Behind the shot: Sunrise at Haleakala

On the last morning of my vacation in Maui, I woke up at 3:45am and drove up to the top of a volcano. I nearly froze, battled 100mph wind gusts, and got so much volcanic dust in my lungs that I coughed for almost 2 days. It was totally worth it.

Sunrise at Haleakala

Sunrise at Haleakala, Maui, HI. HDR composite, three images.

It’s not the most amazing picture of Maui’s volcanic crater at sunrise — not by a long shot (see what I did there?) — but I took it, and the story behind a photo can be just as valuable a memory as what you see in the photo itself. The story behind a picture, for me, often enhances my appreciation for the shot. I love reading the behind-the-scenes on how photographers do their thing; it adds a lot of context and meaning. Can it take some of the magic away from the final composition (seeing how the sausage is made, as they say)? Maybe sometimes. I respect and understand that perspective too. If you prefer not to know what goes into your chicken McNuggets and would rather just enjoy the end product, stop reading now.

Up with the clouds

Haleakala is the main volcano on Maui. It rises a little more than 10,000 feet out of the sea, and forms the eastern half of the island, what is commonly known as “South Maui” vs the “West Maui” on the other side, because South and West are clearly opposite each other. Before the morning on which I took the above photo, Amanda and I had driven up the well-paved but frighteningly hairpin-happy mountain road to Haleakala National Park one afternoon. Unfortunately, as happens frequently on Haleakala, it was quite cloudy due the moisture buildup from the northeasterly trade winds (which contribute to the north side of the island getting 400+ inches of rain a year). We got only partial glimpses of the 7-mile-long caldera (and saw some big beautiful clouds), and Amanda, being pregnant, was struggling a bit with the high altitude, so we headed down.

From a photographer’s standpoint, the afternoon trip left me somewhat unsatisfied. We didn’t get a sunset shot because of all the clouds; indeed we’d barely seen the crater at all except for brief glimpses as the clouds rapidly rolled over the top of the mountain. I had heard, via several guide books and web sites, that sunrise on Haleakala was a thing to behold. Considering the long drive up to the summit (nearly 2 hours), it would necessitate getting up extremely early. I really wanted the opportunity though, and also felt that if I missed out on such a chance just because I wanted to sleep a few more hours…I’d lose some photographer cred or something. (And I don’t have much to begin with, because I certainly don’t consider myself a real photographer.) Amanda wasn’t interested because (a) she wanted to sleep, and (b) as I mentioned, the high altitude made her tired very quickly with the thing in her belly using up a lot of her oxygen. I wouldn’t have wanted to make her go through the ordeal again, so that sealed the deal — I would go up alone.

Panorama of Haleakala crater

I was in the rental car and leaving the condo by 4:00 am. Sunrise was at 5:50; I knew from our previous jaunt up the mountain that I should plan on 90 minutes or so, depending on who I got stuck behind (no way to pass unless they pull off). I sped out of the populated coastal areas and began climbing the mountain. The extraordinarily sharp switchbacks in the road to the summit were even more pronounced in the dark, because they were all I could see — no scenery to distract me, but I knew there was a massive drop-off just beyond nearly every curve.

Just before 5:30 am, I arrived at my target just below the summit — a small visitor’s center building and lookout point, with a good-sized parking lot that had been maybe 25% occupied when we had visited a couple afternoons prior.

It was full. Completely full. I was clearly not the only one who had read about sunrise on Haleakala and decided it was worth getting up at some ungodly hour to witness it.

I managed to find a place to park, grabbed all my gear (had the full pack with me) and got out. It was cold — around 30 F. And extremely windy, which made it feel a lot colder. Not only was the lot full, but the lookout area next to the visitor’s center — a large flat spot with railings overlooking the caldera — was totally packed with tourists. There was no way I was going to be able to setup my tripod to do proper exposures of the sunrise.

The sky was just beginning to lighten; I only had 10 minutes or so before I needed to start shooting. I had find a spot.

Next to the parking lot and the area where people were crammed up against the railing, there was a small rocky hill — maybe a 100 to 150 feet high — which also overlooked the caldera. It had a trail winding up around the side of it, which was about 1/4 mile to get to the top. You can’t see the top from the parking lot, so there was no way to tell if it was just as crowded. I took a moment to think about going up there — Amanda and I had hiked up it the other day, and it took us around 10 minutes, since it’s uphill the whole way and us low-dwelling folk aren’t used to the air at 10,000 feet. Now, I had maybe 5 minutes to get up there, max, and I was carrying a heavy backpack with all my gear. If it was crowded up there too, I’d be out of time to find another spot. Looking back at the crowd by the viewing platform, I decided it was worth it.

I started jogging up the hill. As I rounded the side of it away from the parking lot, I was slammed in the face by the most intense wind I have ever experienced. I almost fell backwards. I instantly felt I might freeze before I got to the top, the biting wind completely cutting through my inadequate layers of clothing. The real temperature was around 30 F; I estimate the windspeed was gusting to around 80-100 mph at some points, which effectively made it feel somewhere around zero (keep in mind, I’m dressed for a cool day in fall). It really was insane — I had to tread very carefully and lean into the wind; there was a distinct possibility of getting blown down the side of the mountain if I took a wrong step and lost my balance. The biting cold and fear of death by gravity was only topped by the sensation of getting power-sanded by extremely fine volcanic dust being flung at me with the approximate velocity of a car speeding down the highway.

I powered through and reached the top in a few minutes. I felt terrible, gasping for air and aching all over, but I quickly saw it had been worth it — there were only three other people up there, and plenty of space for me to take my photos.

The big problem was that the wind was still howling with all the fury of a hurricane, whipping volcanic dust around and making it extremely difficult to move (and not freeze to death). I noticed one couple was huddled under a rocky outcropping, partially sheltering them from the wind. I immediately found my own little depression in the rock to tuck myself into, and the intrusion of the wind dropped to something a bit more manageable. I set up my tripod and camera, wrapped the blanket around myself (and tried to drape it over the camera), and finally began to shoot.

Haleakala after sunrise

I remained there for nearly 30 minutes, capturing a couple hundred frames as the sun rose from behind the horizon up to its full glory. The view was incredible. With no clouds, I could see the entire 7+ mile length of the crater laid out before me, with all of its cinder cones rising out of the gloom as the sun climbed higher in the sky. You rarely have an opportunity to see something with such dimensions from such a vantage point.

Both of my final favorite shots from this little excursion — both the one at the top of this post and the shot to the left — are actually composites of several exposures, formed into what is commonly called an HDR (high dynamic range) image. Taking several images — one exposed for the sky, one for the ground, and one in between — is the only way you’re going to see any detail in both the sky and ground within a single image. Check out a primer on HDR at Lifehacker.

So that’s it. The trip down was pretty uneventful compared to heading up. Am I happy I had this experience to get those photos? Absolutely. Were the photos worth it? That’s all in the eye of the beholder. I think they were, which doesn’t mean I necessarily think they’re great photos — I think they’re OK, but more importantly I learned some stuff about shooting landscapes at sunrise. So that made it worth it. That’s most often what I get out of these little experiences — the lessons learned, even though usually minor by themselves, are so great at helping me incrementally improve my work over time, in tiny increments.

View all my Maui photos on Flickr

One Comment

  1. mbraun
    mbraun July 1, 2016 at 10:22 pm . Reply

    Is this from the summit or from the top visitor centre? I”m trying to figure out what the best location is… going in 1 week!

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