Mt. Kilauea on Hawaii's eponymous Big Island has been adding new material to the Earth's surface since 1983, a fact I've been tangentially aware of since its inception. But that knowledge, and a lifetime of tectonic fixation, did little to prepare me for the experience of witnessing an eruption firsthand.
Last weekend Don Smith and I, fresh off the completion of Don's first (of many, I hope) Kauai workshop, hopped down to Hilo hoping to catch the volcano in the act. Mother Nature is fickle, and while she's been kind enough to keep the magma churning for nearly 30 years, she moves the show around like a geological shell game, making it next to impossible to plan a viewing any more than a few days in advance.
Saturday night we were fortunate to view the leading edge of the current lava flow, where the advancing lava crosses the former Pahoa Kalapana Road, on its way to the sea. Here we got close enough to feel the lava's heat, watching it close the distance at a rate of one foot per second, photographing until authorities closed the viewing area well after dark. We were the last to leave.
Buoyed by that adventure, we jettisoned our plan to spend the final night of our trip photographing the night sky from atop 13,800 foot Mauna Kea, opting instead for a trip to Volcanoes National Park to peer directly into the eye of the beast. The sun had just set when we pulled into the parking area at the Jaggar Museum, the closest view into the caldera. In the shrinking light the churning magma's orange glow colored the plume of vapor and ash spewing from the Halema`ma`u Crater at the caldera's heart. Overhead a gibbous moon, about half full, played peek-a-boo with an assortment of puffy cumulus and translucent stratus clouds.
The glow intensified with the darkening sky and soon the cumulus clouds dissipated to reveal a host of stars dotting the darkness above; the caldera below was illuminated only by moonlight and magma. I knew it would be impossible to adequately convey the magnificence before me with a manmade contraption of metal and glass, but that didn't prevent me from trying. After a few vertical frames wide enough to include the moon, I switched to slightly tighter compositions that concentrated on the fiery crater. Moving around I tried different lenses, switching between horizontal and vertical, waiting out the frequent headlights from cars exiting the parking lot, and shaking my head at the occasional point-and-shoot flashes that wouldn't reach more than 20 feet of the roughly 2/3 mile distance to the crater (sigh).
Seeking to transcend the static shortcomings of my still camera, I decided to wrap up the evening with a 20 minute star trail exposure. I'd been photographing in fairly constant darkness for a while, so I knew the amount of light necessary to reveal foreground detail without overexposing the glowing magma chamber. I calculated that 20 minutes of exposure would add about six stops of light at my current ISO and aperture settings; to compensate I simply subtracted those six stops by dialing down my ISO to 100 and reducing my aperture to f13. The result was my only Kilauea star trail frame, my final image in Hawaii.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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