It’s snowing like crazy in Colorado right now, so I thought I’d post a Hawaii image. This is Ho’opi’i Falls on Kaua’i…or is it? There is debate as to whether these falls go by that name, or the next falls up-stream. In either case, it’s a beautiful hike to get in there. This location claimed the life of my brother’s Manfrotto tripod and almost took his D700 with 24-70mm lens too!
Ever since I returned from Africa earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to analyze the EXIF data of my photos and figure out which lenses I shot most. I’m interested in seeing if it was really necessary to haul the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens on the safari. The 200-400 is truly an excellent lens, but it’s a pig and I grew tired of carrying it. It’s also a little unnerving traveling with a $5500 piece of glass (I rented!). There’s no question that I needed the reach of 400mm, but did I need the constant f/4 aperture? Would a smaller, lighter lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 work just as well? Below is a chart of how many shots I took with each lens I brought on the trip and which apertures I used. I didn’t bother breaking out f-stops below f/5.6 since that’s usually the maximum for most variable aperture lenses like the 80-400mm.
|Total number of shots||f/2 – f/2.8||f/2.8 – f/4||f/4 – f/5.6||Less than f/5.6|
|Nikon 35mm f/2D||20||19||0||0||1|
|Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G||710||N/A||15||29||666|
|Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G||575||N/A||80||39||456|
|Nikon 200-400mm f/4G||2342||N/A||N/A||245||2097|
I am really not surprised that the overwhelming majority of my photos were shot at smaller apertures than f/5.6. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, we really weren’t in that many low light situations. Tanzania’s National Parks typically close around 6 or 7 PM and you must be out by then, or you risk being fined. Secondly, the focus plane of big telephoto lenses is extremely shallow. If you’re taking a picture of a lion at f/4 with a 400mm lens, you’re likely to get his nose in sharp focus, but the rest of his face out of focus. This becomes even more of an issue when there are multiple animals. One afternoon we came upon a pride of 13 lions all sitting together. It was totally impossible to get them all in focus even at the smallest apertures and highest ISOs.
So could a smaller, variable aperture lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 replace the big 200-400mm on a safari? If I was going on an African safari tomorrow (I wish!) I would still take the 200-400. The 80-400′s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t have the internal focusing motor that Nikon’s more modern lenses have. This makes it slow to focus. In Africa, you typically need very fast autofocus to track moving animals. The 200-400mm focuses very quickly because it has the AF-S motor. But there are rumors that Nikon may soon update the 80-400 to include fast autofocus. The current word on the street is that the 80-400 may be replaced with a lens in the 100-500mm range (I have no insider info). If that lens is real and has the excellent optics of the 80-400, I could definitely see it going on my next safari in place of the 200-400. For the time being, though, the best safari lens combo (for Nikon) is the 70-200 and the 200-400.
On my recent trip to Hawai’i, my brother and I stopped off on The Big Island for a few days to explore Volcanoes National Park. Our goal was to photograph flowing lava up close. Since Kilauea is so unpredictable, it’s impossible to know where lava flows will be during your trip or if there will be any at all. One relatively consistent area for lava viewing is the coast line near Kalapana where lava flows from the Pu`u`O`o vent of Kilauea into the ocean. The reaction of 2000 degree lava with sea water is an impressive sight, creating a huge, glowing steam plume that rises into the air. Unfortunately the designated viewing area for the ocean entry is over 2 miles away. If you were to hike all the way out to the ocean entry, you would not only risk a $10,000 fine, but your life as well. The lava is constantly expanding the coast of the Big Island, but the newly created land is extremely unstable and frequently falls off into the water. Many people have been injured and even killed from walking out on the lava bench.
Another option for getting a front row seat to the lava ocean entry point is to sign up for a lava boat tour. Several companies launch boats from Pahoa and take you to within 20-30 feet of the lava…yes, that’s right, 20-30 feet! It was exactly what my brother and I were looking for, so before we left for Hawaii, we booked a sunrise lava boat tour with Lava Ocean Adventures.
Once we arrived at Volcanoes National Park, we stopped by the visitor center to see what Kilauea was up to. We mentioned to the park ranger on duty that we were doing a lava boat tour the next morning. The look that came over his face immediately made it clear that the lava boat “industry” was a major thorn in the side of the National Park Service. He launched into a diatribe about how insanely dangerous it was to be on a boat near the ocean entry. He carefully outlined all of the dangers, including being gassed by the steam cloud which is made up of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, falling off the boat into near boiling water, and being blown to bits by tephra blasts that are powerful enough to toss boulder-sized rocks 30 feet in the air. Perhaps even more scary than those immediate threats was the possibility we could inhale microscopic glass fragments that are aerosolized in the violent reaction of lava entering water. The long term health risks are similar to breathing asbestos.
Needless to say, I was more than a little worried. I spent much of the evening on my iPhone researching the dangers the park ranger mentioned, but I was unable to find any solid evidence that the situation was as grim as he described. We decided to go through with the boat tour and obviously survived the immediate dangers. To mitigate the glass fragment issue, I tightly tied a folded shirt over my nose and mouth. When the boat went near the steam cloud, I held my breath and closed my eyes. Of course, I was the only person on the boat doing this. The captain and crew who have done these tours multiple times a day for twenty years didn’t bat an eye.
The experience was really quite fun. Being close enough to feel the heat of the lava on my face was thrilling and surreal. Photographically, it was nearly impossible to get any meaningful shots. It was very dark and the boat was constantly being thrown around in the choppy water. The autofocus system on my Nikon D300 was totally confused and most of my shots turned out as abstract blurs–even at f/2.8 and ISO 800. Everyone else on the boat with little point and shoot cameras gave up taking pictures early on. The lava boat crew will tell you to bring a wide-angle lens because they get you so close, but you absolutely need a fast telephoto. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is about as good a lens as you could have for this.
Was it dangerous? Yes, I’m sure it was, although it didn’t seem like it. There were no major explosions during our tour but we did see a partial lava bench collapse (see photo directly above). Unfortunately, it may only be a matter of time until a lava boat tragedy occurs. The collision of lava and sea water is just too unpredictable. Things DO blow up out there. As for the environmental hazards, this report and a few others on the internet suggest that the park ranger we spoke to may have been exaggerating the danger a little. That’s fine, it’s his job to protect people. There’s no doubt that those toxins exist out there, but there is conflicting information about how high the concentrations actually are.
I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to see lava and what level of risk you’re comfortable with. For me, the lava boat tour was at the upper limit of what I’m willing to do for a photo. I’m very glad that I went and I had a great time though. I think what’s most important in these situations is to get all the information you can–carefully weigh the risks, and especially pay attention to your inner voice. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, speak up. You could always go drink Mai Tais on the beach–just don’t forget your sunscreen. UV rays cause skin cancer you know.