Scrutinizing the digital view screen of a borrowed camera, I decided I'd never taken a Hawaii photograph like this before.
A congregation of raindrops, each a tiny, reflective sphere balanced on the face of a broad rainforest leaf, looked back at me like unblinking eyes, fastened momentarily to a curtain of corrugated green.
"We want people to explore the creative photographic process," said Brian Ross, the owner of Photo Safari Hawaii. "Rather than trying to capture something, or fit it into your little camera box, we encourage people to create an image they want to share with people, one that might express a feeling you have in a place."
During my last visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, Ross lent me a camera and drove me down to a botanical garden fronting Onomea Bay, a short drive north of Hilo, where he taught me a great deal about light.
"First we talk about the fundamental definition of photography as a process of writing with light," Ross said of his high-end private tours. "Photo actually means light and graph is writing."
He then helped me see how light — reflective, direct and translucent — formed shadows and patterns on the rainforest plants and flowers, revealing contrasts, textures and minute details I hadn't considered so closely before.
Later, after I'd taken countless photos, Ross encouraged me to make a nature sculpture down by the ocean, in the pebbles at the mouth of a small stream, and then photograph my little construction from many different angles.
"The goal is to have people formally interact with nature," Ross said. "We want them to put down the camera for a second and touch the aina [land] and have a physical connection with nature in the process of building their sculpture."
Offering half- and full-day ecotours on each of the Aloha State's main islands, Ross, who's been taking photos for three decades, started Photo Safari Hawaii in 2008, hoping to connect with travelers looking for "an authentic nature experience in Hawaii outside their hotel."
Terrific for photo enthusiasts of all ages and any experience level, the tours take folks to a range of stunning, off-the-beaten-track destinations. Outings include a private driver in a comfortable, four-wheel-drive vehicle and much more than just photographic insight, with guides who share geological, historical and cultural interpretation.
Commissionable to agents at 15%, four-hour half-day outings start at $450 for a vehicle seating five occupants.