Haleakala Sunrise

Suspended, camera ready, a timeless moment between primal past and infinite future

Sunrise from Haleakala on the island of Maui, Haleakala National Park, Hawaii.

The migration from far, far below begins in predawn light. Hundreds of people wind their way up from sea level in cars, buses and motorcycles. All of us, photographers and visitors alike, are traveling the long switchback road through the climate zones to reach an expansive view area atop 10,023-foot Mt. Haleakala, the massive volcano that makes up 75% of the island of Maui.

The ritual of witnessing and photographing the rising sun in the cold, sharp air two miles above the broad Pacific is important to me. It speaks to my eternal quest for the timeless moment, when past meets future, and I’m there to capture that instant that lives between the two.

I often think of the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. One of his iconic images has a shadowy, silhouetted man in mid-leap, suspended forever over a flooded midcity backlot. The heel of his leading shoe is millimeters above the water. You see the wooden platform he has jumped from, and imagine the splash and his wet foot just a micro-second into the future. It’s a classic timeless moment, where past and future meet in the present.

And, here, on top of massive Haleakala, Hawaiian for “house of the sun,” I wait like Cartier-Bresson for night’s primordial past to give way to day’s bright future at the instant of sunrise.

It’s a clear morning; no fog or rain today. The billowy clouds floating away from the mountain should create a bonus: post-sunrise “godbeams,” those wonderful shafts of light.

I’ve been here before with my 4×5 camera, but today I’m working digital and in telephoto. After so many wide-angle photographs over the years, I’m enjoying the spontaneity of digital and the stacked-space compression that you get beyond 200mm focal lengths.

I capture images in RAW+JPEG format, and use Program mode much of the time. I deliberately underexpose, even though many people say “shoot lighter,” or overexpose slightly, with digital. But I still prefer exposing a 2/3-stop under. I may have a little noise in the shadows on some earlier work, but with the newer noise-reduction cameras, it’s not so much of a problem, even at ISO 3600! I’m still learning the nuances of digital exposure, but getting better at it. Mostly, I don’t want too much fill in the shadows, as it can get noisy.

I use center-weighted metering. Generally, I try to nail the exposure for the area I want exposed just right. I’ll hold the button halfway down to meter the lightest area, then recompose to include the shadow areas I want.

With mostly dark subjects, I have to be careful. I’ll expose for the darkest place, then hold that exposure as I recompose. What I’m always after is an exposure that’s rich and saturated throughout. I’d rather end up with a deeper dark area than have blown-out highlights that you typically get from digital sensors.

Although I’ll use automatic ISO, which gives good exposure values for all light levels—great for shooting handheld in a museum with dioramas or paintings—I don’t like the higher noise-prone ISOs. So usually I’ll go to Program with ISO 100 or 80 for landscape work, and perhaps use ISO 200 for animal images.

Another thing I’ve learned: What you see on the camera’s LCD screen isn’t what you get on the computer or in the printer profiles. That’s why I don’t use live view. In bright outdoor light, I can’t see the LCD accurately anyway, so I prefer the viewfinder. That’s why I like the 35mm DSLR-style cameras. I do check the screen afterward for composition, though.

And now the moment comes. The rim is a dynamic place. So many people are here today, all rolling the dice like I am. You can feel the energy. It’s an experience, not just a photographic location. At other times of day, the light can be dull. But every morning there’s a good chance for an exciting encounter with the newborn sun. I’d make this trek even if it wasn’t to photograph!

There: A domed sliver of light flares above the ocean horizon through a gap in the rim of the volcano. Time and space begin again, the first promise of all that lies ahead.

A primal Timeless Moment, ever eternal, ever new.

Over the course of some five decades, David Muench’s work has been celebrated in more than 50 exhibit-format books such as Plateau Light and Eternal Desert, as well as innumerable exhibits and permanent installations. See more of his images at www.muenchphotography.com.