More LA Harbor Night Studies

I’m trying to put together a gallery show and part of the show would include some long exposure night images of the LA/Long Beach Harbor unloading docks. I’ve decided on most of my faves but there were a few of the old images that are’t as powerful. So last night I was back out in the Nimitz Way section of the Long Beach docks with trusty tripod and my 5DSR.

The harbor area is  a great location for doing long exposure work. The water does nice things, the place is busy night and day — and even on Friday night, LA rush hour there was no one out there to hassle me. That’s amazing for a place that’s only a 10 minute drive.

Plus the artificial light is visually intense. A friend told me that the harbor is one of the most noticeable places on earth on images taken from space. That level of light spill is obviously a huge ecological issue. But it also makes for powerful images.

Given the lighting impact, I didn’t need to do much post work. There is no issue with a “natural” looking image when the lighting is so extreme and you’re doing long exposures. The main trick here aside from composition, is to have a good tripod and the right exposure.

So, three new images.

Hyundai Night

109mm, 15 sec, F11, ISO 100

Maersk Line in Orange and Gray

70mm, 20 sec, F11, ISO 100

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147mm at 10 sec, F5, ISO 100

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The mountains are great… but the prairies will always be my first love

Dan Jurak’s blog is an ongoing pleasure to read. The really good posts, and there are plenty, have him distilling his personal response to photography in a way that’s heartfelt and yet spare. And his images are equally spare and un-cliched.

They’re mostly images from his local area, the Alberta plains. These are the northern plains, not quite Iowa flat, but not marquee locations like Banff (a regular focus of his travel work). And these Alberta landscapes have immense diversity in their quiet way … plus, Dan is good at seeing that rough, northern beauty and composing the land’s shape with a spare hand.

I guess that’s why this image struck me. What a lovely image. And with his comments on shooting locally vs at the well-known travel destinations.

Having just moved down to San Pedro, I’ve been some new local exploration here. I have an ongoing night series I’m working on of LA Harbor and am spending time in and out of the tidal pools along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, doing long exposures in late afternoons.

This quote from Dan about doing local work is just where my head is right now:
“… At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on that particular day.”
“One of the secrets of doing landscape photography really well is to get out often, as often as you can. … Being able to recognize when the light and the weather is requisite.”

And that’s the great thing I’m noticing as well, that when you living a place, you notice when the weather is about to serve up something nice or when tides are low or just an unusual quality in the light. And that motivates you to get out there.

In practical terms, that means I can go to my current fav locations — or find a new spot, when the weather display and light will give me the most value. And that means my portfolio of good work can continue to expand. No outside photog has the level of opportunity that a local has.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

landscape, foggy, winter, snow, Alberta, rural, pasture, frozen, Dan Jurak,

A few days ago was my first trip to the mountains in a few months. It was like coming home visiting the rockies. It always takes my breath away. Everything is grand. Everything is spectacular.

But the best thing about going away I have always found is returning home. There is no more comforting feeling that putting my head on my pillow, having our 95 pound Weimaraner laying on my feet so that I am pinned under the blanket and listening to my wife toss and turn all night. I mean it.

I have been toying with the idea of one day moving to Canmore to be closer to the mountains and wonder how different would the photos I take be?

At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on…

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Photographing Kauai Without a Net

The mountainous center of Kauai is a world unto itself, cliffs that drop into the mist below, endless waterfalls, pinnacles of weathered lava cloaked in green.  This hidden landscape can only be photographed from a helicopter or some modern Lewis and Clark.

… And our intrepid enthusiast was there, with knees jammed against the seat in front to give a false sense of security. 

I’ve done an occasional helicopter and small plane tour and the experience is always powerful. Human perception is trained from birth to see the world bottom up. And seeing a place from a height can evoke moments of wonder.

That said, most copter rides will disappoint the photo enthusiast artistically …  if not done right. Usually on these tours, you’re shooting through a small window. That means only a foot of latitude when it comes to pointing the camera and worse, too much window glare for a usable image.

So I hadn’t considered a helicopter on our upcoming Kauai trip until I read that  a couple of companies do “doors-off” tours on the island. Now that got me thinking.

Doors-off means no window glare, no tiny window to shoot through. Yes, you’re still totally strapped in, these tour folks are scrupulous in their safety procedures. But from a creative perspective, doors-off offers some serious benefits. No doors means your range of motion with the camera is excellent — as good as you’ll get while seated and strapped in.

I had an intuition about all this by the time we got to the Bali Hai Resort. And I asked the tour desk folks about the tours. The Wyndham folks ran down the two companies that offer “doors-off” (and yes, they also do doors on). So I booked the tour (and got the Wyndham discount) with Jack Harter Helicopters (808-245-3774), working out of Lihui.

Pre-Flight Prep

In their confirmation email, the company suggested a warm jacket, it gets cool at 5,000 feet, even on Kauai. They also said to show up ahead of time for all the pre-tour stuff you’d expect.

