MAKE FIRE – TURNING A PHOTOGRAPHIC SPARK OF INSPIRATION INTO FIRE

THE WALL  La Jolla, California

There we were on Shell Beach in Southern California’s “Jewel” – La Jolla.  If you consider shorts, t-shirt and flip flops ideal attire, then the mid-August weather was just perfect.  The sweet morning light was just beginning to show herself to those of us eager enough to be awake, which on this morning included myself and seven photography workshop participants who were joining me for one of my California workshops.  Shell Beach seemed like an ideal location to take seven passionate photographers for a sunrise – it’s small and intimate, yet contains many elements that can be arranged well for a diverse style of seeing photographic compositions.  It’s only as wide as a football field, yet both sides lead upward to steep cliffs that stretch out toward the sea, undercut with partial caves on the sides and a scattering of rocks throughout the beach, with a couple large rocks just offshore where pelicans and cormorants linger about.  Having photographed this spot many times before, I knew good compositional arrangements could be made, but of course, it is also quite easy to include too much or too little and fall short of success as well.  So, an ideal setting to place students – a place where they can make it work, or not, and then discuss the why’s and why not’s as to what is working and what is not working in real time.

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PHOTOGRAPHING LAVA ENTERING THE OCEAN AND THE VOLCANO IN HAWAII

THE BEING BEHIND  Big Island, Hawaii 2013

It has been on my wishlist for quite a long time to view and photograph the lava flowing into the ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island, but for the past few years, the flow has not really been doing much.  A couple of months ago, it finally broke through and is now providing surface activity and ocean entry where visitors can get close and witness this amazing spectacle.  From the National Park side, it is a 6-8 mile hike each way across lava fields, which pretty much rules that option out.  From the Kalapana side, it is approximately 2 miles hike each way, but this side is private property and there is a certain amount of state and landowner control, preventing people from simply walking in on their own to view the lava.  So what is one to do?  Here on Maui, I heard through the “coconut wireless” about a travel company called Poke-A-Stick Tours, that took people out to the lava.  I called and spoke with Cheryl, owner/guide/host extraordinaire, and planned a couple of days with her afternoon sunset hikes out to the lava flow.

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PHOTOGRAPHING ACTIVE LAVA ON THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII

NEW EARTH  Big Island, Hawaii 2013

It’s 4:30am.  Crazy to think that I’ve already been awake for over an hour – not that I’m thinking, and not that I’m really awake!  But here I am, at Isaac Hale State Park on the Big Island of Hawaii with 20 other walking zombies that look a lot like sleepy tourists, all anxious and curious by the adventure that awaits us.

Captain Shane Turpin and crew of two pull up alongside our gathered group of sleepwalkers in a big truck, towing an awkward looking passenger boat hitched on a trailer.  After some curt dialogue about the what-and-what-not’s to our impending trip, we climb a ladder and board the boat.  The driver then drives us down to the boat ramp, backs us in to the water, and before we know it, we are free from the trailer and moving out past the breakers into the dark sea.

I have my pack full of camera gear with two layers of water resistant protection at my feet.  I’m wearing a fleece and and a raincoat, which keeps me warm in the surprisingly cool morning and does well enough keeping me dry against the waves that are continuously splashing and blowing into the boat and in my face.  My shorts are soaked.  I feel like a Navy Seal going out on a special night mission, but keep getting pulled back to reality by the chitter-chatter of over-talkative tourists.  Isn’t O-dark-early a time for quiet?  I wonder to myself, curious as to how some people can never be still and silent.

45 minutes-to-an-hour later, we arrive at our destination – New Earth, in the form of hot molten lava flowing steadily into the Pacific Ocean, splendidly steaming and smoking and wonderfully beautiful.  Captain Shane maneuvers the boat with effortless ease, to within yards of the lava.  I feel the radiance on my face and legs, and within minutes, the glowing heat dries my wet shorts.  The lava meets the sea at a number of different spots along a 1/4 mile stretch of coast. In some spots, the thick fiery substance slowly drops into the water, and in other spots it’s gushing, as if it is being pumped out of the earth.  It is totally awesome to view this spectacle in the dark of night!

As wonderful as it is to the eyes, attempting to photograph hot molten lava in the dark of night from a moving boat in a rough sea, is completely futile.  I practice patience and wait for the light of a coming sunrise to illuminate the scene while enjoying the moment – which to my delight, has proven to be so powerful of a scene that it has rendered some silence from the tourists.  Amen!

Before too long, the light of day takes over the darkness and I am able to start working with the camera.  The Captain slowly runs the boat parallel to the coast so the passengers on one side are able to view and photograph, then turns back the other way allowing the others the spectacular view.  With this method, you are face to face with the amazing sight, or looking out to sea and the setting of a crescent moon.  During the 5-minute periods of looking out to sea, I review my images and quickly adjust my settings to better capture this dynamic scene.  In the end, there’s probably not more than 10 minutes of optimal light to shoot images while being face to face with the lava.

