How to Photograph Lava Without HDR or Photoshop

CJ Kale and Nick Selway long ago fell in love with Hawaii and founded Lava Light, a photography gallery focused on capturing the ever-changing landscape created by an active volcano and crashing waves—and sometimes both together when the conditions are just right.

And if swimming with fire and dodging lava bombs weren’t challenging enough, these photographers believe in creating their images completely in camera. Balancing exposures between sky, water, and lava can be incredibly tricky.

Luckily, Lava Light has shared some tips to help you get the shot without combining exposures or using HDR.

Photo Tip #1

To capture lava and stars together, put a neutral-density (ND) gradient filter on your lens upside down to balance the extreme exposures between the lava and stars.

Photo Credit: Nick Selway/Lava Light Galleries
Photo Credit: Nick Selway/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #2

When photographing lava in the daytime, use the ND grad right side up to balance the light from the sunrise, because the sun will eventually be brighter than the lava is.

Volcano images Kilauea Hawaii
Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #3

For front-lit scenes, a hard ND grad balances light from a bright sky and a dark foreground, allowing you to darken the sky and deepen colors. For example, in this shot I used a polarizer to intensify the rainbow, but it left the sky a fraction too bright. So I added a 1-stop hard ND grad across the entire sky to darken it and get its depth and color to match with the lava and everything that’s front lit below.

Volcano images Kilauea Hawaii
Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #4

To capture the little curvature of a wave, a shutter speed around 1/3 of a second is usually enough to get a little light blur to the water but keep that shape in the wave.

Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries
Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #5

If you’re trying to capture a really misty feel, where the water almost looks like fog, use a 2- to 3-second exposure.

Photo Credit: Nick Selway/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #6

Since we capture everything in camera, sometimes we have to compromise on exposures and accept some clipping of highlights or shadows. So maybe a rock by the lava won’t have any detail in the shadows because I want to capture the detail in the lava instead, and I prioritize my exposure for the lava.

Photo Credit: Nick Selway/Lava Light Galleries
Photo Credit: Nick Selway/Lava Light Galleries

Photo Tip #7

Prepare the right gear for the day. My normal, hike-out-to-the-volcano kit includes a Nikon D800e, Canon 5dMkIII, 16–35 L lens for Canon, 14–24 for Nikon, a 50mm and an 85mm prime, and a 50–500 Sigma telephoto. Because sometimes you want a wide-angle shot, like the rainbow and lava, and others you want to zoom in on the drip, which requires a telephoto.

Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries
Photo Credit: CJ Kale/Lava Light Galleries

Want more?

Check out the SmugMug Films artist profile of Lava Light below. Thanks for the tips, Nick and CJ!

Find Lava Light online:

Do You REALLY Need to Buy That New Camera?

Maybe you didn’t get that dream camera for Christmas, or your current camera is looking a little sad next to the shiny new gadgets that are cramming up your news feeds. Camera equipment is like all other electronics: there’s always going to be something new to market tempting you to part ways with your hard-earned money.

We get it. So we’ve asked around and gathered a few tips to help you avoid the piercing looks of your significant other/financial advisor/wallet.

4 Questions to ask before you make the leap:

1) What’s REALLY out there?

Skip this one if you follow photo news on the internet at all. Before heading off with credit card in hand simply because your friends just upgraded, be sure you do your research. Compare what you have with what’s new and shiny. There’s a wealth of really great information and camera reviews on forums, blogs and review websites. Arm yourself with enough knowledge to make an educated decision on whether or not new equipment will really satisfy your itch.

2) Is there something coming soon that I should wait for?

Some camera companies pre-announce new cameras to build anticipation, and when they do the web will hear about it. Ask around, Google search, or just stop by your local camera shop and talk to a pro. Tech specs should help you determine if it’s something worth holding out and waiting for, or if you’re better off finding something now. You never want to shell out top dollar for something that gets replaced (and discounted) next week.

3) When I shoot, what am I missing?

Is your current kit honestly not up to snuff for the kind of photography you’re doing? Would a long telephoto lens fill a void in your kit bag? What advantage would having better ISO performance give you? Are you tired of hauling your DSLR and 30 lbs of lenses with you? Do you really need more megapixels? Try thinking about why you’ve got that hole in your heart and paring it down to what makes the most impact.

4) Can I change my perspective by using my existing setup in a different way?

We all have our favorite subject: our garden, our kids, our pets. If you’re like most of us, your galleries are full of the same image, different day. In some instances, new kit will help with that. If you’re always photographing your garden, a macro lens might be just the ticket. But in reality, your gear isn’t what makes the shot – your perspective is what really counts. Mix things up a bit and get out of that photography rut with a new angle, a different focal length, or a different theme.

