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How To Photograph Volcanoes
A long exposure reveals the waterfall-like motion within a pahoehoe flow of Fagradalsfjall of Fagradalsfjall.
The floor is lava, literally. That’s pretty much my story as a photographer of volcanoes. Last year alone, I documented four active volcanoes, multiple times, throughout various locations across the globe. Photographing volcanoes is an absolutely exhilarating, nerve-wrecking, humbling and challenging experience, with each volcano having a distinct personality of its own. In this ever-changing environment, time is of the essence as visuals are consistently changing, with opportunities to create an image sometimes only presenting themselves for a few seconds. The reward for these efforts, however, is like no other I’ve ever experienced. To witness and document the true power of nature, and to watch the newest Earth be created right in front of my lens, is worth battling face-to-face some of the harshest conditions this world can present to you.
To have a successful trip with each volcano I photograph, I answer many questions before even departing. How to keep safe? Where to stay? What visuals does this volcano present? What camera equipment is needed? What kind of access does the environment allow to get close? It’s a lot to consider, but the more preplanning that goes into an excursion, the more comfortable and confident I find myself around these incredibly powerful displays of nature.
Planning To Photograph Volcanoes
How exactly does one end up at a volcano while it’s erupting? Well, it’s not just going on a whim or being completely lucky with timing. There are several things that I keep a keen eye on to give myself the best possible opportunity to document a volcano in an eruptive state.
Each week, through various volcanology and geological websites, I read about which volcanoes in the world are showing elevated activity. This allows me to compile a list of potential volcanoes whose activity levels are worth monitoring. From my experience, there is most always a hint that a volcano is close to erupting through various indicators. I say the word “close” in a very loose way, as that doesn’t necessarily mean today or tomorrow but sometime in the next few weeks or months ahead.
Lava from the Kilauea 61G flow reaches the Pacific Ocean, creating some of the newest land on the Island of Hawaii.
The Fagradalsfjall Volcano in Iceland is a great example of this. Before it erupted in March of 2021, there were swarms of earthquakes within the Reykjanes Peninsula region that began months prior to the actual eruption. Throughout those weeks, they grew more immense in strength and quantity and became shallower in depth. These trends indicated that magma was on the move and possibly rising to the surface. Having watched these trends, and by keeping up with the local Icelandic scientists, I was able to be ready at a moment’s notice, so that when the first lava breached the surface, I could head over.
If I know that a volcano is currently in an eruptive state, the next thing I begin planning is how I want to approach and document the scene. This includes getting an understanding of what kind of eruption is taking place. For example, in 2018, I went on assignment to Hawaii to document the Kilauea Volcano as it erupted within its Lower East Rift Zone. Unfortunately, this eruption was a bit different than previous ones, as an entire line of fissures opened within the residential neighborhood of Leilani Estates. This meant that I would have to be extremely aware of how and where new fissures were opening due to the limited road network and escape routes being cut off. Due to the location within a neighborhood, I had to be escorted by the military to document it. There was so much lava coming to the surface in various locations that we had to study topographic maps prior to each outing to understand and anticipate how the lava would progress and how to navigate around it safely.
Finally, one of the last things I study and plan for before each volcano is the forecasted weather conditions and, most importantly, the wind direction and speed. It’s quite imperative to always stay upwind from volcanic gasses, as they can be detrimental to your health, so studying the wind forecast allows me to plan my approach with that in mind. The wind can also factor into which way projectiles are lofted in eruptions that contain them. This, once again, like a game of chess, allows me to position myself in a safe location properly.
Through a brief clearing in the steam clouds, a river of lava is visible as it makes its way from the Kilauea Volcano to the Pacific Ocean during the 2018 eruption.
Storyboarding & Previsualization
Another important process I undertake prior to stepping foot near a volcano is storyboarding the images or scenes that I hope to capture. The conditions during an eruption are usually quite chaotic, and the last thing I want to think about is what shots I need. By studying the characteristics of the current eruption, along with previous ones, and noting the location and possible effects of the eruption, I can create a detailed storyboard prior to arriving that lists out the targeted scenes I want to capture. That being said, these environments are incredibly dynamic, and I always keep an eye open for unexpected scenes to capture as well. By having a storyboard in advance, I can keep more of my focus on staying safe and monitoring the situation even closer while out in the field.
Approaching A Volcano
Once I’ve arrived at the eruption site, I know what I want to document and how I plan to do it, so it’s time to get to work. Even with all of my preparation, I think it’s unwise to just run right up to a volcano. My approach is one of caution. Whether it’s a calm eruption on the Kilauea Volcano within Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park or an explosive pyroclastic eruption on Volcán de Fuego, it’s important to take some time to watch the trends of the volcano before moving closer. This includes understanding where the lava is moving and how quickly, the kind of lava it is (pahoehoe or a’a), if the eruption’s explosive in nature, if there are any issues with gasses moving my way, and more. Preparation is very important, but nothing is more valuable than assessing the current situation. Each hour, each minute on a volcano can be quite different from the previous.