One aspect of concern is that half-a-dozen times, we are completely immersed in the gaseous fumes spewing out of the planet.  Just 2 days ago, I was told by a guide while hiking into the lava flow on foot, “Don’t breathe that smoke and gas – it will kill you.”  I also remember reading online in my research that it is very dangerous to breathe.  Apparently, I am the only one on this boat that has been told this or read this in my research!  The Captain obviously does not seem concerned, and every time we are immersed in smoke and gas, I am the only one aboard that responds by burying my face and eyes into a relatively protective cocoon I’ve formed inside my fleece and raincoat.  On the occasion I peer out, my eyes burn and I quickly burrow back into my cocoon.  These periods are fleeting, maybe 30-45 seconds at a time, and it’s easy enough to cover up, but it still leaves me wondering, how harmful is this?  If not for me on this one-time experience, then for the Captain and his crew who do this multiple times daily?

Morning has broken, the sweet light is fading, and we make our final pass by the lava before heading back to our starting point.  The seas are a little rougher now, but no one seems to mind much, buzzed with the high of a spectacular experience freshly emblazoned in heart and mind.  To see Mother Nature creating more land, New Earth, right in front of my eyes…what an insanely incredible experience!

EARTH BLOOD  Big Island, Hawaii 2013

HOT WATER. STUDY 1  Big Island, Hawaii 2013

The photo workshop side of my business is growing all of the time and Maui Photo Expeditions has been a lot of fun so far.  I am looking to expand some trips outside of Maui and would love to get over to the Big Island more, so will be actively planning group trips over there.  In the meantime, if you are visiting the Big Island of Hawaii and would like to discuss a personalized one-on-one workshop like I provide here on Maui, please Contact Me.  I am happy to island-hop over!  See details to my Maui Photo Expeditions HERE.

PHOTOGRAPHING TIME IN THE FORM OF BIG SURF

During one of my Maui Photo Expeditions this week, while working with a cool couple from Orange County, our emphasis turned to the element of “time”.  Of course, if you follow my work, you know this is my favorite aspect to photography – especially extending the exposure out to be quite long.  Through the use of neutral density filters, or the time of day or night, you as the photographer can control whether your shutter speed is 1/250th of a second, or two minutes, and everything in-between.  By using different exposure times, you create different effects and evoke different feels in your image, translating and communicating different messages.  So first, get mindful as to how you’re feeling and what it is you want to communicate, simplify, and then determine what shutter speed will best translate what you are feeling.

With this photograph, I used a shutter of 1/2 second.  Two minutes would have evoked a serene and peaceful feel, but I wanted the big winter surf to be the focal point and to evoke a sense of Mother Nature’s raw power.  The final element that finishes this capture is the warm light from the setting sun, captured moments before it dipped below the horizon to end another beautiful day in paradise.

WHY MAKE PHOTOGRAPHS? & MINDFULNESS

Winter is my favorite time of the year on Maui.  The weather is perfect, the whales are here in full force, and it’s the busy season!  With that, I’ve been filling up my calendar and keeping very busy and working with many photographers through my Maui photography workshops (Maui Photo Expeditions).  This weekend I had a full day one-on-one workshop with Jim, an IT-guy from Cali.  As a PhD intellectual-thinking type, initially I was concerned.  Could I get all techie for 10 hours?  I wondered, worriedly.  Thankfully, in our first half hour he expressed how he wasn’t looking to get techie, he was looking for assistance on the creative/artistic side of things.  He was looking to me to assist him in activating that other side of the brain that’s not based in thinking, but in feeling.  I could have hugged him!  I mean, it’s not that I couldn’t talk about the technical/craft side-of-photography endlessly with a willing comrade, but I suppose I would rather not.  I find the creative/artistic/feeling-based side-of-things much more interesting, and much more important toward creating more dynamic and expressive work.  With the technical aspects – you learn it well enough to get past it in order to focus your attention on what is going to make your work more personal – mindfulness, presence, space.  And where these topics may at times seem esoteric, especially (I imagine) to the “PhD intellectual-thinking type’s” out there, I strongly believe that it is not the topics of f-stops, depth-of-field, pixel pitch and the like that make images dynamic, but rather the depth-of-feeling, the mindfulness and presence felt through the image that the photographer is communicating, having made the work out of that state.  This is the state out of which images that can move viewers are made, and it is this that I most like to focus on personally, and pass on to others.

Eliot Porter said, “The essential quality of a photograph is the emotional impact that it carries, which is a measure of the author’s success in translating into photographic terms his own emotional response to the subject.”