That afternoon, we went through all that and got our instructions. The Jack Harter offices are about a mile from the Lihue Airport, (there’s a van to carry folks to the helicopter pad). The participants included several photo enthusiasts, plus newlyweds and even a Special Forces guy stationed on Oahu and his wife. We chatted till the van got there.

As an Army brat, talking with the Special Forces guy was like catnip. My new friend had done more copter rides than he could count. He was stoked about cruising this vacation spot doors-off — and sharing the experience with his wife. Like most participants she was a first timer but being an Army wife, she was totally game.

The pre-tour overview helped but there were some jitters out there on the tarmac. I spent the time getting my gear ready and checking my settings. They only allow one camera and lens per person, no other loose items at all. … Imagine loose gear in the open cockpit of a helicopter traveling at 100 mph.

While waiting, enthusiasts had the lens discussion. With what you’re paying for your photo shoot, choosing a lens is important. There’s something to be said for having a lens with some range, 24-105mm, 24-70mm, etc. That range is perfect for the times you’re moving through the distinctive Kauai ecosystems. You can capture most vistas or lock in on a waterfall at the far end of a valley.

But on this kind of trip, a wide angle zoom rules. The shoot locations are such unique landscapes, wide valleys, huge swaths of uninhabited coast, cliffs half a mile deep. And when the copter nudges you into those expansive parts of the Lost World, a 16-35mm or 17-40mm has to be your tool of choice. Otherwise you’re leaving out important parts of the composition.

Area of High Velocity Falls, looking out. Sure, I could have gotten (most of) this shot at 24mm. But the sheer weight of that left foreground element  would have been missing and the cliff edge on the right side wouldn’t feel like it stretched out to forever.

Going wide angle zoom was my take on the perfect lens discussion. At that point the van took us down to the airport. Each of the copters was a 5-seater. So each passenger (except the one in the middle front seat) is open to the elements.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Our ride and Ian, our pilot

Once Ian, our pilot had everyone communicating through the headphones, the engines geared up and the copter eased up light as a dragonfly.

I was a bit queasy by now. Seeing the ground disappear, feeling how freeform a copter navigates through space, it all made me wonder if I’d be making a deposit into the little brown bag. But as we rose, that sense of fearful height became an abstraction, like it is on an airline. And by the time the views expanded, the creative juices kicked in. Showtime.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Heading west from the airport — Using the helicopter’s step as foreground element and the Huali’i river as leading line.

Composition as a Vertical

On this trip I had to adjust how I see landscape. Most landscape shots are in flat landscape mode (duh). But in the copter, your frame of reference has to include the fact that your vertical axis is in constant flux.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Waipo’o Falls

You also notice that with no door, you’re open to the world. The pilot banks and you find yourself staring straight down. And if you move the camera out into that space, you feel the 100 mph winds blasting. So use the camera strap.

It’s an invigorating feeling. But if there’s any moisture in the air (and you are in the clouds); your gear may need drying. This became an issue when we headed into the highlands. In that mist, poking the camera into position was enough to dampen the lens.

Shooting through the clouds around Waialeale Crater

Compositional as Visual Improv

At these speeds, composition moves fast. Landscape photographers tend to revel in a new shoot location; we like to breathe the place in, notice the foreground elements and such. That’s the magic of shooting a sacred spot.

But when you’re getting swung through these vast canyons, there’s zero time to breathe in a location. The pilot banks and you’re looking 2,000 feet down and holding on for the ride. Composition has to be instantaneous: see it, shoot it, see the next shot location. Because the angle you liked so much is gone in 3… 2…

On top of that, the copter is never level for long. So you either make an instant adjustment to level the image or all your shots will be tilting. (Tip: It helps to not frame the composition as tightly as usual — that way you’ve got a bit of leeway for leveling the image in post.)

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Pohakuau ( along the Napali, near red hill) looking in to Kalalau valley. This one was in classic landscape mode, but part of the magic of this shot “location” is that the eye knows we’re half a mile up.

This is camera improv for the landscape enthusiast and if you didn’t get 300 shots at bare minimum, you must’ve been too sick to look through the viewfinder. A copter shoot is the ultimate photo improv, real time — at 100 mph.

Plus you’re only able to shoot from your seat in the copter. That meant there were shots that the photog to my left got served up and a different set that came my way.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

You see the other guy’s shot but …  Waialae looking toward Waimea canyon

One challenge with these tours is that pilots aren’t allowed to just hover there next to one of those 2000 foot cliffs. FAA rules have been clearly defined for Kauai’s unique challenges, how high you can go under various flight conditions, how close you can get to a cliff face, etc.

