So, you want to photograph a volcano? Here’s all you need to know
Dec 22, 2023
So, you want to photograph a volcano? Here’s all you need to know
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to photograph the raw power of Mother Nature? To feel the ground shake beneath your feet as you quite literally watch molten lava spewing into the sky? Throughout my travels, I’ve been privileged to witness incredible sights from all corners of our marvelous planet. However, I am bluntly honest when I say that nothing I had ever seen had even remotely compared to how epic it was to observe a volcano in action.
Earlier this year, Iceland was shaken by thousands of earthquakes over a few weeks leading up to the powerful eruption of Fagradalsfjall. Freshly returned from a project in the deep south of the US, I received an enticing call from one of my followers, inviting me to join him on a quest to photograph the newly formed volcano. Driven by the temptation of crossing off an erupting volcano from my bucket list, I booked my flight the following day. It was obvious to me that the spontaneous decision to fly to Iceland had left me with minimal time for preparation, and as anticipated, the reality of photographing a volcano proved to be far from simple.
As a new series of intense (and destructive) earthquakes now tremble through the southern part of Iceland, many photographers worldwide eagerly await to photograph the new volcano that has just erupted. To help anyone avoid my mistakes, I’ve decided to share my experience and provide tips and tricks to ensure you are prepared to take on this incredible adventure. So buckle up! We’re going to
destroy the ring photograph an erupting volcano!
Finding the Best Time to Photograph a Volcano
One of the most crucial decisions is determining the best time to depart. This is determined by the volcano’s behavior and activity, which can change abruptly and unpredictably. So, the first piece of advice would be to stay up to date with how frequent the earthquakes are. As a rule of thumb, the more seismic activity, the greater the likelihood of an imminent eruption. You can join the Iceland geological Facebook group for real-time insights, where experts and geological hobbyists share the latest information and reports. In general, while in Iceland, that Facebook group was my go-to source regarding anything Volcano-related, including walking routes and the best spots to witness the eruption. It also helped me stay up to date regarding the latest earthquakes, hazards, eruptions, and lava flows.
Short time window
When it comes to traveling, being flexible is crucial. It’s highly recommended to arrive as early as possible to increase the chances of capturing the initial stages of the eruption. As time goes by, the volcano undergoes significant changes as the crater quickly forms, and the likelihood of getting unique shots from the initial eruption diminishes as the distance from the crater increases. Additionally, as more people gather, authorities are more likely to restrict access to certain areas. However, it is essential to note that this may not be the case for every eruption, and the situation may vary depending on factors such as location, weather, and the authorities. So again, checking the latest news and updates before you board that plane is always a good idea.
What to pack?
It is still unknown how accessible the current volcanic eruption will be. The last one required a 20km round-trip hike, so depending on your fitness level, you may need to compromise on which gear to bring. However, there are a few things that are essential. It is highly recommended to have a good filtered mask to protect yourself from volcanic ash and particles, which can be harmful to your lungs and throat. However, it’s important to note that these masks will not protect you from the dangerous and life-threatening gases that may be present.
It’s a good idea to have good thermal underpants and a shirt, depending on the time of year. The weather in Iceland can be unpredictable, so it’s always smart to check the online forecast before embarking on your journey. A windbreaker is a must to protect against the cold wind. Bring enough water and pack high-energy snacks for the journey. Most grocery stores in Iceland offer pre-made sandwiches that are pretty decent. Bring comfortable hiking boots and consider taking walking sticks as parts of the terrain might be on moss-covered ground, which is quite challenging to walk on. Camera-wise, depending on your style, a tripod can definitely come in handy. As for lenses, I kept it simple by taking my Canon 24-105 F/4, which allowed me to be versatile and shoot both long and wide.
Arriving to Iceland
Upon landing at Keflavik Airport, directly to the right of the exit gates, you will find a counter offering bus tickets to Reykjavik—an affordable choice for the budget-conscious traveler. However, I strongly recommend renting a car for those seeking the freedom to explore Iceland’s landscapes at their own pace. The beauty of the island unfolds best when you have the autonomy to venture off the beaten path. While the idea of exploring Iceland’s landscapes by car is exciting, it’s important to be mindful of high gas prices, as Iceland has the second most expensive gas in the world.
As for food, let’s be straight: the land of ice and fire isn’t famous for its culinary offerings, but while it may not boast of a wide variety, there is a silver lining. Iceland has some of the world’s best fish and chips. To be honest, I was never a fan of the dish until I found myself on the verge of starvation during a film shoot in Iceland back in 2017. Although I can’t remember the name of the beach where the small food truck was stationed, I can clearly recall that they served the most delicious fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. Make sure you try it before leaving the island.
Every volcano is different
As I began my journey, I had high hopes of capturing an impressive set. However, reality proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. Only when I arrived at the volcano and tried to take photographs from the surface level did I realize how big of a challenge was ahead of me. Although my drone provided a game-changing perspective (we’ll expand on that later), I did not consider that when a new volcano erupts, the lava eventually cools off and rises both the crater and lava field above the surface level, making the entire spectacle visible only from higher ground. After spending hours attempting shots that didn’t meet my expectations, I noticed a small hill in the distance. It was only after I climbed it that the full beauty of the scenery revealed itself to me. I could finally see the river of lava and a clear view into the mouth of the volcano. So, if you’re unsatisfied with your photographs, try finding higher ground.