In preparing some of my thoughts before the workshop, I began with a question, and with a look at what I believe to be the foundation to all good work:

Why make photographs?

If you choose to make photographs, then it seems a valid question to look at – Why make photographs?

Whether it is conscious (yet) in you or not, as photographers, we make photographs to express and to communicate.  Once that is acknowledged, then look at that question – What are we wanting to express? ~and~ What are we aiming to communicate?  The more you look at this, the clearer it is seen.  The clearer it is seen, the more personal and expressive the work.  The more personal and expressive the work, the more dynamic it naturally becomes.

As a photographer, you look at things.  You not only look at the world – at the skies and the seas and the forests and the fields and the cities, you look at your self too – at your thoughts and your feelings and your emotions and your tendencies and your habits.  Being a photographer is being one who mindfully looks at things.  Therefore, being a photographer is as much a personal inner journey, as it is a worldly outer journey.  The more one looks at this, the more compelling the work becomes, and the more rewarding the process is.

It is with this mindset that I’d say that mindfully looking at things, or simply – Mindfulness, is the primary most important aspect that we can bring to our photography.

BIG WINTER SURF HITS NORTH SHORE MAUI

Big-winter-surf-north-shore-Maui-Hawaii

We had our first big winter surf of the year hit the north shores of the islands and here on Maui this week, which inspired me to pack up and get out shooting.  I headed first up to Honolua Bay and explored some possible compositions, while watching the many surfers position for the double-overhead waves that were consistently rolling in.  After checking out a few less-than-inspiring possibilities and feeling a bit crowded with the many spectators, I decided to head south a bit – away from the larger sets that were hitting the north shores.  I stopped at a nearby pullout, jumped the guard rail and headed down a steep slope to the lava rock shoreline and was immediately sparked with some possible compositions.  I stood and watched as a large set came in and definitely knew I could do some work here, so I headed back up the slope to the truck to retrieve my gear.  Over the course of the next hour and until the light had left me in darkness, I shot 32gb worth of images with a couple different compositions.  I kept my exposure times to around 1-4 seconds in order to maintain enough clarity in these 5-8 foot faces, but while adding enough motion to create a more intense dynamic.  With this type of imagery, you really have to shoot shoot shoot, which kinda goes against my style of waiting for the sweet moment and getting the shot in fewer frames.  With that said, you do what you gotta do to get the shot you’re feeling at the time, and in the end, I’m happy with a couple of captures from the night – enough so that I think they may have to be part of my portfolio-in-the-works titled Boundary.

The lesson here – work with your conditions and with your feelings.  It was very dynamic with these big waves crashing against the rocks and making huge splashes 25 feet into the air.  You could feel the impact and were covered by sea spray.  I could have made a 2-minute long exposure and created a more peaceful and meditative feeling image, but that wouldn’t have translated true to my feelings, and to the conditions presented to me.  So, next time you head out to make images, don’t think about it.  Quiet the mind.  Explore around until you find a place that you’re responding to, on an inner/feeling level, not on a mind/thinking level, and then get in touch with your feelings and with the conditions being presented to you.  Then, photograph accordingly.  With this approach, your images will become stronger and more feeling-based, and you will enjoy your time in nature much more than when you’re in-the-head.

MAUI SUNSET PHOTOGRAPH – WORKING WITH THE D800

ABLAZE  Maui, Hawaii

Here on Maui, we have had our fair share of amazing sunsets over the past few months, but it seems I’ve been in a bit of a shooting-slump and have watched most of them without camera in hand.  It’s tough to watch stunning sweet light form in the sky without being out in a position to try and capture it photographically.  The stirring inside murmurs to itself, “should be out shooting…could be getting a great shot…who couldn’t make this light work well…Wow!  this light is friggin’ epic!…why aren’t I out shooting!?”  Continue reading

THREE NIGHT DIVERS IN LA JOLLA

THREE NIGHT DIVERS  La Jolla, California

I was heading out 4 or 5 nights a week into the dark cool evenings of the La Jolla night and photographing with little or no light.  On this particular occasion, I was heading down the street and saw three divers having just loaded on all of their wetsuit and scuba gear, heading for the water’s edge.  I was curious to see what I might be able to capture. Continue reading

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND FISHERMAN HAVE MUCH IN COMMON

see the fisherman in red?

It seems nearly every time I go out shooting, I find myself in a stunning location at the magic hour to enjoy the clouds passing by and the sounds of the ocean, and if I’m lucky, the chance to get a sweet shot in my camera.  Continue reading

“HOW DO YOU GET THOSE COLORS IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS?”

