Freezing the volcano’s lightning
Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
I realize that this photograph is pretty much the attention grabber from all those that I have taken in Iceland on this trip so I figured I would write up a little about what it took to get the image. As soon as I got this assignment, a photograph of a volcano erupting with lightning inside of the ash plume was on my mind. I had seen one a couple of years ago from a volcano in South America so I knew it happened. When I was watching the ash during the first dusk I saw plenty of lightning so I knew I had a shot at making this picture.
I have shot lightning a few times before but it tends to be a bit of a fishing excursion because of the erratic habits of lightning bolts, this was less so. I knew exactly where the lightning would be (in the caldera) and I just had to find a good vantage point. Earlier in the day I spent some time with some sheep farmers, who lived directly across the valley from this eruption. I noticed some cars crossing a river and driving northeast to get a better view inside the crater. With dusk approaching, I decided to make a go of that route. I drove my jeep across the river and down a very bumpy road that had been rebuilt through fields of mini-icebergs that had been deposited by a glacial flood triggered by the initial eruption. It was here that I made another of my favorite images showing the “Land of Ice and Fire” that Iceland is known for.
Ice from a glacial flood triggered by a volcanic eruption is seen as the volcano continues to erupt near Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
It took 30-45 minutes of driving from the farm before I came upon a viewpoint where the road raised to follow a mountain. Police were parked there informing drivers that the road had been washed out a little further up. The two men inside, and all the police in general here, were extremely helpful and, although a bit tired from staring at a volcano for 8 hours, informed me that it was fine for me to drive up the road a bit and park to take some photographs.
I had not brought a tripod and unfortunately could not find my cable release before I left my home base New York. In order to take a long exposure photograph I needed to use a magic arm clamp attached to the rear-view mirror with my camera and lens resting on the window frame of my Jeep. This did two things. It allowed me to steady the camera and it allowed me to hide from the biting cold and wind. As long as the engine was off it offered a steady platform from which to photograph.
A view of the sample set-up of my camera attached to the rear-view mirror using a magic arm clamp April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
It took me a while to nail down the correct exposure. I did a custom white balance off of the lightly clouded sky above the volcano to get the color that you see in this frame. Below is a handful of images that were not quite right, to say the least, but in the end I managed to capture something that was as close as possible to what I was seeing.
One of the initial images as I adjusted the white balance April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
One of the initial images as I adjusted the white balance and exposure April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Now came the difficult part, and the part where I was on my own as I had never done a photograph of lighting in a specific location like this before. It was here that I realized I should have arrived on location when it was still daylight because focusing on lightning is next to impossible. With a 5DMKII attached to a 70-200 I set the ISO at 100 and began to figure out my composition and how to take this picture. Luckily there was just enough light for my camera to see – in live view mode on program. In order to make sure things were sharp I zoomed in 10x to manually focus my lens and tape it down so that it wouldn’t move. This gave me the best chance of getting things sharp as autofocus tends not to work as well in dark situations like this.
From here on it was pure experimentation. I tried several shutter speeds and apertures to get the right effect and found that above f5.6 it was difficult to see the bolts while below f4 it was too bright. I also found that until the sun was completely gone, it created an odd and abstract view of the ash plume with a really slow shutter speed. The volcano also made it difficult as only certain eruptions seemed to cause the lightning and they were the blackest and thickest of the bunch. This made it difficult to see the bolts inside of the plume making it important to wait for a few powerful exterior bolts to get a good image.
Another challenge I tackled was that darn cable release I couldn’t find. This made it mandatory for me to physically press the shutter button on the BULB setting for as long as I could. Perhaps this sounds simple but when it is literally freezing outside and with the car engine off that finger got pretty chilly as I held the shutter open for a minute or more to get a good amount of lightning in the frame. It took several photographs to get this one and while there are a few other “almost” frames this one immediately struck me as successful, which led me to make probably my biggest mistake since I have been here. With one photograph in the can I decided a change of focal length was in order. I put the 16-35mm lens on my camera and proceeded to take a few wide frames with the lightning in the crater.
Lightning and lava can be seen as a volcano erupts after dark in Eyjafjallajokul, Iceland April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
These worked relatively well but I think had I been zoomed in, this frame would have been ten times better than the one I got. Unfortunate, but that is the way it goes sometimes. Taking this wide shot was not the mistake. The mistake was thinking that it would be possible to re-focus the 70-200mm on lightning in complete darkness. This was simply not possible. After about half an hour of trying I realized that the long flight, jet-lag, and general exhaustion were setting in and it was time for bed so I began the long trek back to the hotel.
The key picture was frame #32 from when I started the long exposures shot at:
125 second exposure
White Balance: Custom
To view a full selection of Lucas’ images click here.
Read about Lucas’ photos of the Northern Lights above the volcano here.