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So, This One Time We Hiked To Lava…


Lava Kiss Print Available Here!

Wow. I’ve officially gone somewhat viral.

It all started with Alan Taylor of The Atlantic’s In Focus choosing my Lava Kiss photo out of the National Geographic Traveler photography contest to be the first image in the post about the competition. From there, PetaPixel picked it up, then Gizmodo, and from there it went on to the Huffington Post, Glamour, and even My Modern Metropolitan’s Facebook Page as the cover image.

The response to the photo has been overwhelmingly positive, though there have been the obligatory few dissenters. Most often that I’ve seen is that people believe it’s a Photoshopped image, despite having posted a Lightroom screenshot to Google+ back when the image was first posted and people accused me of compositing. So, here are some more images from that night, both taken with a point-and-shoot and my 5D Mark II, to give everyone a better idea of what was going on. Click each photo to see it bigger!

I’d like to note that we did not go alone, but with an authorized guide from Kalapana Cultural Tours. These guys watch the flows every day, and make the tour very safe, so I highly recommend their service! It is very dangerous to go out looking for lava if you are unfamiliar with the environment, plus it’s illegal as much of the flows cover what is still technically private property. Check out their blog here for nearly daily updates of their lava hikes, with photos!

We started out where the road ended, cut off by an older flow years before. It was about an 8-mile round-trip hike over some amazing pāhoehoe lava landscape, and the late-afternoon light was glorious.

Our group, looking like we’re exploring another planet.

An ʻōhiʻa lehua growing in an older flow.

My husband catching up after stopping to take some photos, with a rainbow in the background.

Approaching the active flow – you can see the smoke from the burning trees in the distance.

When we reached what was once the Royal Gardens subdivision, we took a little bit of time to explore the eerie roads that went nowhere. Only a few sign posts and rusted out old cars remained.

Remains of a rusted, burnt car at the edge of an older flow, with the fresh flow visible on the horizon.

Our guide looking up at the flow we would stop at. We had him hold still and did a long exposure while light-painting him with a flashlight.

A view of the flows lower down the mountain, with that pesky rain cloud heading our way.

Much to my dismay, the rain cloud headed right for us, but we had already come all that way, so we hunkered down and made the best of it. Commence the rain shots! Having a Speedlite triggered wirelessly behind a subject in the rain has become one of my go-to solutions for rain during shoots, so we figured, why not?

The rain photos that got taken that night in Lightroom.

Here’s the photo that was taken immediately before the kiss photo – EXIF data should be intact. As you can see, we were already at a semi-awkward stance, and yes, I’m wearing unflattering military fatigue pants that make my legs look manly. I hadn’t been explicitly planning on modeling that evening – just hiking several miles across lava fields! Also, there is a small surviving stand of trees behind us, so that yellow-orange glow is foliage burning.

Mr. and Mrs. White, with rain visible in front of my face due to the angle of the flash.

Here’s a crop from the original RAW file, with the exposure pumped up so you can see just how awkward our leg positioning was. I was also holding a camera, which ended up being pretty much invisible with the silhouette effect:

Note to self: Next time when kissing in front of lava, check pose and try again.

The screenshot showing the RAW (converted to DNG) image on the left, and my Lightroom edit on the right.

When we say this was a spontaneous shot, we mean the kissing pose was. We’d all first taken our “Look at us, standing next to lava in the rain” power stance photos, but after Ed and I had taken a couple, he said, “One more,” and dipped me in a kiss without warning. It was the only kiss shot we took that night.

As for how realistically close to lava one can get, it really depends on the flow. If it is cooling fast, as this flow was, you can go right up to it. Yes, it was warm, but it was cooling so fast that it was moving quite slowly, and it was comfortable enough to go up to. Here are shots of Ed and I poking the lava with a stick (which some of the tour companies use as a tagline for their advertisements!):

He’s poking where a fresh bit of hot lava is emerging from the cooled lava. You can see how the orange lava pokes through the cracks of the cooler black lava behind him. He stirred the stick in the lava to make firey sparks for this slightly longer exposure with on-camera flash. You can see a few bokeh’d raindrops in this photo, as the main shower had passed.

My “hurry up and take the picture, this is HOT” face.

