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Sleeping giants

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Sleeping giants Shin Okamoto
15 Jun
Volcanoes are one of nature’s most spectacular sights and make for superb photography, as long as you take the correct safety precautions first

Volcanoes are spectacular and destructive in equal measure, which makes them both an exciting and highly dangerous subject for the camera. For that reason, the first advice any photographer should note is identifying the type of volcano that looms large in the landscape ahead.

There are three different types: active, dormant and extinct. An extinct volcano is defined by vulcanologists as one that hasn’t erupted in at least 10,000 years, while a dormant volcano may not have erupted for hundreds, even thousands of years, but is expected to do so at any time.

It may seem like stating the obvious, but active volcanoes are those that erupt continuously, such as Mt Etna in Sicily. But even Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji, which last erupted in 1707, is regarded as active because of the frequency of other seismic activity – mostly tremors and earthquakes – in the area. Both Etna and Fuji-san attract hordes of tourists and climbers each year. In fact, Fuji-san is the single most popular tourist site in Japan – more than 200,000 people climb to the 3,776 metre summit every year.

By contrast, Mt Etna is in an almost continuous state of eruption and frequently lights up the night sky with glowing red lava flows down its flanks. Although one of the world’s most active volcanoes, it also attracts thousands of visitors every year and supports a tourist infrastructure that belies its volatility.

There are two ski resorts on Etna with a cable car and chair lifts, and a road within walking distance of the southern crater. There is even a Round-Etna narrow-gauge railway, built in the 1890s, which runs around the mountain!



The accessibility to Etna serves to demonstrate how approachable volcanoes can be and it is no surprise perhaps, given the picture potential of an erupting Mt Etna, to see why active volcanoes are more popular with photographers than the less risky dormant variety.

But even among active volcanoes, the nature of the eruptions can vary significantly and influence the type of photograph to be taken. For instance, Calbuco in southern Chile is an example of a Vulcanian-type eruption, in which a dense cloud of ash-laden gas explodes and rises high above the peak.

Calbuco erupted on 22 April without warning and a 20km exclusion zone was enforced, thereby limiting photography to distant views. However, the images were still spectacular, especially at night when viewed from Puerto Montt, a coastal city of nearly 200,000 inhabitants, only 30km away. At night, the bright orange sprays of magma became more visible through the ash cloud, with the lights of the city reflected in the sea making a colourful foreground for the camera.

By contrast, Etna is an example of a Strombolian eruption (named after Stromboli, another Italian volcano), whereby massive clots of molten lava explode from the summit crater to form fiery luminous arcs through the sky. For the photographer, this makes for a more impressive image, particularly when framed close-up. Furthermore, when these fiery clots land on the flanks of the volcano they combine to form bright glowing streams of viscous lava.



Of course, a volcanic region is one of the most volatile and life-threatening environments on the planet with unstable ground, intra-crater tremors and earthquakes, molten projectiles and extreme temperatures.

Just as dangerous are the toxic gases that rise from even the most innocuous looking fissure. Typical volcanic emissions include sulphur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide. In short, no visit to an active volcanic region should be attempted without extensive research into the area and an authorised guide.

Etna is one of the few active volcanoes on Earth where close-up photography is possible. Another is Kilauea, on big island Hawaii, which is the most active volcano on Earth. Kilauea is a different type of volcano to Etna or Calbuco, producing fissure-type eruptions whereby very fluid lava spurts from a fissure on the volcano’s rift zone before flowing down the slope to form a lava field.

These fields are deceptive, looking like nothing more than large areas of dark, fudge-like mounds. In reality, they are dangerously unstable: areas that seem hard and dried can be hiding red-hot lava beneath and collapse without notice.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park uses small orange flags to mark out trails through the lava fields and safe areas to erect your camera tripod. That said, when positioning yourself for an image of a spurting lava field, be careful not to get to too close. Not only can the heat burn both you and your equipment, but some of the gasses emitted from these fissures are also corrosive and damaging to your equipment.



Whether viewing an erupting volcano from a great distance or carefully following a trail through an active lava field, it is the fiery glowing colours of the molten rock that provide an obvious focal point for the camera. Magma is predominantly red, whether viewed by day or night, but it is in the evening hours that it really glows red hot, standing out from the darkness like a liquid boiling light.

Lens choice depends on your subject distance, but the constant changing and moving nature of the subject matter means a selection of zoom lenses are advisable. A wide-angle or standard zoom (say 24–70mm) plus a telephoto zoom (80–400mm) will cover most eventualities and give you flexibility from a fixed position, while keeping lens changes to a minimum.

