I woke at around two o’clock the next morning, I hopped from my sleeping bag, grabbed my tripod/camera, and made my way down the river. (You’d be amazed at the amount of light cast starlight in a deep canyon with no other light source.) At the river I quickly set up my shot, clicked my shutter (a 30 second exposure), and went about the rest of my business. As a life-long Northern Californian I’m accustomed to sharing delicious fresh water with parched and thirsty Los Angeles—standing there, I couldn’t help find comfort in the knowledge of the ultimate destination of my current contribution.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 

 

 

Last night, at the volcano…

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Milky Way Above Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200
16 mm

Sitting here on my balcony above Hilo Bay, it’s hard to believe that 10 days ago I was photographing sunrise lightning on a chilly morning at the Grand Canyon. But there’s Mauna Kea, and over there is Mauna Loa. And it’s 6 a.m. and I’m in shorts and flip-flops, so this really must be Hawaii. Ahhhh.

Oh yeah, it’s all coming back to me…. Last night I took my Hawaii workshop group up to Kilauea to photograph the volcano beneath the stars. I always stress about this shoot in particular because the opportunity to photograph the glow of Halemaumau Crater beneath the Milky Way is what brought many of the workshop participants to Hawaii in the first place. My stress is due to factors largely beyond my control: clouds, inadequate equipment (“The guy at Best Buy said this tripod should be fine”), technical problems (“Oh, I thought a five percent battery charge would be enough”), and just plain user error (“It looked sharp in the LCD”). Each year I do my best to mitigate as many problems as I can: I send copious reminders (“Don’t forget to bring…”) and how-to documents (starting months in advance), give a night photography training session the afternoon of the shoot, do a group equipment set-up and checklist in the parking lot before we walk out to the view point, and frequently check on participants during the shoot. But while all that preparation seems to help, so far I haven’t been able to do anything about the weather. The best I’ve been able to do is time my primary volcano shoot early enough in the workshop to allow us the option of returning in the event of a mass fail.

So yesterday afternoon we drove up to Kilauea, stopping first at the Visitor Center (I’m something of a souvenir T-shirt addict), then walking through the lava tube (always a hit), before wrapping up the daylight portion of the day with a really nice sunset at the Jaggar Museum (the closest point from which to view the caldera). Then we headed to dinner beneath a tantalizing (traumatizing) mix of clouds and sky—were the clouds incoming or outgoing? Dinner was great, but I’d have surely enjoyed it far more if I’d have known we’d leave the restaurant and see starry skies. And stars there were, millions and millions (or so it seemed). Phew.

Once the stars did their part, the rest of the night was up to me—despite all the preparation, I know from experience that basic photography skills such as composition, camera adjustments (even though I’d given everyone starting exposure values in the parking lot, most people usually need to tweak something), and (especially) finding focus, become completely foreign in the near absolute darkness of a moonless night. These problems are compounded by the fact that a flashlight, while necessary to light the path to the location, is absolutely taboo once we’re there (their light can leak into others’ frames, and flashlights make it almost impossible to adjust to the darkness)—instead we rely on the soft glow of our cell phone screen to see our controls.

I started with a test exposure to verify the exposure values I’d had everyone set earlier. So far, so good. Then the real fun began—for the next 45 minutes I bounced from pleading shape to pleading shape (faces are unrecognizable): “My camera won’t focus” (Try auto-focusing on the caldera—if that doesn’t work, we try creative solutions such as auto-focusing on a flashlight 100 feet up the trail or a best-guess manual focus on the caldera rim); “My camera won’t shoot” (Turn off autofocus);“ Is this image sharp?” (Magnify the LCD and zoom in on the stars or caldera wall); “My picture is black” (The correct exposure is 30 seconds, not 1/30 second). And so on. (I should make clear that these problems were more an indication of the disorientation caused by the darkness than a reflection of the photographer’s skill.)

But slowly the cries for help turned to exclamations of joy as successful images started popping up on LCDs. Pretty soon I was wandering around looking for someone who needed help, anyone…. When it finally became clear that my offers to help were more of a distraction, I returned to my camera (no small feat in the dark) and tried a few frames of my own. While I had no illusions of getting anything new (or even anything much different than what others had), I tried several variations. Most of my images were oriented vertically to maximize the length of the serpentine Milky Way, and to minimize the black void surrounding the glowing crater. I also varied my focal length a bit, and played with my ISO and shutter speed settings so I could choose later (with the benefit of a larger screen) between more noise, less star motion and vice versa.

