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.

Lava Light Lessons #30…Mirror vs Mirrorless Cameras

Again with the disclosure…I am not a technician…go online for a full technical explanation.

I shoot both…and love both. I love the feel and capabilities of my Canon mirrored cameras…especially my Canon 5D Mark 4…a dream camera to operate. Along with that camera I own a virtual camera store of Canon and Sigma lenses for Canon that give me a complete suite of options for each photographic situation. I love Canon.

I also love Sony, especially my two mirrorless cameras from Sony…the a9 and the A7R4. Wow…are these good cameras. They are small. Easy to operate. Nearly silent. The sensors are large and robust…and the a7R4 may have the best sensor in the business…at least in the normal range of professional cameras.

CJ shoots Nikon…along with anything he can get his hands on. He has excellent Nikon equipment…a top of the line Nikon camera body and all the good lenses. He loves Nikon. His mirrorless choice at the moment is Sony.

My guess is that the future…maybe even the now…will be mirrorless. Canon, Nikon and Sony all have them. Sony seems to have a bit of a lead at the moment…but that changes quickly. They are all good.

I care about three things…the image a camera can produce, the ease of using that camera and how sturdy the camera is…can it handle normal weather/dust/sea spray. There are a few other things I consider…cost is important…service is important…the range of lenses and accessories available is important. In the early days, Sony produced it’s first mirrorless camera and I bought it just about the first day it was out. It produced great images…was a little bit expensive…was so poorly prepared for the realities of life that it would glitch if I even sneezed around it and HATED damp environments…and the little tiny buttons and knobs were very hard for me to use. I am sure that all the great brands had the same kind of learning curves. However, today…they all have it figured out…today’s mirrorless cameras WORK…and I love them.

In the early days of mirrorless cameras, all the existing lenses worked well with the new mirrorless cameras. However, as the sensor size grew and the mirrorless cameras became more refined, specialized lens developed to maximize the system capabilities. I can smell a trend a mile away…and here is that trend. It will not be too long before you will need whole new glass for your mirrorless cameras. By that I mean…you will wake up to an announcement that the next newest best ever model of the mirrorless camera brand you embrace will no longer work with your old lenses from that brand. Now, we are talking about serious upgrade expense.

I am in the photo business and advances in equipment mean opportunities for new sales for Linda, CJ and myself. We are prepared to make those equipment purchases when the time comes. You may not want to invest that kind of money in your personal camera/lens inventory. So…just keep my educated guess in mind as you start down the path of buying mirrorless vs mirrored cameras…the purchase of a mirrorless camera body may just be the start of a number of expensive purchases down the road.

One last thought…you can get excellent images from all kinds of cameras. What is going to make you a terrific photographer will NOT be the equipment…it will be your ability to figure out exposure, frame the shot and edit the image. I found an image this week that I took eight years ago on a camera that you would laugh at today…and re-edited it. It produced a wonderful image. Kind of reminded me of my golf game…I own every wedge ever produced or advertised on tv…all those wedges that will “Get you out of trouble”, “Cut five strokes off your game” or “Lower you handicap overnight”. My short game still sucks. Turns out it is not the equipment…it is the operator.

With all that said…please don’t buy cheap or off-brand cameras or lenses. Just stick with Canon, Sony, Nikon and Sigma for lenses…and you will find it almost impossible to make an equipment mistake. Not saying that other brands are not viable…I shot Olympus for years and loved them. Just saying that there is a reason that Canon, Sony and Nikon are leaders in camera equipment…their products work, they provide excellent service and you can buy them everywhere. Aloha.

Lava Light Lessons #29…Full Frame Sensors vs APS-C or Crop Sensors

I am not your guy for giving you a great technical explanation of something like full sensor vs crop sensor. Go online and look it up and you will find excellent explanations. And…both have their own advantages…but the Full Frame Sensor has more advantages.

I shoot only full frame sensors. Why? Because they provide an image that covers a bit more of the scene I am shooting and because those sensors are better at capturing the information needed to bring out detail in the shadows and elsewhere. The Full Frame Sensor is equivalent in size of scene captured to the old 35mm slide. The crop sensor will capture less of the scene.