As photographers, we want (and need) a level of control. Our image will be better if we can tell a pilot: “OK, little to the left … now let’s try the same shot from 300 feet higher.” When you’re hiking or doing a four-wheel photo tour, you control how you engage the environment. So this tour is a roller coaster that can’t stop on the tracks.

The Itinerary

This video game world has a specific plot structure: airport to back country to Waimea. Then over to NaPali and up the misty mountains and the return along the lowlands.

Waialae looking up stream

NaPali Coast looking east

Honopuu arch, NaPali Coast

So imagine a Richard Avadon style photographer, shooting image after image, capturing one amazing sight after another. But the feeling comes with the clear realization that you’ve missed as much as you got.

Strategies

The typical landscape photog will often look for a foreground object to play off of the rest of the vista. But unless you’re using the copter itself as a foreground element (and that gets boring), you find that the whole scene is out there in the middle and far distance. However, a cliff face that’s only a hundred yards away can become a powerful foreground choice if it lines up just right. Plus wide angle lenses have a wonderful way of exaggerating the scale of whatever’s closest.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Honopuu valley, Along NaPali Coast

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Entering Kalalau Valley along the West side from NaPali. Here the shot is anchored by the base of the pinnacle and the eye follows that up till it becomes a razorback.

Once you get further back from the NaPali Coast, you’re in landscapes that seem created for giants. The ancient volcanic cores of Kauai have been scooped into near-vertical cliffs. And since the copter covers this section from above, that becomes how the eye sees the image, cliff top to valley.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Nualolo Aina

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Hanakoa Falls, Classic Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines

Tech Talk

Shutter speed. I didn’t want to hassle with shutter speed or the other settings while we were up there. But being in a moving helicopter means you want shutter speed to be a bit higher than usual for a wide angle. In addition, a tour like this will have moments of bright sun, overcast and even some deep misty conditions. So I shot in Aperture mode and didn’t ride the shutter speed at all. Instead I set ISO and f-stop so as to give myself the most leeway.

ISO. I set ISO higher than usual, 800 and up to 1200 in spots with thick mist. That wasn’t an issue since I had a full frame.

F-stop. With my lens choice, the Canon 16-35mm, and with foregrounds fairly far away, I could shoot as low as f4-f5.6 and still get everything in focus.

Hindsight. There were a few spots where my shutter speed went as low as 1/20 sec. and those images are OK but not crystal sharp. And in retrospect, I could have upped my ISO. But my biggest takeaway was wishing I had taken a towel or worn something to clear up the moisture on the lens. That was really my biggest issue.

My choice of gear was tand my (full frame) Canon 5Dsr. If I’d brought a second lens, it would have been a 24-105mm. Obviously adjust your lens choice for a crop camera. So if I had chosen my Fuji X-T2 (with a 1.5 crop), I would have gone with their 10-24mm.

Composition. There are plenty of ways to work composition for this kind of a situation.

Foreground/background compositions can work but in a helicopter that usually translates as mid-ground/background. The only true foreground is what’s in the helicopter.

Leading lines are everywhere (waterfalls, cliff ridges). Rule of 3rds, juxtaposition, etc.

Even when moving this fast you want the eye to make sense of these mythic shapes. It’s easy to just shoot nonstop for a hour without seeing the composition, like the 1,000 monkeys typing Shakespeare. And that’s a waste of good silicon. So see what compositional ideas come and work fast.

And most of all, just have fun. I found that the hour I spent up in the clouds challenged me in all kinds of ways. I wished I could have afforded a private tour or gone back the next day and sat on the other side of the copter. Because there are amazing opportunities on a doors-off tour and a range of challenges we rarely face.

And don’t get bothered if you didn’t get as many keepers as usual. These nosebleed inducing images are unique, as abstract as sculptures by Henry Moore but vastly larger. If you get 5 good ones out of the mix, you’re better than most. And each image has a story behind it.

 

Inside the Waialeale crater looking out (north)

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Shooting LA Harbor

Now that we live in San Pedro, I’ve been wandering down to LA Harbor for the occasional photo shoot. It’s one of the busiest ports for container ships in the world and just over the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

The scale of the place is amazing. And since they seem to work 24×7, the place is always lit up. So it’s great fun to work on night photography — once you figure out how to get around the warren of roads and detours.

A small section of the harbor facility:

Port of LA from Gaffey Street

And from Harbor Blvd. in San Pedro:

Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Blvd.

Harbor Facility and Vincent Thomas Bridge

It’s impossible to get close to any of the harbor areas. But that offers creative opportunities.

Crane, Seaside Road

Crane, Seaside Road

The fact of night and a lit up environment gives the most everyday machinery a kind of mythic quality.

Train Engine, Nimitz Road

Crane, Nimitz Road

These loading facilities are all securely guarded and fenced off. They don’t let anyone use the bathroom  if you have a camera. But the main roads are public property. A few images from a pull-off on Navy Way.

