Photography and Reflection on the Shores of Kauai

Jeff McGraw, Kauai, Sunsteaks over Pacific Reef

Earlier this year I took wonderful, reflective trip to the lush shores of Kauai. For those of you unfamiliar with the islands Kauai is the Northern most island in the Hawaiian chain. It is often referred to as the garden isle due to the volume of green vegetation. In a nutshell Kauai is visually stunning. It’s North end ringed by ornate mountainous sea cliffs that stretch inland transforming the landscape into a fascinating range of ecological niches. As a traveler, naturalist and photographer the island is a bubbling spring of opportunities. As a person however I was on island to say goodbye to a family member. My Aunt was passing away.

Over the course of the next 21 days I was able to spend time with her, laugh about old times and watch a very brave, beautiful person pass into the next world. She had played an important role in my life and helped form some of my ideas of personal freedom, artistry and care for this amazing world that surrounds us. My Aunt knew my passion for nature photography and exploration so she encouraged me to go out and photograph during my stay with her. So I studied the coastal landscape, rose around 4:45 each morning and navigated intertidal zones wearing keen sandals and my equipment in tow.

Jeff McGraw: Kauai: Rocky shore and Tidal Flow

I quickly discovered how deeply rooted the arts are in the workings of our lives. The emotional rollercoaster that I was on was coming through in my photographic work. I noticed I was seeing differently as an artist, my scenes were beautiful to me and sad at the same time. Photography is light physics, equipment, method and like it or not artistry. Some of us thrive on this aspect of the field and others obviously don’t find value here. I don’t think the differences matter so much. In my experience the more mindful you are of each shot in terms of each technical aspect the better your material will be but when you create a very strong image you find that you have to cast parts of yourself into the work.

Shooting the Kauai Coast

I set about finding unique locations along the coast to conduct my work. To do this effectively and not end up with work just like what you see in the shots of other people you have to get out and look around. Traverse beaches and rocky shorelines. Look for small spots that afford very unique features. You may have some in mind before you arrive or prefer letting the landscape open up to you while you explore. Here is a spot I found on the East side of the island on a rocky shore that is likely impossible to find unless you hike the beach (it’s just to small a section of shore to spot from above).

Jeff McGraw - Kauai, Golden Shore
Golden Sandstone and Dark Lava Rocks.

The golden sandstone at this location is contrasted by heavier dark lava rocks that have been pulled and pushed across the stone. This created circular pocketing and drag marks in the surface of the sandstone plane. To coordinate the shot I waited for a beautiful sunrise by getting on site at the right time several consecutive days and I timed the tide to ensure it would move through the scene on time.

The next step is ensuring you have the right equipment to execute the shot. This shot was created from a bracket of long exposures. To do this you must set your bracket, get a proper exposure prior to shooting, have a tripod to steady the shot over the long exposure, a good ball head, a remote firing mechanism (is advisable but not required you can using an auto timer if you like) and protective bag for your camera box so it doesn’t get destroyed by seawater and sand. You can easily take a tumble when exploring the intertidal zone especially on a rocky shore.

Your next pieces of equipment are your graduated filters and filter rack. This image was created using both a graduated ND 3 SS and a graduated ND 2 HS to tone down the intense light at the top of the image with the shoreline. Then conduct your shoot and examine your material as well as your frame. Adjust the framing as you become more familiar with the setting and make sure you take several brackets of your subject to ensure the tide comes out the way you want it to under long exposure.

Once you tack down a set of shoot locations determine what side of the island they are on so you can hit them at the right time of day. Features on the East side are likely best for sunrise, west for sunset with the south and north end being ok for both. If you are shooting coastal landscapes watch the weather forecast across the island on your smart phone and head for your best bet at early dawn and or before sundown. The weather in Kauai changes quickly so be ready to adapt… also don’t get to down on the rainclouds they are the reason it’s so beautiful on the island and those things can convert into beautiful color in a few minutes. The shot just below occurred an hour after I thought I was rained out.
Jeff Mcgraw : Kauai