Tahoe Light Photography » Corporate, outdoor and adventure photography by Reno and Lake Tahoe freelance photographer Scott Sady.

How to photograph the Hawaii Lava flow 2016

By Scott

My wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house to rent on airbnb inside the restricted Kalapana Gardens area. That gave us much closer access to the lava fields from that side.

My wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house to rent on airbnb inside the restricted Kalapana Gardens area. That gave us much closer access to the lava fields from that side.

How to best photograph the Lava flowing in Volcano National Park on the big island of Hawaii? I’m not going to talk about pixels or f-stops or composition or any of what makes a good photograph, I am going to tell you all the things that I tried to find out before I left but could not and which would have made my life way easier if I had. If you are looking for more ideas of cool things to do and see in Hawaii that aren’t lava related, then check out my blog post from 2013 with caves, sea turtles, breweries, beaches etc.

First, the logistics. You can approach the lava flow from two sides. From the Volcano National Park side, you drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road, there is a ranger station there that will tell you anything you may need to know, and you can buy water and use the head before heading out 4.2 miles one way on a gravel road. There are no bike concessions on this side, at least when we were there, though private individuals did bring their own bikes to this side. It is way less crowded on the National Park entry side! From the Kalapana Gardens side, they have a parking lot set up just before the entrance to the Kalapana Gardens residences. This parking lot is officially open from 3pm to 9pm, but the bike vendors are usually renting bikes by noon, and the guards don’t show up until around 1pm. Bikes are the BEST way to get to the flow. If you can find a place in Kona to rent a bike for several days, do it because we saw the price of bike rentals go from $10/day to $10/hour in the 4 days we were there. A good rider on a bike can go the 4.5 miles in under 1/2 hour, where it would take at least two hours to walk. Sunset is a circus out there. The walk out is on a gravel road, but it is very hot and humid, and therefore most people head out after 3pm and stay late into the night. The amount of lights on the lava fields after sunset reminded me of Burning Man. They tell you to bring a gallon of water per person, and if you are walking, that is about right. The most I went through was 3 liters, but that was when I stayed overnight. Wear boots! You don’t need firefighter’s boots or Nomax pants, but wear hiking boots with vibram soles, and if you plan to get close to the lava for pictures, wear long pants and long sleeves. The radiant heat out there, especially close to a large breakout, is insane. Just having a covering of material, like sleeves and long pants, makes it so much more comfortable to remain in place for the time it takes to get a photo. If you’re just looking, go in shorts, but still wear the boots. I saw a lot of tourists hopping across rock that was so hot they couldn’t stand still in tennis shoes.  The main area of the flow at the road is currently about 500 feet wide or so. Sometimes you can find a way to walk across from one side to the other, sometimes you can’t. The lava changes in flow, intensity and path every day.

Where to stay. The Kalapana and Pahoa side of the island is super crunchy hippy and local, nude beaches and yoga retreats. You can find decent lodging in one of these kind of retreat places along the Red Road, but my wife, in a stroke of genius, found a house for rent inside the restricted area of Kalapana Gardens, a historic fishing village that was wiped out by lava flow. Anything you are going to find on the lava flows will be rustic, off the grid residences, most likely with pit toilets and solar showers. But they are unique and you can use the resident’s privilege to drive about 2.5 miles closer during sunrise as long as you are out before they post guards around noon or one. If you are coming from Volcano National Park, the town of Volcano has some hotels and room rentals, but they are about twice as expensive as they would be on the Kalapana side.

Photographically, lava presented its own unique set of challenges. First, weather. It is often windy and rainy on the coast of Hawaii. The biggest tripod you can carry is the one you should use. All my best water entry shots are slightly blurry because my 300mm lens and 30 mph wind did not agree with each other. Bring several lights!!! If you are photographing at night, it is very dark on the black lava. Often you will find a shot you like, but the ground is too hot to put your camera bag down nearby, so you have to walk away a bit. Leave a light on your bag. Trust me on this. If you don’t, you will spend half your time looking for your camera bag. Take a handheld GPS. If you just want to leave your bag and carry your camera and tripod around for a while to make things easier, make a way-point for your bag (in addition to the light.) Also make a way-point where you left your bike, make a way-point where you leave the gravel road. It is extremely hard to navigate out there.

