Volcanic Dawn


The sea beyond the jagged lava rock shoreline reflects the copper light of the morning sky at Laie Point, Oahu, Hawaii.


Apparently not everyone is fond of rattlesnakes, so this post begins a series about Hawaii instead. While Hawaii is free of venomous snakes, this little corner of Oahu is covered in vicious lava rock spikes that seem even more dangerous.

On my recent trip to Oahu, I spent a sunset at Laie Point, a narrow spear of land on the northeast side of the island that juts out into the sea. While this is clearly the wrong side of the island to actually see the sun set, I had hoped that some clouds to the east would pick up some color. This did not happen, but it was a promising location so I decided to return the next morning for the sunrise. While the afternoon session may not have been ideal in terms of light, it is always nice to first visit a new location during daylight; this saved me from blundering around in the dark at an unfamiliar location the next morning while I tried to find some worthwhile compositions.

The next morning I went straight to the end of the point and spent nearly two hours there. While not the most dramatic of sunrises, it was beautiful and I was ready for it.


I love the way that the main colors in this image seem downright metallic: the long exposure and morning light make the sea look like brushed copper, while just above the horizon the sky is a steely blue-gray. The sea plus the touch of orange in the clouds sandwich that contrasting blue-gray. The third main color—barely a color at all—is the dark jagged lava rock in the foreground, which contrasts so strongly in both tone and texture with the rest of the image.

The primary focal point, of course, is the dark island offshore. With its overhanging sides, it is an interesting little island in its own right, but being both starkly dark and next to a patch of sea that almost glows, it really stands out. The fact that it is the only break in the perfectly straight horizon also gives it emphasis. It is also nicely unified with the dark foreground in tone. And it echoes, in both shape and size, if not texture, the spray-surrounded rock on the left side. In fact, when taken together, that rock, the rock immediately to its right in the center of the foreground, and the island above form a nice triangle.

That spray surrounding the rock on the left side also helps to add some interest to the foreground by keeping it from being a uniformly dark band across the bottom of the frame. The jagged boundary of the foreground—strongly contrasting with the smooth sea beyond it—provides a nice contrast with the ruler-straight horizon in the distance. The clouds also show some variation, with three distinct colors: a few of the high clouds are pale orange and the rest of them are a warm gray while the lower clouds are all a cool gray. Together they add to the warm-cool contrasts in the image and keep the area above the horizon interesting even in and of itself.

Finally, the dark clouds on the extreme sides of the sky are reflected in the sea, forming a nice vignette on either side of the image. This also helps keep the focus in the center of the image and on the island.

All in all, I like images like this where there are lots of contrasts and plenty of things for the viewer to explore. In fact, if you have read this far, you deserve a reward: on the far left end of the foreground rocks, there is a crab silhouetted against the sea.


My darkest neutral density filter is only a 6-stop one. (Actually, I have a 10-stop neutral density filter from B+W, but I don’t use it any more because it makes a nasty color cast that I struggle to correct. Some reviewers claim it is wonderful and others agree with me; perhaps there is some manufacturing variation.) Even at ISO 64 and f/22, the 6-stop ND filter only got me to a 15 second exposure. I wasn’t too worried about losing some sharpness to diffraction—a consequence of f/22—since the sky was just clouds and I was deliberately blurring the ocean. As for the foreground, I figured that I was better off with the depth of field anyway. Short of blending a small-aperture long exposure with a medium-aperture shorter exposure focused on the foreground rocks—kind of an odd variation of focus stacking—which would waste a lot of time during rapidly changing light for minimal benefit, it was the best I could do and get the long exposure I wanted.

I post-processed this image using a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Affinity Photo. In Lightroom I straightened the image and boosted the oranges just a little bit. Then in Affinity Photo I cloned some clouds to fill an annoying bright gap on the left edge of the image, boosted the oranges some more, and added a some horizontal blur to the ocean to accentuate that brushed-metal look. Adding that blur was a little more involved than I expected: even after making a really good mask for the ocean, it would blur the dark spikes of the foreground over the adjacent sea. I (finally!) solved this by switching the layer blend mode to “lighten” which kept the dark foreground from bleeding into lighter ocean. (This took me longer to figure out than it should have—I kept thinking that my mask wasn’t working, but it was working just fine. Well, I tried something new and learned something doing it, so I can’t complain.) After that I went back to Lightroom, darkened the two sides just a touch, and made the final 5:4 ratio crop. For the version of the photo that I uploaded to sell, I went back to Affinity Photo to add my signature in a color that matched the copper ocean.

Part of me wishes that the island was a little right of center rather than a little left of center, but as it is I think that the darker left side balances decently with the brighter right side. I considered cropping the right side in tighter to make the image a square, but then the dark band on the right hand side of the sea is lost and the viewer’s eye drifts off the image that direction. So, short of attempting some computer-magic to move the island to the right—perhaps a worthwhile learning exercise—I think it is best as it is.

Technical Data

Nikon Z7 with Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S with Breakthrough Photography X4 6-stop Neutral Density filter at 43mm, 15.0 sec, f/22, ISO 64, on Gitzo GT3451 tripod (an older version of this) with Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head.

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