To photograph the gates of hell, bring tough equipment, a plan, and guts

You don’t need us to tell you volcanoes are one of Earth’s most powerful and destructive forces of nature.

Even looking at a photo of one brings a sense of awe and fear. Whether it’s shooting red-hot magma thousands of feet into the air or oozing lava trails into the ocean, volcanic eruptions offer some of the most spectacular photographic opportunities.

The 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull was one of the most active in recent years – so violent that its ash cloud kept air traffic across the world grounded. Fred Kamphues, a photographer based in the Netherlands, was able to capture the event up close.

Kamphues was on scene to shoot large lava fountains, steam explosions, and ash clouds. But Eyjafjallajökull wasn’t his only encounter: Over the years he has travelled to globe in search of volcanic activity. Kamphues shares with us how he got into photographing such a dangerous subject, as well as some tips for those looking to photograph less active volcanoes in places such as Hawaii and Italy.

How did you get into photography, and specifically volcanoes?

“Toxic gases, steam explosions, and lava bombs can happen suddenly and are deadly.”

I got my first camera at the age of five. It was a simple box camera, shooting black and white roll film. But it helped me learn the basics on composition and exposure. When I was a bit older, I was allowed to use my father’s 35mm Voigtlander. National Geographic magazine subsequently helped me to develop a taste for photography and travelling, so I took mostly pictures during vacations. I was always fascinated by photography and went professional 15 years ago. Digital photography has helped me to learn fast, because of the instant feedback from being online and social media.

Volcanoes are one of my favorite subjects, mainly because they are so dramatic. But you only get an occasional opportunity to witness a live eruption. A lot of my work is related to covering large science projects and events, such as the Very Large Telescope in Chile and various space projects in Europe.

Do you prefer shooting them from helicopters or on the ground? What are the advantages/disadvantages of both?

I prefer to be on the ground, because you have more time to find a good vantage point. With a helicopter you mainly rely on the eye of the pilot. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Helicopters are also notorious for vibrations. Low-light photography and vibrations are not a good combination. But sometimes it’s the only option to get close.

A helicopter flies close to one of the craters of the 2010 Fimmvörðuháls eruption in Iceland.
A helicopter flies close to one of the craters of the 2010 Fimmvörðuháls eruption in Iceland. Fred Kamphues

Have you had some close calls with lava flows?

In 2010 I had set up my tripod near the Eyjafjallajokull lava flow to make a time-lapse. I left my camera alone and went away to shoot with another camera. When I came back after 20 minutes, the lava flow was very close to the tripod. I took the camera away and a few seconds later a glowing rock the size of wheelbarrow fell down where the camera was a few moments before. Lucky camera!

Where are some of the best places you have traveled to shoot volcanic eruptions?

All volcano eruptions I have visited were extremely spectacular. But the two eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland in 2010 (lava flow and ash cloud) are definitely on the top of my list. They were quite accessible and relatively safe as well. If you want to see a live eruption, Stromboli in Italy and Kilauea in Hawaii are probably your best bet. Check the activity online, before travelling to such faraway destinations, to avoid disappointment.

“If you want to see a live eruption, Stromboli in Italy and Kilauea in Hawaii are probably your best bet.”

What are some of the biggest challenges of on-location shoots?

Safety and getting permits. For example, the ongoing eruption in Holuhraun in Iceland is completely closed off for the public, due to large emissions of toxic gases. I still haven’t visited this eruption. Weather is a factor too, especially in Iceland. Sometimes you have to be very patient and hang around for days.

What gear do you use?

I’ve been using Nikon gear since I turned pro. The glass is excellent, which is the most important factor. The new line of full-frame cameras is phenomenal and the Nikon Professional Service is outstanding. Of course, reliability is very important too, so I store my data exclusively on SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash cards and solid state drives. You can’t re-shoot an eruption after it happened. I rely on SanDisk Extreme memory cards to capture images under extreme conditions each and every time. With a background in spacecraft engineering, I know what extreme environments can do to high-tech equipment. Robustness of my gear is of paramount importance.

What other tips can you pass onto those brave enough to shoot volcanoes?

Volcanoes are very dangerous and unpredictable. Toxic gases, steam explosions, and lava bombs can happen suddenly and are deadly. Always do proper research, obtain advice from scientists, bring a gas mask, and hire a local guide.

Fred Kamphues in action in Iceland.
Fred Kamphues in action in Iceland. Michi Schaefer

With a strong appetite for travel and adventure, many of Fred Kamphues’ projects have epic proportions. His shoots range from the heights of the Andes to the depths of marine life throughout the world, from weeks of desolation in the Australian Outback to close encounters with rumbling volcanoes. For ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Kamphues travelled to 13 European countries in 20 days, shooting landmark sites in each country. It took 15,384 images and 263GB of data to compile 286 astonishing ultra high-resolution panorama’s of the Louvre, the Colosseum, and the London Eye, among others.

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