Digital noise! This was a surprise to me. I am used to shooting star shots in the coolness of the High Sierra where I usually only have to use dark frame subtraction to reduce noise on exposures over 25 seconds. And even then, if I don’t it might be a matter of 15 minutes cloning out the occasional bright red or blue pixel. When your camera is hot, as it will be here, digital noise is magnified 100-fold. I found hundreds of specs on just 5 second exposures and I am going to have to really be in love with one of my long exposure night shots to go through the hours it will take me to clean that up. Shoot dark frames on any exposure over 2 seconds and any ISO over 800! Lava is really bright. It doesn’t seem like it, and the highlight indicator on the back of my screen didn’t flash that often, but the combination of brightness, and the intense yellow and red color of the magma makes these pictures blow out, or go out of gamut really fast. Bracket. Shoot a lot of faster shutter speeds. I know the flowing lava looks really cool, but almost every long shot I did at any aperture/ISO combination blew out from the intense yellows. Look for darker, glowing lava in the twilight hours, and go hunting for the big flows after the sun comes up.

Hopefully this helps make your trip a little easier than mine. If you found some useful information here, feel free to share it anywhere and everywhere!

Walking the 4.5 miles into the lava flow on the closed, gravel section of Chain of Craters road from the Kalapana side in Hawaii.Walking the 4.5 miles into the lava flow on the closed, gravel section of Chain of Craters road from the Kalapana side in Hawaii.

Lava flows into the ocean from the Hawaii Volcano National Park side of the lava flow from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

Lava flows into the ocean from the Hawaii Volcano National Park side of the lava flow from the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

Sunset on the lava flows reminds me of Burning man. It is way too crowded and there are a lot of people doing a lot of silly things just because they see other people doing it, like walking across glowing lava rock in tennis shoes.

Sunset on the lava flows reminds me of Burning Man. It is way too crowded and there are a lot of people doing a lot of silly things just because they see other people doing it, like walking across glowing lava rock in tennis shoes.

Lava entering the sea from the Volcano National Park side in Hawaii. Give yourself several days if you want good photographs, in this day, the only day there was a clear view of the sea entry from land like this, there were sustained 30 mph winds blowing fumes and making any telephoto work on a tripod impossible.

Lava entering the sea from the Volcano National Park side in Hawaii. Give yourself several days if you want good photographs, on this day, the only day there was a clear view of the sea entry from land like this, there were sustained 30 mph winds blowing fumes and making any telephoto work on a tripod impossible.

A view of the lava ocean entry from the Kalapana side. This wasn

A view of the lava ocean entry from the Kalapana side. This wasn’t as photogenic as the other side, and the sea entry had gone completely into a lava tube the day we left, but two days later as we were at the airport headed home, a large breakout apparently started cascading over the cliff face nearly 400 ft wide. It changes every hour.

Our first night we flew in 6 hours, drove 3 hours then hiked for 4.5 miles. We decided to just sleep out on the lava field as the easiest thing to do in order to have an opportunity to shoot sunrise and sunset. The winds howled all night long, and around 2am turned noticeably warmer. I got up and found that the lava had come to within 100 feet of where we were sleeping.

Our first night we flew in 6 hours, drove 3 hours then hiked for 4.2 miles. We decided to just sleep out on the lava field as the easiest thing to do in order to have an opportunity to shoot sunrise and sunset. The winds howled all night long, and around 2am turned noticeably warmer. I got up and found that the lava had come to within 200 feet of where we were sleeping.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

Photographically the lava presents many problems. During the day, even the big flowing breakouts appear a dull orange. During the blue of dusk and dawn things look the best to me, but if you have any breakout, or moving lava, it is so intensely yellow and bright that it was impossible to photograph with a digital camera without going out of gamut. So I started looking for formations that were starting to cool and no longer moving and found those balanced out the best.

One morning when I hiked in around 2 am, there was a large flowing river of magma running straight into the ocean. It was so hot and bright that we could feel it from the cliff. It was also so bright, that at 2am, I got a choice of a strip of well exposed lava and nothing else, or some surrounding texture and blown-out lava. I bracketed and did some blending in post, but found that some only worked as black and white. Oh, and when I came back to this spot around 4:30 am to shoot the sunrise, the entire flow of lava had stopped. Only a small glow from the tube at the end. Did I mention it changes every hour?

