According to the workshop ad, I’d get ‘up close and personal’ with beaches, cliffs, summits, rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes, lava, whales, as close as we safely could to lava, and as close as allowable to turtles, and witness amazing sunrises and sunsets – what more could they squeeze in? Was I in for a surprise!
Larger than all of the other islands combined, Hawai’i Island, or ‘Hawai’i, the Big Island’, experiences 11 of the world’s 13 climactic zones—from sandy beaches to snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, rainforests, botanical gardens, thermal vents - not to mention Kilaeua, one of the world’s most active volcanoes (and it was while we were there!).
What an island of contrast it was too! One side is dry, arid and jagged volcanic rock, while the other is lush, tropical and green – all as a result of the 2 volcanoes which form the backbone of the island (Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea). Certainly made for some great photos!
Wawaloli Beach/Pele’s Well
The ‘Well’ is hard to find if you don’t know where to look, and the locals apparently try to keep it that way! Our instructors had quite a task locating it. It’s just north of Kailua-Kona, on the western coast of the island, but that’s as much information as I can give you! A word of warning – wear sturdy footwear for traversing the razor sharp lava rock in this area, and keep an eye on the incoming tide.
This well is AMAZING, to say the least! It’s a lava tube that goes straight down for about 3m before turning 90° toward the ocean. When the waves come in, water fills the tube and it overflows onto the lava rock. The trick was wait for an overflow then shoot as the water receded. I made a rookie mistake and forgot a vital part to connect my camera to the tripod, so had to shoot hand held!
We returned to Wawaloli the following evening, but further north, for some spectacular wave action and sunset shots.
Not long after this, a rogue wave hit which was so huge it went right over the top of me and drenched me, primarily because I hunched myself over the camera to protect it!
So the next thing to do was photograph a sunrise! Not the easiest thing when you’re on the west coast! However, the boys had found another brilliant location, so we headed off in the pre-dawn dark to Kaʻūpūlehu to watch the sun rise in the ‘cradle’ between the two volcanoes. This was an absolutely beautiful, tranquil location to start yet another glorious Hawaiian day.
And I saw my first turtle!
Be aware, there are very STRICT laws protecting the turtles as they are extremely vulnerable and endangered.
After transporting ourselves across to the east coast after the sunrise, that night we visited the Kilauea Caldera, which was one of the highlights of the entire workshop! What an amazing experience after the sun goes down! We got to the Jaggar Museum & Overlook nice and early to secure prime photographic spots (be aware, it gets crowded as it gets darker!). This is one of only two locations you can view Kilauea’s activity, the other being the Pu'u'Ō'ō vent located 16km east of the summit, an area not accessible to the public, but you can fly over it ….. keep reading!
What an amazing sight! It looked as though fire was shooting up into the air from the depths of the crater, but this is just glow from the lava on the smoke plume.
It was hard to decide what to do, just stare in awe at this magnificent sight, or look through the viewfinder and take another photo! I did a bit of both.
A word of warning – it gets very cold after the sun sets! Wear or take appropriate clothing.
The next day turned out to be one of our busiest days of the whole workshop. Another early start to take in the sunrise.
Then we hiked to Akaka Falls. The light proved somewhat challenging by the time we got there, so the shady part of the falls provided a nice, soft backdrop instead.
And then we headed off to Rainbow Falls. If you visit at just the right time (usually around 10am on a clear day), you’ll usually see a huge rainbow across the entire scene. We got a little bit of rainbow. Better than nothing, I suppose.
We also visited the ancient banyan tree nearby. It was unbelievably huge. The tree is about 500-600 years old and is technically not a tree as it’s been overrun by fig vines. You can actually walk inside of the trunk and disappear!
That night we headed to Panalu’u Black Sand Beach, one of the most famous black sand beaches in Hawai’i, for sunset. Another turtle!
Remember, there are very STRICT laws protecting the turtles!
And as if that wasn’t quite enough for one day, on the way back to Hilo we just happened to notice an amazing cloud rising from Kilauea, so we made a group decision to ditch dinner and head back to the Overlook. The smoke plume this night was unbelievable, and was made even more amazing by the glow from the half-moon just behind us. And we could faintly hear rumbling and crackling from the crater the whole time we were there.
Helicopter flight over Pu’u ‘O’o
We had to bring our planned Saturday night helicopter flight over the volcano forward due to anticipated bad weather on the weekend. We rugged up, geared up and buckled up to experience Kilauea from the air.
This was the first time I had ever seen lava, and it was incredible. We were in open sided helicopters and you could actually feel the heat from the lava at certain times.
Keck Observatory, Muana Kea
Well this was certainly an unexpected, and not entirely pleasant experience! Approx 4,200m we ascended to the Keck Observatory.
The sunset left much to be desired – there was cloud above us, and cloud below us, and not much space in between for the sunset.
Sadly, an incoming storm drew an end to our Observatory experience, although I was quite happy to get down off the summit to a more comfortable atmosphere!
A word of warning, altitude sickness can (and likely will) hit you up here! And it gets COLD! Again, read up and be prepared.
Vents at Volcanoes NP
So our last day of the workshop arrived and we headed off to the ‘vents’ at Steaming Bluff Overlook for our last dawn shots. This shoot is second on the list of my workshop highlights. I got some of my favourite shots of the whole workshop this day.
It was such a surreal location with plumes of steam just billowing out of volcanic vents, lending a soft, dreamlike backdrop to my photos.
Ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks in this area and returns to the surface as steam. The area between the caldera's edge and outer cliffs of Kilauea Caldera is a treeless plain. The ground just a few feet down is so hot that tree roots can’t survive.
We headed back to Hilo and the conclusion of our workshop. It was sad saying goodbye to all my new-found friends. The workshop was so much fun and one of the most amazing experiences of my life! Can’t wait to do another.
I got up the next morning to pack and check out, and when I opened the curtains, I was greeted by the sight of a snow-capped Mauna Kea bathed in morning sunshine! What a way to end a fabulous week!
And here’s a bit of information about James and Mike. Be sure to check them about, they’re both very talented and entertaining photographers and instructors, and I hope to be able to join them again one day on another workshop.
Introducing James & Mike
James Brandon is a photographer living in Fort Worth, Texas. His true passions are landscape, travel and weather photography as well as teaching others through producing educational content and holding workshops in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Mike Mezeul II is addicted to photography and adventure. Through the years he’s photographed in many situations including weddings, professional sporting events, live music venues, 5,000 feet in the air hanging out of a plane, natural disasters, and more. He’s also an avid storm chaser!
The images in this post were primarily shot with Canon EOS60d.