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Capturing the Earth's Pulse
Tips from G. Brad Lewis on photographing an active volcano near you

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

G. Brad Lewis

As the glacier light blinds him from his perch, Brad Lewis is enjoying another gorgeous day in Alaska. Cold and gray, but beautiful.

His vacation home in remote Homer, Alaska is in drastic contrast to his place of work, but he loves both places just the same. You see, Lewis is part of an exclusive group of photographers who are few, but their work distinctive. Known as the "volcano man"--he captures active volcanoes and volcanic activity for a living.

While there are more than 1,500 known active volcanoes on the planet, Kilauea Volcano, on the Big Island of Hawaii, is the most active. And, because of its beauty and accessibility, it has become Lewis' main volcanic office. He even lives on its summit.

This summer he is taking a break from all the volcanic activity to cool his toes in scenic Alaska to gear up for another season of capturing volcanoes for some of the most influential publications in the country. His photos have been featured on the covers of Life, Natural History, and GEO, and have been broadcast on NBC, CBS and the Discovery Channel.

Braving caustic surfaces to capture thick molten waves is his life's work. Driving him is the need to expose to the world that the Earth is indeed alive. He often risks injury to get "the" image of lava streaming into the ocean just yards away from where he stands.

Sometimes he arranges for a helicopter ride which will drop him near the active vents 3,000-4000 feet up the mountain. This is the very source of the magma flowing downhill into the ocean. To accomplish this, Lewis takes several days of provisions and sets up camp in a position where the dangers of toxic fumes are minor.

"I choose sites where I can always have an escape plan if I have to move fast," he says.

He often carries up to 80 lbs of equipment with a range of camera bodies, lenses and tripods including a Pentax 67 medium format and a Nikon system. Over the years, Lewis has drummed up a special relationship with the scientists in the area who have helped him gain the access to restricted areas in order to capture the Earth's pulse. In 2004, he published Creation in Motion, a collaboration with volcanologist Jim Kauahikaua, the Scientist in Charge at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

In his popular series of images, "LavArt," which he sells on his website, he describes his techniques.

"I utilize movement, light, and texture of volcanic activity to open human emotions to the pulse of the Earth."

We caught up with Lewis between his Alaskan adventures on Monday and grilled him a bit: What kind of gear, including clothing and provisions, does it take to brave the heat of this beat?

Brad Lewis: The kind of gear you are not attached to. It has to be the best. But be prepared for accelerated wear and tear. Photo vests dissolve like tissue paper in the acidic conditions of an eruption. Cameras get fried. Lens glass gets pitted. Boot soles melt. But if I come away with great photos, then it's worth it. I always carry a respirator specifically designed for volcanic fumes, and a hard hat to protect myself from flying lava. I also carry a facemask, gloves, and thick clothing to protect myself from the heat.

ii: How many cameras/lights/tripods should you take on a shoot?

BL: I prefer two set-ups when I'm in the Zone. To record hot lava in low light, I think film still has the advantage. Digital isn't quite there yet for properly capturing the intense contrasts. So if I have a Pentax 6x7 working on a 30-second exposure on one tripod, and the latest Nikon digital on the other, I am bound to be getting the goods. I always have backup cameras in my pack.

ii: What does it take to get "the" shot? How can you estimate where or when an event might occur?

B.L: Knowledge, patience, and appreciation are mandatory. Modern technology has made it easy to keep track of volcanic activity. Daily online updates are available. It takes being there in the field. Since you never know when it's really going to be at its best, the more time out in the action, the better chances to get the glory shots.

ii: Do you need special permissions for access to restricted areas? How do you gain permission? Has access over the years become more difficult? Easier?

B.L.: At present, access to restricted areas is extremely limited. For a decade, my permit through the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory allowed me to go anywhere. I would take a chopper into the active vent area and stay for a week at a time recording the action. Now it is much more complicated to get legal access to these areas. But there are usually areas open to the public that provide great photo ops.

ii: Describe the photographic benefits to understanding the basic science of the volcanic progress?

B.L.: If you know how volcanoes work, you will better know where to be, and when. It will also add to safety and appreciation for the forces at work.

ii: How do you believe your work can help the public's understanding of the environment?

B.L.: I try to make images that capture the essence of the living planet we call Earth. This planet is alive like our own bodies are alive. It is a dynamic living organism. Volcanoes are important factors in creating the conditions on this globe that creates and sustains life, as we know it.

ii: Describe your relationship with the scientists who cover volcanoes?

B.L.: I work closely with the scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. I have made my work available to them for many years. Not only does this assist them greatly with their visual needs, but also it has helped me to get access into restricted areas.

ii: How do you photograph lava flowing on to the surface? How close can you get? When do you use telephoto?

B.L.: Composition dictates where I go. I get as close as I need to, but with 2,000-degree lava, there is a limit. Proper clothing is a must. I will use a long lens when safety is a concern.

ii: How stable is the direction of lava after an eruption? Is there guesswork or is it predictable?

B.L.: Kilauea Volcano is a fairly predictable volcano. There are gravitational patterns to the flow. But there are also surprises. It is the most active volcano on earth. Anything can happen.

ii: How do you minimize the weight of what you need to carry on a shoot like this?

B.L.: At present, I am really enjoying the benefits of the digital age. I will often carry just a Nikon D200 with an 18-200 mm lens and a light tripod and ball head. A handful of memory cards are a lot lighter than the 100 rolls of film I would carry with me. The older I get, the lighter I like to go.

ii: Where are some locations you photograph volcanoes? Hot and cold climates?

