Freezing the volcano’s lightning

April 20, 2010

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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
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
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 April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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.

One of the initial images as I adjusted the white balance and exposure April 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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
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:

110mm
ISO 50
F4
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.

15 comments

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These are amazing photos! Beautiful!

http:/www.artuntravel.com/blog

Posted by leyarsan | Report as abusive

They are amazing photographs, thanks for sharing them with the world.

Posted by kiwibird | Report as abusive

Wow Luke, way cool, Jack and Sue

Posted by magdalenasue | Report as abusive

The photo is amazing and thank you so much for giving all the technical details about it. Great lesson here!
Thanks, Lucas!

Lucas
http://www.pictobank.com

Posted by Photoluc | Report as abusive

Wow…just wow! :)

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

Hi !
The pictures are great I have some of the Eruption in Eyjafjallajökull in my photowebsite at http://www.picasaweb.com/maggidan50
best wishes from Iceland
Magnus

Posted by MaggiDan | Report as abusive

Is it possible to buy this picture somewhere? Just for printing it as a poster at home?

Posted by Sigfus | Report as abusive

Fascinating account. I always wonder about the story behind the shot, thanks for sharing.

Posted by Deltaflux | Report as abusive

Hi Sigfus,
If you wanted to purchase this image you can file a request through the picopia site here http://gallery.pictopia.com/reuters/

Posted by CorinnePerkins | Report as abusive

As an amateur photographer, I am always on the lookout for advice re photographic hints and tips. This is a bit more than that! Thanks, not only for the pictures but for such a detailed account of how you achieved them.

Posted by g.ewan | Report as abusive

Is there any possibility that you can show your pictures from the 22th of April, were you can see the North Light as well as the vulcano?

Best wishes. Nikolaj

Posted by Niko92 | Report as abusive

Thought you might get a kick out of this…

On Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” post dated on April 19th entitled “More from Eyjafjallajokull” (link at bottom) ,they have one of your photos labeled #19 and captioned “Lightning, smoke and lava above Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano on April 17, 2010. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson).”

In the cloud I see Gryla (the horrifying monster / troll / ogress who lives in Iceland’s mountains and reeks terror) spewing smoke from her mouth.

Once you see her, you can’t miss her. Can’t attach a jpg but you can Google her.

Funny how imagination works.

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/04  /more_from_eyjafjallajokull.html

Posted by ReneeM | Report as abusive

An excellent photo and thanks for sharing the methodology.
http://senthil.ca/category/photography/

Posted by thewanderer | Report as abusive

Awesome Photography!

Posted by boots1950 | Report as abusive

LUCAS.TU TRABAJO FOTOGRAFICOS ES ADMIRABLE.IGUALMENTE TUS CONSEJOS TECNICOS.AUGURO PARA TI, MUCHOS EXITOS FUTUROS POR TU DEDICACION Y PROFESIONALISMO.

Posted by BARRABAS | Report as abusive