SILVERSWORD – REFLECTIONS ON A PHOTOGRAPH

SILVERSWORD  Maui, Hawaii 2015

The sun lowers into the ocean and the sapphire blue sky soon revises itself, deepening in shade first to lapis, then navy, and furthermore to an indigo blue with a deep purple influence.  By this time, my focus was no longer on the atmosphere above, but rather on the volcanic cinder underfoot.  My descent into the depths of the dormant volcano, the Haleakala crater of Maui, was underway.  Beginning from the summit, an elevation of over 10,000 feet, my attention was now solely focused on the few feet of area ahead, being lit by my headlamp.  Of course there was still some attention lingering with the atmosphere, but now it was focused on the cool, dry, crispness moving in and out of my lungs.  “That’s reason enough to hike on a mountain – it results in further attention to breath,” I think to myself, as I navigate my way further down the crater interior, nearly 3,000 feet below.

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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.

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.

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

THE BEACH

THE BEACH  Maui, Hawaii

“When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.”

-Rainier Maria Wilke

TIME EXPOSED = 90 SECONDS

 

THE “STUDY” OF SUBJECT – BANDON, OREGON PHOTOGRAPHS

 

“In order to obtain pictures by means of the camera it is well to choose your subject, and carefully study the lines and lighting.  After having determined upon these, watch and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfied your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting.  Of course, the result contains an element of chance, as one might have stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired pictures.” Alfred Stieglitz – “The Hand Camera” (1897)

This is my most common approach to the art of landscape photography – the studying of subject.  I find compositions that I am drawn to and that resonate with me, and then I return to them a number of times during the landscape photographer’s working hours.

  • landscape photographer working hours:
    •an hour before sunrise to an hour after
    •an hour before sunset to an hour after
    •during the night
    •during banker hours (only while stormy and tempestuous) 

With these above working hours, you really don’t have a lot of time to study the subject – in optimal light anyways.  Therefore, you’re likely gonna have to return a bunch of times to get something special.  Now, if you’re lazy, terribly busy, or otherwise lacking the passion involved to drive dynamic work, you might not like the sound of this.  But, if you are driven to get dynamic images, then this is great news!  Essentially, once you find a strong composition that resonates with you and you know works, then it’s just a matter of time before you get a successful image.  Get your ass back there time after time – sunrise, sunset, full moon, new moon.  Wake up early, miss dinner, stay out late.  Work the subject.  Study the subject.  With this style of work, you begin to know the subject.  You begin to see how the light falls on the subject at different times, you learn the tidal conditions in relation to the subject, when people frequent the location and how that may or may not affect you, and many other little nuances of the scene.  Through learning these nuances of the subject, you form a relationship, and like any relationship, depth begins to form.  It’s in this depth that you begin to breathe life into your work, and it is this life that makes the work more dynamic and resonate more strongly with viewers.

“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.” Eliot Porter

This style of work may breathe new life into your photographs.  It certainly did for me.  While living in La Jolla, California for a several years, I started working this way and my work became much stronger.  I wrote about it here, and again here.

While this style of work can obviously help tremendously while photographing at home, I often take the same approach while traveling.  Take the images in this post from Bandon, Oregon as example.  I was traveling for 23 days through parts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.  I had researched extensively before leaving home and had been very drawn to these sea stacks along the coast Oregon and Washington coasts.  I explored online all the images I could find of these many rock formations stretching along the entire west coast, as well as studying these coastline details on Google Maps – an invaluable tool for photographers!  The features and shape of this pointy rock in Bandon resonated with me so much and I knew I had to spend some time there exploring it in-person with my camera.