Why do people even mess with crop sensor cameras? My guess is that they are trying to save money and, in some cases like the sometimes smaller size of the outfit. The biggest advantage to a crop sensor camera is that if you shoot a 70mm lens on that system, you will get the same magnification of the image as you would with a 100mm lens on a full frame system. So…you might think of it as a built in telephoto. The cost of that telephoto…you miss some of the scene.

Word of warning…some lenses do not work on both full sensor and crop sensor cameras. They may not fit properly on the camera body…although most do. They may vignette…leave black empty spaces in the four corners of the photo. Read up on what lens goes with what camera.

I use to shoot a Canon 7D Mark 2. It is an excellent camera and I chose it for wave photography only. It has an APS-C crop sensor. Why did I chose it…it fires at ten frames per second…a big advantage when doing wave photography. Why did I give it up…well, first I accidentally drowned it by hitting the bottom with my camera housing really hard, breaking the dome of the housing and letting sea water in to completely ruin my beautiful camera and lens. Second, I used my Canon 5D Mark 4 the next day as my backup…and found I much preferred the larger and more detailed images I got with that 8 frame per second full frame sensor camera. I decided to quit the crop sensors forever and I am glad I did. And…I am getting better and better at making up for the loss of those two frames per second. Heck, I have seen CJ get excellent shots, back in the day, with a full frame sensor camera that only shot 4 frames per second.

One other factor in my decision…and it may not be a factor you have to consider…Linda and I and CJ own photo galleries where we sell our images up to huge sizes. I think our largest standard image that we sell is about nine feet by twelve feet…now that is a big ass photo! The full frame sensor cameras are best, in my opinion, for producing images for large prints. My Sony a7R4 produces an image that captures 61MP with wonderful dynamic range…meaning I can edit it to bring things out of the shadows and sharpen detail…and end up with a file that can be blown up to a huge size and look absolutely sparkling. Most of you will not be doing that kind of printing…and may not need the capability to do it. It is just one more advantage of the full frame sensor camera.

My choice…full frame. Your choice…up to you…just understand the advantages and limitations to the choice you make. Aloha.

Lava Light Lessons #28…Abuse of Editing

First off…there are photographs and there are graphic arts. Both are valid. Both can be beautiful. Both are fully ethical.

My only gripe is when someone uses their graphic arts or Photoshop skills to enhance a photo in ways that are not real…and then fails to tell anyone.

Case in point…if you add flowers to a Italian mountain scene and those flowers only grow near the beach in Hawaii…and you don’t mention you added them in Photoshop…I have a problem with that image.

If you take a white sky and buy a package of fake skies online and then add that fake sky to your image…and don’t mention it…I have a problem with that image. Worse yet, you buy a perfect lightning bolt to add to the photo…so now you have a fake sky and a fake lightning bolt.

I know one famous image where the photographer took a perfect photo of one flower and then clone stamped that perfect flower over and over again until he or she had a whole field of perfect flowers. I actually love the image. I sure wish that photographer just said what they did to achieve that image instead of trying to fool the viewer.

And don’t get me started on those who add themselves in next to a shark or lion or celebrity…fake fake fake.

Everyone uses some of the editing tools to improve a photo…but I hope you choose to keep those changes minimal and realistic. If you go over the line…just say so…disclose that it is a manufactured image…people buy those all the time.

Guys like me can tell what is real and what is fake…most of the time. You want respect from your fellow photographers…just disclose your techniques to achieve that image and there will be high fives all around. Try to fool us…and the whispering starts behind your back and online. I love creativity and really do not like liars and cheaters. Just say it like it is and you will get the respect you deserve. Try to fool us and you will also get the respect you deserve…none. And I promise I am not a zealot about this…everyone deserves to make a mistake or two along the way as they try to be increasingly creative…just learn from those mistakes and go back to what is the most honest form of photography…editing without the tricks or full disclosure of the techniques you employed.

By the way…when you get to the point of entering big time photo contests…they often require you to send them the RAW image of the shot along with a description of every editing change you made to the shot…kind of hard to fool the judges with your RAW image in their hands.


