Lava Photography: Melting Shoes and Cool Shots

It’s not your everyday subject, but lava rates highly on the photography risk/reward scale. I recently had occasion to travel with two of the best lava shooters in the world, Bruce Omori and Tom Kuali’i of Extreme Exposure on the Big Island of Hawaii.

I had timed my visit when the lava was flowing into the ocean, which offers a rare opportunity to get close to the lava as well as experiment with composition while everything around you is burning. Here are some observations on one of the more intense shoots I’ve done.

Lava moves slowly over land, but cools quickly. As it hardens, the lava flows underneath while the surface pops with a metallic ping that sends the surface shards bouncing to an unheard tune. This usually makes a bridge over to another area to shoot from, and creates a surreal experience as you put your foot down with feigned trust that you won’t crash through the newly formed crust and exfoliate your feet. But don’t stand still or your shoes will melt, and don’t get cut off as a lava flow moves in behind you. Camping to wait for the lava to move elsewhere is not recommended.

Lava is hot. Unimaginably hot. Singe-your-eyebrows-off-if-you’re-within-20-feet hot. Bruce had me pose next to a flow, and I crouched there for about 10 seconds before it became unbearable. The rubber feet on your tripod will melt, so you need to screw in special metal feet that grip well. The heat also shimmers off the surface, which will lead to soft pictures, similar to when you take a picture of a roadway or horizon on a hot summer day. Your autofocus may “hunt” as well (hunting is when your autofocus can’t get a read on the subject and focuses in and out to try to get a bead on it). A faster shutter speed or different angle into the lava (or hot horizon), mixed with manual focus on a tripod can sometimes help with sharpness.

Lava is bright red/orange. If you’ve ever taken a picture of a red tulip, you may have experienced a disappointment in the resulting picture, where the red seemed almost too bright, or the flowers had no definition in them. This over-saturation is similar to overexposure that can happen with colors instead. To rectify, look at your in-camera picture saturation setting, and make it more neutral. For example, if you typically shoot in the “vivid” setting, or have your camera saturation increased, reduce more to “neutral” or reduce the saturation compensation.

Also, look at the RGB histogram and reduce your exposure to move the red channel more to the left, similar to what you would do with the overall exposure when looking at blown-out highlights. Lava suffers somewhat from this same problem; the dynamic range of super-bright red lava against a black background in the dark is very wide.

Lava creates steam when it enters the water. There are some dangerous ways to shoot lava flowing into the ocean waves, and Bruce and Tom can tell you all about them. I can tell you a long lens and some distance creates good results and calmer nerves. But the extra challenge, in addition to the heat haze softening focus, was the steam created by the lava and ocean meeting. Most shots were in anticipation of a favorable wind, and auto-focus was again turned off to avoid the hunting problem.

Using live view and a Hoodman loupe to ensure sharpness meant I didn’t have to worry about focus as I waited for the mist to clear. But I also wanted both silky water and silky lava. As mentioned in the previous article on shooting water, I typically used a one to two second exposure, which meant a bigger chance for the steam to interfere with the picture. The great thing about shooting digital is that you can take more pictures, allowing the memory card to fill up in exchange for some more in-depth curating later.

Lava is safer to shoot from a helicopter. Aerial shots are some of the most unique perspectives you can create, whether from a plane, helicopter or drone. But with many restrictions on where you can fly a drone, and the speed and flight path of an airplane restricting the amount and quality of shooting you can do, a helicopter is a favorite for many shooters. With lava, a helicopter offers both a safer distance, as well as the ability to hover to get the shot you want. There are a few keys to shooting from a helicopter. First, try to find a company that flies helicopters without doors. You won’t have a window in front of your lens, and you’ll have the freedom to pivot directly down as well as out.

Next, ensure you have a long lens, preferably a zoom lens. My go-to is the Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 for my D810. I can zoom in and out to capture abstract or a wider scene. You may want to carry two bodies, including one with a wider lens, such as a 24-70mm to cover an even wider scene. Exchanging lenses in a helicopter can end in tears—you and your camera(s) need straps, really good straps. Most pilots don’t let cameras on board without a sturdy strap. A 1,000 ft drop into bubbling lava is not healthy for you or your camera.

Lava is dangerous. At one point, we found a shot on the edge of one of the flows. While I’m not usually prone to vertigo, standing at the edge of a 100-ft cliff with lava flowing under melting boots into raging waves crashing below made me back off in self-preservation. Bruce thought nothing of it, and snapped this shot with my gear while I curled up in a ball by my bag.

In the end, lava is a fantastic subject. Yes, it’s difficult to shoot. Yes, you have to make sure your equipment isn’t exposed to the glass crystals floating in the air, or doesn’t melt, or isn’t consumed by molten balls of toxic fire. And you have to make sure you don’t fall in. But ultimately, composition tricks that work with other subjects (capturing movement, lines and patterns, depth of field, abstracts, etc.) make for ultra-unique and captivating photos.

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Frits is PicMonkey’s chief executive monkey, with a long history building software in the graphic and gaming space. Frits lives and breathes nature photography, finding deep meditation in the outdoors and drinking in anything mother nature has to offer; from walks over active lava fields, to doorless helicopter flights over remote landscapes, to immersion into a den of feeding grizzly bears, he’s capable of running away from them all.