Like any landscape photograph, you should also be aware of the time of day at your location, your shooting direction, the sunset time and, of course, the weather forecast. A dry still day is best, but active volcanoes often attract inclement weather – it is a fact that major eruptions are followed by lightning strikes and storms.

That said, if framing an erupting volcano from the perimeter of an exclusion zone, it might be worth sticking around for sunset and getting yourself into position to frame the fiery focal point against the western sky, if at all possible. The prospect of sunset creating a colourful pink and yellow backdrop to a plume of smoke and ash, or the red spurts of spewing magma is an opportunity not to be missed.



When night falls, lava becomes the dominant light source, as well as the focal point of your image. With the camera and zoom lens on a tripod, you immediately have a range of framing possibilities, and also the stable support you need to experiment with shutters speeds and special effects. The one drawback is the dynamic range (contrast) of the scene; exposure readings will vary considerable from the darkness of the night sky to the burning brightness of hot lava.

Attaining detail from both extremes will be impossible in just one exposure, so the camera’s high dynamic range (HDR) facility will come into play here. This is a feature on most modern DSLR cameras and involves the rapid burst of three or more frames of the scene, each at a different exposure value, which is then blended to form a single frame.



Like any subject, erupting volcanoes and fiery lava fields look different from every angle. Obviously, the scale of the former means the latter is quicker and easier to view from different directions, but even zooming your lens from one end to the other can produce a much altered perspective that wasn’t immediately obvious. Many professional photographers hire helicopters or drive to other high vantage points in the region for a different view of an eruption, something that was evident in the pictures that emerged from the recent Calbuco eruption.

Of course, volcanic activity produces extreme heat and heat haze, in much the same way as the air shimmers above a hot desert. This can soften images and can even reduce the effectiveness of the camera’s autofocus system. While you can always focus manually, there is little to be done to counteract the heat haze-induced blur, apart from waiting for occasions where the effect isn’t as marked. But, as the saying goes: ‘if you can’t stand the heat...’



Use zoom lenses to encompass a range of focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto. This will enable a variety of composition options from a fixed position and keep lens changes to a minimum – which in turn will keep dust and other fragments from getting into your camera and damaging it. 

Wait till nightfall if possible and get into position to include the sunset in a shot. Assuming the weather conditions are favourable, you may be able to photograph an erupting volcanic peak against the pink and yellow sky of sunset.

Use a tripod, particularly if photographing at night. A tripod will allow you to experiment with movement – spitting lava and arcs of magma projectiles – by using slow shutter speeds.


Travel to any area of volcanic activity without first researching the location, its accessibility and the weather. NEVER move beyond a designated viewing area or marked trail.

Get too close to hot lava. The heat may not only burn you but also melt less heat resistant parts of your equipment. Heat haze might also affect the autofocus system’s ability to lock on, so switch to manual focus in that case.

Shoot from the same angle. Like any landscape photograph, changing lens focal lengths, shooting direction and angle of view can make a major difference to the subject composition.



Eruptions that Shook the World by Clive Oppenheimer, Cambridge University Press, £22.99, hardback

Ring of Fire: An Encyclopaedia of the Pacific Rim’s Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes by Bethany Hinga, ABC-CLIO, £56, hardback

Dangerous Neighbours: Volcanoes and Cities by Grant Heiken, Cambridge University Press, £19.99, hardback



Accessory option: Camera hand strap

When working around a burning hot landscape, you need to keep a good grip on your camera. A hand strap such as the SpiderPro (£45) will certainly help. Memory foam on the inner side moulds to the shape of your hand for greater comfort and support. In addition, a durable material slides between the camera and any tripod, making it the first truly universal hand strap.



Accessory option: Backpack 

The new Vanguard Veo 42 (£80) is a lightweight pack, designed for the photographer on the go, but what separates it is its innovative tripod-carrying system. This can double as a safe place for a long lens, and your tripod can instead be strapped to the bottom. The Veo 42 also includes many pockets, removable padded camera inserts, and a rain cover.



Camera option: Mega pixel DSLR 

50.6 megapixels. That’s the headline feature of the new Canon EOS 5DS cameras (£3,200 body only) – the world’s highest resolution, full-frame DSLRs. The ‘R’ version (pictured) is distinguished by the absence of low-pass filter (LPF) on the CMOS image sensor to deliver even finer edge sharpness and detail on landscape scenes. Specs include a 61-point AF system, 50 to 6400 ISO range, 5fps burst shooting and a fixed 3.2in, 1.04m dot LCD monitor.


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