Shot from Navy Way, 23 sec exposure

Loading a Ship, Sunset

Shot from Navy Way, 40 sec exposure

Cranes and Container Ship, shot from Navy Way

 

 

 

Living off of the low hanging fruit? It’s not any sweeter.

Some good insights on photo gear from Dan Jurak. There’s way too much pressure to buy the latest — as if a $3000 gear purchase somehow improves a person’a artistry. That fence post shot he did with that old camera is proof that it’s the photographer and not the camera. (On the other hand, look at the EXIF data on the file, the resolution level for the fence post file is tiny.) Regardless, someone’s who’s learning is better off using a camera body that’s several generations back and upgrading when enhanced features make the upgrade a step forward.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

landscape, prairie, winter, dan jurak, alberta, snow, cold, fencepost, farm, rural, fence post,

The days have become shorter up here. Today a cloudy grey sky and a predicted high of -7 Celsius is forecast. It’s gloomy outside and some people find weather like this depressing. Call me weird but I find peace and tranquility when the skies are heavy. The landscape is easier on the eye. Shadows are soft or non-existent today.

Lately I have been going back over some very old photos from when I picked up landscapes again. Today is from 2007 and was taken with a now ancient Canon Rebel XTi.

I have attached a screen of the IPTC data just to show that although it is nice to have a high end camera and lens it really isn’t necessary. A Facebook group that I belong to has almost every day a post asking about what is the best camera, lens, tripod, etc. to buy and almost always someone pipes…

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Shadow of the Mountain

Karen has a heartfelt blog post on hiking, life events and the lure (or lack) of climbing the Munros, those 200+ Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet. … and check out her Scotland landscape shots.

Karen Thorburn Photography

I recently attended a concert by my favourite singer songwriter, Dougie MacLean, at the Strathpeffer Pavilion. A third of the way into the set, Dougie kicked off with a new song, ‘Shadow of the Mountain’. One of the many things I love about live performances is the anecdotes between songs; stories that bring the music to life. I follow the same approach in my photography talks, recounting anecdotes to help the viewer engage with the images on a deeper level.

The best stories link together more than one idea and the audience erupted with laughter as Dougie relayed the tale of a tense performance in Anchorage in the shadow of a volcano threatening to detonate. My face creased into a knowing smile when Dougie went on to reflect on how life has a tendency to go ‘pear-shaped’ just at the moment when you think your problems are lying…

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The Manhattan Skyline

Lovely shot of the Manhattan skyline at night from Bear Woods. The long exposure work done beautifully, the old pier posts leading the eye into the image. I’m jealous. 😉

Bear Woods Happenings

The Manhattan Skyline.
 
So this is my third trip to NYC in the past 5 years or so, and it marked many first for me. Yesterday I had my first bagel and coffee from a street vendor. Good stuff, I know there is better in the city though at some of the deli’s, but I was in a rush. I also took my first ride on a subway train. During the ride back, I got to listen to a traveling piano man on the train who supported his piano around his neck with RG59 cable and duct tape. Actually he was very entertaining. I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Awesome, even from the distance I saw her. I saw the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. And I photographed the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn! I had been scouting images for a while in hopes to…

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Kauai Photo Overview

Like all Hawaii, Kauai has plenty to offer: beachy stuff, the arts, music, hiking, shopping. But this is a photo blog. My focus is all about making photography and the creative experience an essential part of your travels. So here are some key possibilities for those of you with a camera (or phone cam) who are thinking of a trip:

Waimea Canyon. This area, above the western side of Kauai, has an abundance of overlooks, pull-offs and trails along Route 550. Waimea is often called “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” but the description doesn’t do justice to either place. The Grand Canyon is hundreds of millions of years older, a vastly different geological history. But Waimea is equally beautiful, with luscious tropical colors — and way less photographed. If you go to Kauai, put Waimea Canyon at the top of the list.

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Waimea, in western Kauai, is removed from the main tourist sights, almost at the end of Route 50 (1 1/2 hours from Princeville). Then from Waimea town, head up 550 for 20 or 30 minutes. You’ll notice two signed overlooks, each is a must see for the photographer. The second of these has some trails that are worth it for those who can handle a bit of exercise. Plus there are plenty of pull-offs on the road. (Remember other folks are on the road too, so take in the sights after you’ve pulled off not while driving.)

Kalalau & Pu’u O Kila Overlooks. At the top of Route 550 are two overlooks of the Na Pali Coast that are also classic photo locations. And the fact that they’re a few miles past Waimea Canyon means you’ll end up doing them on the same day.

2G7A2624

Kalalau Overlook

That area toward the top of the road has lots of trails through Koke’e State Park. The park is mostly swamp, a swamp almost a mile above sea level. But there are also trails that take you Na Pali overlooks. Once you’re in that top area you’ll notice signs for Kokee Natural History Museum and Koke’e Lodge. The museum has plenty of info on the hikes.