In terms of light, Iceland will have plenty of daylight or very little of it, depending on the time of year. My July visit afforded lengthy daylight hours, featuring a captivating golden hour shining the landscape in mesmerizing golden hues. I arrived at the volcano at 8 pm with plenty of hours of sunlight to allow me to get familiar with my surroundings. The sun began setting at around 11 pm, and by 1 am, it was pitch black. Although pitch-black conditions make it almost impossible to photograph, the darkness did offer one of the best experiences for viewing the volcano, as the lava glowed in a radiant, almost neon-like light, making the experience feel surreal. By the time I climbed up the hill, it was 3 am, and the sun had just started to rise. I found the verge of blue/golden hour to be the best time to photograph the volcano. The low light mixed in with the fiery glowing lava made it easier to balance the exposures, providing the most detailed and interesting results.
Elevate your photography with a drone
I quickly realized that the drone emerged as the unsung hero in my volcanic photography expedition, contributing to nearly 90% of my usable photographs. Providing unique angles of the lava rivers and crater, all while allowing unparalleled proximity to the volcano, unlocking perspectives that ground-level shots could never provide. While flying any type of drone is theoretically possible, opting for stronger options such as the Mavic Pros is highly recommended. The unpredictable high winds posed a challenge for smaller drones, and I’ve seen multiple pilots grind their teeth in anxiety as they struggled with their weaker devices. Equally critical is the abundance of batteries. Get more batteries! There’s nothing more disheartening than being in the presence of such wonder without the ability to capture it because you ran out of juice. Once airborne, it is wise to stay away from the crowds. The congestion of many drones does lead to signal disruptions of your aerial companion.
When it comes to how close you can fly your drone to a volcano and lava, it all depends on how brave you’re feeling. I observed that some photographers were carrying both older and newer drone models, with the older ones at higher risk when flying closer. Some of these photographers reported slight deformities in their drones’ plastic casings, while others weren’t as lucky and lost their drones altogether. I also witnessed one photographer’s drone get hit by a molten rock that shot straight out of the volcano; miraculously, his drone survived. A general rule of thumb is to avoid staying stationary if you’re near the crater or the lava. Keeping the airflow around your drone can help prevent it from melting. Another helpful tip is to use the cropped resolution setting, which allows you to appear closer to the volcano without losing much detail. If you decide to fly your drone close to a volcano, ensure your DJI care package is up to date.
While staying alive seems like something you don’t need to convince people about, during the last eruptions, quite a few people were adamant about receiving a Darwin Award. Volcanos harbor inherent dangers, with unexpected events capable of swiftly and violently ending your life. What was seen on the last eruption is a stark reminder of this reality, as a section of the volcano crater wall collapsed, unleashing a wave of scalding lava covering a 200-meter landmass in a matter of seconds. If this catastrophic event had occurred during the initial days when proximity to the volcano was allowed, it would have resulted in a tragic loss of lives.
So, to make things easy, here’s a fundamental guideline to ensure your well-being:
- Stay Informed: Regularly check SafeTravel.is for updates and hazard alerts. Eruption sites undergo significant daily changes. The website will also notify you if the access roads to the volcano site are open. It is also wise to check the Facebook page mentioned earlier in the blog, as members of the page occasionally give live updates.
- Gas Awareness: Volcanic gases are lethal. They lack odor and color, posing an invisible threat. Avoid valleys and seek higher ground, as gases tend to sink.
- Lava Caution: Steer clear of lava surfaces. Despite appearances, hot lava flows beneath thin crusts of cooled rock. Attempting to walk over cooled lava might seem like good content for TikTok, but it is, in fact, a very dumb idea.
- Weather Preparedness: The weather in Iceland can be unpredictable. Be prepared for sudden changes by dressing appropriately and carrying essential gear.
- Leave No Trace: This is not a safety matter, but the principle of “pack in, pack out.” is crucial. Respect the environment by not leaving any traces of your visit.
No volcano? No problem!
So, you finally made your way to Iceland, but police and search & rescue forces had temporarily shut down the access to the volcano due to weather/gas/Darwin award laureates. Lucky for you, you are now stuck in one of the most beautiful places on our planet. Here is a very small list of things you can do while waiting for the access roads to the volcano to reopen.
- Puffins in Vik: Head to Vik and witness the world’s most adorable bird, the puffins. These charming seabirds, with their distinctive appearance, are a delight to observe and fun to photograph. They can be found not far away from the town of Vik.
- Diamond Beach: Diamond Beach is one of Iceland’s most stunning attractions. It’s covered in black sand and features glistening icebergs that wash ashore from the nearby Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. If you make a trip to the lagoon, you might witness an iceberg flipping over or a curious seal popping its head above the water. It’s definitely worth a visit!
- Famous Falls Trio: Embark on a waterfall adventure by visiting Iceland’s falls. There’s a bunch to choose from, but some of the most famous ones are Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss (with its walk-behind feature), and the powerful Skogafoss.
- Aurora Exploration: Chase the Northern Lights! Iceland’s vast, dark skies provide an optimal backdrop for this celestial spectacle, creating a mesmerizing experience.
- That mountain from Game of Thrones: Take a drive to Kirkjufell, one of Iceland’s most famous mountains. Its unique shape and picturesque surroundings make it a favorite among photographers and nature enthusiasts.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope you have the opportunity to witness the incredible power of an erupting volcano for yourself. If you have ever photographed a volcano, please share your experience, tips, and tricks in the comments below.
About Dan Lior
Dan Lior is a director, cinematographer & photographer who focuses on creating meaningful and emotionally charged films. By blending elements of documentary, nature, and staggering imagery, Dan is driven by the belief that the emotion delivered through images can significantly impact the viewer. Lior immerses himself in his subject’s environment to document real life, capturing it in a meticulously crafted manner. His projects have taken him to remote and exotic locations all around the world, from the African savannah, to the Arctic Circle and into the depths of the Amazon rainforest. You’ll find more of Dan’s work on his website, Instagram, and Vimeo.
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