Finally, after the clouds cleared, I got to take the photo I’d set out to take in the first place! (Print Available)

Well, I’d actually wanted a photo of the Milky Way with lava, but the moon was too bright. Just means I’ll have to go back. :)

A shot my husband took of me doing my long exposures in front of the lava.

Later, on the hike back, we came across a lava river which was much hotter than the flow we’d previously been at.

Lava river with one of my friends’ laser pointer scribbling through my long exposure. It also looks like someone’s flash went off during my exposure, lighting the foreground.

Obligatory “Look, here’s my boot, and there’s the lava” snapshot. I had to take this one really quick because it felt like being face-to-face with a campfire.

The guys illuminated by the lava river. Still too dark an exposure for my taste.

Goodbye and goodnight, lava!

So, there you have it – a little more insight into our lava adventure. I know there’s people out there I’ll never be able to convince, but if you check out the Kalapana Cultural Tours website, you’ll see that I’m far from the only person to take photos standing next to lava. I’m truly thankful for the experience, and I am glad so many people around the world are enjoying the Lava Kiss photo!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments!



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  • Aaron Eskaran

    Awesome blog post! Congrats!

  • John Hook

    I really like this post. Its amazing seeing the difference between the pre-shots. The final came out perfect, but I know what you mean about not thinking you were gonna be in front of the camera, there's always next time!

  • Tien Enga

    Really really cool & amazing! Thanks for sharing this with us all Dallas.

  • David D Ubaldo

    Just an awesome experience and know-how of photography! TY 4 sharing.

  • Ken G. Kosada

    SO cool! did you go from the national park side or the Puna Side?

  • Mark White

    That car appears from another angle in a photo here:

    http://www.kalapanaculturaltours.com/Blog/2012/03/18/march-17-2012-update/… so maybe March 17th was your hike. Anyway, it was one of those days they went out in March.

  • Anonymous

    These are very beautiful. I loved to hear the story behind the shot.

  • Rick Feynman

    I am just awestruck…. Really out of this world. The one with the kiss is so Romantic that I used it in my Musical arrangement http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtFnyvXRgQs. I was partly inspired by this picture to add elements to the music. Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Charlie Kealoha Criscola

    Haters are always going to hate. So let them hate because they make us (in)famous.

  • Andrea Gill

    Dallas, I have been to the flowface many times since the Puu Oo eruption began…but of course never took as amazing a photo as you did! It's among the most powerful images I've ever had the pleasure to contemplate. Thank you (and your mom) so much for sharing it. However, in support of your story and to help discount the doubters, I can personally attest that you *can* get right up to the lava. When I do it (and I've done it repeatedly over the years), I wrap my face in kerchiefs, wear jeans (cotton won't melt on your skin like synthetic hiking pants material), long cotton shirt, gloves, boots, cap with a bill…I try to cover all exposed skin to reduce the "campfire effect" you mention. I also take BBQ forks, like the ones they make for marshmallows, which I have dipped into the flowing lava and brought back skewered chunks of lava as souvenirs. I have tried melting pennies but don't have that technique successful yet. I have scorched postcards in the flow. The pennies and postcards are methods used generations ago for true big Island souvenirs.

    • Dallas Nagata White

      Thank you, Andrea! Because my dad was a Federal Aviation Safety Trainer, I was all too aware that I'd not packed as much natural fiber clothing as I should have for that trip, so I didn't get *too* close. I've seen videos of kids burning Magic: The Gathering cards in lava for fun. ;) The skewered lava bits sounds awesome!

  • Debashis Talukdar

    This is going to sound really corny… but you could call that particular image "One Hot Kiss"… it actually might be catchy!

  • Herman Chin

    Cool photos. I don't know where I saw it but I saw your Lava Kiss photo recently. Great shot!

  • Herman Chin

    Cool photos. I don't know where I saw it but I saw your Lava Kiss photo recently. Great shot!

  • Herman Chin

    Cool photos. I don't know where I saw it but I saw your Lava Kiss photo recently. Great shot!

  • Michael Richards

    Beautiful image combining some of the greatest elements of nature – lava, rain, moonlight – with the greatest elements of humankind – love, creativity, spontaneity. Well done!

  • Sheethal Behari

    I fell in love with this pic the moment I saw it. For me, everything about it, the volcano, the lava, the rain and the impromptu kiss epitomizes love….it now hangs on my wall…thank you :)