Photographing the Kilauea lava flow has always been on my bucket list. Therefore, when I planned a trip to the island of Hawai'i, better known as the Big Island, I started looking into ways to realize that. Perhaps the best way to see this remarkable feature of nature is to take a boat tour to where the lava enters the sea on the southeast corner of the island. Alas, I waited too long. It seems the lava ceased to flow to the ocean last November, at least for now. All was not lost, however. One can still experience this volcano from a more convenient vantage point if perhaps less impressively.
The Jagger Museum is located just minutes from the Park Visitor Center and is situated at the very edge of the Halema'uma'u crater. Kilauea churns and spews a thick cloud of toxic steam from a caldera within this larger crater. During the day only the steam cloud is visible, but after dark the fiery cauldron becomes visible and materially changes the character of the volcano. The steam cloud also takes on the red glow from the cauldron. The museum is currently the best place to view the volcano and is wheel chair accessible, but it takes a bit of planning if one wishes to successfully photograph it.
The key is to be there at the right time, e.g., between sunset and civil twilight, or about 30 minutes after sunset, the so called "blue hour" after the sun goes down but before it becomes "black" dark. During those crucial 30 minutes it becomes dark enough to see the yellow-red glow from the lava in the caldera AND details in the surrounding darkened landscape. Before sunset there is too much light to see the glow, and after civil twilight it becomes too dark to see details. The "window" is very small. The other crucial factor is getting on location early enough to claim a "front row seat" from which to get a clear view. The viewing area at the museum is quite limited so an early arrival is essential. This means a chilly, lengthy wait and foregoing supper. This, however, is just part of photography. A bit of planning ahead can overcome these obstacles.
It is absolutely necessary to get that unobstructed view and be able to set up a tripod. Even at high ISO settings your exposure time will be in seconds (my settings were on the order of ISO 640, 2.5 sec.@f/5.6); at high ISO settings and long exposures digital noise is an issue but I've found with high end cameras set to "noise reduction" noise can be satisfactorily managed. But without a front row position it's impossible to get a clear view or set up the tripod. Once there, however, be considerate of others trying to get a similar view by utilizing as little space as needed. I positioned two front legs of my tripod on the stone curbing in front of me so as to not require much more space than I would have without the tripod. I wasn't the least sensitive about having a front row position because I figure if I stood in the cold two hours I was entitled to it. And yes, it does get cold so dress accordingly. Moreover, familiarity with your camera controls is important because you will need to make adjustments in the dark; a small flashlight is recommended. Finally, patience is a virtue. I noticed many people leave as soon as the sun went down. Even then not much is happening...and it's flat out cold, especially if any wind is blowing which I understand is the usual case; it sure was this night. But once there leaving early is a big mistake; the show is just beginning!
On our visit in March sunset occurred about 6:30 p.m. My wife and I arrived at the museum around 4:00 p.m. Earlier that day we stopped enroute and purchased something for supper which we ate in the parking lot. Since we were staying in Kailua-Kona this was kind of important because we faced a two-plus hour drive back after the shoot with nowhere to get anything to eat. I staked out my spot a little after five o'clock and settled in to wait...occasionally dodging rain drops. I killed some time by photographing an incredible rainbow which appeared a few minutes before sunset. That's called serendipity folks, but hey, I had created my own luck; I was there and in position. I'll accept that kind of luck any day!
My equipment, by the way, consisted of a Nikon 300s, a Nikkor 18-200mm zoom lens, a polarizing filter (used only until sundown), a "shutter hat" to protect my gear in case of rain (used), and a Gitzo carbon fiber travel tripod. This is pretty much my standard "down and dirty" travel bag. I also carry a Digital Foci 80gb portable hard drive to store files until getting them home to upload to my laptop.
Back to the volcano. Finally the sun disappeared. My teeth were chattering but I hardly noticed because I was "stoked" anticipating what I was about to see. At this time only a hint of red glow was visible, however, as darkness gradually overtook the light the intensity of color improved by the minute until the full fury of the volcano became evident. I was mesmerized by this beautiful yet violent display of creation. I continued to experiment with single shots and five-shot HDRs (High Dynamic Range) right up to Civil Twilight when it became too dark to discern detail in the darkest parts of my composition; by that time I had what I wanted. It still remained to make the long drive to Kailua-Kona but that was of no concern at the moment. Reluctantly I turned and walked away inwardly satisfied that I had seen and photographed something very special. I will visit Pele again.