The two overlooks are at the end of the road. Both are of Kalalau Valley section of Na Pali. The one caution is that by noon these overlooks can get shrouded in clouds. Getting to Waimea and then up to the overlooks can take an hour from Poipu, 1 1/2 hours from Lihue — if you don’t stop.  So go early or the overlooks at the top could be wrapped in fog.

Na Pali Coast. The Na Pali Coast is the most recognizable location on Kauai — because of the movies. It seems like any film that symbolizes unspoiled tropical wilderness does some shooting at Na Pali: Jurassic Park, King Kong, South Pacific, etc. This section of the coast is all about hidden valleys and 3,000 foot vertical drops. It can’t be gotten to by road. So if you want to shoot Na Pali, you hike in, view it from a boat or take one of the helicopter tours.

These boat tours can include snorkeling or dinner. For a more serious photographer, the “sunset” tour will usually deliver the better image. But an adventure rafting tour of sea caves and the coast will be an experience in its own right and a great challenge for your outdoor/sports photography skills. I’ll cover a helicopter tour in a whole blog post.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

NaPali Coast from helicopter

Tours

Kauai tours are one of the core entertainments. In fact, if you browse through one of the tourist handouts of the 101 Things to Do on Kauai, 99% will be some form of tour. Some choices (just off the top of the head): Snorkel tours, sunset sailing, kayak, general island, photo oriented, helicopter, tours to the nearby islands, horseback, botanical gardens….

I’ve done a bunch of Hawaiian tours. Whether the tour is physically oriented, cultural, botanical, or artistic, they tend to have high level guides, folks who know the islands. So you come away with an experience of some sort. But the tours can be a significant expense especially for a family, so choose based on your interests. And remember, a little research in a guidebook or here means you can do lots of these sights on your own.

I’ll list a few of these here, with thoughts on how a photo enthusiast might approach the experience:

Snorkeling. Whether with spouse or kids or solo (if you’re a regular swimmer), snorkeling at a good beach is an essential experience. Being suspended in the flowing ocean, hanging with the fish, being in the now. Rent some gear, do it.

As photo locations, snorkel beaches are a mixed bag. There are a few snorkel beach spots that can give you that classic beach shot and there are lots of people shots to be had. So bring your camera and at least a walk-around lens. (And keep it hidden in the car when not in use.) But my suggestion is, plan your snorkel trip to include photography before hand. Set aside some time for each experience.

Scuba Tour. I’m certified and did a scuba thing on Kauai on my second trip — I haven’t done a dive that includes photography, maybe the next time? Scuba can be amazing to do with a properly housed camera. This is Pacific Island diving in a small boat, sea turtles, fish everywhere, how cool is that. But.

But scuba is a huge skill unto itself. And if your diving skills aren’t current I wouldn’t throw the photo thing on top of it. If you’re new to diving, just dive on Kauai — do that experience to the full.

Kayaking up to the Fern Grotto. I’ve never been attracted to one of these tours. A little tour bus, a short kayak paddle, a boat with a Hawaiian music performance, a fern encrusted cave. It’s probably an entertaining family tour but I’m not the target audience.

This kind of excursion can be fun, but don’t expect great landscape images. That jungle flood plane below Fern Grotto doesn’t make landscape work easy. And any tightly manage tour adds other creative challenges — 1. you have to move with the group and 2. getting all those tourists out of the shot is more trouble than it’s worth.

Doing a straight kayak trip though, one you take at your own speed, is fun in its own right. Again, low lying river areas aren’t easy as landscape locations. But you might well get some nice adventure photos and botanical studies.

Seeing, shooting in a tropical garden. Kauai has a several botanical gardens, each full of rare or endemic flowers and trees. These spots are a treasure trove of subject matter and the enthusiast who understands macro work will have a field day.

Macro work isn’t a slam dunk, you’re applying the rules of composition at a different scale. So don’t just put the flower in the middle of the frame and push the button. Treat the flower and it’s setting as landscape in miniature. Think about relationships within the frame, foreground/background, leading lines, etc., all the good stuff.

And for a photo portfolio of the Garden Isle, an orchid is as appropriate a subject as a canyon or a stretch of coast. [No, you don’t need a macro lens.]

Doing a photo tour. We did a great tour with Nathan Sebastian at Kauai Photo Tours (more in a later post). The tour covered about 10 locations on the east and north side of the island and the experience seemed to work for enthusiasts at every levels.

If you don’t know a place as intimately as the locals, you won’t discover the less touristy photo spots on your own, not in a week. You can also cover a lot of ground doing the regular (non-photo) island tour. But with those, you get rushed onto the bus before you get your best shot. After all, a general tour company isn’t planning their locations like a photographer does. Talk about frustrating. To me, photo-oriented tours are a no-brainer.

