While helping my friends in Leilani Estates on the Big Island, I experienced physical and emotional stress. Still, my own discomfort was insignificant compared to what the residents of Puna have to deal with as this tragedy unfolds. As the land is rendered uninhabitable, homes are being destroyed and lives are being upended. Only Pele knows what she wants to accomplish. Until seen from above, the scale of the destruction is impossible to fully comprehend. So, on my third and final afternoon, I hired a small plane to fly over the eruption. As we approached, I asked my pilot to concentrate on the most active lava fissures. I believe the USGS is currently naming these fissures 8 and 24. As we coordinated lining up this image, I had to pop open my window, ask my pilot to dip the aircraft’s wing, point my telephoto lens, and hope that what I photographed was in focus. Oh, and we both agreed that we would refrain from ever getting caught in the thermal updraft again.
During my recent trip to Lord Howe Island, I flew my quadcopter from a dive boat in order to photograph Ball’s Pyramid. It is an erosional remnant of a shield volcano that formed about 6.4 million years ago and the tallest sea stack in the world at 1,844ft (562m). It lies 12 miles (20km) southeast of Lord Howe Island, thus requiring a boat or airplane in order to visit it. While planning my adventure, I had contacted Pro Dive Lord Howe Island and arranged to join their scuba diving trip whenever the weather allowed. Unfortunately, the day that we set out was terribly cloudy and overcast. I did not even bring my dive gear, since I preferred to photograph from the air rather than underwater. I was resigned to not creating a photo and living with the mental image of at least seeing this immense and forbidding monolith. However, Aaron from Pro Dive wanted me to get my shot and went way out of his way to generously offer to take me back on a private trip the next afternoon. Let’s do it! After our 2pm departure and long boat ride in heavy seas, I did not have a lot of time left to fly. Still, I was able to fly one long and one short flight before we had to turn around and hightail it back to Lord Howe before dark. This is my favorite image with the clear blue sky above and beautiful late afternoon light illuminating Ball’s Pyramid. Wow, just wow.
I recently traveled to Australia for the first time in order to visit remote Lord Howe Island. I had a wonderful adventure, though, it was starting to be their winter, so the weather was not as tropical as I would have preferred. I first saw some pictures of Lord Howe Island over a decade ago and have dreamed of photographing it for my South Pacific project ever since. I had originally booked a trip for last September, but had to reschedule after I broke my left small toe a few days before my departure. Fortunately, it was well worth the wait! The island is barely 6 miles long and features the southermost barrier coral reef in the world. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and only allows a maximum of 400 visitors at a time. To explore it, I rented a bicycle and did a lot of hiking in the hills on the north end. One morning, I even flew my quadcopter from the top of these cliffs in order to create this beautiful aerial image. I love the direct overhead light illuminating the turquoise water of the lagoon with the clouds above Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower in the distance.
I just got back from another epic South Pacific photo adventure. I created this image while visiting Christmas Island, which is spelled Kiritimati in the local Gilbertese language. It is a remote Micronesian island that is part of the Republic of Kiribati. I first learned about Christmas Island on my way back from American Samoa in 2010. It is very highly regarded among salt water fly fisherman due to its shallow lagoons and scrappy bonefish. The purpose of my trip was to fly my DJI Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian quadcopter over its surreal landscape in order to photograph abstract patterns. WOW! The photos that I had envisioned with Google Maps paled in comparison to those that I was able to achieve with my drone. I especially love the strange submerged sand islands and bold colors of the water in this scene.
I photographed this scene while visiting exotic Bora Bora in French Polynesia‘s Society Islands this past December. I have never experienced water that was as turquoise as this. I created this image by flying my new DJI Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian drone over the atoll’s outer reef and waiting for the perfect balance of direct sunlight and clouds. The reason that I was visiting Bora Bora was that I had chartered a sailboat with some friends and my father. I grew up sailing with my family on the Great Lakes, so it was special that my dad was able to join me. I especially like the dappled sunlight below the ocean’s surface and the gentle waves washing over the top of the reef. Ahh, paradise.