Lava Light Lessons #27…Get A Coach or Mentor

You will never reach your full potential without a coach or mentor who can not only help you, but then will tell you the absolute truth about your progress. CJ and Nick played that roll for Linda and I when we first started. I felt that each day spent with them on photography advanced my skill set by months. I found I could read books, go to classes, attend workshops or take lessons online from online gurus or by finding stuff on YouTube…all helpful. However, to have CJ or Nick next to me as I struggled with my camera in the dark under challenging circumstances like lava flowing all around me…that direct one-on-one help was gold.

Today, of course Linda and I are still learning, but we have mastered most of what we need to know. What we still need is someone to tell us the absolute truth about the images we produce. That roll still falls to CJ. CJ is matter of fact about it…doesn’t do a damn thing to spare our feelings…he just tells us the truth. It has made a huge difference in our photography and has caused us to cry only a few times.

Many of CJ’s comments fall into the positive category…and we are glad to get them. He might say “Epic” or “Gallery shot” or “Love it”. We are always happy to hear those because we know he means it.

The ones that help us build to and maintain a high standard don’t sound so positive. They might sound like…

“Over saturated”

“Soft focus” which means it is slightly out of focus

“Try bringing up the shadows and let me look at it again”

“What ISO did you shoot that with…looks like a lot of noise”

“Why do you have so much dead space on the left side of the photo?”

“Looks like you forgot to clean up some sensor dust spots that I see in the sky”….his eyes are much better than ours but he is also much more disciplined about magnifying an image and going over every square inch looking for imperfections.

“Too blue…the ocean is not really that blue.”

“Should have used a filter to balance the sky with the foreground”

“Why is that branch poking in on the right side of the photo…either crop it out or include the whole tree.”

“Looks like a big crop…and I doubt that what is left is big enough to print.”

“Nice shot…too bad the sky is so white…go back and shoot that again on a day with a proper sky.”

Or the always dreaded “Nope” or “Deleter”

Neither Linda nor I run our social media photos by CJ so you may see some flawed photos make their way out to Facebook or Instagram…but you will never see a flawed photo of ours make its’ way on to the gallery walls…because CJ looks those over carefully before we have them printed.

Who is your CJ?

Get a coach and mentor and listen to them. They will help you get to be the best that you can be. Thanks CJ and thanks Nick…we appreciate the coaching and the feedback.


Lava Light Lessons #26…Who Are You?

In the beginning of your journey to become a high end digital photographer, you are learning and trying everything. That is the way it should be. However, down the road, you need to think about who you want to be in the photo world…what is your niche…what will your “brand” be…what are you known for? Examples…wedding photographer, event photographer, portraits, school portraits, corporate head shots, bird photographer, exotic animals, surf photographer, underwater, action photography or sports photographer, landscapes, night photography, astro photography…pardon the pun, but the sky is the limit. You can be anything you want to be. I submit you can be good at all of these…but probably great at only one. That may not be exactly true…maybe you really are great at more than one…but the more you spread out your publicity or the awareness of your talents over more than one discipline…the harder it is to build a world class reputation.

Peter Lik is one of the worlds most successful photographers. He is basically a landscape photographer. I would guess that, if his brother asked him to photograph his wedding…and he agreed to do so…he would do an outstanding job. However, if he then tried to show the world what a great job he did, he would confuse his “brand”…people would start to wonder if he is starting to abandon his landscape photography business. So, people like Peter Lik stick with what they are known for…and try to become the best at it. Good advice for you as well. Learn to do everything, but show the world only your best skill set…the thing you are best at doing.

The whole topic of not confusing your brand is a difficult one. I love to shoot sporting events, get a candid shot at a wedding, take a nice portrait of someone, shoot waves, birds, night skies and underwater…along with wild life and landscapes. I do post all of the above on social media. However, if you walk into Lava Light Gallery in Waikoloa, Hawaii you will see that 90% or more of the photos on the walls are Hawaiian landscapes. We can do other shots…but what we want to be known for are Hawaiian landscapes…those are what pay our bills.

So…no need to decide right now, but be thinking about it for the future. Who are you? What will be your specialty? What will be your brand? If you one day want to be a paid professional photographer, it will become much easier to be that person if you have a reputation that is clear to one and all.