A video I made during my visit. Please watch to the end and enjoy.
A short time ago I returned from Iceland, where I spent two weeks shooting the newly-erupted volcano, which, for lack of a formal name, is called Fagradalsfjall (after a nearby mountain). As an avid volcano photographer, it was quite clear that I had to go, but as so often happens, many surprises were in store for this adventure.
Arrival in Iceland included a few hiccups. I flew from Israel via Frankfurt, and once I arrived in Keflavik Airport, I gladly presented my Covid vaccine certificate, only to be notified that vaccinations from countries outside the EU were not accepted, and that consequently I was formally in quarantine. I then had to undergo the most invasive covid test I’ve ever gone though, and headed to an apartment I had rented for the visit. Luckily, early the day after I was contacted by the same immigration officer who put me in quarantine, and who notified me that it was all a mistake and I was officially free. Happy days!
Let’s proceed to talking about the actual volcano. Fagradarsfjall is, relatively speaking, very accessible to people in decent physical shape. Arriving at the eruption site entails driving about 45 minutes from the Reykjavik area, and then a hike of about 1.5-2 hours, depending on the specific trail you choose and on where exactly you’re going. The hike, while not what I’d call easy, is also not hard, and I’ve seen families with children do it without too much difficulty. There are also plenty of helicopter providers who will gladly charge a hefty amount to bring you to the site without any hiking.
Beautiful patterns on the lava pool next to fissure #2. Fissures #1 (double cone, the farthest) and #3 (wizard’s hat) are also visible, as are the crowds warming themselves at the lava.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro, f/8, 1/30 sec, ISO 100, multi-row pano stitch
This proves a double-edged sword for the avid photographer, since one wants to visit the volcano often and shoot it over multiple days, but then again, there is a massive amount of people there, especially when weather is comfortable, and so, for example, getting an aerial shot without people in the frame proved difficult. For a moment I imagined what it would look like if we weren’t in times of pandemic, but I quickly had to chase the image of 50,000 people crowding the scene off of my mind. At least one good thing, I thought to myself…
|Multiple lava rivers spilling from fissure #2 after heavy snow. Is it me, or does this look a bit like Jabba the Hutt? Bring me the Wookie anyone?
DJI Mavic 2 Pro, f/7.1, 1/40 sec, ISO 100
I was lucky enough to witness the volcano evolve during my two weeks in Iceland. On the day of my first visit there was only one fissure, which, beautiful as it was, presented limited shooting options. Fast forward a few days, and another fissure erupted, then another, and by the time I left there were no less than 7 fissures erupting violently – an absolutely astounding sight.
I was sometimes standing with lava spewing up more than 180 degrees around me. Lava rivers were flowing down from the fissures, splitting, reuniting, flowing around other fissures, filling Geldingadalir valley and spilling to nearby valleys (this spill has since blocked one of the trails, making it much more difficult to get close to the fissures from the east). This, together with the fact that there was very little gas and smoke produced, made it easy to get close to the lava. In fact, fissure #4 erupted exactly where I was standing just a day before. Don’t tell my mom!
As far as photography goes, this volcano was a delight. Being a fissure eruption (rather than an explosive eruption), relatively small and somewhat contained in the valley (at least when I was shooting), this eruption was one I could view at very close distances. At times I was almost touching the lava when shooting with my DSLR. There were plenty of opportunities for land-based shooting, but to be completely honest, aerial shooting using a drone was by far the highlight. Seven fissures and lava rivers between them allowed for many unique and beautiful compositions, and even with 15-20 drones up in the air (not a rare occurrence), there was plenty of room for everyone with low risk of collisions.
Lava spilling from fissure #2 to a nearby valley.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro, f/6.3, 1/30 sec, ISO 100, vertical stitch
I’d like to mention that when shooting with a drone, it’s important to heed the height limit in Iceland (120m above ground level), since the sky is full of planes and helicopters with tourists and locals viewing and shooting the eruption from the air. Manned aircraft were not flying directly above the lava, but still, it’s good to keep a safe distance. The height limit meant I had to shoot panoramas instead of flying higher, to get some of the compositions I wanted. Still, on one occasion, a plane dove under my drone in an attempt to get close to the lava. It must have been 20-30 meters above the fissure.
I think the main guideline when flying a drone in such a situation is using common sense, rather than blindly following the law. When lots of helicopters and planes are in the sky – be extra careful and know that they too might break the law, dive and risk themselves and your drone. When weather and visibility conditions are too rough for manned aircraft – you can fly the drone more freely (worst case you lose it). Also, you can feel pretty free to fly straight above the lava, but be more careful when flying peripherally.
Regarding shooting conditions, the best I experienced were right after heavy snow. A common problem when shooting volcanoes is that dried lava simply looks horrible in pictures. It’s also way too dark to reveal much detail and create separation between the different elements of the composition. Snow on the ground and on the background adds much-needed depth and separation to an image, not to mention changes the whole color-scheme into a brighter, more cheerful one. Snow also reflects ambient light and color very well, and can shine in pink or blue, which also adds a lot to an image. Bluish snow contrasts the red lava beautifully. Finally, snowy areas in the image show much more detail and contribute to an interesting, saturated composition, especially when combined with several erupting fissures and winding lava rivers.
Fissure #2 created a lava pool, which at times spilled over, creating beautiful foregrounds, complementing a beautiful snowy background.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro, f/8, 1/30 sec, ISO 100, vertical stitch
It’s also worth mentioning that I took several relatively-long exposures using the drone. When wind isn’t too strong, the drone can be very stable – enough to allow 1/3-1/2 second exposures which are definitely sharp enough to use. Long exposure photography allows for the smearing of erupting lava and adds a dynamic feel to the image.
I highly recommend visiting Fagradarsfjall. Its accessibility and beauty make it arguably the best volcano experience available for the regular person today. Scientists are saying it could go on for years, but the more you wait, the harder it is going to be to get close to the fissures. Fissure eruptions are best when freshly opened, and so it doesn’t look as good as it used to look, nor is fresh lava access as good as it used to be. The time window for that was rather short.
Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.
If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia (happening as planned this June!), Greenland (happening as planned this July!), The Lofoten Islands and the Argentinean Puna.
Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.
Selected Articles by Erez Marom:
- Parallelism in Landscape Photography
- Winds of Change: Shooting changing landscapes
- Behind the Shot: Dark Matter
- On the Importance of Naming Images
- On Causality in Landscape Photography
- Shooting Kīlauea Volcano, Part 1: How to melt a drone
- The Art of the Unforeground
- Whatever it Doesn’t Take
- Almost human: photographing critically endangered mountain gorillas
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