Lava Light Lesson #33…Reducing Shake in a Long Exposure Photo

I will do an article on night photography soon. In the meantime, I am often shown night sky photos where the stars are not exactly pinpoint…they look more like commas than periods. Here are a few simple things you can do to get the stars to be absolutely pin point even on a long exposure.

-Use a remote cable or wireless trigger to start your shot. Even touching your camera to start the shot may cause a bit of wiggle and smudge those pin point stars you want to capture.

-Use a two second delay to take the shot. So…I press the button on the remote and it presses the camera to start the shot…but I have that shot on a two second delay so it is dead still when the shutter opens.

-The shorter the shot you can use to get your shot the better. A typical Milky Way shot might be 10-30 seconds. Most of mine are at about 20 seconds. The less time the shutter is open, the less likely you are to have any wind blown wiggle. If you are thinking about shooting for a full thirty seconds…try it at 25 seconds and see how it looks…it should look fine and you will have reduced the chances of star field wiggle by a significant amount.

-Do not shoot longer than 30 seconds unless you are shooting star trails or you have a mount that will track the stars. 31 seconds and you start to get that comma look in your stars.

-Always use a sturdy tripod. Flimsy cheap tripods blow around in the wind and that shows up in your shots.

-The lower to the ground the tripod is…the less it is likely to blow around.

-Try to find a way to lessen the wind hitting your camera and tripod…maybe shoot over a rock or whatever. We look for wind protected areas to shoot.

-Some people hang heavy weights from the middle of the tripod to increase the stability. I use to do that before I dropped that heavy weigh on my toe in the dark. I don’t do that anymore.

-And there are two more likely suspects when your stars are not coming out pin point…focus and moisture on the lens. Focus is critical. Make sure your first few test shots are looked at carefully…fully magnified when you review them to make sure you really do have sparkling focus on both your foreground element (like a tree or a rock) and the stars themselves. If the stars are not perfectly round…re-focus…and check that focus from time to time during the evening…lenses can get batted around a bit as you move and you might just move the focus ring by mistake.

If you are shooting up high or near water or in misty weather…bring along a microfiber cloth or ChemTech tissue to clean/dry the front of your lens every several shots. I have “lost focus” in the middle of a shoot strictly from mist building up on my lens.

Oh…and one last thing. We often shoot in an area where the clouds eventually roll in. Before the clouds arrive…the moisture arrives. It may be up high and, as such, you don’t feel it nor is it getting on your lens…but it is obscuring your shot. So…if you can not quite figure out why your most recent shots are no longer in focus…suspect the moisture in the air and maybe move higher on the mountain or away from the incoming moisture.

The following photo is what the stars should look like in a long exposure…not commas or little deltas…pin points.

Hope that helps. Aloha.

Lava Light Lesson #32…Preparation Brings Good Luck

A couple of things I hear in the gallery all the time…”You must have really good cameras.” and. “Looks like you got lucky on that shot.”

I plead guilty to the first one…I do have really good cameras. However, I was getting some really nice shots when I had fairly low end cameras. The operator of the camera has quite a bit to do with the final products. That said…yup, good to have the good equipment.

The second one…we most often make our own luck. One of the reasons that CJ is our master photographer is that he is also our master planner. He researches or refers to his notes to know when the Milky Way will come up over the horizon, when the moon will set, what time the sun will rise, where in the sky we will find the heart of the Milky Way and what the weather is likely to be at the remote location he has chosen for the evening shoot. Same holds true for when the swell will arrive at our favorite locations, from what direction, at what tide level and the speed and direction of the wind…all critical factors for getting lucky getting a wave shot.

So my advice is to know before you go. If you travel out to the desert to grab a Milky Way shot…and you didn’t check the moon, sun and weather..along with the position of the Milky Way…you WILL be relying on luck to get your shot. Make your own luck and plan for success.

Here is an example from early this morning. CJ knew the moon would not be a factor, knew the time the sun might start to light the sky, figured out where the Milky Way would rise above the horizon and where the weather might be good for our early season Milky Way photo mission. We then had to go up to 9000 feet to get above the clouds and rain and find a four wheel drive road that would take us to an area a bit protected from the raging wind…and then get there early enough we could scout the area for a sturdy tree with few leaves…anchored in lava with very little grass around it…so the tree movement would not show up in our long exposures. We dressed for the cold…and it was cold as could be. We brought gloves and hats and flashlights for scurrying around on the rugged lava…and then settled in to be ready for just the right amount of light in the sky to turn the sky blue and to bring out the colors of the Milky Way. About the only luck we needed was to not break an ankle in the dark on the a’a lava boulders. The rest of the shoot went according to plan and the photo below is typical of our good result this morning. Aloha.

