Lava Light Lessons #20…Flash Photography

I will got a lot of flack about this one, but here goes….

Don’t buy a flash in the beginning. Learn to use the camera to its’ full potential and then look into a flash or other light source for your work. Exception, if you are going to be doing mostly people photography…in that case, you will need a flash or other light source from day one.

I am a landscape photographer and I use a flash well less than 1% of the time. In fact, I have to get the manual out every time I use it, because I forget how to use it after months or years of not using it. I do light things up with a flash light or a hand held flash not attached to the camera or use a reflector to bounce some light from time to time…but that is kind of advanced stuff I won’t get into it now.

If you are just starting out in digital photography…you have your hands full just learning the camera and the editing tools. Work on those first and add flash photography once you have mastered the basics.


Lava Light Lessons #19…Backpacks

Linda and I have probably wasted more money on backpacks than any other area of photography. They all look so good. Net result, I just gave away maybe a dozen of them…all lightly used. Why…because we found the one that works for us. It took a bunch of experimenting, but we finally wound up with one that suits our purposes.

What did not work? We tried the one that CJ loves. It is huge. You can pack your house in it and throw it on your back. But…CJ is 40 something and we are 70 something…and it turns out that makes a difference. Two trips out to the lava flow with that big pack were enough for both Linda and I. Too heavy and too awkward for us. In fact, CJ had to take them from us and lug them out himself on a couple of occasions or we would still be out there. Nick Selway use to do the same thing…come over when we were taking a rest and grab my backpack and carry it off with me semi-protesting..all because we were making very slow progress with me trying to lug that giant backpack.

Next, we tried high quality back packs that were much smaller. Turns out they were too small. Give away items.

We tried the ones you swing over one shoulder…useless on a long hike over rough lava. More give aways.

Hey…let’s try those cool looking ones that actually have rollers. Worthless.

Let’s try the ones that look like a suitcase with rollers…too heavy and hard to carry on.

Got to have the ones with the built in water supply. Got em…tried them…gave them away.

Basically, we tried them all. We finally found ones that work for us. I am reluctant to even tell you what they are…they may not be right for you. I will say that Think Tank has a nice line of backpacks…but they are not the only company that has them. Think through exactly how you will use them and then decide. I hope it takes you less tries to get it right than we experienced.

Here is what we decided on…one that is large enough to carry all of our gear when we travel. We pack the tripod in the suitcase and check it, but carry on the rest. TSA does not love us, but our gear gets there at the same time we do every single time. It must also have a place to put our laptop computer. There must still be room for several bottles of water…not when traveling in a plane but for those long lava hikes. Needs to be pretty waterproof…although we never carry the rain protectors they provide…if it looks like rain we carry an umbrella. Got to be a place to hang our tripod. Last, has to fit into overhead on the plane or under the seat in front of us. Oh…and it has to all add up to something that we can actually carry. To be truthful…we push that one right to the edge. CJ is always reminding us to pack light for hikes…which we often ignore and pay the price for a few miles into the hike.

Many come with a belt you can cinch around your waist. That is great for those of you young enough to be an actual pack horse. For us…if the pack is heavy enough to need that kind of anchoring to our body…it is too heavy.

So, good luck. Think it through and remember our wastefulness…then begin you own. Aloha.

Lava Light Lessons #18…Taking Care of your Equipment

We shoot in a harsh environment. We are often near or in sea water. We are often out on hot lava with acid and steam in the air. We have to shoot in the rain from time to time. When we travel we are often in areas where there is a lot of dust. Our equipment takes a beating.

We also use high end and expensive equipment…and like 99% of the other photographers we meet…we do NOT have unlimited funds for replacing equipment we have ruined. So, we take good care of what we do have.

