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Volcanoe Photography Tips

In this extract Joseph Meehan and Gary Eastwood share their tips on photographing volcanoes.

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Volcanoe Photography Tips: Photographing The ElementsThis technique is an extract from the Fire chapter of Photographing the Elements by Joseph Meehan and Gary Eastwood, courtesy of Ilex Press.


Volcanoes are one of the most beautiful and destructive forces of nature, and have shaped the face of the planet on which we live since the birth of time. Whether spewing red-hot magma thousands of feet into the air, belching smoke into the atmosphere, dripping hissing lava trails into the sea, or even laying dormant and fertile, volcanoes and volcanic eruptions offer some of the most stunning photographic potential of all of nature’s events, whether from far away or up close.

A volcano represents a fissure or weak spot in the Earth’s rocky crust. This fissure allows the escape of molten rock, known as magma, as well as other materials and toxic gases, which can be ejected high into the atmosphere or flow down the side of the volcano, depending on the ferocity and type of eruption.

Volcanoe Photography Tips: The Pacific Ring of Fire
The Pacific Ring of Fire, Image © Photographing the Elements, Ilex

There are three different types of volcano: Active volcanoes erupt continuously; dormant volcanoes lie inactive for centuries but erupt abruptly; and extinct volcanoes are considered not likely to erupt. There are also different types of eruption, often named after the region in which they characteristically occur. Hawaiian eruptions, for example, are characterized by effusive eruptions of very fluid lava, while Strombolian eruptions (named after the Italian volcano Stromboli) are driven by bursting gas bubbles within the magma (see page 91 for a full explanation of eruption types).

More broadly, volcanic eruptions can be split into two types: red and gray. As one might imagine, red eruptions are characterized by the presence of lava (the term used for magma once it has reached the surface), while gray eruptions contain ash, dust, rock, and other non-magmatic material. Each can
be equally explosive, photography-wise, but the beauty and elemental nature of red eruptions hold special appeal.

Volcanoe Photography Tips: Eruptions in the Night
Image © Photographing the Elements, Ilex

Eruptions in the night:

Not only does the dark blue of a night sky effectively complement the vivid reds and oranges of eruptions, it also ensures sufficient low-light conditions to allow the use of long shutter speeds. These can then be used to paint the eruptions in graceful arcs and sizzling lines shooting forth from the tops of the volcano appearing rather like fireworks.
The type and intensity of eruption will of course affect the final photographic effect, however, it is essential from the outset to point out that photographing volcanoes is extremely dangerous and can be potentially life-threatening. Intra-crater earthquakes, molten projectiles, explosions, unstable ground, and extreme temperatures are just some of the threats.

A more insidious threat is the silent menace of toxic gases that belch out from around even the most benign eruptions. Volcanic gases include sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, while other materials found in the vicinity are likely to include silica dust (harmful to lung tissue) and arsenic. Thus, thorough research is essential before approaching a volcanic area.

As a result, close-up volcano photography is only possible in a few regions of the world, with most photography likely to be limited to distant landscapes. The trick is to make the most of the opportunity presented—volcano photography is still a rare event for most, and any shot will be of some value.

Volcanoe Photography Tips: Telephoto Safety
Image © Photographing the Elements, Ilex 

Telephoto lenses for safety:

While telephoto perspective will likely be the only method of capturing eruptions—particularly the most powerful ones—resist the urge to zoom in too close. Scout out a location that offers some other
environmental elements for framing and context, which will make your image take on a more balanced and grounded quality.
Before making any trip, it is essential to perform copious research and to liaise with local organizations and professional bodies about the unique dangers of each individual eruption or region. Be aware that access to the region may even be refused. If the visit does go ahead, working with a local guide or regional expert, or joining up with an experienced photographer, is strongly recommended. Not only is this likely to keep the photographer safe, it is also much more likely to yield better results through the
benefit of local knowledge and expertise.

Presuming that all safety concerns have been met, the type of images that can be achieved from volcano photography will depend heavily on the type of eruption, its ferocity, the region in which it is occurring, and other local and unique factors. To a certain extent, it is simply a case of being prepared for numerous outcomes.

This technique is an extract from the Fire chapter of Photographing the Elements by Joseph Meehan and Gary Eastwood, courtesy of Ilex Press.
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