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Earth's Resurfacing - Kilauea's Lava

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 24 July 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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Perhaps one of the most fascinating evenings of my photographic career occurred last week as Gary Hart and I left the Garden Isle of Kauai where I had just completed my first (of hopefully many) Kauai workshop and landed on the Hilo side of the Big Island in search of molten lava from the continuously erupting Kilauea Volcano.

One of our workshop participants, Eric Emerson, had just photographed the lava and gave us a comprehensive scouting report and for that I am most grateful - thanks Eric! Nonetheless, we felt a trip to the Park's Visitor Center should be the first item on our agenda as the lava conditions change daily. We were informed by a ranger that the best viewing area was actually located outside of the park along highway 130 (a road Eric had told us about), but that the lava had completely covered the parking lot that Eric had photographed from the previous week.

Not to be deterred, we headed back down the main highway towards Hilo and Highway 130. A new parking area had been set up as we arrived around 5 pm. We were told that we would have to hike approximately one mile to the new viewing area that was essentially a paved path over an old lava field. We were somewhat amazed and amused that some of the owners who lost their homes in what was once a subdivision had rebuilt on top of the dried lava field! At the end of the path was a wooden blockade manned by security personal contracted with the Civil Defense Department.

I should preface this story with the fact that my first visit to Volcanoes National Park three years prior was a bust in terms of no lava flow, so needless to say, my pulse was racing a bit faster as I first viewed the flow! As Gary and I waited for sunset and eventually the night sky to envelop us, I played news photographer and captured some nice images of the slow moving lava (we were told it was moving at a rate of one foot per minute). I even captured some frames with my iPhone and sent to interested friends and family.

But the show really began in earnest once the night sky, complete with stars and a gibbous moon, appeared. We were fortunate in the fact that there was no rain (amazing in an area that receives 140 inches annually). I choose this image as my favorite (though there were other worthy candidates) as it completed my vision of the old and new lava merging under the moonlit night. If you check the metadata, you will see that I had to shoot wide open at f/2.8 with my 16-35 mmL Series II lens. I simply played with my focus point and was pleased at the amount of depth-of-field I was able to get at that wide an aperture (gotta love wide angles)! With a timed shutter of 30 seconds, I was able to also get the look of frozen stars but had some motion in the stratus clouds that allowed for some visual movement. On a compositional note, you probably noticed that I split the horizon. I have other frames captured in the more traditional 1/3 - 2/3 placement between sky/land, but at a sacrifice of either the moon and/or foreground lava (which was reflecting the intense reddish glow) so I broke the rule-of-thirds. For this image, I think it was justified.

This is really as close to photographing on another planet as I will ever get; to say the least, I was thrilled with the experience and the results. Timing is everything in life and photography is no exception. The guards had told us they had waited months for a night like this. Needless to say, Gary and I were the last two spectators they asked to leave as they had to reset the boundary markers (I could have stayed all night). Personally I would have loved to have walked closer than we were to slow-moving beast, but we were not allowed. From where we were located, we could feel the heat. We were sitting on top of dried a'a lava which was extremely smooth and somewhat glass-like. It was dubbed Pele's Art. I know it will be a night that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 30 seconds F/2.8 ISO 800 16 mm

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