Jump Start Your Photo Bucket List

Five inspiring subjects to add something new to your portfolio

What are the photographic dreams that you would like to fulfill? Have you ever thought of your photo bucket list of locations? Where in the world would you go? What would you want to see? I would like to take you on a tour of my five favorite dream adventure locations to help you get your bucket list jump started.

Hiking A Volcano

One of my first and longest-held photo bucket list items is hiking a volcano. It is so amazing to look into the Earth’s core and see molten rock bubbling, exploding and running into the ocean, creating brand new land. I will try to explain the glow, the sounds of the explosions and crackling of the 2,000-degree Fahrenheit lava as it flows down the path of least resistance. The image here is from a trip I took to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Photo Bucket List: Hiking A Volcano

Hiking A Volcano. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM at 270mm, Really Right Stuff TVC-34 tripod and BH-55 ballhead. Exposure: 1 sec., ƒ/20, ISO 200.

Hiking out to reach the ocean entry or flying in a helicopter over the Pali (hillside) will have you rising in the middle of the night to be out and in place during the best viewing time, the transition from night to day. If conditions allow hiking, I generally begin my hike around 3 a.m. since it may take nearly three hours to reach the coast. It is not always accessible or safe by hiking—the only way to determine this is to hire a guide to safely take you out and back. This is not something that you should try on your own.

My absolute favorite way to reach the ever-changing lava is by helicopter. I fly with a very knowledgeable team of pilots who know the lay of the land. They can put me directly over the lava flow, and, if it is safe, provide me a perfect view of what breakout is happening. Going by helicopter means being at the airport about 90 minutes before sunrise in order to begin capturing imagery as soon as the light is right.

When flying in a helicopter or small plane, you will want to minimize what you take with you. There probably won’t be room for a camera bag nor a good opportunity to change lenses inside the helicopter, so do a little bit of pre-visualizing to determine what lens you might need. I fly with a UV filter on my lens, and I start the flight with freshly charged batteries, ample digital media and no lens hood or anything that could come off of the camera due to the wind created with the doors off of the aircraft. We don’t want anything falling out of the copter as we move along.

Within a moving or hovering aircraft, you will need to be ready at all times to capture images. The amount of time that you are in the air will depend upon your budget, so be ready to snap images quickly.


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There is one more option to see the lava enter the ocean, and that is from a boat that will bring you within 30 to 50 feet of the flow, depending upon the steam that is directed by the wind. This steam is sulfuric, and the boat captains did a great job of steering us all away.

In a moving vehicle of any kind, I use mostly aperture- or shutter speed-priority modes in conjunction with Auto ISO. This allows me to maintain my shutter speed, regardless of the light level. Setting my shutter speed to 1/2000 sec. will guarantee solid, sharp imagery. I do not need much depth of field, so I will select an aperture in the “sweet spot” for my lens—typically about two stops down from wide open. I also enable the image stabilization to help eliminate vibration and any movement from the vehicle.

Whichever method that you choose, you will be ecstatic seeing this fantastic example of Mother Nature.

Chasing A Monsoon Storm

Living in the southwest desert offers certain benefits photographically. Here in Phoenix, Arizona, we have a bucket-list season every summer called monsoon. Each day, we have isolated, photogenic “cells” build during the heat of the day, culminating in a daily thunderstorm.

Photo Bucket List: Chasing A Monsoon Storm

Chasing A Monsoon Storm. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 24mm, Really Right Stuff TVC-34 tripod and BH-55 ballhead. Exposure: 1/5 sec., ƒ/18, ISO 100.

These monsoon thunderstorms are lightning-generating and often kick up dust storms called haboobs. This is the time of year where morning, noon and night provide excellent weather-related opportunities for amazing sunsets, thunderstorms, dust storms and dust devils that make for incredible landscape photographs. Dimensional cumulus clouds will be your subjects from sunrise throughout most of the day. Once those cumulus clouds start to tower, you will see lightning develop and transform the puffy, pretty clouds into dramatic storms that are fun and easy to chase, providing colorful sunsets that transfer into the evening storms. You will have long, productive fun days with many photo opportunities.

I most often capture my landscape photographs on a tripod and in aperture priority-mode to control the depth of field. I use a cable release to fire the camera so I don’t move it, especially important if the exposures start to get long later in the day or at night.

Flying In A Hot-Air Balloon

Who hasn’t dreamt of the romance and beauty of flying in a hot air balloon? I was mesmerized from the first hot-air balloon event that I attended in Norwalk, Connecticut, many years ago. I was so taken with the concept of flying in a hot-air balloon that a few weeks after I captured my first images, I drove to another balloon event in upstate New York and ended up flying. It wasn’t long afterward that I would buy a balloon and found a pilot to teach me how to fly.