Quickly changing circumstances that may or may not be visible to the naked eye can catch visitors off guard. Through my experience, I have learned that lava is the least of my worries. I can see and feel where the lava is most of the time and know how to avoid it safely if needed. More difficult to avoid is the sulfur dioxide gas as well as projectiles like lava bombs, which can be the size of vehicles or as small as a strand of hair (called “Pele’s hair”).
An aerial image reveals the vital role wind direction plays during a volcanic eruption. Trade winds swept toxic sulfur dioxide gasses across the field on the left, choking off its oxygen supply, while the upwind region remained lush and green.
When eruptions enter residential areas, this introduces additional threats of falling trees and powerlines, methane explosions from buried septic tanks, limited visibility and possible turmoil among the residents. Acid rain was another challenge that I had to navigate during the 2018 Kilauea Volcano eruption. This was the last thing on my mind when I went out to Hawaii for this project, but it was, indeed, a real threat at times due to the combination of the eruption and rainy tropical climate.
To best protect myself, I never photograph alone. I will either work with another photographer or a local to be another set of eyes. A helmet, goggles, gas mask, emergency beacon and SO2 monitor will always be in my bag during excursions, as well as a paper map of the area.
With all the precautions I can take to stay as safe as possible, the most important thing I always have with me is respect for the volcano, an understanding that no matter how much I may think I know or what I’ve brought with me, nature is way more powerful than I am and in complete control.
When it comes to photographing volcanoes, each situation is completely unique. Through my storyboarding, I have my visions in mind, but I’m watching for remarkable moments, compositions and storytelling visuals. Being flexible and patient are key. I typically try to spend at least one week documenting an eruption but hopefully more. During that extended time, I try to be sensitive to the moment. For example, if an eruption affects human life and property, I will take on a more journalistic approach with visuals respectfully showing the scene. I feel these images are never the most fun to capture because you are witnessing someone’s life forever being changed, but they are also an important reminder of just how powerless we are. These images can also be vital in the way that they bring those who aren’t near the eruption to it and can create an understanding of the event in a way that encourages others to reach out to help those affected.
A massive “lavaberg” the size of a bus floats down a nearly 8-mile-long river of lava during the 2018 Lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea.
For eruptions in areas where lava flows affect nothing but natural areas, for example, the Fagradalsfjall or Pacaya eruptions this year, I try to take on more of a fine art approach. These are scenes where I incorporate night sky elements like the Milky Way or utilize moonlit conditions to reveal the landscape. I wait patiently for the right light to combine with the eruption and foreground elements. In these conditions, I focus on capturing and displaying the beauty within these volcanoes rather than the destruction they can create.
No matter what kind of eruption I am documenting, I tend to travel with the same camera gear most of the time. My current setup includes Nikon Z 7II and Z 6II camera bodies and 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 500mm lenses. On occasion, I also throw in a 105mm lens for macro images of tephra and Pele’s Hair. This broad range of focal lengths from wide angle to super telephoto gives me adaptability for each situation, with safety and creativity in mind. I also keep a UV filter on each of my lenses, as much of the debris floating in the air can be abrasive to glass.
Four Very Different Volcanoes
During 2021, I visited four different active volcanoes to document their eruptions. Each volcano presented a unique beauty, different access and varying challenges. These elements made each documentation extremely fun and provided a variety of storytelling imagery.
Kilauea, Hawaii, United States
Kilauea is a shield volcano that has been erupting almost continuously since 1984. It’s the volcano I have the most experience photographing. It can be quite docile most of the time but also quite violent during specific eruptions, like the Leilani Estates eruption of 2018.
An aerial view via helicopter of Kilauea Fissure 8 erupting with a nearly quarter-mile-wide river of lava flowing down toward the Pacific Ocean.
In January 2021, I set off to document the most recent eruption at that time. The eruption was completely contained to the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, which did not allow for an actual viewing area of the lava lake from any land area. This provided two opportunities. The first was to document the crater and its associated glow beneath the twilight and night skies, which I felt would highlight the beauty of the entire Kilauea Volcano, not just what goes on inside of it. The second opportunity was to photograph the lava lake, showcasing the eruption, which would require taking to the air via helicopter to obtain a vantage point looking down inside the crater.
Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala
Volcán de Fuego, or the Volcano of Fire, is located just west of Guatemala City and is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Being a stratovolcano, Fuego presents a much different attitude compared to Kilauea. Explosive eruptions take place on the regular, launching automobile-sized projectiles hundreds or even thousands of feet into the air. These projectiles come crashing back to Earth and can contribute to pyroclastic flows in extreme circumstances.
The Fuego Volcano in Guatemala erupts at sunset with a massive ejection of projectiles, some nearly the size of automobiles.
I visited Fuego on three different occasions this past year. Some days the volcano was extremely quiet and didn’t present much in the way of explosive eruptions. On others, Fuego shook the ground and sent shockwaves through the atmosphere.
With the volcano sitting at nearly 13,000 feet, it is not an easy task to get close to Fuego. The weather at this altitude also contributes to determining just how close you can get to the volcano due to reduced visibility or extreme wind threatening to blow you off the ridgeline. For Fuego, I leaned heavily on my 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses to bring me in closer to the action. The wider focal lengths allowed me to capture the stunning, snakelike ridgeline leading up to the crater as well as the rugged eastern slopes of the volcano. Tighter focal lengths brought my compositions up close and personal to explosions on the summit crater, showcasing the associated glowing lava and ash fall.
Volcán de Pacaya, Guatemala
Volcán de Pacaya, located southeast of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, is another stratovolcano that presents a limited opportunity in terms of safe access to the volcano during eruptive periods. Pacaya is the most feared volcano among Guatemalans due to its reputation as being relatively unpredictable and its potential for large ash plumes and pyroclastic flows.
Multiple rivers of lava flow down the side of the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala.
While documenting Pacaya’s most recent eruption, I struggled with limited compositions due to the rugged terrain between the nearest access points and the crater. Pacaya offered opportunities to utilize both wide and telephoto focal lengths. One of my favorite images was captured with my 14-24mm lens, shooting at 14mm to include the previous lava flows, a reflecting pond and lush green vegetation that had regrown in the area, with Pacaya erupting in the distance. Like with Fuego, telephoto focal lengths allowed for tighter shots of Pacaya’s nearly 1-kilometer-tall fountain of lava.
With both Pacaya and Fuego involving more explosive eruptions, I found a similar challenge while documenting both. During the day, the red-hot lava projectiles were too far and not bright enough to show their color amid the daylight, so they just appeared black. At night, the contrast between the fiery lava and dark night sky was extreme, and balancing my exposure between the brightness of the lava and the darkness of the sky was incredibly tricky. I learned from this experience that my favorite time to photograph these two volcanoes was in the pre-dawn and twilight hours, when balancing the ambient light with the lava became much more feasible.
The surprise volcano of 2021, Iceland’s Fagradalasfjall erupted for the first time in over 800 years. It was the perfect volcano to document, not just because of the historical significance of the eruption but also because of its location, accessibility and behavioral characteristics.
Lava from the third fissure of the Fagradalsfjall Volcano eruption crawls across Iceland’s Geldingadalir Valley in early April 2021.
After months of earthquakes shaking the Reykjanes Peninsula, magma finally broke through the surface in March. The eruption took place in a remote valley, far away from the nearest town of Grindavik, which allowed for incredible access by the Icelandic government. There were essentially no restrictions in place, and the Icelandic authorities took this opportunity to allow visitors to the eruption to admire and respect the beauty of nature.
Unlike the previous volcanoes that I photographed, Fagradalsfjall was only a few days old once I reached it, which presented an incredibly dynamic environment as new fissures were opening daily along the rift zone with little to no warning. On the first day of my documentation, there were two fissures, and on my last day, there were seven, several in spots where I had been standing just a few hours prior. The generous access to this eruption allowed me to document the fissures and lava from just a few feet away. I used every lens in my pack, recorded hours of drone footage and even took to the air via fixed-wing aircraft to document the eruption from above in high resolution.
The main challenges were the sulfur dioxide gasses pooling in the valley on windless days and hiking the 10 miles roundtrip out to the eruption site in the snow and cold temperatures. Once at the site, though, it was easy to be upwind and get close to the lava for a nice warmup.
The Fagradalsfjall Volcano provided beautiful pahoehoe lava flows, similar to those of Kilauea, which I find to be the most visually appealing lava flows. All in all, Fagradalsfjall was a volcano photographer’s dream.
Volcanoes are incredibly beautiful and stunning displays of nature that take us back to the days of Earth’s creation. There are so many ways for a photographer to document these powerful forces and illustrate how they have and will continue to mold our planet. The inherent risks associated with them, in my opinion, are worth the reward of being reminded just how little we are compared to the power beneath our feet.
See more of Mike Mezeul II’s work at mikemezphotography.com.