Specifically, salt water is the killer of cameras. If you get salt water on your camera and do not carefully get it all off immediately, it will corrode that camera in no time at all. And when you send it in to the manufacturer for your expensive repair, you will get a letter back stating that the camera and/or lens has salt water damage and is now only good as a door stop or paper weight…they will not even fix it. I know…oh, do I know.

So, if you get splashed by a wave or water coming over the rail and into the boat…stop what you are doing, move to a dry location, use whatever you have to get that salt water off of there right now…not when you get home. I take my camera apart…remove the lens, open all the little compartments, take out the battery and the memory card and look for salt water everywhere I can find it. If all I have to clean it is my tee shirt…I use my tee shirt. Better to have some micro fiber clothes with you and maybe some KimTech Wipes to do the work…but do something.

If your camera gets submerged or drowned in salt water…like dropped in the surf or completely soaked by a wave or a leak in your water housing…get that camera and lens into a container or uncooked white rice and let it set while you go online to B&H Photo to buy your replacement for those items. You may think that a disiccate or rice or blow drying will solve the problem…false hope. It will not. That unit is done or soon will be.

Cameras that get sea water on them may look ok and may even still work for time. However, over the next few weeks you will begin to see some odd looking white substance emerging around the tiny screws on the camera and around the dials and around any opening. That is corrosion. Once it has started…it will win the day and you will lose.

Get the dust off your camera right away as well. This is especially true for lenses…especially zoom lenses. If that zoom starts to be hard to zoom, suspect it is dust in the mechanism. Good news, the manufacturer can usually fix that problem for a few hundred bucks…much cheaper than a new lens.

Rain water or any other non-salt water…much less dangerous than sea water and as long as you have not drowned the camera so bad that it has experienced an electrical short, clean it up and it will probably be ok. If it gets inside a lens…that is a problem and it needs to go in for repair.

One other odd problem…if you live in an area like we do…an area where conditions are tropical all year or long parts of the year…you can get mould inside of your lenses. It looks a bit like smoke in the lens and will ruin it if not addressed. You normally need to send that in for repair. Better yet…avoid getting that mould by storing your camera bodies and lenses in a dry setting…either a locker designed to keep them appropriately dry or with some desiccates around them or whatever you can come up with to protect them. Might want to spend some time online checking that situation out if you have expensive equipment in tropical areas.

One other thought…self repair of broken or injured cameras or lenses…way beyond my capabilities and I highly discourage it. Send it into the manufacturer, get a quote on what it will take to fix it and then weigh whether you want to upgrade that item right now and forgo the fix. Some companies, like Canon, often offer you a big discount on an item that is fully ruined…a discount on a new or refurbished one from their stock. I drowned a Canon 7D Mark 2 recently, sent it in for repair, estimate came back more than the cost of new camera, I asked if they could help me out on buying a new one and they did…in fact, I upgraded it to a Canon 5D Mark4 and ended up a happy camper rather than feeling like I had suffered a big loss (I lie to myself from time to time).


Lava Light Lessons #17…Trouble Shooting In the Field

Camera’s tend to break down when you are furthest from home and right when you need them most. It is the reason that I often take two camera bodies with me even on a long hike. It is not usually the lens that will give you a problem…it will be the camera body or the battery or maybe even the memory card. So…what to do if you do run into problems and you do not have the back up with you…

First, turn the camera off and then back on. Did that fix it? No…go to next step.

Second, turn the camera off and take the battery out of the camera. If you have a backup battery, put that battery in the camera and turn it on. Did that fix it? No…go to next step.

Third, look for the simplest possible fixes…they sound stupid, but these things happen to all of us eventually. Did you take off the lens cover? With the lens cover on you will have to shoot at a really high ISO to get any kind of a shot (small joke there…you can not shoot anything with that lens cover on). Is the battery in properly with the little door closed all the way? Is there a memory card in the camera with memory still available…not already completely filled up? Try taking the lens off and put it back on to make sure it is fully connected.