In December, I photographed French Polynesia for the first time. All I can say is, “WOW!” I have always dreamed of visiting remote islands in the South Pacific and have recently focused my photography ambitions on this area of the world. I began my adventure by flying to Tahiti and then up to the remote atoll of Mataiva in the Tuamotus. My main ambition was to fly my new DJI Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian over the incredible lagoon landscape that I had envisioned using Google Maps. Mataiva’s interior lagoon is composed of decaying coral morphed into linear rocky structures. Some of these coral structures peak above the surface, forming about 70 basins. The varying depths of these basins and the clear water gives the lagoon a blue and green tesselated appearance when viewed from above. I thought that it looked like a landscape photographer’s abstract fantasy. The challenges that I had to overcome to create this image were the strong winds and waiting for clear blue sky, because even the smallest clouds left dark shadows traversing across the scene. Mauruuru and enjoy.
This past November, I traveled to Costa Rica for the first time. My main ambition was to explore a few different locations in order to photograph wildlife, but I also brought along one of my drones to shoot aerials. One of my first stops was the wild and remote Osa Peninsula which is home to Corcovado National Park. Often labeled one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, its wildlife includes scarlet macaws, tapirs, jaguars and squirrel monkeys. I saw a lot of amazing wildlife, but I only nibbled at the edge of the park. I rented a place close to Puerto Jimenz, but drove all the way to the end of the dirt road to Carate Beach one afternoon. This quiet and isolated setting had the Pacific Ocean on one side and impenetrable jungle on the other.
Last summer, I flew my drone above Polihale Beach on Kauai but did not create the image that I was hoping for. When I returned in December to try again, I was pleased to experience the ideal conditions which lead to this photograph. Late in the afternoon, the wind was non-existent and the clouds boiled over the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. I prepared my hexacopter for its initial flight and was ready for takeoff when the sunlight began to penetrate beneath the clouds on the horizon. Though I flew as far as 300m offshore and as high as 100m in the air, this photo was created at about half that distance and elevation during my reconnaissance of the scene.
My most recent article “Nature by Drone” is published in this month’s issue of Popular Photography. In my article, I share what it takes to build and fly larger remote controlled multirotors that can lift cameras that are larger than a simple GoPro. My drone imagery is featured throughout the article, but there are also several images from other professional photographers who are incorporating drones into their work. I finish by discussing some of the legal and ethical considerations that every pilot needs to know before taking off. The double page opening image is an aerial that I created while flying my hexacopter over Puu Pehe on the south shore of Lanai last winter.
It has taken me almost 6 months to make peace with this image and process it. Of course, a little backstory is required after a statement like that.
When I started building and flying my own drones last year, I was motivated to photograph interesting aerial abstracts during my travels without having to hire an airplane. I scoured Google Earth for interesting topography and then set out to photograph it. One of the locations where I envisioned flying my hexacopter to produce an image was above the mudflats where the Nooksack River flowed into Bellingham Bay. The satellite views showed an intricate network of braided channels that I thought looked like a painting.
So, back to the difficult part about processing this image. On my second attempt to fly over this landscape, I had secured a permit from the Lummi tribe to walk out on the mudflats. My dad joined me on a gorgeous day in May with ideal flying conditions. I was feeling confident and flew my drone farther and higher than I had ever flown before (roughly 600m out and 100m up) to compose this image. On my second flight of the day, my hexacopter unfortunately experienced a sudden and rapid descent into the terrain below. Ouch. I could see that my hexacopter was sticking out of the water, so after a lot of effort to reach it I recovered it. The submersion damaged most of the electronics and flooded my camera, but at least the memory card was recoverable and the SuperX flight controller is waterproof. Upon reviewing the blackbox data, I discovered that the reason for the crash was a loss of power to one of my motors which upon inspection showed a poor solder connection which I blame on the Chinese manufacturer. I hope that you agree that this is an exciting application of technology used to produce a beautiful image.