Some Alternatives to Buyer’s Remorse

Rent your dreams

Renting equipment that you’re curious about is a great way to give it a test drive with minimal cost. If your local camera store doesn’t already have a rental service, check out online lenders like Borrowlenses. They’ve got a huge variety of lenses, bodies, lighting and other equipment that you can rent for one day, a weekend, or as long as you wish. Best of all, they’ll ship to your door.

Give gear a second (or third) chance

Just because gear has retired from someone’s bag, that doesn’t mean its life is over. A lot of photographers discover their dream gear isn’t that great a fit, or they’ve just outgrown its use. They’ll sell off well-kept gear and it’s a great opportunity to snap up great equipment at a reasonable price, especially if you’re just getting your feet wet in photography.

Try photography-specific forums like Fred Miranda or Digital Grin, two of many online communities that have entire specific areas for used equipment resale. Be sure to check the forum’s individual rules and user rating systems if you’re worried about receiving your gear or are uncomfortable sending money online. Never done this before? Here’s a few tips on what to look for when buying a new lens.

In Conclusion…

Above all, have fun! Adding to your collection is one of the joys of being a photographer, no matter what you take pictures of or if you take pictures for a living. Because we share that love, we’ve started a (growing) collection of gear reviews from our very own SmugMug cameraholics who rented their dream gear and documented whether they loved it or not.

Check out the first few tripod and lens reviews and keep your eyes on this space – we’ll share new reviews as we publish them!

What’s In Your Bag? Sam Nichols: Camera Awesome Developer, Film Nerd and Resident Gear Master

Sam Nichols is one of SmugMug’s longest-living Sorcerers. In addition to creating mind-blowingly amazing things for you (like our original browser uploader and a little iPhone app called Camera Awesome) he sets the bar pretty high for anyone coveting the title “Camera Nerd.” From large format to Leica, Sam has used them all. We asked him to stop coding long enough to open up his gear bag, and here’s what we found.

What’s in your bag at any given moment?

A Nikon D800e with something wide and sharp (Zeiss 21mm), something versatile and fast (35mm f/1.4) and something tight and isolating (Nikon 85mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 100mm f/2.0) with a solid carbon Gitzo tripod (GT3542LS). I have problems with chasing extremes and found that primes are the sharpest, have the widest apertures, focus the fastest, have the least distortion etc. Versatility be damned I want the best, so those are what fill my bag. I’m liking shooting the 21mm with high aspect ratio crops (6×17) or (land/buliding)scape shots using tighter lenses like the 85mm or 100mm to isolate a subject and compress the background.

The only thing I keep wanting to include but don’t is a 24 Tilt-shift lens. I miss Canon’s 24L TS-E mkII. I loved that tilt-shift lens but Nikon’s 24 tilt-shift offering is older, has less features and isn’t as sharp as the Zeiss 21mm or the Canon.

Sam’s bag. We’re pretty sure he doesn’t leave all the lens caps off all the time.

If you had to grab one lens in a house fire, which would it be?

A 35mm f/1.4 is my jams. I loved it on my Canon full-frame bodies, it was the 1st lens I bought when I switched to a Nikon D800e, and its the only lens I own for my Leica M7. Long ago I started with a Canon 28-135, tried zooms up the wazoo and primes to the horizon eventually settling on 35mm as the sweet spot. I found 50mm too ‘normal’, 85mm was too confining and 24mm was too distracting, 35mm was wide enough to be dramatic without being overwhelming, indoors and out. Its a fast focusing lens (except on the Leica, obviously) and I’m a sucker for thin depth of field. I’ve no complaints on the size either (85mm f/1.2 or 1.4 I’m looking at you). When we go out and I’m just bringing one lens, it’s the 35mm. If we’re going on a trip it’s the first thing in my bag unless there is some reason or limit such that I can’t.🙂 Mmm, my precioussssss.

Do you have any totally-indulgent, special-occasion favorites?

Film. I take out my Leica M7 with B&W on certain occasions. I also use a medium format 6×17 view camera which forces a dramatic perspective but my film favorite is my large format 4×5 field camera: a Toyo 45AX with Schneider 210mm f/5.6 and Xenotar 150mm f/2.8. In 35mm camera parlance that’s like a ~60mm which is quite sharp and a ~40mm f/1.0! Yes I know I said I don’t like 50mm, but holy poop, f/2.8 on a 4×5 camera has such a shallow depth of field and the lens creates really unique shots. I originally went to large format to force me to slow down and think about the shot. It was a great exercise and I still like taking it with me for the unique images it produces and the different mindset it puts me in while photographing.

