Mud and Blood in Hawaii

posted by on 2009.09.20, under Landscape Photography, Photography Equipment
Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 3-stop Reverse GND, f/16, 30 sec., ISO 200

Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 3-stop Reverse GND, f/16, 30 sec., ISO 200

Imagine for a moment if you were to go on a photographic expedition to Hawaii. The scene that probably unfolds in your head is a very pleasant one… you casually setting up your tripod on the beach with a warm tropical breeze at your back. It’s hard to imagine worrying about anything more than maybe getting a sunburn or missing first light because you had too many Mai Tais the night before.

You can probably guess by the title of this post that my brother and I had a somewhat different experience when we recently spent 5 days on Kauai and 3 days on the Big Island taking photos. In reality, it was a humbling experience because we had greatly underestimated the extreme nature of the Hawaiian landscape. Like any place, it has it’s dangers and those dangers often become worse when you’re setting up sensitive photo gear in precarious places to get the shot of your dreams.

Our overall experience on this trip is perfectly illustrated by our very first morning photographing the sunrise from the Mokolea Lava Pools on the eastern shore of Kauai. We had scoped out the location the previous evening and figured out that we would have to drive to a small beach about a mile away and hike in. With our 30 pound packs of camera gear, we hiked across the sand in the dark until we came to a large river that separated us from the lava pools. No problem. We found the narrowest part of the river and waded across, being careful not to fall because of the soft sand under our feet. After a little bush-whacking we made it to the lava bench and began looking for the famous maelstrom that fills with seawater when the waves hit it and then empties out like a toilet flushing as the waves recede. Immediately, we noticed the lava bench we were walking on was covered with algae making it extremely slippery. It took us several minutes to locate the lava formation (still in the dark at this point) and we proceeded to get inspired and find locations to set up our cameras.

Because landscape shots are often more interesting when there are extreme foreground elements to complement the middle and background, you have to use a wide angle lens and get very close to the ground. This was precisely my strategy for the Mokolea Lava Pools except that getting close to the ground meant getting close to the crashing waves on the lava bench…and when I mean crashing, I mean CRASHING. I literally got into the water with my camera and tripod, screwed on my brand new Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter and started setting up my composition. I noticed the image in my viewfinder getting progressively hazier as I adjusted the tripod. Sea spray was the culprit. Knowing that salt water is the kiss of death for digital cameras, I quickly ran back onshore (being careful to not slip on the algae) to get my rain cover out of my pack so I could protect my camera while I waited for the sun. No sooner than I got back to my camera, a huge wave hit me, grabbed the rain cover and started to wash it out to sea. A quick poke with my tripod leg saved the rain cover, but now it was soaking wet…with sea water. It was useless to me now.

My Camera in Peril on the Mokolea Lava Bench

My Camera in Peril on the Mokolea Lava Bench

While dealing with that and trying to stretch my thin t-shirt over my camera to protect it, I didn’t even notice the storm that was brewing just off shore. With no warning whatsoever, it started pouring rain. It was like someone just turned a dial to “torrential” and flipped the switch to “ON”. My pack on shore with all my camera lenses was getting soaked. So were all my Singh-Ray filters that I had set out on a rock. But I was in triage mode…save the most expensive gear first which, of course, was the camera I was using. The rain turned off and on a few times and during the breaks, I would wipe off the lens and make a few exposures and then switch back to protecting the camera from more rain…though it got soaking wet anyway. I have a new appreciation for Nikon’s weather sealing!

Fortunately, the only equipment casualty of the morning was my brother’s GPS geo-tagging device which stopped working after a suspected dunk in the water. In all the chaos I did manage to come away with an image that I’m pretty excited about (see above). But just about every other worthwhile image from the trip had some similar adventure associated with it. It is fair to say that Hawaii is a very challenging environment for serious landscape photography. But I honestly had a great time and would do it all again in an instant.

On the hike back to the car, there were a few more instant-on hurricanes and I tripped and fell face-first on the rocks (damn algae). Welcome to Kauai!