The Basics of Photographing Lava Flows

The Basics of Photographing Lava Flows

Over the years we’ve spent working together as photographers, Jay and I have fallen in love with the Big Island of Hawaii. There is so much diversity on this island in the middle of the Pacific – deserts, rainforests, grassy plains, beaches with black or white sand (there’s even a green sand beach!), waterfalls, mountains, and, of course, an active volcano! We rented bikes when we visited recently and rode out with our camera gear strapped to our backs to see the lava flowing into the ocean. Shooting the lava is always the highlight of the trip but photographing flowing lava can be challenging. Here’s what I recommend for getting great shots in a place like this.

Bring a Tripod to the Lava Fields

When you can’t get close to the flow, a long lens can be useful and I often use a long shutter speed to capture the motion and color of the lava and smoke. Without a tripod, a shot like the one above is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. You need a sturdy tripod that can handle a heavy camera system even in windy conditions. In addition, while photographing lava flows, you’re working on rough ground and it’s likely to be hot at times. The soles of our hiking boots show obvious damage from the heat and rough ground on our first trip to photograph surface flows at Kalapana but our Induro CLT104 tripod stood up to it beautifully. This is a great place to use metal spikes instead of rubber tips on your tripod feet. A little extra grip is a good thing out here. It can also get windy by the sea, so a sturdy tripod with a hook at the base of the center column is really useful. I hang my camera bag on the hook when the wind gets intense. That added weight keeps my tripod perfectly steady for long exposure photography. We also recommend using a good ball head that can handle long, heavy lenses.

Choosing the Right Camera and Lens for Photographing Lava

Give yourself time to figure out which lens will work best based upon the distances you are working with and the composition that you want. A long zoom lens will let you capture closeup shots without getting too close to the heat while also letting you zoom in and out for the best composition. For this trip, I rented a Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens. With the cropped-sensor body I was working with, I was using an effective 105-300mm focal length. This combination provided sufficient reach to capture the lava from a distance.

New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens

Focusing and Intense Heat – What Photographers Should Know

The first time we visited the lava fields back in 2005, we learned that focusing on distant lava was difficult because of heat distortion. Thermals created by the intense heat can fool focusing sensors and leave a whole collection of images out of focus.

So, rather than focusing on the lava itself, I focus on nearby rocks and, in some cases, I will focus manually. Be sure to zoom in and check your focus on the LCD now and then to be sure that you are getting the sharpness you want.

The Right Time of Day to Shoot Lava

If you want to capture details in the lava, the smoke, and the surrounding cliffs and sky then be ready to shoot after the sun sets but before it’s totally dark out. Another option is to go out early in the morning and capture the flow just before sunrise. During the “blue hour” there’s a nice balance between the ambient light and the light near the flow. Rich colors start to show themselves as the light fades and the smoke is absolutely beautiful when it reflects the glow of the lava.

The window of opportunity is short and during this time the light is changing fairly quickly. Get yourself set up well in advance and be ready to shoot when the time is right. Make sure you check your exposure frequently and make adjustments as the light changes.

Allowing Creativity for Interesting Lava Shots

Experiment with different shutter speeds. I used a long shutter speed to highlight the smooth flow of the lava as it fell in the picture above. A fast shutter speed will freeze the flow and is great for capturing details in cooling lava. The patterns produced by flowing lava are simply amazing. If you are planning a trip to the Big Island, give yourself plenty of time. You may want to visit the location more than once due to changing conditions. Don’t forget to explore the hardened lava beds surrounding the flow. The bizarre patterns formed from old flows are fascinating and provide ample opportunities for detail and macro photography.

Safety Around Lava

Please remember that this is a difficult location so be smart out there. Bring along plenty of water and be sure you have a headlamp or flashlight if you will be hiking out or returning in the dark. We’re not kidding when we say this is rough terrain. Wear rugged shoes and long pants to protect your feet and legs in case you fall – lava rocks will leave you bloody if you fall! Bring your sunscreen for daytime hiking and please, PLEASE stay behind the ropes. Those ropes are there for a reason – to keep all of us safe. Large sections of the cliff sometimes fall without warning and lava below the surface can cause unexpected collapse. Show your respect for the power of nature and for Pelé herself. Learn more about lava dangers on USGS.

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There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks, brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow, silent snowfall and raging summer storms…each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

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