I decided on a place right on the beach, with some of the sea stacks directly out the back door!  My stay was 2 nights and 3 days.  My first afternoon, I walked the beach until I found the pointy rock that I was drawn to.  Sure enough, it was my favorite rock along the beach.  Not to say it wasn’t all impressive!  Bandon is absolutely stunning and I could certainly stay there for longer than a few days, and I could certainly photograph much of the scenery.  But, I wasn’t there for too long and time being limited, I decided to study the subject, and focus my efforts on this particular rock.  This would better ensure that I’d get a keeper for my gallery collection of works.  So, during the couple sunsets, sunrises, and the one clear night I had, I was out photographing this rock…getting to know her.

You’ll often find that when you approach the work this way, that you end up with a number of dynamic images that you like, making it more challenging to edit the work down to just one or two top images for a collection.  This is a good problem!  It is much better to have 6 strong images and have trouble narrowing it down to 1 or 2, than trying to pick an image to represent the place that falls short.  Besides, you can still use the not-quite-collection-worthy images, I often call them “book shots”.  They are good enough for showing in a book, but not quite strong enough to be a part of a limited edition collection.  Your gallery collection should be your absolute strongest and tightly edited works.

If you haven’t approached your work this way yet, then I encourage you to do it.  Find something near your home that you are drawn to visually, and dedicate a month to it.  Go back often in the landscape photographer working hours.  Go often!  Immerse yourself in the scene.  If you get some good shots, don’t stop.  Keep going.  Go during the different moon phases, sunrise, sunset.  Go at least a dozen times in a month, and see what you end up with.  Still not satisfied?  Then keep going.  It’s not meant to be easy!  If it were, everybody would have great collections of photographs.  It’s a lot of work!  Enjoy it.  It’s great being outside, in the elements, away from the TV!  It’s healthy for the spirit.  And, if you still don’t like it, then go do something else – this isn’t for you.  This is for the passionate photographers and artists who want to create more dynamic work.  This is for you.  Embrace the place, form relationships of depth with your subject matter.  Love the scene.  When you love it, you want to visit it often, and you do so with an open heart.  When you approach the work in this way, good things will happen, I promise.  You may find that even the “mistakes” are pretty cool…

…and the successful ones – they are gems that stay with you forever.

 

SCRIPPS PIER OF LA JOLLA

SUN STAR PIER, La Jolla, California, August 2009

Within days of moving to La Jolla at the beginning of 2005, I discovered this local landmark – the Scripps Pier, and immediately was drawn to it photographically.  I didn’t have any previous connection to piers or other of man’s constructions along the water’s edge, but that would change living in La Jolla, and in large part because of this pier.  I returned every sunset for nearly 3 weeks to get my first successful image of this pier – Time.  That particular photograph really started a new direction for my photography and made my work more personal.  It would be fair to say that that image marked the beginning of working on my own aesthetic and creating my own images, as opposed to looking at others and trying to replicate.  I imagine that most photographers and artists go through similar stages – it begins with trying to make the work you look up to and respect, and once you feel capable and have learned the techniques involved and the process, then you can begin to find your own aesthetic and create a new style that is more unique.  This photograph, Time, and the process of making it, being patient and returning every night before everything was right, had much to do with directing me to a new and more personal path as an artist.

Prior to this time, once I had a successful image of a location, I would generally not return to shoot it further.  Why mess with a good thing?  That too changed in La Jolla, and again, in large part because of this pier.  After several months, I had began to learn much about this tunnel-view composition and what I was drawn to about it.  It hung in the front of the gallery that I spent much time in and I had the opportunity to speak with the public about the photo in length.  This furthered my feelings and understanding of the piece.  A desire to shoot it again arose and within a year, after many visits, I had made a second successful image, Fog.

Through the first 2 years, I made, what I would call – 2 successful images that were “gallery worthy”.  In my third year, I went through a major aesthetic change in my work and went from shooting primarily bright Fuji Velvia color panoramic work to dark and moody black and white square compositions.  There were a number of reasons behind this, a darker mood and life outlook due to events in my life; a feeling that color was too often distracting the viewer of more clear communication; finding myself more drawn personally on an artistic level to cleaner, simpler works, to name a few.  In the end, this transition came completely naturally and with ease and my shooting was invigorated like never before.  I began to re-shoot many of the compositions that I had become familiar with in the area, and found many new ones and ways of making images.   At the end of a string of, yet many more visits, I had made my third successful image, and perhaps my favorite yet, Passage.

