Hawaiian Paradise

Scott Mead’s Hawaii landscapes show the depth of color, mood and drama of the islands’ stunning and wholly unique environment

Hawaii’s paradise on earth reputation belies the difficulty most photographers have when they try to get meaningful photographs there. One reason Scott Mead’s images are so strong is his ability to read the sky. Says Mead, “A lot of it is reading what’s happening in the sky—what the light is doing, how much do we have in the atmosphere and cloud cover. That doesn’t change on a minute-by-minute basis; it’s happening second by second. Things happen so fast here and you’ve got to be able to react—change camera settings, maybe add another split ND filter to balance the light. It’s a harsh and challenging environment for photography.”


Imagine Hawaii. No doubt you’re picturing beautiful white sand beaches, lush tropical forests, maybe even an ocean sunset. You might also see a luau or mai tai in your mind’s eye, and that’s fine, too. There’s a lot more to Hawaii than the images most often seen in tourism brochures, though, and that’s the Hawaii in which Scott Mead is most interested.

“Typically, whenever you see an ad for Hawaii,” Mead says, “it’s all green. You see Waipio Valley, Iao Valley, you see all these dramatic green landscapes. Well, yes, that’s tropical and beautiful and nice, but there’s a whole lot more to Hawaii than just tropical rain forests. We have the desert, we have the lava, we have the incredible waves, we have the sunsets. There’s the plumeria, the hibiscus, you’ve got gingers like mad— there’s just so much. But when it comes to advertising, we’ve sort of been spoon-fed the big green dramatic landscape. That’s just a little tiny fraction of what Hawaii is all about.”

When Mead describes the islands, it’s easy to see why they make for such an ideal host to his moody nature photography: crashing surf, glowing lava, calming waterfalls. It’s a wonder that we don’t consider Hawaii more frequently in the same breath with other popular photographic destinations. Hawaii really is a nature photographer’s paradise.

“Hawaii, in a way, is paradise,” Mead says, “but it’s also one of the most incredible places on earth because it has such degrees of extremes. The world basically has 13 unique climate zones. The island of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii have 11 of those. So, literally, in one day, you can experience snow up over 10,000 feet at Mauna Kea, and in the same day, you can be at sea level surfing. And if you want, you can go out and watch lava—literally, the birth of new land—pouring out into the ocean. You’ve got the shorelines of the islands where you have lava desert; the opposite are these dramatic lush tropical rain forests. There’s a bevy of tropical flora, the different ferns, all the plants… For a nature photographer, it can be sensory overload.”

“There’s just so much,” Mead continues. “You really have to be selective. When it comes to the average person coming here, I think a lot of people can be overwhelmed because there’s so much to see, so much to do, and the typical vacation is a week to two weeks. How are you going to get out and get all that in? A lot of it is that you’ve got these huge beautiful dramatic landscapes, but I find there’s always one thing that’s calling, and it’s picking out what that one piece is within the landscape that’s calling you to it—you focus in on that, and then you’ve got the story.”

Listening to Mead speak about how to best photograph Hawaii, it’s easy to hear his passion for teaching. He leads workshops for photographers—those who live in the islands and those just visiting. Mead himself is a transplant from California, having grown up visiting grandparents here. It quickly became his life’s passion to photograph the islands, and seven years ago he relocated to dedicate himself to his passion full time. Though there can be some resistance to outsiders in Hawaii, it’s usually if they’re perceived as parasites. Mead is no drain on sparse resources, however. He’s clearly there to preserve the island’s natural beauty and honor its history. He’s fully Hawaiian in spirit.

“Hawaii itself has, for the Hawaiians, a very big spiritual power, which they refer to as mana,” Mead explains. “It’s out there; you just have to be there and you’ll see it, you’ll feel it, you’ll understand it. But you have to open your heart to it. So going out and sitting on the lava watching the water, if you open yourself to it, you can see and, actually, in a way, you can kind of feel it. There’s a lot of power within the ocean, with what the light is doing, everything that’s around you. And a lot of it, for me, is kind of learning to get in tune, like the Hawaiians would, to be able to understand what the water is doing, how it’s moving over the topography of the lava rocks in the ocean, how the light is moving, what are the clouds doing—this entire dance moving all together to come through with one incredible image.