When I exhibit my work, I am often asked this question in one form or another: how do you get these colors in your photographs?  I can’t help but to be a bit bemused by the question, especially when it comes the day after an epic island sunset that had sicko colors blazing across the entire sky, but have come to expect having to answer this question.  I find it an odd question mainly because I see insane colors in nature all of the time.  Granted, as a photographer, I likely pay closer attention to this than others, but still, there are many times where nature’s light is so dynamic that it forces you to stop and look, whether it be sunset light or a vibrant wildflower – do these folks not see this color?

For those of you who are color-deficient (not due to medical reasons), here are 3 easy ways to Enhance the Vividness reaching your eyeballs:

  • 1)  Take walks at sunrise or sunset.
  • 2)  Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • 3)  Purchase a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses!
  • I’ve been wearing these glasses for 15 years and they truly make the world more beautiful!  I don’t step outside without ’em…unless it’s nighttime ;)

Now, I know that most of the people who ask me about the color in my photographs aren’t asking me because they don’t feel that it exists in the world, as much as it doesn’t exist in their photographs.  This is what they’re essentially asking: Why don’t my photographs look like this?  (In fact, I get that exact question too, and I generally respond by saying, You probably haven’t dedicated the past decade to photography.)  So, if this is what people are essentially asking, then I wonder, why would you expect your photographs to look like this?  If you haven’t awaken 104 times before sunrise to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t missed 234 dinner-times to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t fully dedicated yourself to trying to see and capture dynamic light and color, then why would you expect your photographs to look like this?

The reality is, the dynamic nature of the color in my photographs come from a number of elements.  First of all, place and time of day.  This is obviously the most important factor and it can be insulting when people overlook this and go straight to some comment like, So, are these colors all like photoshopped?  I usually have a quick Woody Allen movie-like-moment in my head where I smack ’em in the head and tell there 6 year old to get their goofball dad outta here before I clone-stamp his ass to oblivion.  (Actually, I totally just made that up and have never thought that before, but you get the idea..)  These type of people require you to have a thick-skin, that’s for sure!  It comes from ignorance, and generally someone who wants an easy explanation of-a-thing – something that will fit nicely in a little box and get compartmentalized and then it’s off to the next thing to quickly solve.  For those people – have fun with that.  So when I say obviously, obviously I am not speaking about everyone.  For the rest of you, place and time of day is the most important factor.  You gotta have dynamic light and color in the foundation of your image, captured in-camera, to have a dynamic and vivid image in your final results.  Or, at least – I do.  After that, you’ve got your post-production, printing, finishing, lighting – all important elements to the color that people see in the work.

This week, I did a photography workshop here on Maui with a father and son from Washington State.  They wanted to cover a number of things, but they were both curious and made multiple inquiries to my color in the days leading up to the workshop.  I decided to take some of the mystery out of it and show them a few images from beginning to end.  I am going to show you the same thing with this image from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco that I captured during my last visit to California.

Here is the RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw, straight outta the camera.  The colors are all in the foundation to the image.  The way a digital camera records a scene, it leaves things a bit unfinished.  Whereas a positive slide transparency like Fuji Velvia, properly exposed, is damn near a complete photograph outta camera, digital RAW capture is more like a negative and needs to be completed by the photographer.

Oh, and the back-story to the image – I was shooting here the night before for sunset when the fog moved in, so I felt optimistic about some ethereal sunrise possibilities.  I stayed with a friend in South City 45 minutes away, and although we stayed up ’til 1am-or-later drinking beer and playing Wii bowling, I still managed to get my ass up at 4:30am and get back up here for sunrise…without coffee!  Why on earth would I do such a thing?  Because of Enhance the Vividness Rule #1 people…to get the color.

All I have done in ACR is brought the color temperature down a bit, making the image cooler.  In so doing, the blues and pink become more blue and pink.

Here it is opened into Photoshop.

I open the image into Nik Colr Efex Pro and put a Contrast Color Range layer onto the image.  This is a tool that I use quite often and like.  You can achieve the same results on your own without the plugin, but it speeds things up and works very well.

Here, I apply a subtle curve to the upper part of the image and sky, just to bring those levels up some.

Finally, to add that little bit of punch, I add a little Vibrance and small-kine Saturation.

There, you get to see the path this image followed from out-of-camera to completion.  Not a big stretch.  The foundation has to hold the goods, otherwise you gotta get back out there and shoot it again.  You don’t get good shots every time you go out, because there isn’t going to be dynamic light and color every time you go out, and then the 10 times you do get the sweet-light, 1/2 the time you’ll still not get the shot because of one reason or another.  So, in reality, if you want to get dynamic color in your photographs, you’ve got to get out there a bunch and shoot lots.  If you simply want to see vivid color, pay closer attention and get yourself some Maui Jim’s!