If you do all of those and the camera is still acting like it is a brick and not a camera…there is an official photography term for it…you are screwed. Pack up. Call it a day. Head home. Send your camera into the manufacturer for repair.

Fourth…if the camera turns on and your only problem is that you can not get it to do what you want it to do, there is hope and lots of it. First, find your patience…you will need it. Next, start going through the menu pages one by one looking for a setting that has slipped out of its’ normal position…happens all the time…you may have a small glitch in the camera or, more likely, your hand hit a button and changed a setting.

Common areas to suspect are the Exposure Compensation menu. In most cases, the indicator should show it to be right exactly in the middle. If the indicator is several places left or right of center, your photos will be either over exposed or under exposed…and if the indicator has moved far enough…just plain unusable. Easy to fix…just move the indicator back to center. This has happened to all of us and can be quite confusing…and I often can not figure out how I even did it…but am also happy when I see how easy it is to fix.

Another common area to suspect is your ISO setting. In fact, if your camera is taking photos but the photos are no good…review one of them and read the settings. You may find that you have somehow shot it too slow, with too little light coming into the lens or with some strange ISO setting. Easy fix…change the setting.

Photos blurry…check to see if you are still shooting in Auto Focus…check the little pull slide on the side of the lens. Can’t tell you how many times I have put it in Manual for a shot and then forgot to take it back to Auto Focus. Again, and easy fix.

Are the colors off or strangely too light or too soft…check the menu item for White Balance and move it back to Auto. I might change it to shoot under indoor lights or cloudy weather and forget to change it back to Auto. Next time I go out and shoot…the first few photos will be screwed up…but I am the guy who checks the photos I am getting all the time…so I will catch it before I ruin the whole day. You be that guy…or gal.

Todays cameras have so many setting options that it is beyond easy to get one of them wrong. Just calm down and work your way through the problem and you will win in the end most of the time. If you are still unsuccessful, you will begin to see the wisdom of bringing along a back up.


Lava Light Lessons #16…HDR…what is it?

Your phone and your camera may both have a setting for HDR. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Some of your friends may have told you about how cool it is and the magic it can perform. They are half right and all wrong.

So…you may have noticed by now that I am no technical expert. This is Don Hurzeler writing these blogs and I like to think of myself as an accomplished photographer…but never ever a technical expert when it comes to photography. CJ Kale is our resident technical expert…and he truly is an expert. And my friends who are technical experts have probably read my previous blogs and just shook their heads at how I have stated some things I feel are true, but may be a bit off technically. I encourage their input and feedback to help me get it right. So…what I am about to say about HDR is not very technical and it is just my opinion…and not necessarily the absolute truth as seen by others. HDR has fanatic followers…with me not being one of them.

To make it simple…maybe too simple…here is how HDR works. You set your HDR setting to take perhaps three photos. You put your camera on a tripod and hit the button to take the photo. The camera takes three photos in rapid succession. The first will be on the exact setting that you feel might be just right for that scene. The second photo will be underexposed by one setting. The third will be overexposed by one setting. The camera then merges all of those photos into one editable image.

Here is what is cool and magical about that HDR photo…without it you might not be able to see the part of the photo that is in shadows…without it you might have the sky overexposed. But, when you merge them altogether and edit that photo…you can see what is in the shadows and the sky will be the sky that was underexposed…making everything across the photo just right. Sound good…well it can be good and it can look like magic.

What it does not look like is reality. When you have the face of a flower facing you with the sun setting behind it…and the face of the flower is as bright as if the sun were in front of it…it may look cool, but it will not look real. Many will make a case that they can use HDR appropriately and get good and realistic photos from it. I agree. However, I have also seen some of the best photographers in the world…people I highly respect…lose track of reality and start producing clownish looking photos that do not look real and eventually do not look good.

Personal opinion…and I truly respect and understand those who do not share my opinion…HDR is for those who do not know how to take a proper photo and edit it appropriately. Are there exceptions…sure. However, my advice is to just leave it alone. Learn to use your camera and do not rely on tricks…even pretty cool ones like HDR.