Being me, I also tried out the 8×10 format, thinking that if Big means Awesome, then Bigger must be Awesomer. But it turns out there is such a thing as too much and 8×10 just meant heavier and more expensive. However, I’ll still be jamming this into my main kit for an upcoming trip to Utah.

If you could change one thing about DSLR bodies…

High resolution full frame bodies! What happened to high-resolution, full frame pro bodies like the Canon 1DsIII and Nikon D3x? I suspect the problem is that the majority of pro body SLR users use them for sports/event/action/wildlife where you want a high frame-rate which precludes higher resolutions due to bandwidth. Combine that with studio photographers being ‘ok’ with a prosumer full frame body since they don’t need the ruggedness of the pro bodies and demand for the 1DsIII and D3x begins to dry up. But it sucks to be part of that minority who wants all the functionality of the pro bodies but doesn’t care about frame rate. I’d take 3FPS if I could also have > 30MP!

Canon 1DsII with the 90mm f/2.8 TS-E on a tripod, then sepia cross-processed.

With all this delicious gear you’ve got (literally!) in the bag, is there still something you wish you had?

Digital medium format so hard. There are three things I want above all else: broad dynamic range, smooth tonal gradations (read high bit-depth), high resolution. I don’t care about frame rate, high ISO performance, fast AF (accurate AF is still important), AF points, sync speed, shutter speed, etc. All of that is important for ‘action’. Digital MF crushes those 3 desires, especially with its 16bit files (Nikon and Canon max out at 14bit), give me a 80MP Leaf back and I’ll be your friend forever (maybe), plus I could use the MF back on my large-format camera. The only thing between me and a pile of digital gear is price of course — even the ‘reasonable’ 40MP Hasselblads are in the $20k+ area.

What do you wish you could improve upon?

Actually going out and taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures, and a follow up to that would be actually editing and sharing them. I have a lot of technical knowledge surrounding cameras and photography but I don’t get out very much to actually apply any of that to taking interesting pictures. Sure, I bring my kit along almost every trip we go on and that often results in Goin’ Out To Take Some Pictures, but usually it just means (really good) snapshots. I have the know-how, I have ideas, but for some reason I never find the time. I blame working at SmugMug sucking up all my time.🙂

What’s in Your Bag? SmugMug’s Ivan Makarov, AKA Uncle Scrooge and G+ Superstar

We’ve always said that we love photography, but how can you tell it’s true? We’re busting at the seams with our crazy obsession for all things photo, and some of the most gear-minded folks on our team wanted to bust open their bags and show you what exactly they’re hauling around this year. Or this week. This minute. (You know how it is!)

Today we interviewed Ivan Makarov, SmugMug’s Controller. Since his official title is scarier than sand in a focus ring, we just call him “Uncle Scrooge.” Ivan’s been taking hauntingly beautiful black and white photos for years before he came to SmugMug, and he’s showing us what it takes to capture those now.

Not just Ivan’s! We’ll feature future interviews by fellow SmugMug gearaholics to cover the rest of this luscious lineup.

Why did you pick the setup that you have?

It took me a few years to put my setup together. I wanted to cover all focal lengths I usually shoot with sharp lenses, and I also wanted it all to fit into a backpack so I can take pictures both in the urban and nature setting. I shoot nature, I shoot architecture, and occasionally I shoot people. So this setup allows me to cover it all.

What’s your #1, go-to, must-have, desert-island item?

I shoot the most with 85mm f/1.4. It’s super sharp, and I’m in love with how it renders out-of-focus areas. The reason why I shoot with that lens a lot is because I have a house full of kids (three little clowns!), so I shoot them all the time. It’s a perfect lens to capture their little lives and faces.

What’s the rarely-seen underdog in your pack?

I hardly ever use a macro lens I own. I knew it from the start and was on the fence about buying it for years. That’s why I went with a Tamron version rather than a Nikon version – I knew I’d shoot with it very rarely. That turned out to be true, but this lens by Tamron is actually pretty good.

Are you an off-brand kinda guy?

I own a Sigma lens and a Tamron lens. They aren’t build as well as Nikon glass, but good enough for a lot of situations, and are often cost half the price.

Confession time! What’s your worst gear fail story?

I was once shooting a portrait of a nephew on the beach using off camera flash. A rogue wave came in, sending fully charged flash into the water. It electrocuted me, and fried the flash right away.

Show us one of your favorite shots and what you used to get it.

This shot was taken with a 80-200mm lens. I wanted to get closer to the pilings, and also get the Bay Bridge in the background.

To end on a dreamy note, what’s at the top of your wish list?

