On being part of the natural cycles we watch as photographers

Dewitt Jones auto-bracketed the shot of the Bathtub in Molokai, but didn’t like the blend on the water in HDR. He found he could get all the detail he wanted just by tweaking the properly exposed frame in Adobe Camera Raw.

Stars were still hanging in the dark sky as I pulled my gear from the back of the car and headed off toward the edge of the sea. Dawn at Mo’omomi Beach on Molokai is one of the great wonders of the world, and I didn’t want to be late. As I worked my way across the slabs of sandstone toward one of my favorite viewing spots, I realized that something was amiss. The water just wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Even in the near darkness, it was clear that this morning the sun would dawn on a super-low tide. “I’m taking a chance on the Bathtub,” I murmured to myself.

The Bathtub is a large blowhole at the far end of a rock ledge jutting far out to sea. At normal or high tide, one is taking his life in his hands to venture to its edge.

On this particular morning, however, both the wind and the waves were calm. So, keeping an eye on what waves there were, I worked my way slowly out to the blowhole and set up my tripod. Then I just stopped and stared.

The water coming into the Bathtub was a mixture of turquoise and froth. It joyously filled up the rock cavern and flowed out over the ledge and over my feet. Then, gently, it retreated, only to repeat the process with each incoming wave.

I thought about all the natural cycles I had witnessed while photographing—the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, the tides. How many thousands of times had I watched them? Like watching the smooth muscle of the planet—the things our little orb can’t help but do. Like watching the earth breathe.

Well, the in-breath here at the Bathtub was breathtaking. Certainly, it was visually stunning, but there was an energy that made it even more beautiful. My heart quickened every time the tub filled. No, every time it overflowed. That was what was so powerful—watching something overflow. Something that had been filling up from the inside.

How powerful that is, wherever we see it, filling up from the inside and overflowing.

A couple of weeks after my experience at the Bathtub, I went to the Ka Hula Piko Festival. There were some very good dancers, but none who transcended the notes and the gestures. None, in short, who became the hula when they danced. I actually drove back to my house to grab lunch and probably wouldn’t have returned if something hadn’t been pulling me, maybe like the Bathtub had pulled me out on that shelf in the predawn light.

The original image was shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 70-300mm lens. Jones masked the hula dancer out of the background of the festival and blended it with an iPhone shot of a rain-soaked forest that he had tweaked in Topaz Simplify. Then he took the resulting image into Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to give it the sepia cast and the frame.

When I did return to the festival, I remember asking myself, “Should I sit on the left side or the right?” Without hesitation, my body moved left. My mind and my cameras followed. I love when my intuition kicks in.

I ducked in front of the sound mixer’s table and put my telephoto to my eye. There, in the viewfinder, was a dancer I didn’t know. Not one of the local girls, she had come from a neighboring island with her halau. The music began and she raised her arms in the first gesture of the dance. Unspeakably beautiful. One upon another, the gestures flowed from her. She wasn’t dancing the hula, she was the hula.

And her face! The emotions of the dance overflowed from her eyes, poured from her cheeks and mouth. It was as if she was so full, she couldn’t contain it another moment. She was full from the inside, and she overflowed.

I shot one dance after another until finally she left the stage. My CF card was full. I sat there touched by the same energy I had felt standing before the Bathtub. The sheer joy of watching some thing, some body, fill up from the inside and overflow.

Later that afternoon, storm clouds moved in, and I walked back to my house in the rain. I thought of photos I had taken of this incredible young woman and knew when I eventually made prints that I didn’t want her standing before the bandstand and the crowd. Her beauty seemed more connected to nature than the man-made structures at the festival. I stopped and photographed the rain-soaked forest with my iPhone.

Later, in front of my computer, I surrounded her with that soft, misty forest. It seemed the perfect background for her gesture and the emotions that overflowed from her being.

Looking at the image, I realized that, when we let ourselves, we, too, are part of those natural cycles we all watch as photographers. When we allow ourselves to truly feel their wonder, we, too, fill up from the inside and overflow.

Dewitt Jones now posts daily celebration images on his Facebook page. He invites you to post yours as well at www.facebook.com/celebratewhatsrigh. Or sign up for his weekly Photos of Celebration at www.celebratewhatsright.com.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.