One morning when I hiked in around 2 am, there was a large flowing river of magma running straight into the ocean. It was so hot and bright that we could feel it from the cliff. It was also so bright, that at 2am, I got a choice of a strip of well exposed lava and nothing else, or some surrounding texture and blown-out lava. I bracketed and did some blending in post, but found that some only worked as black and white. Oh, and when I came back to this spot around 4:30 am to shoot the sunrise, the entire flow of lava had stopped. Only a small glow from the tube at the end. Did I mention it changes every hour?

We booked a sunrise lava boat for one day just to see what that angle looked like. It was worth it, the boats all got really close and spent plenty of time. The lava wasn

We booked a sunrise lava boat for one day just to see what that angle looked like. It was worth it, the boats all got really close and spent plenty of time. The lava wasn’t too active on this particular day, but you never know. Although I rarely saw a large group of people at sunrise (compared to the insanity of the sunset crowds) there was a local party and about 20 people decided to take the after-party out onto the lava fields. I’m surprised they all survived.

A subtle sunrise at the lava ocean entry seen from the boat.

A subtle sunrise at the lava ocean entry seen from the boat.

The end of the lava tube emptying into the ocean. The ocean entry points change the fastest with the water cooling the lava surface and allowing quicker formation of tubes.

The end of the lava tube emptying into the ocean. The ocean entry points change the fastest with the water cooling the lava surface and allowing quicker formation of tubes.

There were three boats operating tours, two small ones like these, and a large 50 footer. Most days I saw the small boats arrive about 2 minutes before the large boat and was disappointed to find we could only get space on the large boat, but it turned out ok as the all get so close that I really wouldn

There were three boats operating tours, two small ones like these, and a large 50 footer. Most days I saw the small boats arrive about 2 minutes before the large boat and was disappointed to find we could only get space on the large boat, but it turned out fine as they all get so close that I really wouldn’t want to get closer. At slow speed, the larger boat was actually more stable, making the photography easier, just get in quick and get a seat in front or on the edge, because fully 2/3 of the seats you would be in a center isle and have to shoot over people, not good!

Hawaii volcano national park lava ocean entry 2016.

Hawaii volcano national park lava ocean entry 2016.

This was part of the party group. This woman sat on this spot the entire time our boat was out there, over an hour, taking selfies. Just so you know, that hump she was sitting on was not there when I hiked back in at sunset.

This was part of the party group. This woman sat on this spot the entire time our boat was out there, over an hour, taking selfies. Just so you know, that hump she was sitting on was not there when I hiked back in at sunset.

One of the more crowded sunrises on the lava field.

One of the more crowded sunrises on the lava field.

Another thing to consider besides wind and weather if you are looking for that epic ocean entry shot is tide. High tide was mostly in the morning while we were there, meaning bigger waves and more explosive impacts with the lava. It also meant the ocean entry spent more time either under water or steaming that being clearly visible. If you are doing some planning, which we did not, aim for a time when you have lower tides in the morning.

Another thing to consider besides wind and weather if you are looking for that epic ocean entry shot is tide. High tide was mostly in the morning while we were there, meaning bigger waves and more explosive impacts with the lava. It also meant the ocean entry spent more time either under water or steaming than being clearly visible. If you are doing some travel planning, which we did not, aim for a time when you have lower tides in the morning.

I took this photo on the second day, after I realized that going to the breakout flows like a moth to light didn

I took this photo on the second day, after I realized that going to the breakout flows like a moth to light didn’t actually make for better pictures. I slowed down and started looking for compositions with subtly glowing rock instead.

This picture was actually well after the sun came up on a stormy morning. We also had the good fortune to have the remnants of two tropical cyclones pass by during the 4 days I had to shoot. So you can get a better idea of the brightness of the lava by how dark the sky is for a proper exposure.

This picture was actually well after the sun came up on a stormy morning. We also had the good fortune to have the remnants of two tropical cyclones pass by during the 4 days I had to shoot. So you can get a better idea of the brightness of the lava by how dark the sky is for a proper exposure.

hawaii lava volcano park

More subtle glowing compositions to go with the sunrise sky.