Lava Lessons #15…Cheap is not Cheap

All of us are interested in saving a buck. We all look at some of the less expensive batteries, memory cards, lens and the like. I know I have…I’ve just spent the afternoon throwing about 50 pounds of them directly into the trash. They are so useless I won’t even give them to charity and certainly not to some budding photographer. When it comes to photography…cheap equals eventual heartbreak.

At the same time, I am a big fan of buying Refurbished equipment from the manufacturer…especially Canon. These items can be found on their websites and usually run from 15 to 25 percent off the new price…come with a warranty…and arrive at your door in no time. With Canon, I strongly suspect that every single Refurbished item they have ever sent me was in fact…brand new…and maybe an overstock item for them. None have ever shown up looking worn or used at all.

If you need a back up Canon battery…get a backup Canon battery. They are expensive and there are lots of cheaper ones…for a reason. The cheaper ones are junk.

As to buying Used equipment…that is also fine as long as you do two things….buy it from a dealer you get to know…one who has a great national reputation and can prove it AND always buy those items that are shown to be New In the Box or Excellent Condition or Very Slightly Used. Once you slide down the scale to the bargain items…they are not bargains…they are banged up and your photos will be banged up.

Buy good quality…if you want to take good quality photos. You don’t necessarily need THE top of the line camera body and lens…usually the model right before the current one is pretty darn good and is now highly discounted. However, if you then slip down further and buy the cheap/entry level equipment…you and your photos will pay a price. Quality counts.


Lava Light Lessons #14…Shooting at Noon


This one takes a bit of explanation. You might be thinking that the sun is so bright at noon…the colors so vibrant…a perfect time to get a landscape shot. Ironically, no. That sun directly above your head casts no shadows. No shadows…no contrast…no details…flat photos.

The best time for landscape photography is from just before sunrise to just after sunrise and same at sunset. If you are going to be shooting “midday”…try to shoot before 10am or after 3pm…at least the sun will be giving you some shadows to work with on your photos.


Lava Light Lessons #12…Composition

Composition makes you or breaks you as a photographer. It is personal. You will have your own style and I will have mine. They are both valid and we will each develop a following of those who appreciate what we have to offer. So…I do not want to get in the way of your creativity and will only offer just a few ideas for your consideration…

-Get the horizon straight…preferably in the shot, but if not, straighten it when you edit the photo.

-Leave it in or leave it out. CJ taught me early on to either include a full element or leave it out entirely. Example..don’t just show a few leaves from a branch on the side of the photo. Either include the full tree…or at least the full limb…but do not just allow a small part of that tree into the edge of the photo. It is kind of like putting a quarter of a human being on the far right of your photo…you would not want to do that and it is the same for a building/tree/car or you name it. Leave it in or leave it out. Number one example…if you are taking a photo of a person…make sure their head AND feet are in the photo…so many feet get cut off.

-Don’t crowd the edges of the photo. Example…don’t have a persons feet standing on the exact bottom of the photo…give them a bit of room. Also helps you when you edit the photo…always nice to have a bit of room if you need to straighten it or crop it for some reason. I am all about giving yourself options…and a subject crowded directly to the edge, top or bottom of a photo reduces your options to near zero.

-Decide what part of the photo you want the viewer to focus on…what part will pull them into the photo. Compose your shot to put that part exactly where you want it…usually a third of the way across the photo or so. When you have time, look up Thirds on photos and see what it has to say. Thirds are important.

-Detail sells. Really broad photos of something like the Grand Canyon sound like a good idea. However, it is a closer view of a cliff within that canyon, covered in snow and lit by the morning sun that ends up flying off the gallery wall. Shoot for detail.

Enough…develop your own eye and your own style and try not to copy anyone. This is the area where you go from photographer to artist. Become the artist.