Helicopter Tour

I understood early on that fully half the island, the mountain core of Kauai, is inaccessible for the visitor except through a helicopter tour. The density of the jungle and the sheer cliffs mean the higher Kauai locations are never seen. These nosebleed-vertical landscapes are like abstract sculptures — as complex as Antelope Canyon but on a mythic scale. I’ll do a whole blog post on the Jack Harter Helicopter tour I did.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Kauia doors off tour

Beach Images. To the “high art” folks, pictures of beaches are about as classy as black velvet paintings of flamingos. And that’s too bad. Nature colors, like pure harmonies, resonate with the psyche. And the lush jungle, black sand and endless blue ocean have a certain magic.

That said, the average beach photo slips all to easily into postcard cliches. But the problem lies with the photographer, not the landscape itself. It’s easy to get lost in the Fantasy Island prettiness and forget to capture the experience from within the frame. So, treat these building blocks as formal compositional elements and you’re less likely to fall into cliche.

Kealia Beach

Kealia Beach, Early Evening

One-off Kauai shot locations 

There are a bunch of smaller shot locations that are worth seeing. Your photo of this place may not be unique. Everyone who shoots Kalalau Overlook stands in about the same spot. But you’ll want to go anyway  — hey, the rules of craft apply regardless of how many others have visited that location. So take the time to breath in this moment, to see the clouds and the play of light… find your own personal response. Here’s a few of the marquee Kauai locations:

Kilauea Lighthouse, North Shore

Kilauea Lighthouse, Follow signs to lighthouse

Kilauea Lighthouse

Tree Tunnel, Road to Poipu

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Tree Tunnel, Early Morning

Capturing the human experience

People go to these islands to have experiences, to engage with nature and each other. Life happens and in Hawaii, the moments of life feel more intimate somehow. That’s something every photographer should see, and care about. For instance, watching a gang of kids riding their bikes to the Hanalei Pier after school for a swim.

Hanalei Beach and Pier

The Back Flip

You Are Here … at Hanalei Bay Pier (Nathan on camera phone)

Ft. Elizabeth (Russian) Fort, look accross river to where Capt. Cook landed

Dark Clouds, Black Sand, Ft. Elizabeth

A lot to work with.

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The lure of Kauai

Growing up an Army brat (and with parents who were brats), the Hawaiian islands were part of our family history, our travel DNA. My mother came here just before the war. And my Mom’s rendition of the old Honolulu show tune, “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop,” seemed to capture the spirit of Old School Hawaii. I’ve often wished I had a recording of her version; the last line, “Hattie’s sure to die from too much gin,” is etched in my brain forever.

I liked our trips the the islands, in a family vaca kind of way. But as a writer of a travel/photography blog and the occasional book, I’ve begun to see Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and even Oahu with a new respect. The islands are as intriguing to me as a landscape photographer as Iceland or the Southwestern national parks. Plus, I appreciate the range of nature-related experiences that are available.

Hawaii’s an easy trip from the West Coast, not too pricey if you go the condo route. More important, the islands work on lots of levels: cultural, personal, creative/artistic. But 2 or 3 months ago, when I was trying to imagine the shape of our next little trip, Kauai in particular kept coming to mind.

We’d been to the other 3 islands in the last five years. But M had never done Kauai, so she wondered how it stacked up against The Big Island and Maui (her fav). I hadn’t been on Kauai in over 15 years, when I did an outdoorsy solo trip.

I’ve come so many times and know the basics, beach, luau, snorkel tour, restaurants, a smidgeon of Hawaiian culture and ecology — all that good stuff. And all those choices become more personal if I add in photography and a helping of creative exploration. That was my idea.

Anini Beach, Afternoon Swim

Anini Beach, Afternoon

An Old Photo in an Album

My first Kauai experience had been a family trip there in the mid-90s, a few years after Hurricane Iniki had leveled much of the island. That trip didn’t do much for me, no time on my own to explore.

The second trip to Kauai did stay in my head, partly because of a photograph. That trip had included a scuba trip, the NaPali Coast hike, the Waimea Canyon and Overlook drive and general forays around in my rental car. I started to see that deeper side of the island that time, but I never went all that deep.

But the thing from that trip that stayed in imagination was when I took that photo of the Waimea Canyon overlook and a little helicopter.

Waimea Canyon, @2002

Scan of old photo

I only had a P&S, not 35mm; film, so no Lightroom or Photoshop. But I loved that shot. I so clearly remember that overlook. Seeing those cliffs and valleys glowing in late morning light. Zooming in on those massive barrel shaped canyon walls, all that iron-red lava. The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” indeed. I was just starting to around with composition back then and when the copter entered the frame, well…

I blew it up to 8×10 and plopped it into an album. The quality looked fine to me then. Now, with the photo technology, post prod tools — and more important, with my training and experience, something is missing. The image isn’t flashy, I’d delete it these days. But it has a core of experience. Obviously, on a technical level the image is flat and crude. The moment of creative discovery held so much more than was captured with a mid-90s point and shoot.

