extreme photography by Joshua Mandell November 27, 2020
When it comes to the extreme, lava photography requires an intense level of devotion, courage, and resistance, peering into the heart of a volcano and remaining all at once, at the mercy of something far greater than oneself.
“Liquid Light.” That’s how photographer G Brad Lewis describes lava on his website. There, he showcases dangerously close and incredibly beautiful pictures of molten rock. The stuff spurts up from inside mountains. It flows across the land in a half-cooled state, casting its glow into the very stars.
If lava is liquid light, it’s earned that name. Lava photography, as intense and mystifying as it is, is in large part that way because of how lava creates and interacts with light.
The glow of lava is intense and it is mesmerizing. There’s no question that volcano photography has a secure niche in the world of extreme photography.
But how exactly does one get those shots of liquid light without getting melted?
Lewis’s own site notes that he wears a respirator to keep the fumes out of his lungs. Lava is so incredibly hot that even standing near it is extremely dangerous.
The cameras Lewis uses certainly aren’t resistant to the resulting damage, either. Taking pictures of volcanoes takes a toll on your equipment, and cameras are forced to be swapped in and out frequently.
Volcanic eruptions can be explosive events, coming with little warning, but they can also be slow and drawn-out. For example, Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, where a lot of volcano photography takes place.
As long as you keep your distance from the lava, you’re relatively safe, but when you go up for a close shot you’ll need protective gear. In the video above, Shawn Talbot, another volcano photographer, reports that he feels the heat when standing on a boat twenty feet from the lava flow.
Once he decides to get closer, though, he has to cover his exposed skin for protection. Protective gloves and a gas mask help to prevent injury, but even then there’s a limit to how close you can get to lava.
In fact, what you see above is a fairly relaxed case – the lava is half-cooled, as you see in Talbot’s photographs, and is far from the source, which is why he’s able to survive standing so close to the molten rock.
A full-on volcanic eruption is many times more unstable. There is a good reason that only an expert extreme photographer should be capturing something so dangerous.
It isn’t just lava that poses a danger to would-be photographers. Huge plumes of ash and steam burst up from the site of a volcanic eruption. The range for photographers is far greater than lava’s bubbling, and these phenomena are extremely and dangerous. Pyroclasts – airborne fragments of volcanic material – can pose a great danger to you as well.
Plus, there’s no avoiding the damage to delicate, heat-sensitive equipment that you’ll deal with. That includes not just the cameras and peripherals, but the clothes you wear. High-quality, insulated boots are a necessity for volcano photographers – plus the ubiquitous gas masks and thick, protective gloves.
Another quick safety tip: in Steve Talbot’s video, he stuck his hand into the water to test it while near a lava flow. Now, no doubt, Talbot (being an expert in lava photography) knew about how hot it was and was simply demonstrating for the cameras.
But if that lava had been closer, or there had been more of it, the water could have gotten hot enough to cause burns.
Some videographers and photographers have been able to get close to lava even mid-eruption, though, with the aid of modern technology.
Camera drones are a gift to photography for many reasons – and perhaps most exciting is their ability to get extreme shots in dangerous places. No human is going to crawl down the bowl of a volcano’s crater to film the lava. But a drone? It doesn’t need to come back.
Lava photography requires an intense combination of safety, diligence, patience, and yes, even advanced technology. But more than anything, it requires a courage and perseverance nearly unrivaled in other professions.
Lava photographers, as in most daring pursuits, is only for the bold and creative. Risking everything — all for that perfect shot.