Surf’s Up

Gary Hart Photography: Surf's Up, Puna Coast, Hawaii

Surf’s Up, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
15 seconds
ISO 50

To prove that Hawaii Big Island photography isn’t all just magma, Milky Way, and macro, I’m sharing this image from last month’s workshop on my favorite Hawaiian island. With all due respect to Big Sur, the combination of shimmering tide pools and rugged black basalt hammered by violent surf makes Hawaii’s Puna Coast the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. What especially thrills me here is the creative opportunities provided by the ocean’s motion on and around the rocks.

Of the many differences between our world and our camera’s world, few are more obvious than motion. Image stabilization or (better yet) a tripod will reduce or eliminate photographer-induced motion (camera shake), but photographers often make unnecessary compromises to stop motion in their scenes, sacrificing depth of field with a too large aperture, or introducing noise with a high ISO that shortens the shutter speed enough to freeze motion in the scene.

Understanding that it’s impossible in a static photo to duplicate the human experience of motion actually opens creative opportunities. Because a camera records every instant throughout the duration of an image’s capture, photographers who can control their exposure variables have the power to reveal motion in ways that are both visually appealing and completely different from the human experience. Whether it’s a lightning bolt frozen in place, stars streaked into parallel arcs by Earth’s rotation, a vortex of spinning autumn leaves, or violent surf blurred to silky white, your ability to convey the world’s motion with your images is an important skill that’s limited only by your imagination and ability to manage your exposures.

I’ve had a blast freezing lightning bolts with fast shutter speeds, not just for the undeniable thrill of the chase, but also for the opportunity to scrutinize the intricate detail of these explosive, ephemeral phenomena. But on the other end of the motion continuum are long exposures that reveal nature’s movement patterns—movement that’s either too slow for our eyes to register (such as stars or clouds), or too complex to mentally organize into something coherent (like surf).

Silky water images take a lot of flak for being overused and unnatural, but there really are only two ways to capture moving water in a still photo: frozen in place, or blurred. Each has its place, but because the world unfolds to humans like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflate those instants into a single frame, neither is “natural” from the human perspective.

Fortunately, your options for expressing water motion in a still frame aren’t truly binary (frozen or blurred)—they’re a continuum of choices ranging from discrete airborne droplets to blur completely devoid of detail. And there’s a big difference between slight blur that expresses a wave’s movement while retaining its overall size and shape, and extreme blur that purees every detail into a homogenized soup.

For this image from last month’s Hawaii Big Island photo workshop, I wanted to convey both the intensity and the extent of the pounding surf. Not only were the waves exploding on the young basalt, many were surging far onshore.

It was it still quite dark when I pulled my group up to this sunrise spot. Dark isn’t a problem, but the pounding rain was. So we waited in the cars until the rain slowed to something more manageable and the sky had brightened to a dull gray. I gave my group a brief orientation on the location and set them free. Since this was toward the end of the workshop, everyone scattered pretty quickly in search of their own inspiration, and I was left to my own devices.

Along with a couple of others in the group, I made my way down the shoreline a bit, carefully picking my way over the slick volcanic rocks. Stopping occasionally to survey the options, I ended up playing with several compositions before landing on this one. I especially liked the way the large waves climbed the rocks here, then followed a curved channel to a large pool at my feet. The biggest waves replenished the pool, leaving swirling patches of foam in their wake and creating motion that was ideal for a long exposure.

Using my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony 𝛂1 camera, I set up my composition so the channel moved across the scene’s left foreground—at 16mm, I found I could fill the rest of my frame with the wave action lining the receding coastline. I minimized the homogenous gray sky to maximize the far more interesting rocks and wave action below. The final compositional consideration was finding the left/right position that avoided any white surf or spray from leaking out of the frame.

After a little trial and error, I found the composition that worked. But where surf is involved, framing is only half of the composition equation, because each wave completely alters the scene. With help from my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer, I tried shutter speeds up to 15 seconds, timing the start of each exposure for different points in the wave. I ended up with 16 versions of this composition that ranged from a completely still foreground pool, to the pool overflowing with frothing white. I chose this image because the motion was in the middle of that range, with foam covering most of the pool, but not so much that it lost all definition.

