• How to shoot great volcano pictures with Marcello Cavalcanti

    March 28, 2024

    Marcello Cavalcanti is a pro landscape photographer, teacher and tour leader for photography workshop trips.

    Recently he led a tour with 9 photographers to beautiful Guatemala, where you can get up and close with Fuego’s Volcano (Vulcán de Fuego), a stratovolcano with 3.763 meters high (12,345 ft) that spills ash, plume and lava every 10-15 minutes, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

    To shoot this volcano with the best possible view, he took his group to hike another volcano (this one, inactive, of course), called Acatenango, that gives you amazing views of Fuego, and in a very close position - they are aparted 2 km (6500 ft) away! 

    So, one important thing to know about volcanoes is that if they don’t make a lava river (like Fuego) you can’t see much during the day, unless a lot of smoke comes out of its mouth; the pictures of this huge column of plume are cool though. 

    As there’s a lot of light illuminating the whole scene, you can make these pictures with the camera in hands, without a tripod (as long as you use a high shutter speed like 1/500 or more) which gives you more freedom to create different angled shots searching for an interesting foreground.

    But, it’s at night that the real spectacle begins. Without the sunlight, the explosions of Fuego bring up amazing red lava, rocks flying and smoke. That’s when the really cool images starts to reveal, as long as you follow some basic tips:

    Tips for Shooting Volcanos from Marcello

    • Tripod, always
       You will need to stabilize your camera, no matter what. Don’t rely on the rocks around you, they’re filled up with volcano ashes everywhere. Take the tripod and firm it really well on the ground. 
    • Long exposure
      Fuego gives you a personal firework show every 20 minutes or so. That means you have at least 4 or 5 attempts every hour to try different shutter speeds. I tried from 30 seconds to 5 seconds, and had very different results. With shorter exposure (5 - 8 seconds) you can make up to 4, maybe 5 pictures each explosion, and the rock red trails in the air are shorter. With long exposures (20-30 sec) you make less images from a single explosion, but the rock red trails crossing out the dark sky are longer and very interesting. If you have a water fountain near your house somewhere, you can practice there at night, varying the shutter speed, it’s the same concept. 
    • Manual focus

    It’s really hard for any camera to autofocus in the dark, so rely on the manual focus, make it at any part of the volcano that you will be fine when the explosion occurs. Newer cameras like the mirrorless ones that have the live focus peaking feature are even easier to achieve the perfect manual focus. But, remember, if you change the lens or even change the focal length using the same lens, you will need to redo the manual focus.

    • Intervalometer / remote control
      This is really useful for keeping your hands out of the camera when you click the picture! Remember, the volcano doesn’t tell you he’s going to spit lava, it's something that happens out of nowhere, so you need to press the shutter gently to not shake the camera,( when shooting with a long exposure), so the remote control will help you with that. It can be that wired intervalometer type, a wireless control, or even a mobile phone type control, for cameras that have wireless connection with the smartphone. 
    • Focal length

    In this experience we tried different focal lengths to have different shots every time Fuego gives his show. As we were really close from it, the longer length i used to frame the whole scene was 135mm, so a 70-200mm lens is more than enough to do the job. The results are impressive! On the other hand, if you want to make an image with the volcano plus the starry night sky (or with the long and tall smoke column) a wide angle focal length between 15 and 24 mm will work perfectly. 

    Picking a pack

    To make any active volcano pictures you will be around a lot of ash. Every explosion releases tons of ashes in the air, that falls within a radius of dozens or even thousands of kilometers. So my pick would be any f-stop with the Duradiamond exterior, to prevent ashes coming inside the backpack. 

    We spent the night at the base camp of Acatenango shooting Fuego, so you also need to bring warm clothes, gloves, water, some food, so think about a larger backpack than you usually use on your daily photo shoot sessions. 

    I used the Tilopa 50 during this trip and it was for sure the right choice not only because of its rugged exterior protection but also because it fits everything i needed for this adventure, including a 100-400mm lens that i used for closed shots of the volcano (i had this lens in Guatemala to shoot the quetzal bird, but that’s a story for another post! )

    For any further questions, you can find Marcello on his instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/marcellocavalcanti1/

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