More subtle glowing compositions to go with the sunrise sky.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the shoot, not only for how it turned out, but for the experience in shooting it. I rented a bike the last evening we were there and rode in about 5pm. Riding the 4.5 miles took me about 25 minutes. It was raining off and on as I was riding, and once I got there, the crowds were gathered along the road and near the sea entry, so I simply walked the other direction. During the time I was there, the more active flows were actually about .5 miles up the coastal plain towards the mountains, but nobody ever went there. So I am out shooting by myself and another squall comes over. It was a windless evening and the only sound was the hiss of the falling raindrops building to a roar as the drops exploded into steam on the super heated rock. This squall built into a real rainstorm and I put my camera away, then looked about realizing I was completely isolated in the steam. I couldn

This is one of my favorite pictures from the shoot, not only for how it turned out, but for the experience in shooting it. I rented a bike the last evening we were there and rode in about 5pm. Riding the 4.5 miles took me about 25 minutes. It was raining off and on as I was riding, and once I got there, the crowds were gathered along the road and near the sea entry, so I simply walked the other direction. During the time I was there, the more active flows were actually about .5 miles up the coastal plain towards the mountains, but nobody ever went there. So I am out shooting by myself and another squall comes over. It was a windless evening and the only sound was the hiss of the falling raindrops building to a roar as the drops exploded into steam on the super heated rock. This squall built into a real rainstorm and I put my camera away, then looked about realizing I was completely isolated in the steam. I couldn’t see 100 ft. in any direction and the temperature was hotter that the steam room in my gym, so I stripped and enjoyed natures open air sauna for about 10 minutes until the squall passed, then I unpacked my camera and took this picture.

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

The first night we were there, the lava wasn

The first night we were there, the lava wasn’t very active so I decided to spend the night trying to do some night photography. I had a lot of fun, and learned to find the subtle leading lines of red that you could barely see, but would seem to explode from the core of the earth on a 20 second exposure. What I did NOT count on, nor even notice until I got home, was that in the extremely hot state my camera was in, digital noise was increased about 100 fold. Where I would normally not have to think about dark frame subtraction on a 2-10 second exposure in the mountains, I found that these time frames yielded thousands of red and blue and green specs that will take hours to remove. So either keep your camera cool, or dark frame every different exposure you use.

The first night we were there, the lava wasn

The first night we were there, the lava wasn’t very active so I decided to spend the night trying to do some night photography. I had a lot of fun, and learned to find the subtle leading lines of red that you could barely see, but would seem to explode from the core of the earth on a 20 second exposure. What I did NOT count on, nor even notice until I got home, was that in the extremely hot state my camera was in, digital noise was increased about 100 fold. Where I would normally not have to think about dark frame subtraction on a 2-10 second exposure in the mountains, I found that these time frames yielded thousands of red and blue and green specs that will take hours to remove. So either keep your camera cool, or dark frame every different exposure you use.

This was the sign that read “Do not go beyond this point,” and which almost everyone ignored. Sadly, you would have to ignore it to get a decent photo, but as I mentioned before, the lava field changes every hour. One morning it may be perfectly fine to get close in a certain direction, the next morning it may be an orange lake of fire. This sign was up when I arrived at 3am. After the sun came up, the flows had changed and started moving along the road and spreading out and this and one other sign got burnt in that few hour span.

This is the feeling my wife got when she realized she had just accompanied my on our last long hike in or out from the lava fields.

This is the feeling my wife got when she realized she had just accompanied me on our last long hike in or out from the lava fields.

After 4 days on the lava field, we headed to Kona to do the one other thing I really wanted to do last time I visited the island, the night time manta ray dive. We actually did a real dive before this one, because on this dive, you basically just sit in a field of lights and let the manta rays swim all around you. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen underwater. It’s a very easy dive, and probably one of the better night dives you could do. We went with Big Island Divers and were glad we did. They were super professional and had some of the best “campfires,” what they call the big lights that attract the plankton that in turn attract the manta rays, and we got the best seats in the house while a lot of the smaller operators had to sit farther back. Either way it looked awesome and I would highly recommend it if you are SCUBA certified.