B.L.: Mostly in Hawaii, but I have enjoyed hot spots in New Zealand and Alaska quite a bit as well.

ii: Are there certain seasons/times of the year that lend themselves to capturing volcanoes?

B.L.: No. The eruption has a mind of its own. There are no seasonal factors that influence the eruption.

ii: What about a particular time of day?

B.L.: The magic hours of dawn and dusk rule. These days of digital capture, many photographers think they can just tweak it later, but they will never get the same results as being there in the saturated light of dawn and dusk.

ii: Talk about the equipment you use? Cameras and accessories? How does the equipment change for a night shoot versus a day shoot?

B.L.: Equipment is only so important. I don't like to get caught up in the usual hype of one brand being better than the other. Personally, I use Nikon gear. Always have, probably always will. If film is involved, I prefer a Pentax 67II. I always use gitzo carbon fiber tripods and high quality ball heads.

ii: Any close calls?

B.L.: A few. Long stories...It's really about intuition. If something feels dangerous, it usually is. When the small voice inside tells me to get the hell out of there, I don't question it.

ii: Any current projects? Other books planned?

B.L.: I recently completed my latest book project, The Red Volcanoes, with a colleague from Reunion Island, Kilauea's sister volcano. This was published in London for global distribution. I have a few more books in the works. And a new line of fine art prints that will soon be released.

ii: Describe how the collaboration worked on your book Creation in Motion published in 2004? Was it driven by the photos or the content?

B.L.: On this project, the photos basically are the content. I wanted my friend and colleague Jim Kauahikaua, to write the supplemental text. Jim is a Hawaiian volcanologist, and the Scientist in Charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. I wanted his unique perspective to complement the images.

ii: Besides the obvious of getting in the way, are there any other chronic health risks associated with shooting volcanoes?

B.L.: Poisonous fumes are probably the biggest danger. Bench collapses at the ocean are always a concern. One musts travel lightly in full awareness.

ii: What is your favorite volcano-related photo event taken? Why is it your favorite?

B.L.: My favorite image is usually the last one that I release in my fine art collection of prints that sell in galleries.

ii: Do you still live at the foot of Kilauea? What are you doing in Alaska this summer?

B.L.: A few years ago, I moved to the summit of Kilauea Volcano. This is after living at the base of it, at Kehena Beach, for more than 20 years. Now I am a mile from the caldera, at 4,000 feet. Change is good.

I spend summers in Alaska, for balance and perspective. Another home base I enjoy, usually in the winter, is in the Wasatch Mountains, above Park City, Utah. Being surrounded by beauty has always been a mandatory need of mine.

ii: What's your approach to keep the photos of Kilauea Volcano fresh?

B.L.: The volcano is extremely dynamic, changing from hour to hour. Nothing stays the same for long. At present, there is a new eruption in the Halemaumau crater, less than two miles from my house. I ride my bike to it.

For more information on Lewis and to view more images visit his websites at and

Tip Cheat Sheet

*Wear shoes with thick soles. If they melt your feet are still covered.

*Utilize the most durable equipment-he can go through a number cameras in just one year.

*Pack light. At a certain point getting to the point of action is all on foot.

*Bring a respirator to protect your lungs if you know the fumes will be caustic.

*Shoot with two camera systems at one time. This way you won't miss a moment during film changes.

*During "magic hour", which is his favorite time to photograph the volcano, he likes to use 30-second exposures.

*For 35 mm, he uses Nikon cameras with lenses ranging from 16 mm to 500 mm.

*In medium format, he uses the Pentax 67II, with lenses from 45 mm to 400 mm.

*Fujichrome is his film of choice.

*For digital, he utilizes the Nikon D200.

*Use a tripod: he uses Gitzo tripods with Arcatech ball heads.

*Be aware that the Earth is constantly changing: Even if you've been working on the same volcano for years, every flow is different.

*Approach a shoot with a quiet mind and an open heart.

*Study the volcano to be aware of new events.

*Avoid the steam: this happens where lava enters the ocean and creates sulphuric acid and toxic fumes. Like acid rain, it can dissolve your clothes. He's gone through many photo vests and boots, many times actually smelling the rubber as his shoes melted beneath him.

*Avoid being directly in front of where the lava hits the water. He stays upwind of whatever is going on.

*If there's a particular shot you needs in that area, move quickly.

*Get a simple, durable well-sealed camera body: the conditions are often terrible for cameras.

*Cameras should have an accurate metering system.

*No filtration needed: He tends to work with ambient light. "I like to capture what's there - it's such perfect and dramatic color that I don't need to enhance it.

*Shoot from two tripods at the same time: since his favorite exposure is 30 seconds, it really works for him. "That's where the images are really happening because I get movement and emotion," he says.

The Science of Kilauea

Its lava tends to "flow" rather than "blow," making it, in the natives' term, a "drive-in" volcano. Hawaiian volcanoes are renowned for their rather benign eruptions. When Kilauea's eruptions can be seen, people tend to converge around the volcano to view the fiery show. If it were an explosive volcano, natives and tourists would, instead, run for their lives. The lava on Kilauea is basaltic magma, a fluid type of lava which tends to flow long distances, rather than erupting in catastrophic explosions. The result is the formation of the huge, gently angled shield volcanoes of Hawaii, and the relatively benign nature of Kilauea.