Photo Bucket List: Flying In A Hot-Air Balloon

Flying In A Hot-Air Balloon. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM at 50mm. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/18, ISO 6400.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to photograph the balloon capital of the world, Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the largest gathering of hot air balloons in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. More than 600 balloons flying every day, weather permitting. They fly in the morning when winds are gentle and temperatures are cool.

There are so many activities for you to capture there. There is Dawn Patrol, where balloons lift off in the dark, a laser light show and finally the stars of the show, the hundreds of hot-air balloons filling the skies. Since we are photographing in low-light conditions, I bring fast lenses (ƒ/2.8 or faster) so I can use as low of an ISO as possible to make images in the dark as the Dawn Patrol inflates and then flies into the pre-dawn sky.

Once the balloons begin to inflate, you will find a huge smile on your face as you have the chance to create backlit images of the inflating waves of balloons. You will find colorful fabric being inflated by gasoline-powered fans beckoning you to come and make images. Before long, the skies will fill with those gorgeous balloons, providing you unending possibilities of spectacular compositions.

If you are able to spend a few days at Fiesta, you should consider making arrangements to fly in a hot air balloon and shoot from the air, passing over other balloons as they inflate. The experience will amaze you.

Witnessing Aurora Borealis

Another of my absolute favorite dreams, looking up to the heavens and watching the sky dance! Witnessing the northern lights has been at the top of my bucket list since I was a teenager. To view and photograph the Aurora requires some planning.

First, you will find yourself packing lots of warm clothes since you will most likely be traveling to a city near the Arctic Circle. The warm clothing comes into play because you will be traveling between mid-September and mid-April, when the winter nights are long and cold near those latitudes. Places to see the Aurora Borealis include Alaska, the Northwest Territories of Canada, Iceland and Nordic countries like Finland and Norway.

Photo Bucket List: Aurora Borealis

Witnessing Aurora Borealis. Canon EOS 5DS R, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, Really Right Stuff TVC-34 tripod and BH-55 ballhead. Exposure: 30 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 3200.

One unusual thing is having to sleep during the daylight hours, since you will be awake searching for the “lights” through the night. Meals will be adjusted a little bit differently because of the long nights—be sure to bring snacks to hold you over. What makes these efforts worth it will be the spectacular, omnidirectional show of color across the sky.

Since all images of the Aurora will be taken in the dark of night, sometimes with the moon above the horizon and other times with no moon, you should always use a sturdy tripod to support your camera. I recommend choosing a fast wide-angle lens and using a cable release.

You will want to consider working with high ISOs like 3200, 6400 or even higher, in order to keep your exposure times as short as possible. The Aurora is always moving and changing. I would suggest keeping your shutter speeds relatively fast for night exposures (that could be one second long or up to 30 seconds) so that you can freeze the dancing of the Aurora.

As you are scouting the shooting location, look for some beautiful elements to act as a foreground for the moving colors across the sky. Providing multiple layers in your composition will help hold your viewers’ attention.

Capturing The Milky Way

Here is another opportunity to head out in the dark of night to capture the vibrancy and colors of the nighttime sky. The Milky Way and its spectacular galactic core visit the northern hemisphere from mid-April through mid-September.

Photo Bucket List: Milky Way

Capturing The Milky Way. Eleven-image panorama. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, Really Right Stuff TVC-34 tripod and BH-55 ballhead. Exposure: 30 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 6400.

There are not too many nights that are Milky Way-friendly, so you’ll want to plan ahead. What is necessary is a clear, dark sky. Many of us have to drive a fair distance away from our light-polluted neighborhoods. The best time to make images of the Milky Way is during the new moon, when there is no moon and the sky is the darkest. Early in the season, the Milky Way rises in the eastern sky and slowly anchors itself in the southern sky.

Learn how to successfully photograph the Milky Way.

I recommend using a wide-angle lens, again on a tripod and with a cable release. Basic exposure settings would be around 30 seconds. Pack a cooler and a chair to be comfortable outside in the dark, enjoying the beauty of the galaxies in front of you.

To me, the best part about a bucket list is that it’s never too soon to get started, nor is it ever too late to begin. Once you accomplish one of your bucket list items, you can simply add a new one to the list. It’s a list with no end, so start yours today.

See more of Ken Sklute’s work at serendipityvisuals.com.


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