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
F/18
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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