Through 3 1/2 years in La Jolla, I would say it’s safe to say I have photographed the Scripps Pier over 100 sunsets.  I have certainly thought that it would be cool to capture an image with the sun setting down the center of the corridor, and at one point, I made some conscious pursuit at it, but my timing was off and I never really followed through with it, never getting closer than a week of the proper time.  I suppose it wasn’t so important to me that I find the exact day or two of the year that it’s do-able.  In reality, I’m really not that much of a planner and it goes against my style completely to turn the art into a science and research as to the exact time and earthly coordinates…blah!  That would be one quick way to take the joy out of photographing, for me.

So, you could call it sweet karma, randomness, coincidence, dumb luck, or whatever you’d like, but on my final evening in La Jolla before moving away, I decide to head out one last time to shoot Scripps Pier at sunset.  I’m super-busy packing and cleaning, and generally waiting until the last minute, like I do.  As I arrive at the pier, it’s 5 minutes from sunset and I can see that the sun is lining up better than I have ever seen.  This is pretty cool, I think as I set up the tripod.  Just as I get the camera set and my settings in order, the sun clips the upper right corner of the frame at the end of the corridor.  Sweet! I take about 8-10 exposures, bracketing and trying different f-stops before settling on f/22 to get the more dramatic starburst.  The sun is visible in the frame for about 2 minutes before it moves north out of sight in this composition.

To get this on my last night in La Jolla!  Pretty cool is an understatement!

TIME, 2006

FOG, 2007

PASSAGE, 2009

(in retrospective – May, 2012)

With some years and many images now between me and this era in La Jolla and these images, it’s interesting to look back, and to see how new thoughts and feelings have developed.  I still feel that Time was the image that sent me on my own path, it felt so original at the time, and therefore it still holds a special place along my path as a photographer.  I wonder if most artists have such a clear moment when their works become more personal.  Perhaps for many, this exact moment is not clear, or for others, clarity of vision never comes at all.

Not too long after Time and Fog, and while still living in La Jolla, Peter Lik came to town and opened a gallery around the corner from my work/exhibit place at that time, the Bartram Gallery.  He evidently was attracted to the composition as well, because soon after he saw my image Time, he came out with his own version – the same composition but, on a gray day with poor light.  Obviously, he didn’t go down there a bunch of times to get sweet light!  It looked like a one-and-done, which I found a bit surprising from him – if you’re gonna replicate, then you’ve got to at least match-or-better the original, right?!  Especially if you’re the self-proclaimed greatest photographer in the galaxy.   Well, I’m guessing he agreed that his first attempt was weak because more recently, a few years later, he’s now come out with a newer version with a bit more dynamic light.  Better than the first attempt, but I think I’ve still got him beat on this one. ;)

 

ROAD TO HALEAKALA SUMMIT

While living here on Maui, I try and get up to the Haleakala Crater National Park every chance I get.  One of my favorite things to do is to head up on the afternoon of a full moon, hike down the Sliding Sands trail at sunset, loop around the cinder cone a few miles down, and head back up the trail to the rising moon and the darkening sky.  This is what I was doing a year back when I captured Stillness Speaks, and what Rebecca and I were planning on doing yesterday.  With Haleakala being over 10,000 feet tall, it is often engulfed in weather.  From the sea-level perspective, you can never tell for certain whether or not you’ll be able to get above the weather, so I generally just go for it and hope for the best.  If it’s socked in, as was the case yesterday, then it’s a chance to enjoy a drive.

The University of Hawaii has a live webcam looking into the crater from the summit, but it hasn’t been working for quite some time.  Can we get someone on this, please?