I would upgrade my Sigma 24-70mm with the Nikon 24-70mm. The Sigma is very soft at f/2.8 and is very slow to  autofocus. I do shoot with it quite a bit because it’s pretty sharp after f/5.6. Nikon’s version costs five times as much but the upgrade is probably worth it.

Get TriggerHappy

We love photo gear and bet you do, too.

But sometimes just loving isn’t enough. Sometimes you take matters into your own hands because it’s fun, educational, and fills a photo niche.

Remote Tether Your dSLR to Your Smartphone

SmugIntern Kevin Harrington came to us years ago with little but a burning passion for photography. We’re sad that he’s all grown up, now. But somehow, between his Frankencam, mountain biking and morning classes, he’s found time to create the TriggerHappy Camera Remote and put it up on Kickstarter:

This idea totally toasts our bagels. You get one cable and an iPhone or Android app to control your dSLR on the go.

Why is it better?

It’s easier. Simpler. More versatile. And who doesn’t already do it all on their smartphone?

You can:

  • Fire the shutter (duh!)
  • Throw it into bulb mode for suuuuuuuper long star trails.
  • Bracket for HDRs.
  • Bramping. AKA “bulb ramping” for time-lapses when the light varies.

Swing by their website here to see all the details!

Pledge $5 by May 4th

Intervalometers are so passe, but TriggerHappy needs to raise $25,000 by Friday, May 4th, to launch. We know they can do it. We know you want one.

Go here and pledge $5 or more to make it happen! Pledge at least $50 and get yours hot off the press.

Don’t you want to spend your summer taking epic pictures?🙂

Say Cheese! A Fun Friday Giveaway from Photojojo

Hey happy snappers! It’s Fun Photo Friday and we thought we’d do some Random Acts of Giveaways with our pals over at Photojojo.

If you aren’t already phamiliar… er, familiar with their great photo doodads and gadgets in their shop, you haven’t lived yet. Their carefully curated selection is guaranteed to make even the most serious photojournalist crack a smile.

Introducing the Ring Flash

Today they’re giving away the fashion photog’s dream toy: The Ring Flash, which turns your existing off-camera strobe into a glamorous party trick.

Hand model not included. (Sorry!)
Feast your eyes on that perfect, even lighting.

Here’s how to win yours

Ready to be the life of the party?

1. ‘Like’ SmugMug’s Facebook page HERE.
2. ‘Like’ Photojojo’s Facebook page HERE.
3. Comment below with a link to one of your pics that you think needs a little lighting help.

We’ll tag a random winner on Friday, February 24, 2012. They’ll get a chance to blind all their favorite pals/coworkers/neighbors with their brand new toy.

…. AND they’ll also win a free 11×14 float-mounted print 11×14 MetalPrint* from SmugMug. Because as the saying goes, keep your friends close and the embarrassing pictures of them even closer.🙂

Happy flashing!

HOORAY, UPDATE: It’s time to announce the winner and from our hat we drew…. Mimi Thai! Congrats, Mimi and we hope you love your new Ring Flash! Keep your eyes peeled for a note from us breaking the good news.

* We just thought we’d up the ante to MetalPrints (value $50) cuz they’re awesome. And you guys rock.

BYOC: Lighting Tips and a Kiboko 30L Backpack Giveaway from Andy Biggs

Streams of light illuminating motes of hoof-churned dust. Storm clouds swirling over the Serengeti. As photographers, don’t we all dream about that? Please welcome guest blogger Andy Biggs, founder of Gura Gear,  African Safari leader extraordinaire, and SmugMug Pro. Gura Gear’s Kiboko backpack was inspired by Andy schlepping his gear thousands of hard miles trekking to the ends of the Earth. In it you’ll discover oodles of thoughtfully designed, photography-smart details to carry your cargo. Check it out here, and keep reading to find out how you can win your own to keep your gear safe on your next adventure.

Making The Most Out Of The Light

By Andy Biggs

When we think of dramatic photographs we often think of brilliant sunsets, saturated colors and a sun that hugs the horizon. Emotionally speaking I think many photographers are looking for those kinds of in-your-face lighting situations. Well, I have to say that much of the time we as nature photographers have to deal with lighting situations that are less than ideal. Ok, most of the time lighting is sub-par, or at least not what we are expecting. Here are some ideas on how to think about your photography in a different way, and how to come home with photographs that still stir the soul.

Let’s be honest. How many times have you gone outside with the intention of going to your favorite location, wait for a long while for sunset and then realize that the light didn’t meet your expectations? This happens to me when I am out on safari on a daily basis. It is something that I just have to deal with. What to do? The best approach is to accentuate the good things and try to eliminate the negative things.