In addition to the photography, I always make a point to stop everyone and remind them to simply appreciate what we’re viewing. The orange glow is molten rock, the newest material on the Earth’s surface; overhead are pinpoints of starlight that originated tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. It’s both humbling and empowering.

We finally wrapped up a little before 11. Everyone seemed quite happy (okay, downright giddy) with what they’d gotten. At breakfast this morning a few people said they’d checked their images after returning to the hotel, but most said they just collapsed into bed. Nevertheless, I’m already starting to receive whispered requests to return to Kilauea one more time. I won’t take a lot of convincing.

*    *    *    *

:: Join me next year as we do this all over again in the 2014 Hawaii Big Island Volcanoes and Waterfalls photo workshop ::

Literally breathtaking

Under the Milky Way, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Under the Milky Way, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
30 seconds
F/2.0
ISO 800
28 mm

Even with the number beautiful things I get to photograph, certain natural wonders will forever thrill me. Near the top of that list is the view into the Kilauea Caldera on Hawaii’s Big Island. I thought I knew what to expect, but even after a lifetime of National Geographic specials and an occasional “Breaking News!” disaster video, I was little prepared for the in-person experience of peering into an active volcano.

Approaching Kilauea from Hilo, the first sign that something unusual is in store is the plume of thick smoke and vapor rising in the distance and spreading with the wind. If you didn’t know a volcano was nearby, you might mistake the smoke for a forest fire. The billowing plume becomes more prominent as you draw closer to the volcano, and once in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park you’re soon surrounded by white puffs of steam rising from the ground on both sides of the road.

On the drive to the caldera you’ll be tempted by several vista opportunities, but the best perspective is from the Jaggar Museum at the end of the road (the loop road that once circumnavigated the caldera is now closed at the museum due to the risk of noxious fumes beyond). For first-time visitors I recommend foregoing the preliminary views in favor of the Jaggar view, which makes the most impactful first impression—you can return to the other views on the drive out.

When visiting during the day you’ll see white smoke pouring from a large hole on the caldera’s floor, but no sign of orange flame—the sunlight simply overpowers the volcano’s fire. While any view of a volcano is memorable (trust me), nothing compares to the experience of seeing the caldera after dark. I usually arrive at the caldera in time for sunset, go to dinner, then return once darkness is complete. Not only does this break allow time for darkness, I also find that the clouds that frequently obscure the sunset sky dissipate once the sun is down (in other words, don’t forego a night visit simply because your daytime visit was cloudy).

Even if you do find clouds after dark, the clouds beautifully radiate the caldera’s glow to bathe the entire scene in orange, a subtle effect to the naked eye that comes alive in a long exposure. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a night with few or no clouds, you’ll be treated to the churning lava’s orange fire, reflected by belching white smoke, beneath a sea of stars. My first time seeing the caldera beneath the Milky Way I literally gasped, and it was several seconds before I realized I was holding my breath. Breathtaking indeed.

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Let me add that finding the Milky Way above the caldera isn’t without its difficulties. Even if the clouds cooperate, simply showing up at the Jaggar Museum after dark isn’t enough because the properly aligned vantage point varies with the date and time of night you visit. In the Northern Hemisphere the best views of the Milky Way are moonless summer nights (moonlight washes out the sky as much as city lights). If you find yourself there with the Milky Way visible, aligning it with the caldera is usually a matter of driving or walking the rim until you find the spot.

We’ll be photographing the Milky Way above Kilauea in my upcoming Hawaii Big Island workshop is September 2-6. While it filled several months ago, a recent cancellation leaves me with one opening. And I still have lots of openings in my 2014 Hawaii workshop, September 15-19.

Earth on Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Earth on Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii :: The sunset light had dimmed just enough that the lava lake’s fiery orange is just visible. Even just few minutes earlier the scene was too bright to see any color in the caldera.