“The main thing that I’ve learned,” continues Mead, “is that if you take the Hawaiian culture into your heart as you’re out there, you’re essentially a Kanaka Maoli in spirit, meaning a pure-blooded Hawaiian. The idea being that as long as your friends know that you’re not here to take, you’re here to also help to give, to preserve—believe me, you’ll be such a big part of a huge ohana, or family, it’s unbelievable. I can’t tell you how many Hawaiian friends I’ve got, and a lot of it comes from them seeing me trying to help protect what we’ve got here.”

Along with cultural sensitivity, Mead also has refined his understanding of the more tangible peculiarities of photographing the Hawaiian landscape. Namely, he has developed patience. Atmospheric conditions change fast, as does the evolving volcanic landscape, so Mead must know how to read the sky, the surf and the land to help make photographs that delve deeper than the surface.

“The atmospheric conditions here play a huge role,” he says. “For one, we’re a lot closer to the equator than a lot of the rest of the United States, so we’re going to have a little more intense light. And the islands really aren’t that big, so you do get a lot of salt spray up in the air, which is going to refract light a bit. The other thing is, with Kilauea, we have what’s called ‘vog.’ It’s basically smog being produced by the volcano itself. You’ve got all sorts of gases up in the air floating around, and that works as two different things. It will either work as a coloring filter, especially over on the Big Island—my gosh, you can get these incredible sunsets of the great red orb in the sky as the sun is going down—and it also helps in that it kind of acts as a neutral-density filter. It’s able to help me especially with sunsets and water; I know I’m going to get a stop and a half, maybe even two stops of light reduction just from the vog.”

Mead does some postprocessing, but prefers to work in-camera as much as possible. “I use Singh-Ray Galen Rowell ND filters,” he says. Most of his work in Photoshop is confined to cleaning specks that accumulate because of salt spray, dust and dirt. Any lens change guarantees contamination on the sensor.

Vog plays a big part in Mead’s landscapes, as do the sun, sky and clouds. The image he calls “Molokini Glow,” for instance, is indicative of the various elements that come together at the shoreline to create powerful landscapes of water, earth and air.

“With all the purple,” says Mead, “that was one of those incredible nights where you get just the right amount of vog up above the cloud layer, and it just turns that incredible purple. This is a good example of what I try to look for. You’ve got an incredible topography of lava rock underneath the water, and I’m trying to show the way that the water is being bumped and moved around. That was maybe an eighth of a second, and, literally, I’m walking around trying to look, see, feel exactly what’s going on, watching how the light is working, and you come across an image like that, and it was just one of those incredible, magical nights.”

Mead is able to have many magical nights photographing in Hawaii partly because the land is so well protected. Because space is at a premium, good stewardship has maintained largely untouched open areas. While photographers can’t simply tread off the beaten path wherever they see fit, they do have an abundance of nature always within reach.

Scott Mead’s Gear
• Canon EOS 5D Mark II
• Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM
• Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM
• Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM
• Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 Fisheye
• Canon EF 50mm ƒ/2.5 Macro with Life-Size Converter EF
• Canon Extender EF 2x II
• Singh-Ray Galen Rowell Split ND filters
• Gitzo G2228 tripod
• Acratech GV2 ballhead
• Tamrac Expedition 9 pack

“There’s a lot of open space available to people on all of the islands,” Mead says. “You have a lot of government officials and cultural resource commissions where they know that the island itself can only support so much and there has to be a delicate balance. All of the shoreline is open to anybody. No one owns the shoreline at all, so if you wanted to, you could walk the entire circumference of any of the islands, and walk the shoreline and take photographs with no problem at all.”

Adds Mead, “Here you’re in the most remote land mass in the entire world; we’re basically 3,000 miles away from any other land. There’s no other island that’s as isolated as we are, and to think that we have so much diversity for being so remote is just absolutely amazing. You can go to Costa Rica, Belize, you can go all over the world within the tropics and see some absolutely amazing things, but you still won’t find the diversity that we have here. More importantly, you won’t find the aloha spirit. That’s huge. The people of Hawaii, their hearts are bigger than the world. That’s one of the great things as a photographer—you’re out there talking with these people, they’re sharing the experiences of their ancestors, while you’re actually looking at the scene you’re working with. There’s just so much here.”

See more of Scott Mead‘s photographs at www.scottmeadphotography.com.