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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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.

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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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