Milky Way and Clouds, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Milky Way and Clouds, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii :: Here the clouds reflect the lava’s glow, but part just enough to reveal the Milky Way behind.

Glow in the dark

Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

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An unfortunate reality of photographing the things I photograph, at the times I photograph them, is the doubt the results foster—“Is that real?” Sigh. That skepticism is compounded by the (understandable) ignorance of people who expect cameras to duplicate human reality, a fallacy no doubt perpetuated by photographers who proclaim each image to be, “Exactly the way the way my eyes saw it.” And then there are those unscrupulous photographers who alter images for personal or financial gain by adding or moving objects (the moon seems to be a popular subject), cranking up the color, and embellishing the hardship the capture required. It’s no wonder people don’t know what to believe.

So let’s take a look at this night shot of the Kilauea Caldera, captured during my recent Hawaii Big Island photo workshop. Is this the way I saw it? Absolutely not. First, my experience was three dimensional. It included wind motion in the caldera’s vapor plume, a dome of sky saturated with thousands of stars, the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, and clouds wafting in and out, intermittently revealing and obscuring parts of the sky. The magic I experienced was far beyond my camera’s capability.

But my camera has reality of its own, and its own magic. By increasing my ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity to light), aperture (the size of the opening that allows light to reach the sensor), and exposure time, I was able to capture more light in one frame than my eyes could see at any instant. All this additional light on my sensor gave me a section of sky containing even more stars than my eyes saw, and clouds fully illuminated by the volcano’s glow.

This particular image was captured on the second of three nights on the rim. My first workshop group nailed it on the first attempt (see my September 9 post), but the second group’s first attempt was largely thwarted by the large cloud you see in this image. Nevertheless, as you can see, we had a small window of opportunity on this night as well, so while the group wrestled with their camera’s and tripods in the dark, I took a test exposure and gave everyone exposure values. As I moved around making sure they all had their settings dialed in and focus set, it was a blast listening to the gasps up and down the rim when the first image popped on each person’s LCD. But once that cloud settled in, the show was pretty much over. After waiting nearly two hours for more sky we packed it in, but by then everyone was hooked, so we returned a couple of nights later to smashing success.

The processing for this image was minimal. In fact, what you see here is pretty much we all saw on our LCDs, with mostly minor tweaks. In Lightroom I brushed a little color temperature reduction to cool the sky, made some slight exposure adjustments, and bumped the clarity to help the stars stand out. In Photoshop I did moderate noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise (love the high ISO performance of my new 5D III) and dodged the underside of the trailing vapor plume a little. And so intense was the color in the clouds that I desaturated the red channel somewhat. None of these adjustments were major, and in fact I was already mostly satisfied with the raw image and Adobe Standard processing (my Lightroom default) that I started with.

The one significant adjustment I did make in Photoshop was to fix the blown highlights at the caldera’s core, at the very center of the fire where it burned hottest, an area the width of the fire in length and about 2/3 of that width high (about 3/4 of the bright area you see beneath the smoke). That core area, while yellow to my eyes, was hopelessly blown (no color or detail) by the extreme exposure the rest of the scene required. To fix it I used Photoshop’s Eyedropper tool to select the yellow just beneath the cooler orange, and the Paint Bucket tool at about 20 percent opacity to replace the pure white with (very) pale yellow.

The objective of any art form is not to show us exactly what we can all see with our own eyes, but rather to expand our perception of reality and and help us see the world differently. While this is not they way my eyes saw it, it is the way my camera saw it (with the one exception noted above). As with a moonbow that’s not visible to the naked eye, streaking stars or blurred water recorded with a long exposure, and the enhanced contrast and shape of a black-and-white image, the camera gives us fresh insights into the natural world. That’s why I choose not to lament perceived “limitations” such as my camera’s inability to capture the range of light my eyes see, preferring instead to celebrate its ability to reveal things my eyes can’t see—in this case faint stars and the fiery, natural light illuminating the clouds and Kilauea’s plume. Nothing can compete with the experience of being there, but I’m thrilled to have images to remind me of that experience, and to show me what my eyes missed.

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Join me next September as I try to duplicate this shot in my Hawaii Big Island Volcanoes and Waterfalls photo workshop, September 2-6, 2013.

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