Skip the Sky

Case in point. When the sky is overcast, grey or just not exciting, don’t include it in your photograph. As a wildlife photographer, that means that I might point my lens down more to include more of my subject and less of the sky. I also will use a longer lens that will include less of the environment. The photograph is more about the main subject than anything else, so I will go for a tighter shot than I would normally want.

As a general note, when I compose a scene I like to think of the potential photograph as a game: I attribute a plus, neutral or minus to various elements in a scene. My goal is to eliminate the minuses and accentuate the positives. The neutrals are just there because they have to be there. I use my shooting position, focal length and shooting angle as my variables to get all of the best pluses into the scene and to leave all of the negatives out.

Shoot Portraits

Because the sky is overcast, this means that the light that is falling on my subject is soft. Think of the light as if it is coming from the largest soft box on earth. There is a rule of thumb with lighting: the larger the light source, the softer the light. Well, a cloudy day will yield a very pleasing and flattering light, which will help accentuate colors.

Exploit Texture and Motion

Another approach that I use is to blow out the sky and turn my image into a black and white photograph. When a sky is mostly grey and has no definition in the clouds, it is very easy to overexpose and blow the skies out. This doesn’t always work for color photographs, but it is a great technique for B&W images. You end up with a high-key lighting situation, and it makes it easy to draw attention to what matters most: your subject.

I find that marginal lighting allows me to get creative with shots that have a very low success rate. When the sun has gone away for the day, or when it goes behind a cloud, I seek out pockets of soft light that work for blurred panning shots. I slow my shutter speed down and experiment with about any subject that can be found.

Harsh Light

Midday light can also be challenging, because the light that is directly overhead can create harsh shadows that have a distinct clue color cast to them. Rather than compete with the light, I find that by avoiding the direct light I can get some decent images. One type of example would be a leopard who is in a tree. I can end up with soft light on my subject’s face and body, due to the shade of a tree, and still get an image that I am happy with.

In Summary:

Spend your time thinking about how you are going to use marginal light to your benefit, as opposed to letting it take control over you. Photography literally means ‘writing with light’, and you will never be able to photograph without light. Use the lighting situation to your advantage and you will find yourself coming home with images that you are happy with, even though you had not though of those types of images before.

Remember to use what you have, and use it wisely. Be flexible with how you approach your photography, and don’t go out looking for only one kind of shot, because the light may not be what you want it to be.


Enter to Win a Kiboko 30L Bag Loaded with Photo Goodies


(This giveaway is now closed. Keep reading to see which lucky folks won big.)

The Kiboko 30L is a magnificent bag, designed by photographers for photographers. It’s lightweight (only 4 lbs), durable, and features a butterfly opening, allowing for unique customizable configurations for long lenses and multiple SLR bodies. The newest incarnation features a removable waist belt and fewer zippers for snag-free travel. In fact, SmugMug’s very own In House Pro, Andy Williams, swears by it. What more could you possibly want?

Here’s how to get yours:

  • Step one. Visit our sweepstakes page on Facebook.
  • Step two. ‘Like’ the page.
  • Step three. Answer the questions on the page.

That’s it! We’ll announce the winners on April 30, so stay tuned and come back.

Here’s the juicy prize list:

  • Grand Prize: 1 Kiboko 30L backpack ($429.00 value); 2 free years of SmugMug Pro ($300 value); 1 Monocular ($349.99 value); 1 Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Versa Tripod ($910.00 value), 1 Really Right Stuff BH-55 ($375  value)
  • 1st Runner Ups: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $75 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear
  • 2nd Runner Up: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $50 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear



Thanks to everyone who entered our Gura Gear giveaway.  We shuffled, tossed, and mixed up all the entries and randomly picked the following winners:

Grand Prize Winner: Randy Ellen

1st Runner Up: Shawn Kinney

2nd Runner Up: Osman Ullah

Just cuz’ we love ya, we also randomly picked 20 people to win Smuggy T-shirts. The lucky folks are: Radu Margarint, Kevin Whitehead, Larry Johnston, Kristine Philipp, Lamar Smith, Ken Holmes, Chris Holtmeier, Janet Wheeland, George Rodriguuz, Christine Ruffo, Kris Dome, Kathy Brundage, Zach Blackwood, Brittany Ann Spriggs, Wendy Peterson, Jamie Raddatz, Peter Williams, Joe Sterne, Joseph Orchard, and Jim Sylvain. Congratulations everyone! We’ll get in touch with you by email this week.

If you didn’t win this time, take heart. We have many more giveaways coming up for all Smuggers.


Have Bag, Will Travel