That was another motivation for wanting to visit Kauai again, to shoot that location now — now that my equipment is landscape photography grade and I’m a bit better at seeing composition. I wanted to go back, to do justice to Kauai as photo location. So I returned and M came with me.

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Wiamea Canyon 2017

Going Deeper into a Place

Ultimately, the idea of returning to Kauai for a third time (first for my wife) kept pulling my attention. Most of the earlier trips to Oahu, Maui and Hawaii happened as family vacations. Three generations of family. Everyone did beachy stuff and sightseeing, the occasional museum, snorkeling, a little hiking.

And don’t get me wrong, these were great as family vacations. But all the photography-oriented trips I do now, my  blog posts on Iceland from this last March (or my Zion/Bryce and Arches/Canyonlands books) have taught me to see these classic locations as places of self discovery.

I think the best shot locations have a balance or geology, light, compositional elements, culture, experience. So another motivation for Kauai was to see the island at that level.

And as I sit here in Poipu, I’m starting to figure out what pulls me in. On some level, I’m becoming more enticed by the simple. I’m not letting myself get as sucked into the media-driven angst and the political. Yeats’ line, “… the center cannot hold” is a true statement of our out-of-sorts time. But I won’t let that be my reality.

I’m learning to not let the endless media hand-wringing define me. Instead I’ve been staying more centered, doing stuff that’s as close to fully positive as I can muster. And part of that process is maintaining a creative focus that mirrors the sense of balance I choose to move towards. Kauai seemed a good choice for that internal work.

Hanalei by Farmers Market

Taro Field, Hanalei

Garden Isle

Kauai, the “Garden Isle,” is spoken of as the most fully Hawaiian of the four main islands — because it’s the least touristy, most laid back — closest to the Hawaii of old. Not surprisingly, it’s the least populous of the big 4 with about 70,000 residents. Oahu, location of Honolulu, has about a million folks and gets the lions share of visitors. And the lack of population density allows nature to become primary, to take center stage.

Kauai has also practiced been a Hawaiian Island longer. The island was formed about 6 million years ago as the Pacific Plate shifted and volcanos created new land. Oahu formed a couple million years later, Maui a couple million years after that. The baby, The Big Island, was formed half a million years ago and continues to have lava flows.

As the older sibling, Kauai has a more lived in attitude. Six million years of tropical rain have hidden the lava base under thick jungle and create weathered valleys — the most obvious being Waimea Canyon. So the density of nature and natural colors creeps into your spirit when you’re here. And when a photographic artist puts the attention on these elements, it can have a healing effect on photographer and audience.

And after all, that’s a core value of landscape photography, using nature to remind us that harmony and order exist. Going to Kauai allows me to immerse myself in this aspect of life.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

The weathered core of time

Photo Road Trip to Iceland’s South Coast

I’d hoped the South Coast would be the highlight of my Iceland trip — and it was. This part of Iceland was extraordinary and not just because of the warm sun. There are several marquee photo locations along the coastal plain, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, Black Sand Beach, Dyrholaey Peninsula, Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach.

But there’s also simple beauty along Route 1. The little pull-offs you discover won’t be flashy — but can be a delight because you’re noticing composition and balance in the small things others overlook. Improvising. For an enthusiast, a few days of shooting along the South Coast is pure heaven.
some notes

Ring Road pulloff… You don’t need a fancy waterfall to get your juices going, just a sense of land and light

A little warm sun does wonders after 5 days of wind, cold rain, snow. Watching the vast landscape unwrap as the miles unfold, that is a tangible pleasure. You notice the scale of the coast, the high plateau (there on the left), then the white of the glacier behind, the stream beds of black obsidian, and stately clouds. You start to imagine Norse gods striding the floodplain, trolls turned into stone.

Driving the 4-wheel rental southeast from Reykjavik that afternoon was the perfect antidote for a cold LA boy. Yes, I was starting my drive three hours later than planned. But that was necessary, that’s me getting my act together.

When I had walked out of the Reykjavik airport that first morning and ran into real Iceland weather, I realized how bad my clothing choices had been. Iceland can be brutal in March, that’s why I spent time that morning on the main shopping drag, Laugavegur Street, getting warmer gear (esp. for head and face), a map and trip food. Being aware of the necessities of solo traveling — that’s why I had opted for the 4-wheel drive in the first place.

Once I was fully packed, I called Lagoon Car Rental for pick up. The attentive Lagoon service person picked me up, did the paperwork, then took time to walk me around the Duster. I rarely rent a 4-wheel and wanted to check on the shifting, the GPS, the various idiosyncrasies. She also gave me a heads up to hold on tight when opening the car door. It’s not uncommon for a car door to get ripped off by a strong gust. I mentioned to her I appreciated her thoughtful tips. (An hour later, that tip saved me some dough.)

