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Earth and Sky, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 21 July 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

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.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

George from Northern California, United States

Exquisite night photography. I wish I could have gone with you but I'll see you and Don in Big Sur next month. I don't think we find any volcanoes however.

21 Jul 2010 5:06am

MK from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

this is awesome, perfect

21 Jul 2010 6:01am

Demo from Villeneuve d, France

Incredible shot!!
Thanks for technical description

21 Jul 2010 8:21am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Perfectly done ! This must be an incredible place Gary, so beautiful ! Have a nice day :)

21 Jul 2010 12:34pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Wow! this is incredible!

21 Jul 2010 12:45pm

steve loos from hollister, United States

Gary this is one of the best images I have ever viewed! I am speechless (which if you ask my friends is a big deal!) Your concept was perfectly executed with a beautiful result.

21 Jul 2010 3:41pm

Becky from los angeles, United States

Fabulous image -

21 Jul 2010 3:44pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

So now, you saw your volcano! Happy we are! you've just shared an amaizing picture!!!

21 Jul 2010 9:02pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

What a magnificent and thrilling story and just a breathtaking image. The fact that this particular one was the only star trail exposure that you got MUST make this all the moe special for you as well.. It certainly is special to sit here and look at it - wow what a beautiful Piece! Thank you Gary, glad you made it to the Big Island

21 Jul 2010 10:00pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Sorry for the repeat here but what I really like about this image is the cool way that the stars and the heat /flame/plume are all seeming to track at the same curvature and in the same direction - how cool is that!

21 Jul 2010 10:02pm

Sandy Weston from Madison, Maine, United States

Totally impressive shot of color and light!

21 Jul 2010 11:06pm

Phil David Alexander Morris from Canada

I love how you have changed the appearance of this photo
and made it look like the fire came from the sky also.
Very beautiful picture.

22 Jul 2010 2:23am

Rick Trautner from Greenbrae, United States

I could have easily made that shot.

22 Jul 2010 3:07am

@Rick Trautner: I have no doubt, Rick.

PD from Overland Park, Kansas, United States

Totally cool!

22 Jul 2010 4:03am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

superb long exposure and very clever composition! it looks like the crater is spitting the stars out and then they travel through the sky! well taken!

22 Jul 2010 7:21am

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Gary, I could NOT have easily made that shot! I love how you framed this, and the glow in the foreground perfectly balances the cool dark blue of the sky. Another beautiful night sky from you. Lovely ending for what I am sure was a great trip for you and Don.

22 Jul 2010 1:43pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

Happy you are Rick... ;-))

22 Jul 2010 3:13pm

Julie from Easton, United States

What a wonderful shot, that sky is just awesome!

22 Jul 2010 4:25pm

Jason Kravitz from Brussels, Belgium

Your rending of the volcano is much more dramatic than mine - funny - this too was my last shot before calling it for the night (and leaving such a spectacular display). This one was taken about 6 years ago and I think the flow was a bit further out than this one - I remember hiking a good deal over some hot moon like terrain before we got to the spot.

22 Jul 2010 7:40pm

@Jason Kravitz: Thanks, Jason. You got the ultimate shot: lava pouring into the sea. When Don and I were there it wasn't happening yet, but they thought it could be soon. We were pretty please, nonetheless. I think Don will be posting one of the lava flow in a few days.

Wild Mustang Photography from Carlisle, United States

Congrats Gary, on your spotlight photo! Beautiful shot!!! 10 **********!

23 Jul 2010 12:30am

Calusarus from St Sorlin en Valloire, France

A wonderful shot. 5 stars

23 Jul 2010 4:14am

Ana Lúcia from Leiria, Portugal


23 Jul 2010 10:03am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Congratulations on your spotlight Gary... it's well deserved :)

23 Jul 2010 11:42am

Chuck from Naperville, IL, United States


It's really beautiful. The orange/blue color combo and the star trails arc rhyming the white plume from the volcano is stunning. Thanks for sharing!


23 Jul 2010 4:00pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

bur please, Gary, I'm sure that you don't catch just one image...As volcano's fan, may I ask you to show us more?....Because this is something look without ever growing tired...

23 Jul 2010 9:15pm

@KriKridesign: Thanks, Christine. This is the only star trail image I have, but I will post one or two more night shots of the crater, and maybe one or two of the lava flow from the night before. Also, check Don's blog because I know he's planning to put a lava flow image up soon. Also, I'm pretty sure I'll be doing a volcanoes workshop on Hawaii in September 2011--maybe you could sign up and see it first hand. :)

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

I can look...Sorry...

23 Jul 2010 9:16pm

Joan Felix from Jakarta, Indonesia


24 Jul 2010 5:32pm

Mici from Tg Mures, Romania


24 Jul 2010 6:45pm

Barbara Kile from Ft. Worth, United States

Congrats on Spotlight, Gary. Incredible capture!

26 Jul 2010 8:02pm

Dutçh from Chicagoland, United States

1293 seconds. Just.. wow. and the effect is most worth it. This is beautiful!

30 Jul 2010 12:28am

Vaido from Võrumaa, Estonia

What a great framing and exposure to get these startrails balanced with foreground!

30 Jul 2010 4:21am

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria


13 Mar 2011 5:35pm

mahshid yaali from ahvaz, Iran

hi. I am an amatur astronomer from Iran.your photo blog is vere nice.
please visit my photoblog
good like

19 Sep 2011 6:26pm

Didi from Orléans, France

Hi Gary
Very spectacular picture with a perfect lights management
That's great.
Best regards

11 Oct 2012 12:54am