CJ Travels 144 Miles Downstream by Row Boat in Alaska Because Upstream Would be Too Hard

CJ and our buddy, Gary Walthers, went on a completely remote river trip in 2019…down the Alask and Tatshenshini Rivers on the Momentum River Expedition. Gary is a First Nation citizen living in Canada…with a background as an elite skier, BMX biker and automobile dealership owner. Gary is, in my estimation, a wisdom warrior…and is working on a book about the ways of a wisdom warrior. He has been battling a physical condition that is quite serious…but never seems to slow him down. I have been delighted to see him out in the surf with us…way out on the active lava field and now rowing with CJ down a river so remote that I had never heard of it. They traveled 144 miles, camped along the river, took photos along the way and enjoyed nature in a way that few ever experience. Gary is a stud and he is a great consultant to us on our gallery and an even better friend.

For reasons that escape me at the moment, CJ felt it was a good idea to get up early and take photos at sunrise in an area that was probably filled with bears and other things that might eat you, sporting a pocket knife for protection. Attached are a few of those photos. Even odder…he felt it was a great idea to hop in the water and swim out to a small iceberg…like a long ways out and back. Photo proof attached.

Glad they both made it back safe and sound. Aloha.

Amanda Kale Becomes the Fourth Photographer for Lava Light Galleries

Not a big surprise that CJ has been able to interest his wife, Amanda, in photography…and then taught her how to use the camera to capture her own shots. She has been a member of our traveling team for as long as I can remember, but use to leave the photography to us. That has changed. She wanted in on the action. CJ pointed out that it is a meritocracy…you have to earn your way in. So…Amanda posted up these shots from a recent trip to Northern Arizona. Way to go Amanda and welcome to the gallery.


CJ Takes A Break From The Lava to Go Visit our Old Friend Nick Selway on a Photo Mission in Colorado and surrounding areas

Too many days on the lava cliff, lava boat and lava fields. CJ felt a need to photograph something completely different. So he called up his/our buddy, Nick and arranged to meet him in the Southwest. The photos he got are classics…from the Milky Way over the Maroon Bells in Colorado, to arches in Utah and desert scenes in Death Valley. By the time he returned, he was refreshed and ready to go hard photographing the eruption in Puna and helping friends and relatives there to evacuate their homes and save what they could from the destruction.

CJ on a Photo Mission…Make that Missions…to Mongolia.

CJ has gone on two photo missions to Mongolia…a long long trip from Kona. His first trip was with his/our friend, Bill McDowell in 2017. They met up with some of the champion eagle hunters in remote Mongolia and got to know their families and friends. Travel was, at times, difficult and accommodations and food were quite unlike those here in Kona…but CJ and Bill loved it and came home with some great photos…and stories.

CJs second visit to Mongolia was in 2018, accompanied by two fellow photographers. Together, they reunited with the families CJ met the year before, got to attend the marriage celebration of one of the young men and then headed off by vehicle to the Gobi Desert. Their journey to the Gobi took 12 hours each way…four of those hours each way were off road. Once they got to the Gobi, they had 24 hours to take their photographs, get a small amount of rest and then return to far west Mongolia. If you check out the photo of the vehicle they used to make this trip to the Gobi you will see that they did not have to go far to find a toilet…it was strapped to the top of the van. Leave no trace.

On CJs second trip, he brought prints from his first trip and gave them to those he had met the year before. Mr. Ardack is a championship eagle hunter and had just placed well in an important competition. He is also a devote Muslim and had just returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca. CJ was touched that Mr. Adrack was so moved by the photos that he held them up at the awards ceremony and then displayed them next to an important piece he had brought back with him from Mecca.

The photos depict the life in the gers (Mongolian tent), their transportation vehicle in Mongolia, a father/son/grandson…all eagle hunters, and Mr. Ardack on horseback with eagle and the Milky Way at night, a female eagle hunter and CJ…a want-to-be eagle hunter. Two trips of a lifetime for CJ and friends.

We Are Often Asked…How Close Can You Get to the Lava?

When you are in our gallery or looking at our lava shots online, you will see what appears to be some really close up shots of the 1600 F hot lava. So, customers often ask us…How close can you get to that lava? The answer…really really close. If the lava is pooling or advancing slowly, you can stand right next to it to get a shot. You can not stand there long…you may have to get your shot and quickly retreat…but you can get very close. It is a self regulating….the heat will let you know how close you can get. That heat is like nothing you have ever experienced…unless you have been close to lava. You will know when to move…I promise.