These photos have nothing to do with lava, but I thought this was a really cool experience. The last time we went to Hawaii in 2013 there were two things I really wanted to do that I could not. One was see lava, because it wasn

These photos have nothing to do with lava, but I thought this was a really cool experience. The last time we went to Hawaii in 2013 there were two things I really wanted to do that I could not. One was see lava, because it wasn’t flowing, and two was dive with the manta rays, because my wife wasn’t certified and I didn’t feel like ditching her for a night. Well, in the years between that trip and this, Monique got certified and we booked a night manta ray dive with Big Island Divers. It was kind of like Cirque du Solei under water with all the lights, but it was an amazing experience and looked really cool and there are tons of manta rays which like to eat the plankton which is attracted to the light. So they would just fly all around us for an hour, I even had to duck once, they can’t see the best apparently. But it was one of the best night dives ever. Highly recommended.

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Speed Flying Sky Tavern

Hi, Monique here, sharing a few more images. We thought we

Hi, Monique here, sharing a few more images. We thought we’d end this post with a few of our “lifestyle” images from the trip… things we do on our down time when not photographing the lava. Top image: I found this cute little “tiny house” on Airbnb inside the Kalapana Gardens housing area. It was a perfect home base and had all the modest amenities we needed. Below left: A mural of Madame Pele, the fire Goddess, in the super crunchy hippy town of Pahoa, she was good to us this year, but since we left, she has doubled her efforts to get the lava flowing in to the sea! At Right: As soon as we landed in Kona, we were starving for lunch, so we just happened upon Da Poke Shack, not knowing that it is rated as the best Poke in Kona! It is a take out place with only a few spots to sit at the restaurant, but there are several beautiful beaches nearby on Alii Drive that you can have a picnic with a view. Below left: Rambuton, papaya, mango and those little sweet bananas were a staple for breakfast. Middle: A lonely jungle road in the Puna district to the east of the lava flow, where we spent our down time at Kehena Beach, a black sand beach, swimming and napping, and visiting warm springs pools. At right: On our last day we spent time at Waialea Beach north of Kona where we found our own private cove for skinny dipping and skinny snorkeling. Bottom left: the other black sand beach in the Kalapana area that is slowly replacing a world famous coconut tree lined beach that was wiped out from a lava flow in 1986-92 Pu’u O’o flow. This area has a long way to go, probably centuries, until the lush jungle returns. Bottom right: On our last evening, we revisited one of our favorite eateries from our first trip, The Big Island Brewhaus in Waimea.

  • August 15, 2016 - 12:36 pm

    Susan Wilmes - Scott, Thank you SOOO much for this post. I just spent the last hour pouring over your photos and carefully reading your posts. You are so thorough – I appreciate your comments and descriptions, but even moire so your insight into the process of just getting to the lava flow. I’ll be in Kona volunteering for the Ironman in October and always leave time for the volcano. I was there in the 80’s when you could walk on the lava tubes then as well, but never had an opportunity to get back to them under those type of conditions. Your photos are mesmerizing and bring me back to the 80’s when I felt how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. While I attempt to take a few good photographs, they don’t even come close to yours. I’m sure Madame Pele would approve of your work in documenting her fiery nature! Thanks again!

  • August 15, 2016 - 3:48 pm

    ssady - Thanks Susan. When the lava started flowing again, I got online and couldn’t find out anything either. That’s why I did this. Also, I mention try to rent a bike in Kona if possible, that is because all the bikes in Kalapana, Pahoa, Hilo area were already dedicated to the rental fleets. So if you plan to go out multiple times, that is the way to go.

  • January 28, 2017 - 2:51 pm

    Curt Weidner - What a great article! SO, many useful tidbits. We also have rented a house in Kalpana. Any other hints about staying somewhere that’s off the grid? Any recommendations on where to rent bikes? Can you walk in to the lava flow any time? You mentioned driving closer since you were staying in Kalpana. How did that work? I’m a serious amature photographer so all photo hints esp on dark frames is appreciated. I haven’t seen dealing with digital noise mentioned anywhere else. Thanks, Curt

  • January 29, 2017 - 6:31 pm

    ssady - Hard to say, check the hawaii volcanoe update, I’m not even sure there is much flow on the surface right now, but there does seem to be a massive flow shooting out of a hole in the cliff into the water. It’s possible the best way to see it will be via lava boat tour. Do some searching for epic lava on instagram or facebook. As for dark frames, just make sure if you do any long exposures at night to through the lens cap on and make one dark exposure at those same settings. Later you can google dark frame subtraction and figure out how to use that frame to help automatically eliminate a lot of the noise you will get from the heat and long exposure.

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