Though I was set up on a rock ledge a couple of feet above the pool, the largest wave actually reached my elevated perch. After this year’s experience in Iceland, I was extremely careful not to take my eye off the ocean, so I saw this big wave coming all the way. I was actually in the middle of an exposure, but seeing that the wave would lose its power by the time it reached me (fingers crossed), and since I was wearing shorts and sandals, I just held my ground and let it sweep over the rocks and wash up around my ankles. Quite refreshing, actually.

Playing With Motion

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Fool on the hill

Sunset on the Rocks, West Maui, Hawaii

Sunset on the Rocks, West Maui, Hawaii
Canon Rebel EOS SL1
.8 seconds
16 mm
ISO 200

March 2013

On my September scouting trip for my just completed Maui workshop I hiked cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui, searching for lava-rock tide pools I’d read about. Scrambling down a steep hill and over sharp rocks, I found the beach but decided it was too dangerous for a group. Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the shore and eventually found another spot I liked better. At first I thought this wouldn’t be suitable for a group either, but climbing out I found an overgrown dirt road/trail leading back to the highway (“highway” in this case is the one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved, rental-agreement-voiding Highway 340 circling West Maui). Fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the main road, I saved its position on my GPS.

Last Sunday, the day before the workshop started, I picked up Don Smith (Don assisted this workshop; I’ll return the favor for Don’s Northern Arizona workshop next week) at the airport and was excited to share with him the spot I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Edmund Hillary of landscape photography—there’s enough debris down there to indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went. The steady rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon increased with the road’s remoteness and soon we were slaloming 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 through the intensifying rain. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we passed them, pausing only occasionally to reassure Don that the highway was navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, punctuating my confidence with, “And just wait until you see the scene at the end of this ‘secret’ road I discovered.”

Closely monitoring my GPS, at the prescribed location and without hesitation (for dramatic effect) I veered left into a gap in the trees almost as if I had a brain. The narrow track unfolded between rapidly oscillating wipers, immediately plummeting the steep hill and twisting right. Dense foliage brushed both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud. Don hadn’t quite finished a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” when it started to dawn on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier was to park at the top and walk down. Oops.

Propelled by momentum, and without the benefit of traction, completely at gravity’s mercy, we careened down the hill (remember the jungle slide scene from “Romancing the Stone”?). Steering seemed to have more influence on the direction the car faced than it did on its direction of travel and I quickly gave that up. If it weren’t for the deep ruts that occasionally nudged us back on course, I’m sure we’d have bounced into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a protruding boulder and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. Shortly thereafter the slope moderated somewhat and I nursed the car to a stop, miraculously still on the “road” (more or less).

After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, Don and I scanned our surroundings. Backing up the slippery road was out of the question, but a little farther down the slope we spotted a flat clear space with a small Y-spur that might enable us to 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. 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. Uh-oh.

With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the wheels spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament—the road was fast progressing to creek status, and where rubber tires were supposed to be were instead four mud disks. 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.

Back in the car I found that cranking the wheels 90 degrees gained just enough traction to free us and I gingerly rolled the car downhill and onto the open space. Yay! Once on level ground, and with only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I pivoted the car into the Y and turned around to face the direction we’d just come. Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time toward 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 hard-right—not exactly a design that would be embraced at Daytona.

I inhaled and goosed the gas—we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum and coming to a stop a mere fifty feet closer to freedom. This time the car was skewed 45-degrees to the road, 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.

Facing defeat 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 to the main road, I stayed with the car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. Sitting there it occurred to me that since the road was too narrow for a tow truck, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom. Watching Don head back up the hill to seek help, I decided to give extraction one more shot. I put the car in reverse gave it more gas and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free. So far so good. I took my foot from the brake and let gravity and the rutted road return me to the clearing. Once there, I gave the pedal a gentle nudge in reverse and made it all the way to the back side (another 20 feet) where there might be a little more gravel and less mud, and most importantly, a little more room to gather momentum.

