Earth In The Making

Volcanoes are exhilarating subjects to photograph, but challenging places to expose your gear—and yourself. The caustic fumes in the air corrode cameras and lungs alike, and turn rain into diluted battery acid. But the experience of photographing an active volcano can offer a unique perspective on the history of our planet.

One day I joined a group of geologists to explore Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii, which has been erupting almost continuously for the last 30 years. After a torturous hike, we reached the rim of the active cone called Pu’u ’O’o, and came upon a scene from an alien world—a roiling lava lake with spatter cones glowing and sulfurous steam hissing from cracks in the ground. Even though I wore a respirator against the fumes and a head mask and gloves to protect my bare skin, the heat was so intense that I could expose only a few frames at a time before I had to back off again. As the lake of liquid magma rose, the edge of the crater itself began to break apart, and I could feel rumblings beneath my feet. Clearly, this wasn’t a place to hesitate.

When things get hot photographically, it’s important to capture immediate events but also to have a clear mental image of your mission. The frightening beauty of raw lava, gushing and churning inside the caldera, was mesmerizing to focus on, but I had a different idea in mind. Modern-day Hawaii with its beaches and tourists wasn’t that far away, but I was witnessing another era. When tongues of molten lava began to spill over the edge and covered solid ground with a new layer of liquid rock, I quickly moved into position to frame the image I was after—a vision of the world the way it was four billion years ago, when the surface of the Earth was still just taking shape.

Sign up now for one of Frans Lanting’s new Fall 2010 photo workshops at his studio in coastal California. Visit for more details.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.