Bucket List: Photographing Lava as it Enters the Ocean

In Blog, Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park by JamesB0 Comments

I visited the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time as a budding landscape photographer in 2010. I was there with my wife and her family and I still didn’t even realize the importance of sunrise/sunset conditions for optimal shooting. We drove around the entire island in a week or so and I took pictures all along the way like a man obsessed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, lava was flowing into the ocean at the time and I could have easily seen and photographed it. It wasn’t until my first return trip that I learned that fact, after also learning that the lava had stopped flowing into the ocean in 2013 (around 2 years prior).

At that point, my heart sank, because volcanoes don’t follow any rules. It could be 1 day or 1,000,000 years before an outbreak reaches the ocean again. There’s no way of knowing! So when the 61G flow broke out from the Pu’u O’o Crater in the fall of 2016, I (along with countless other photographers) watched with bated breath as it slowly made its slow journey toward the ocean. It could have stopped at any moment, but it kept going, and when it finally reached the ocean I knew I had to get to the Big Island asap. I planned a trip right away, but it fell apart at the last minute. I was trying to fly last minute with points and the flights filled up. So it wasn’t until my Kauai workshop in January, 2017 that I finally made the trip over.

Well, two days before the Kauai workshop wrapped up I read that the breakout had entered a state of deflation. This basically means that the supply of magma to the ocean entry had gone down and the flow could cease to exist at any moment. My heart sank again. I could have waited all this time and arrived two days late!

As you can see from the photo, we made it! I took 4 students from my Kauai workshop over to the Big Island with me and we did a sunrise boat tour to the ocean entry with Shane Turpin of Lava Ocean Tours. Trust me on this, if you find yourself on the Big Island with lava flowing into the ocean, book with him and him alone! He has the biggest boat (4 250hp motors, more redundancy) and decades of experience getting close to lava while staying safe. Here’s a few things I learned as a first time goer…

Dress to Get Wet. REALLY Wet. Like, Totally Wet.

We did, but I didn’t realize just how wet. You either get wet on the way there or on the way back, depending on which side of the boat you sit on. My side got wet on the way there. For some reason, I wore jeans but had a rain jacket on top and put my rain cover over my camera bag. With each swell we rode over, a wall of water would fall onto us. Within minutes of leaving the shore, my jeans were 100% soaked. I kept my camera bag in my lap and while my gear was safe because of the rain cover, the shoulder straps and back of the bag got soaked as well. I recommend board shorts or waterproof pants, a rain jacket and either a rain cover for your camera bag or just a dry bag to throw your gear into.

Lens Choices

When you first get to the flow it’s still dark outside. This means autofocus will be tricky and fast glass will be vital to getting any keepers. My Sony f/4 lenses just couldn’t cut it. I threw on my 55mm f/1.8 and got some decent shots but not any real keepers as I was still trying to figure everything out on the fly. As the sun rose, so did available light and eventually I was able to shoot just fine with my 16-35 f/4 and 70-200 f/4. I recommend bringing two camera bodies with two lenses to keep lens changes to a minimum. Once your at the flow, you don’t have to worry much about getting splashed by salt water, but it’s still best to avoid changes lenses unless necessary. On our trip, the winds were somewhat low so getting a clear view of the lava flowing out from the rocks was nearly impossible. If we had a good view of the lava, I’d have used my 70-200 a lot more, but instead I found myself shooting wide with my 16-35 most of the time.

Settings

Shoot for speed! At the beginning, crank your ISO up as much as it takes to get the shot. 800, 1600, 6400, doesn’t matter. Just crank it up and shoot wide open to get your shutter speed in the 1/100th-1/1000th range or faster. You’re on a boat, which is constantly in motion, so dragging your shutter just isn’t going to cut it.

Autofocus

This was where I had the most trouble, and this is coming from a guy who literally wrote a book on focus ;-). Again, if you have a good view of the lava and rocks, autofocus will be much easier. But we didn’t, so most of the time we were photographing a big plume of steam rising into the air. When the light was low, my Sony a7RII had quite a bit of trouble trying to find focus. I couldn’t focus on the cliffs above and then recompose to the shoot the lava (for the 1-2 seconds we’d get a glimpse of it) because I was shooting at f/1.8. The depth of field was so shallow that the lava would be out of the focal plane. My best best was to use a single focus point in the middle and try to grab focus on the lava when we got a quick glance. It was very challenging, especially before sunrise!

About The Shot

I’m still going through the shots but this is probably one of the top 3. I chose this one because of the lava explosion, the steaming rocks floating in the foreground, the plume rising into the air and the dummy sitting on the cliff which gives the image some scale. The dummy chose to ignore the roped off viewing area set up by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in an effort to get as close as possible. What he probably wasn’t aware of is the fact that on New Years Eve, 25 acres of land at this very site collapsed into the ocean, including part of the cliff that contained the old viewing area. Nobody died, but that’s a miracle, really. The new viewing area is a few hundred yards back from the flow and some people just can’t live with that. He’s lucky to have made it back alive (assuming he did since I didn’t hear about it on the news).

It’s hard to describe the atmosphere that was there when I took this shoot, but you can watch a video of it on my behind-the-scenes Instagram account. The rocks floating in the water were molten lava just moments before and the water around them was boiling, sending steam into the air that got sucked toward the larger plume rising into the air. The explosions coming from within the plume were loud and intimidating and some of the chunks of lava were going 20-30 feet into the air. The air was hot and muggy and the water was about 120˚F. It was sensory overload to say the least!

This image was shot with my Sony a7RII and my Sony 16-35mm f/4 lens. ISO 800, f/4 and 1/250th of a second.

Let me know your thoughts, comments and questions below!