A Zoom with a View

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Aerial photographer Chris Archer explores Maui from above

By Mona de Crinis 

A lone red car snakes along the Road to Hana under a rich canopy of bamboo, seemingly engulfed in green as branches on either side embrace above the asphalt. Just around the bend, Chris Archer waits – his drone hovering hundreds of feet in the air. He knows he has one chance to capture this iconic postcard image from above. It’ll never be the same again. Nothing on Maui is. “The island is a living, changing entity,” he explained. “The light, the clouds, the sand – it’s always different.” 

Predicting what the island might do – a rainbow cresting atop a monster Pe‘ahi wave or the Upcountry crush of purple jacarandas in springtime – is one of Archer’s superpowers, along with spot-on instincts, fortuitous timing and a hunger for originality. In 10 short years, he has established himself among Maui’s most prolific and dedicated photographers, amassing an impressive collection of aerial photos shot by drone and helicopter. 

Relaxing on the lanai of his Makawao home, Archer points to a weathered pad on a nearby table – his scribbled archive of ideas. “I’m always writing stuff down,” he said. “Locations, subject matter, equipment needs, composition.” In another room, kits for almost any photographic eventuality are neatly organized and ready for deployment. 

A former jack-of-all-trades (welder, metal fabricator, bartender), Archer’s passion for photography sparked soon after moving to Maui 13 years ago when he wanted to share a singular island experience – the Milky Way crisply illuminated against Hana’s dark skies – with his mom back home.  

He studied, researched, practiced, experimented and invested tens of thousands of dollars in specialized gear – multiple cameras, lenses, battery packs, motorized sliders, dolly tracks – and the crown jewel in his gilded toolbox: a muscular DJI Inspire 2 professional-grade drone that allows him the greatest latitude to memorialize the island he loves through distinctive snapshot moments and rarely-seen perspectives. 

Some mornings, he just loads up his Ford F150 with gear and follows the sky – an impulse that has netted Archer more than one stellar shot like a brilliant sunburst sweeping across thick clouds in upper Polipoli visible only from 15 feet off the ground.  

In minutes, Archer can drive to a location, grab the drone, attach the propellers, toss the camera into the heavens, snap-snap-snap, detach the propellers, seatbelt it back into the truck, and continue hunting for hidden gems plucked from above. 

Not far from the taro fields of Ka‘anae along Maui’s northeast flank, where the island plunges into the ocean in a jagged crumble, the shadow of an obscure palm creeps spiderlike across a tiny, inaccessible strip of beach. It’s one of those brief instances of elemental harmony – the sun, the palm, the angle, the surf – all in perfect alignment; an intimate gift from the island that Archer reverently accepts.  

Perched on a rocky ledge, he flew high over the water, carefully navigating strong trades that could whip up whitecaps and take him down in an instant, steadied and positioned the drone, and captured the quintessential scene minutes before Maui’s next breath reshapes the moment forever.   

It was a daring flight wrought with all manner of potential dangers: vegetation, wind, surf, cliffs. Archer’s previous drone drifted into some trees (“The only ones around, of course,” he quipped) and crashed to the ground when a solar flare disrupted the GPS connection, forcing him to scale a steep cliff to salvage the footage. An expensive lesson, he no longer operates the drone without visual confirmation and is therefore less likely to risk life and limb for a memory card of unknown merit.  

When it comes to challenges – and there are many – Archer welcomes the opportunity. He long envisioned Hana’s Koki Beach – one of his favorite haunts for land-based shoots – from a bird’s eye view like the ‘iwa, the great frigate bird revered as a guardian spirit in Hawaiian mythology, circling above.  

Blanketed with dark red sand from nearby cinder cone Ka Iwi O Pele (“bones of Pele”) and naturally framed by aquamarine tides and rust-colored cliff walls, Koki Beach was deserving of Archer’s lofty tribute. But he was always there when the ‘iwa were present. Conscientious never to disturb or upset wildlife, Archer kept returning, hoping for a brief, ‘iwa-free window to send up the drone. On the umpteenth time, his persistence paid off with a permanent capture of Maui’s fluid impermanence.   

While photography has taken Archer to locations previously unknown to him, his innate curiosity would have driven his own on-island exploration – if only to glimpse the transient majesty of a Maui moment. 

“It inspires me to go everywhere and document things as they are in that specific instance, before the wind knocks down a tree or a storm transforms a beloved beach,” he explained. “If one of my shots evokes emotion or inspires sentimentality, a warm memory of aunties, uncles and tutus in a Maui place and time now long gone, that’s worth more to me than any paycheck.”  

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