The photo attached illustrates the composition point. Taken by Linda in Tanzania, this single hippo was in a large pond surrounded by hundreds of hippos. She had choices, show the whole scene, show part of the scene or look for one thing that might be interesting in it’s detail. Over the course of the time we were there, she did all three types of shots, but ended up with this one that always makes us smile…close up of a happy hippo.

Lava Light Lessons #11…Safety Stop

Just a couple of reminders that I will try to remind of time and time again…

-Take a fully charged back up battery and back up memory card with you always. The number one thing I hear on safari or remote trips is…”Don, did you happen to bring a charger along for my ten year old Nikon…I left mine at home and my battery is dead.” 100% of the time, my answer is “No.”

-Back up you best images in several places…including the unprocessed RAW file, the TIF file of your edit and the jpeg file you will use to print your image…plus a downsized watermarked file of the image for social media or your computer catalog. When I say “several places” I mean…I keep a file of those best images on my computer, on my laptop, on an outside hard drive, CJ has a copy of them at his home and/or at the gallery, we keep a copy in one or two cloud services and I periodically put my best ones on a thumb drive or hard drive and send it to my daughter for safe keeping in California. I might lose one or two of those…it would take a world calamity for me to lose them all…in which case I will have my hands full with other problems…like staying alive.

-Check the images you are shooting that day by reviewing them in the view finder or back of the camera…increase the size of them so you can see detail…and make sure they are the images you want BEFORE you leave the scene and go home. Hard to replace that great shot you took in China once you are back home in Kona and realize that great shot was kind of out of focus.

-Organize your RAW files and processed files so you can find them easily when you need them.

-Plan for failure. If I am traveling all the way to Africa…I can not take a chance that my camera body breaks or gets stolen. So…I travel with two of them…and so does my wife. Not perfect back up, but pretty darn good. And, we never check those camera bodies on an airplane…we hand carry them on…never let them out of our sight.

-Back up your images on the road. If you are in China and you have filled a memory card with great shots, feel free to keep those great shots on that memory card until you get home and put them in your computer…just use a second or third or whatever card for more photos. BUT…I copy those files onto some kind of a storage media that night…so I have them in two places in case something gets stolen or damaged or lost. If a couple of the images look epic…I back them up on a thumb drive and any other way I can think of to make sure I get home with them in duplicate or more…better safe than sorry.

-Insurance…have some. Cameras and lenses get lost, stolen or broken. If they are old and cheap…no problem. If they are new and expensive…buy the insurance they offered you. No sicker feeling than watching your brand new $4000 camera body and brand new $2500 lens drop over the side of the boat and head toward the two mile deep floor of the ocean. Poop happens…plan for it.

-A repeat because it is so important…check the images you are taking…check them while you are still on location…check them often…check them blown up so you can see the detail. I call it…look in the back of your camera.

-And I will close with a strategy for safety…Let’s say you get in a pressure filled situation where you have a great chance to get a unique photo….like the lava is dripping over a cliff into the sea. Maybe you only have a few moments to get that shot before the scene changes…the helicopter flies off or the boat moves. Don’t panic. DON’T SHOOT IT IN AUTO. What I do is to take as many shots as I can…changing one setting each shot…one at 1/1000th of a second, the next at 1/500th, the next at 1/250th, the next at a different ISO or I change the aperture. I try to bracket it manually…one exposure that I think is right on and then one or two over exposing it and one or two under exposing it…so I have a variety of shots to edit to get one JUST RIGHT. I am not smart enough to always get the settings perfect under pressure…so I CONTROL THE CAMERA to get a variety of shots…looking for that one perfect shot. I often take 50 shots of the same scene…all with different settings or slightly different compositions…trying to nail that award winning shot. No one but you will see the crappy shots you take…but the whole world might see your winner.

Have a plan to avoid photo disaster…I promise you that you will one day need to rely on it to save the day. Aloha.