Rad A. Drew Photography: Photographing Waves on Papohaku Beach

Continental Divide at Dawn

Continental Divide at Dawn
Continental Divide at Dawn

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Photographing Waves on Papohaku Beach

My First Wave at Papohaku Beach on Moloka'i

Last month I had the privilege and pleasure of co-leading the Creative Photography for the Soul Workshop with my friend and great photographer, Jack Davis. It was my first time on Moloka'i and my first time in Hawaii, so everything was exciting. I was a kid in a candy store!

Our group was extraordinary as was the entire week in so many ways, but of all the things we saw and did, photographing waves at Papohaku Beach truly captured my imagination.

Having seen images of these waves made by other photographers, I was looking forward to being on the beach and experiencing the waves for myself. 

When we arrived, it was late afternoon. The sun was getting a little low in the sky and the waves were rolling in. Being a landlocked landlubber, I am unfamiliar with the behavior of waves. I was surprised to learn that they came in, well, waves!

About every 5 to 10 minutes, there'd be another wave of waves. After a while I learned to watch them form and anticipate when they would break. It was in this window between swelling and breaking that the best formations were created. Like snowflakes or finger prints, each wave was unique and no two broke in the same way. Some rolled in on themselves, while others created rows of curls, or spewed spray in a multitude of directions. 

Then there was the light! Each wave not only behaved – performed? – differently, but each danced differently with the light. Sometimes the light shown through the waves, sometimes it created reflections, and sometimes it turned the droplets of spay into golden pearls. 

All this diversity meant that I could have stayed for hours!

The photography challenges were several. 
  1. The waves were far off, so a long lens was necessary. I used my 100-400mm on my Fuji X-T2.
  2. Because of the way the waves moved and the need to follow their movement, I found that I couldn't use a tripod; I had to hand-hold my long lens.

  3. Part of the goal was to stop the movement of the waves, so, I worked in shutter priority and set a fast shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second.
  4. Finally there was the ISO. Because the light inside the wave was always changing, and because the wave happened quickly, leaving no time to adjust settings on-the-fly, I set my ISO to "float." This is a custom setting on most cameras. On the Fuji, I set the ISO to float with a maximum sensitivity of 5000.

  5. I set the Fuji to shoot low continuous. I find that (with the Fuji anyway) high continuous will fill the buffer and you'll be waiting before you can take the next shot. 
My best images ended up being made with settings in this ballpark:
  • Focal length 400mm (in 35mm: 600mm)
  • 1/2000 sec
  • f/9
  • ISO 5000
Rarely is an ISO of 5000 desirable, but it was necessary under these circumstances. Fortunately, the Fuji does a great job of handling noise caused by a high ISO. What little noise there was, I eliminated by running Topaz's AI Clear on the file with great results.

Here are a few more of the images I made that day. I process all the RAW files in Topaz Studio using a variety of Topaz adjustments. I find the waves to be somewhat miraculous, liquid sculptures that could be the inspiration for so many forms of art created by humans. Chihuly glass comes to mind. I can't wait to be in the presence of this magnificence again next year!

Jack Davis and I will be co-leading the Creative Photography for the Soul Workshop again next year and would love to share this experience with you. You can read about it here

Until then, Happy Holidays, and keep on creating!