Long Exposure Eruptions – Volcano Photography

slow shutter Iceland volcano

When your local volcano erupts, grab your camera and tripod and head out for a Long Exposure Photography Adventure. There is nothing like being with other photographers who want to be there until it gets dark, so choose your company wisely.

All that fire spitting, smoke and ash can give your photos a nice slow shutter feel. Certainly worth driving across a glacier in a huge jeep in a wacky race of jeeps, snowmobiles, snow cats, skiers and hikers. The jeeps win with their huge tyres that are deflated to around 10lbs so they can float on the deep snow.

Long Exposure Magic

Electric Volcano

The image above was taken just 15 KM (10 miles) from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjalljökull in 2010.  The lighting bolts are too quick to rely on your reaction times, so I took a series of 20 second exposures which would normally capture a lightning strike.  This long exposure captured 2 or 3 strikes which give the photo good dynamics and shows the power of the volcano.

Private Northern Lights Tours

Fimmvörðurháls Crater Eruption

This was taken on the 30th March 2010. The eruption occurred on a famous hiking trail between the Eyjafjalljökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers.

Fimmvörðurháls Crater eruption
Fimmvörðurháls Crater Eruption 24mm @ f/8 & 1/2 second.

The exposure time here is 1/2 second. This sort of shutter speed requires a tripod – but could be achieved with careful use of a monopod. As the erupting lava travels quite quickly it created lines of fire during the exposure.  Volcanoes are unpredictable, so my technique was to shoot several frames at regular intervalls until my shutter matches a good size explosion.  The long exposure affects the steam and the result is mixed.

Dragon Smoke

Luckily, I was with photographers and we were all keen for the light to fade.  In the darkness, the volcano has more contrast.  This was the closest I got to the crater and took many shots.  I was pleased to see that in one of the photos, the steam appeared in the shape of a dragon.

Fimmvorudhals Volcano
Dragon shaped smoke at the Fimmvorudhals Crater Volcano.
LENSCanon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
FOCAL LENGTH24.0 mm (23.4 mm in 35mm)

Straight Eight

Eight Seconds is the longest exposure time in this article. Such a long exposure on the erupting lava is not so beneficial because we start to lose detail in the core. However, the moving smoke took on a new life during the 8 second long exposure.  For this photo I borrowed my friend’s Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L.  I only used this lends for about 15 minutes, but love the sharpness.

Eyjafjalljökull Ash Plume

… or not.

Interestingly, the first photo is 2 seconds exposure, but doesn’t look like a long exposure at all.  The extra 3 seconds of exposure in the second photo has made a dramatic difference to the communication of movement.  There are 2 factors that affect the exposure needed to communicate movement in a still photo.  One factor is the distance to your subject.  If you are close to the eruption, like I was at Fimmvörðurháls, the moving objects travel further across the frame.  The ash in the distant Eyjafjallajökull eruption was moving tiny distances in the frame.  Using a powerful telephoto is a remedy if you can’t get close to the volcano.  The other factor, is the type of object and the speed it moves at.  A volcano spits out tiny lava stones at quite a high speed – they can travel around 100 feet.  Compare this to smoke which travels much slower in comparison.

2 secs

Photo Info

LENSCanon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
FOCAL LENGTH78.0 mm (76.1 mm in 35mm)
Eyjafjallajokull Ash Plume
Eyjafjallajokull volcano

Photo Info

LENSCanon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM

Can you think of a natural situation where you might have 2 different objects moving at different speeds?


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By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.

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