Terra Galleria Photography

Making 1st time-lapse video: Hawaii Volcanoes


I have just released my first time-lapse short. Best viewed Full Screen with sound !

Hawaii Volcanoes from QT Luong on Vimeo.

I have actually been capturing time-lapse and video footage for several years now, so you may be wondering why this comes out only now. This blog post is a long answer to that question.

The nature of photography, which catches an instant in time, is such that a single photograph can communicate powerfully – even though well-sequenced projects go deeper. By contrast, video is intrinsically a story-telling medium. To tell a story, you need to put many shots together so that the end product is a film. Looking at the successful time-lapse film-makers on the internet, like TSO or Timescapes, I realized that they don’t upload many movies, just a few very good ones. I wanted my first completed video to be good. Did I achieve my goal ? I’ll let you judge.

This turned out to be an arduous journey which has taught me a new level of respect for film-makers. No wonder a film is almost always a team effort. It took me a while to learn the skills to put a short together. Although you use the same camera, shooting time-lapse, especially at night, is much more demanding than shooting stills, because everything has to work for the next few hours, as opposed to just for a few seconds. The careful planning, deliberate approach, time spent, cumbersome gear, and large amount of data captured (temporally instead of spatially) reminded me of large format photography. Changing light, such as night-to-day changes brings a new set of challenges, since you are trying to capture smoothly a transition that occurs over a range of over 20 f-stops.

Then, there is the post-production. Software such as Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects make Photoshop look very simple. For many important functions, there are not even menu items available: you need to know the right keyboard shortcuts. Even finding the right music took a long time. I had to check out hundreds of tracks – you cannot evaluate them at a glimpse, like a photo editor does, you need to listen. Unless the music was composed for your movie, you need to do sound editing to synchronize it with the visuals. All those technical hurdles are secondary compared with the challenge of deciding what story to tell, and how.

The other thing that I didn’t have enough of was footage. The clips need to be compelling by themselves, but also fit in the puzzle of a larger story. On the other hand, it is easy to miss shooting something that you’ll need later if you don’t have the story planned in advance. Like many of my other pursuits, this one started in Yosemite. My first capture consisted of stars rotating in a perfect circle above the face of El Capitan. However, just like in photography, over the recent years existing Yosemite time-lapse work set the bar intimidatingly high.

I was eventually inspired by the volcanoes of Hawaii. In 2001, I “accidentally” captured a time-lapse in the process of photographing the Milky Way above the Halemaumau vent in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, after setting up the camera in the rain and leaving there all night. In Haleakala National Park, the clouds below were beautiful in stills, but I felt that their motion was even more mesmerizing. The volcanoes of Hawaii are the tallest mountains situated on an island, so the weather on mountain tops and flanks can be particularly dynamic. The landscape itself is one of the most dynamic on earth thanks to the flow of lava and the various volcanic steam sources. I thought that motion would be particularly well suited for showcasing the raw power of the eruption.

I noticed that although there is good lava footage available, there was no video that covered Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from sea to summit. This may be because filming requires backpacking on difficult volcanic terrain, including overnight stays near hot active lava flows as well as at the 13700 feet Mauna Loa summit in sub-freezing temperatures. During this winter’s trip to the park, I managed to capture enough footage in various areas to complete this first short, on which I have been working for the past few months.

Thanks for watching, and let me know how you like it.


  1. Russ Bishop says:

    It’s a wonderful film QT – well thought out and executed. Thanks for providing the nuts and bolts of how it came together.

    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks Russ. This were more like general musings about film-making, not sure I would be the most qualified person to talk nuts and bolts, although I suppose I could write “lessons learned from 1st video”.

  2. Great work, QT. Really very impressive. The Big Island is on my Short List for places to go.

  3. Hi QT, this is a terrific first time effort. After a recent visit to the Big Island (from Australia) in February, I have been reading, and viewing, all your posts with great interest, though I have been viewing your works for quite some time. I think we were there at the lava almost the same time, a shame we didn’t get the chance to meet!
    cheers Andrew

  4. The mystery and magic of nature are beautifully presented in this mesmerizing time-lapse. Congratulations on an outstanding job QT. I think this tells a very interesting story and I really like how the opening and closing sequence brings it all together. It’s simply gorgeous!

  5. Sean Bagshaw says:

    Brilliant QT! You’re foray into time-lapse and video is a big success and you now have this in your skill set along with your excellent still photography. This is an amazing visual telling of the Hawaiian volcano story. The amount of work you describe is much what I imagined such a project would require. You are clearly cut out for it. I look forward to your next project.

  6. Khang says:

    Other than a subtle skip at :27, it’s a beautiful and smooth video. I particularly like the scene at 1:20 when the starry night is revealed. Definitely a worthy clip to include in a National Geographic documentary.

  7. Laurent Martres says:

    Outstanding. Monumental amount of work for a single photog. You picked the perfect soundtrack to go with it.

  8. Laurent Martres says:

    Different topic, but also very impressed by Lanchi’s woodwork. She might want to give the arrt show circuit a try.

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