With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and floored the accelerator, rocketing forward with 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 momentum slowed 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 retreated up the road 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. A short distance beyond the curve the road leveled and much of the mud turned to rock—I was free! Not wanting to stop until my tires kissed pavement I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I shot 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.

Returning to the scene of the crime (March 2014)

Despite the memories, I’ve added this location to my Maui workshop rotation. In my 2014 workshop I took the group here on our final sunset before heading to Hana. Walking down the road this time I still couldn’t believe I’d attempted to drive it at all, let alone in a pouring rain. (I’ll never completely understand how we managed to get out of there.)

But anyway…. The group quickly scattered and I found myself over on the far side of the point with several others. Dark clouds scooted overhead, intermittently dumping rain that sent us scurrying to nearby sheltering rocks before stopping as quickly as it started. Between showers I worked on compositions that featured reflective pools sheltered from the crashing surf by volcanic rocks, hoping for a colorful sunset that would reflect in the smooth water. Given the predominant cloud cover I wasn’t particularly optimistic, but spent my wait-time working out compositions just in case.

This was my first shoot with my backup camera, the amazingly compact Canon EOS SL1 (pressed into service after my 5DIII did a Greg Louganis into a creek in the Iao Valley that morning). Not only was I able to take advantage of the relatively static conditions to craft compositions for later, I was able to use the time to familiarize myself with this camera that I’d only used once before.

So I was ready when, much to my surprise and pleasure, the sun broke through just in time to paint the horizon pink, I was ready. I clicked a number of frames of the various compositions I’d found earlier, timing each with the crashing surf and varying my shutter speed for different wave effects.

Join me in my next Maui photo workshop—we’ll visit this spot, Haleakala, Hana, and a lot more.

Finding your camera’s “truth”

Gossamer Twilight, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

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 seem to get this; others, not so much. So I’ve decided to try a slightly different tack.

Visual “Truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors–some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Limited vision

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is a minuscule part of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic radiation bombarding each of us, every instant of every day. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, only see waves between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Using this knowledge, astronomers peer into space with tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us. X-rays allow doctors to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and night vision technology uses “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see objects 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 records more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is missing 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. And we all know about limited dynamic range and depth of field.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it doesn’t take advantage of the camera’s ability to see things in ways we don’t.

Interpreted vision

Our visual input is interpreted before we perceive it, in much the same way a camera’s input is processed before it’s output (to a monitor, printer, or whatever). Visual processing happens in our brain, which makes adjustments for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.

Likewise, every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed, either by the camera (if camera gives you a jpeg or tiff), or by the photographer, using Photoshop or some other processing software.

Visual synergy

In most ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras. On the other hand, the camera does do a few things our eyes can’t do: In the image above, captured a year ago at Pfeiffer Beach on the Big Sur coast, I used my camera’s ability to accumulate light to reveal things that, while invisible to my eye, were still quite real.

According to the EXIF data (try getting your eye/brain to record that), the sun had set twenty minutes prior, but my camera was still able to see in the limited light. This twenty second exposure revealed more detail than my eye registered. In doing so it smoothed the surf into a gauzy mist, and captured reflected color lost in my visual darkness.

Another thing I really like about my camera’s take on this scene is the way it reveals the transition of light and color as the view moves away from the sun. Though the eye does register it, our brains, influenced by the subconscious misperception that a cloudless sky is a uniform sky, often overlook subtle differences like this. But capture it in an image and the transition is both striking and beautiful.

So what about the blurred water?

People who criticize blurred water images for being “false” because that’s not the way water is, completely miss the point (I won’t get into the whole clichĂ© argument here, which has more validity). My question to them is, how would you choose to capture water? (It’s a trick question.) When they answer frozen sharp, I ask them how many times they’ve actually seen a wave or water droplet suspended in midair. (Checkmate.)

The point is, a still camera simply “sees” motion differently than we do. Rather than holding our images to an unattainable human standard, we should feel free to appreciate and convey our cameras’ unique perspective. In this Pfeiffer Beach scene, I like the way smoothing the water to an ethereal gauze more accurately conveys the inviting mystery of the sea.

What is real?

Is this image real? While it’s nothing like what I saw, it’s still a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding my camera’s vision enabled me to share a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

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