Is it safe to be close…depends. If it is pooling or very slow moving it is semi-safe to be close. I say semi because lava does tend to pop a bit and may fire off a burning cinder directly at your bare skin…and that will not kill you, but it is unpleasant as hell if it does manage to nail you.

Attached is a photo of my beloved grand son, Nathan, …age ten at the time. He was under the direct supervision of several of the most experienced lava field people in the world and myself and Linda and his parents and sister. We put gloves on him and explained very carefully how we wanted him to approach the lava. He carefully put the pick into the liquid lava and found, much to his surprise, that it was not like water…it was very viscous…thick and sticky…difficult to pull the pick out once it was placed in the lava. He pulled out some lava and held it like that for about one second…before the heat was too much for him to bare. Why did we have him do this seemingly stupid stunt…we wanted everyone there to understand the nature of flowing lava. People on the lava field can get surrounded by flowing lava and might easily panic. If you understand the consistency of the lava, you can figure out how to get out of the dangerous situation…look for lava that has darkened and crusted over and the viscous nature of the lava beneath that surface is likely to support your quickly moving across it to safety. Not something you ever want to have to do…but if you are out there enough, you will get your opportunity to put this procedure into practice.

I think that hiking out to the lava flow…when it is flowing (it is not flowing at the time I am writing this post) is a life changing experience. You get to see nature creating new land. It is just plain remarkable to watch. I hiked my 85 year old parents out there to experience it. Hiked two of my grand kids out and my daughter and her husband. I hiked out the editor of my books…and he is about the same age as me…advanced. We’ve hiked out friends and relatives and people from a dozen different countries…all without incident. However, I have been badly hurt out there…gassed and cut up…and knocked out in a fall. CJ has had his ankle broken and is very lucky to even be alive after disappearing into a crack in the lava. We lost a good friend and much respected lava guide/photographer, Sean King…killed by gas on the lava flow. The difference in those times when people were hurt or when it is safe to take out a parent or grand child…the conditions and locations of the flow. I had to hike my parents maybe 50 yards to a stalled flow in a relatively flat area. The flow I hike my grand kids to was a bit more challenging, but it was not a rapidly moving situation and the weather was perfect.

When the surface lava returns and you decide you want to go out to see it…ask around before you go…and go with a guide, like John Tarson of Epic Lava. CJ, Nick and I were probably the last people to ever see a Japanese visitor that we told not to go out. He clearly understood us and went out on his own anyway…and he never returned. It is safe out there…sometimes. It is unsafe out there often. Know before you go.


Lava Light Lessons #31…How to Create That Blurred Background in a Photo

There are two standard ways to create that neat looking blurred background in a photo…by mistake or on purpose. Let’s focus on the “on purpose” one.

That blurred effect has a name..BOKEH…pronounced BOH-ka or about five other ways.

Bokeh is the way a lens renders out-of-focus light. I am attaching a photo of that effect at the bottom of this post. It can be used on purpose to put the subject of your photo as the undeniable focus of your entire photo…to spotlight your subject. Here is how you do it on purpose…

Some lenses are better than others at creating bokeh. My best lens for it is one I call the Pineapple…an 85mm Canon prime (prime meaning that it is not a zoom…it has only one focal length…85mm). I call the lens the Pineapple because it is a bit short and stout…and also kind of hard to handle. However, it produces sharply focused images and has the ability to beautifully blur the background. Try your inventory of lenses and see which one produces the best blur effect.

Open the lens as wide as it will go. That lets in a lot of light, but also reduces the depth of field as to what will be in focus. You want to be more at the f/1.8 to f/5.6 end of aperture opening rather than the f/18 to f/22 end of the aperture opening. Since the lens is wide open, you will probably have to shoot at a fast speed and low ISO to get the exposure right. In Manual and in bright daylight, try the widest aperture opening your lens allows (f/1.8 to f/5.6 is the normal range), set your speed at 1/500th of a second and ISO at 100. Take a shot and see what you got. If it is too bright, increase the speed until it is just right…and if it is too dark, decrease the speed until it is just right.

Learning to create background blur on purpose is a bit of an experiment. Digits are basically free. Use some and see what you get. In no time you will be getting those cool looking background shots on purpose. Good luck and aloha.

The attached shot was taken in bright sunlight…f/2.8 at 1/4000th of a second at ISO 320. I got a good portion of the bird in focus…the eye and face in perfect focus and the background a blur of color.