Trusty Duster

My trusty 4-wheel. … notice the width of the shoulder.

I was already familiar with the other challenge of driving in Iceland. Tourists (like me) love to pull over on those narrow roads and take a photo. That can be annoying when someone else does it and with these roads, risky behavior. Driving conditions are challenging enough in March without having the guy in front slow to a crawl for no apparent reason. There’s also an issue with losing control of the car on the shoulder. The shot above shows the width of the average road shoulders on Route 1, about 2-3 feet. The rest is unsupported gravel with little or no traction.

This pull-off marks where the Ring Road drops down to the low lands of the coastal plain. It’s also the spot where I almost lost the car door — the wind was blasting that hard.

By noon I was on my way, letting the GPS guide me out of the city center over the plateau and down into the lowlands of South Coast. On the road again.

…to be continued

Do a photo tour or choose your own path

Visiting Iceland, a photographer has three choices, to do general day tours to the marquee locations, take dedicated photo enthusiast tours or rent a vehicle and shoot Iceland on your own terms.

I did a couple of standard day tours and they’re worth the money. For $50-$200, you get carted around to the famous spots with someone else handing the logistics and giving you insights on the place and people. The tour quality around Iceland is fairly high.

But as a photographer a one-size-fits-all tour has issues. You’ll be moved when the group is bored, you won’t have control over when you’ll visit that photo spot (kinda important, that one), and some spots won’t be of particular photographic interest. So I treat these tours as location scouting. I’ll get some good images on a general tour but often to get a definitive image, I’ll probably have to return when the time is right.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Dritvik

Taken on a general tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula — I was complaining about the fierce cold the entire tour but I couldn’t have gotten this shot on a warm, sunny day.

Doing the photo enthusiast tours solves all those issues. The guides are pros, other folks from in country or a pro from the US who comes regularly. They’ll take you to a great set of photo locations when the light is good and they’ll give as much assistance is you need. Plus you’ll be with a small group of photographers. They may not all be pros but they are there because they appreciate the craft. Down side of these tours, they can be nosebleed pricey.

The third choice is to do your own pre-trip research, rent a car, get lodging, find places to eat. More hassle but a fairly cheap way to do things … and total freedom. The unique nature of the landscape seems to feed your creativity. So if someone suggests you visit a location you never heard of, it’s nice to have the freedom to go for it.

And really, it’s not that hard doing your own photo tour. If you made it to Iceland in the first place, you’re savvy enough to find a B&B and rent a car. The Ring Road is good (depending on the season), the local accommodations are fine and the people you meet make all the difference. Icelanders you meet know their country, they’re helpful and may speak better English than you. So if you do decide to travel on your own, you’ll get plenty of support.

The B&B host I stayed with in Vik gave me the full map tour after breakfast. I peppered him with lots of questions and picked up ideas none of the guidebooks mentioned.

Doing the tour research

Of course if you go your own way, you can’t just wander down to the front desk and have them take care of it all. You’re doing your own research both logistical and in terms of your shoot locations.

For me, the first step in my South Coast walkabout was looking at Iceland photos and seeing where those places are. I set up a Pinterest page just for Iceland here. I looked at where the tours were going. I looked for out of the way spots as well as the marquee photo locations. After all, there’s a reason the famous waterfalls attract photographers — even i you have to use Photoshop for crowd removal. (Why doesn’t Lightroom have a slider for that?)

So I study potential shoot locations, look at the images, do the planning, all based on my artistic interests. It didn’t take long to realize the more interesting spots and plot each on a map of the South Coast.

Lodging

A few lodging tips. First, the country has become a hot location and there are less lodging choices than there are potential visitors. So book early.

Don’t rush. Expect that the drive will take longer, that you’ll need to eat and get gas and hang out at the BnB. Don’t treat your personal photo tour like a forced march. Enjoy the place.

I suggest that for a 3 day to 3 week road trip, you’ll want to plant yourself at one or two central locations within that corner of the country. For my South Coast trip I knew I had to take one day for spots along the road south (Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls), another day or two at Vik, then another day for the locations further west like Glacier Lagoon. At each spot I found lodging relatively close to those photo locations.

Renting the car in Iceland

So I put together a roughed out itinerary, booked the guest houses through AirBNB, and got on line to price car rentals. I wasn’t sure if I needed to spend the extra $ to rent a 4-wheel, so I contacted the rental places.

They all recommended that I get a 4-wheel since I would be there at the end of March. Yes, their job is to suggest the pricy option; but it made sense. In March, you can definitely get hit by a snow storm, even on the South Coast. A 4-wheel was another $20 a day but for a 3 day rental, it was worth it for the piece of mind.

[In fact, for one of my group tours, they had to drive a second bus in from Reykjavik because the first couldn’t handle the snow and wind we ran into. Iceland in March.]

 

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