It’s a tick after 4:45 AM, and Captain Kanoa and First Mate Kainoa have just launched the 25-foot Moku Nui into the inky-black waters of Pohoiki Bay – an amazing surf spot by day that makes launching and retrieving a boat a challenging proposition, especially in the darkness of night. Leaving the ramp, Captain Kanoa times the waves, maneuvers into position, then nails the throttles. The twin 200-hp outboards respond immediately, and we jet out of the bay before the next roller comes through. As the smooth Pacific waters pass under the hull and the cliffs of old lava fly pass by, I look to the heavens – the stars that guided the Polynesians thousands of years ago – and easily pick out the Milky Way and a slew of constellations, like they’re within arm’s reach. But I’m not here to stargaze. I have a date with Madame Pele.
Make no mistake; the Big Island of Hawai’i is a nature photographer’s playground, with incredible vistas, amazing flora, steamy rain forests and an abundance of climatic change to make you wonder if you’re really a couple degrees south of the Tropic of Cancer. More importantly, the Big Island is alive and growing: Tūtū Pele, the Fire Goddess of Hawaiian religion — the deity of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes, and more importantly, the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. With her fiery passion, she is still creating land on a daily basis, flowing from Pu’uo’o cone through lava tubes to the Pacific – an eight-mile journey.
Forty minutes into our south-easterly voyage, the air grows warmer and there’s a distinct glow off the bow. Kanoa pulls the Moku Nui off plane, and the boat gently settles into the water. Turning slightly to port, the stern swings around and we’re treated to a scene that can only be described as epic: multiple streams of molten lava, flowing from the edge of the lava bench into the Pacific Ocean – we’re watching the birth of new land.
While the six of us aboard are mesmerized by the display before us, First Mate Kainoa retrieves all the camera gear from the safe confines of the boat’s cabin. Within moments, the beeps and clicking sounds of multiple shutters fill the air, like paparazzi enveloping a Hollywood star. The action is fast and furious, with the flow of lava and pounding surf ever changing – every image unique and special – and the Mana emanating from the area is palpable.
Shooting from twilight through sunrise can be a challenging proposition on land, but it takes on a new dimension when your shooting platform is continually moving on the water, and proper setup is key: When photographing the flow, I usually carry two body/lens setups. For close-ups and shooting at distance, a Canon MARK III coupled to an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens is the go-to kit. To capture wide angle views of the multiple lava entry points, and garner a sense of place, I rely on a Canon 5DsR with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II attached. Why the two different bodies? I want to capitalize on the camera’s strengths and minimalize their weaknesses. The 5DIII is a terrific low-light camera, so I can bump up the ISO (to 800 or 1,000) to shoot with a slower lens, and not have to worry about severe digital noise. The 5DsR, with its 50MP sensor, utilizes a lot of power, which inherently creates digital noise. With the faster lens, I can comfortably shoot at ISO 400-640 and have manageable noise to filter out in post processing.
Getting the best lava shots come down to a few critical factors:
- Prep your gear before stepping a foot aboard the boat. That means ensuring that your batteries are fully charged, memory cards freshly formatted and that your camera is preset and ready to shoot. I find you’ll get the best results with the camera in shutter priority, set to 1/320-sec and with continuous shooting and servo focus engaged, plus don’t forget to have image stabilization enabled.
- Even though your lens may have image stabilization, use your body as a secondary gyro, to counteract the motion of the boat. This requires activating your core muscles and using your upper body as a virtual gimbal.
- Use motion sickness remedies if necessary, and here’s why: When you’re looking through your lens, racked out to 200mm, a few inches in boat movement translates to tens of feet in what we see. This exaggerated view can easily make a sea stalwart run for the rails and “go for distance.”
- Your boat and crew will make or break your shoot, and this is why I ONLY go out with the Moku Nui folks (you can find them and book online at mnlavatour.com). Their experience level is top notch, and they’re very attune to the way light is falling, so the boat is continually being maneuvered so you get the best shot possible. Additionally, safety is their number one concern, the Captain and First Mate keeping their heads on a swivel, watching the wave patterns, and keeping the boat a safe distance away from the flow. They also enforce a strict rule: from the time you board the boat, until it’s time to debark, you keep your back side planted in your seat, no exceptions. If you need anything, Kainoa is there in a flash to help you.
It never ceases to amaze me how fast time passes, when you’re engrossed in capturing the beauty of molten earth. Our 45-minutes at the new coastline felt like a mere 45-seconds, and with nearly 3,000 images captured, Capt. Kanoa pointed the bow back towards Pohoiki and F.M. Kainoa stored our gear. With our muscles aching from continually holding our cameras up to our eyes, we all looked at each other with massive ear-to-ear grins. No words were necessary to describe what we were all feeling: We had all received an incredible blessing from Tūtū Pele — master creator, in land and beauty.