Composing with Purpose (and Patience)

I’ve been to Laupāhoehoe Point on Hawaii’s Big Island around a dozen times now. It’s one of my all-time favorite photo spots because the conditions are almost always breathtaking and it’s an endless playground of photo opportunities. The great thing about places you’ve been to multiple times is that during return trips, you find yourself slowing down and being much more selective with your shots. After all, I’ve already seen this place with a double rainbow overhead, at sunset, at sunrise, when it’s overcast, and I’ve taken more pictures than I even know what to do with.

On my most recent visit earlier this year, I took a small group of students here for sunrise. This was the last morning of our trip and everyone was running around getting their own shots. One student was just to my left on the shoreline and after seeing if she needed any help, I set up my tripod in a direction I hadn’t really shot before. The reasons I hadn’t shot this way before are both because it’s looking away from the sunrise, and the other 90% of this location is incredible enough to hold my attention most days. On this morning however, I looked to the north and saw a pink glow in the sky above the cliffs and caught the waves exploding against this set of rocks on the shoreline.

When I set up for a shot like this, I don’t just walk up and start taking photos. Instead, I stand there for a bit and just analyze the scene. I remember quite vividly looking at the waves fanning out after hitting the rocks and noticing how the fan fit quite nicely framed inside the cliffs in the distance. I then moved down the shoreline a bit to make sure the rocks and wave were positioned just right in the cliff, before the cliff dipped down to the lower section where it terminates into the sea. Next, I began my search for the perfect shutter speed to stretch the water out. Too fast and the water would just freeze in the air with no apparent movement. Too slow and I’d lose the structure of the wave altogether in a mess of ghosted water.

My go-to shutter speed for water and waves is 1/2 second. I start there (which usually works) and then make adjustments as needed. In this case, it was far too slow. After a few more adjustments, I landed on 1/6th of a second. This speed captured the water fast enough to maintain the structure of the wave as it exploded off the rocks, and slow enough to pull the water apart a bit and show movement.

The soft light from the rising sun, the pastel colors in the sky, the dramatic cliffs in the distance, the incredible blue color of the water, and the violent collision of waves crashing against the rocks; everything came together for this one and that’s what keeps me coming back to places like this as a photographer.

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Enjoy and let me know what you think, and any questions you have!

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