Photographing an Erupting Volcano

Photographing an Erupting Volcano

Catching up with two PhotoShelter photographers in the path of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the headlines featuring travelers stranded worldwide thanks to the billowing smoke, ash, lava and even lightening pouring from the volcano in Iceland. The images featured by National Geographic had me  full of questions, like “how do they get so close to the lava?”  Well, PhotoShelter actually has a growing presence among photographers in Iceland, and with some luck, I was able to track down a few of our members with some striking images of the volcanic eruption.  Sigurdur Olafur Sigurdsson (Siggi) and Sigursteinn Baldursson (Steini) were happy to share their photos and commentary via email.  Worth noting, both photographers are not your typical professional nature photographers, but they’ve each found themselves in a remarkable position to capture the beauty and power of nature at work. (Steini even offers a keywording trick that helped attract a few extra photo editors searching for images of the eruption.)


Siggi says…

“A photographers nirvana”
Photography has been a passion/addiction/work/hobby of mine for years, and so has both mountaineering and search and rescue. With that background, shooting something like an erupting volcano is a photography nirvana for me. This topic is quite close to my heart since it crosses my path in many different ways. I used to work at a mountain hut in Thorsmork, just below this glacier and have done the route over there more times than I can remember. For years I’ve worked in the search and rescue (SAR) sector and much of my work includes photographing SAR missions as well as doing SAR command and coordination. Needless to say this has been one of the biggest SAR operations in Iceland’s history. I have hiked, skied, driven, climbed and snowmobiled on Eyjafjallajökull and Fimmvörðuháls back and forth like so many of my friends and other mountaineers in Iceland so the urge to photograph this important chapter in this mountains history is just too strong to resist.

Anyway, the photos tell the story better than I can.

Iceland volcano | Eldgos á Fimmvörðuhálsi – Images by Sigurdur Olafur Sigurdsson

I am a Reykjavík based photographer working full time as a director of the ICE-SAR Search and Rescue School, doing photography on the side, mostly as a hobby but also in connection to my work for Search and Rescue. Today is a good day to be a photographer in Iceland (well better than being an airline passenger in Europe anyway).

The biggest problem shooting there right now is obviously safety.

To clarify, there have been two different, yet related, volcanic eruptions since the middle of March. First there was the eruption on Fimmvörðuháls, featured in my gallery “Iceland volcano | Eldgos á Fimmvörðuhálsi”  which was outside the glacier. Among other things, this made it less dangerous and you could get real close and practically shoot from within touching distance of the lava at times. However there where plenty of safety issues such as steam explosions when lava came in touch with big bulks of ice and snow. But still, it was relatively safe and thousands of people hiked, snowmobiled and drove there, possibly creating the biggest safety issue in that eruption; a lot of people, some ill equipped, doing a serious mountain route in wind and tempuratures down to -20°C. The biggeset photography issues there besides protecting the camera from falling ash was working out a different angle from the other hundreds of photographers. From a search and rescue point of view the main tasks where trying to insure the safety of all the tourists both in terms of the eruption itself as well as, and even more so, for rescuing exhausted hikers and stranded jeepers.

The second eruption in Eyjafjallajökull is still going on and is a more serious one, mainly because it happens inside the top creater of the mountain where the ice is more than 200m thick. That creates flash flooding causing the repeated evacuation of the farms around the volcano as well as big steam explosions creating the ash causing all the trouble in Europe, and covering all the farms in the closest vicinity of the volcano with a thick layer of ash. Search and rescue volunteers as well as other responders are heavily involved in the evacuation process, safety road blocks, the salvage of stock and valuables in the ash fall along with command and coordination where I have been working both in the National Rescue Coordination Centre as well as the On-Scene Coordination Centre. Generally we were very well prepared for this and there have been no injuries or fatalities directly related to the volcano, flooding or ash. In fact the only serious incident has been the sad death of two onlookers who got lost and died of hypothermia while on route looking at the eruption. All of my shots from the current eruption where shot from the ground or higher points around the volcano, and the closest I’ve been to that eruption is about 10 km away (as opposed to about 10cm from the lava in the earlier eruption). Nobody is allowed much closer than that and not at all on either of the glaciers or the mountains in that range.

I shoot on a Canon 5D MII, mostly handheld whenever possible and most of these photos are shot through a 24-105 L and 70-200 L f4, both camera and lenses chosen for their quality first and weight and bulk a close second. My main areas of photography has been nature and landscapes along with Search and Rescue and other outdoor action. I’ve recently taken most of my photos offline [and just joined PhotoShelter a few weeks ago] but am currently building up my Photoshelter archive from my collection. And what a time to do that with an erupting ever-changing volcano practically in my backyard!

Steini says…

It is always nice to know that people are seeing the images I post. I just hope that I have managed to convey some of the power and beauty that I have been witness to.

Normally I shoot more fine-art photographs and nature time-lapse videos of the numerous natural events that take place here in Iceland, so this has been a bit of a departure from my normal work, but also very exciting. From the beginning, my goal was to approach these events from less of a journalistic sense and more of an artistic sense where I wanted to highlight how interesting these natural events can be. For the eruption in March, it was possible to drive in and get very close to the lava flows and my friend Gudmundur who runs a superjeep company ( was able to get us very close to take photographs. This was what is called a ‘Tourist Eruption’ because it was not throwing up ash or causing violent shock waves. It was here that I took the images of flowing and spouting lava.  I did not intend to be a photojournalist but this event’s impact grew as soon as the volcano underneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier began to erupt.

For the second eruption, the connections I had made by taking photographs for a helicopter company and a resort of the first eruption paid off by allowing me to take several intense aerial photographs of the main eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.  I had taken advertisement photographs for their company of helicopters flying close to lava, so for the second eruption I was able to get into the sky on the first day. The size of the second eruption was much more impressive than the first so it made for dramatic photographs from the very beginning. The ash cloud was several thousand meters in the sky and always throwing more ash into the sky, little did I know that this ash would cause massive airline delays in Europe and making this a very important story there.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupts – Images by Sigursteinn Baldursson

Here is the interesting part about PhotoShelter. In the past, I have used the site purely as a backup because I wanted a copy of my best images off-site. Because this story took on such international importance, I noticed my photographs began to be searched for. The funny thing is that most of the searches had mis-spelled the name, so I began to add any mis-spelling of “Eyjafjallajokull” to my photographs. This increased the hits a lot. I am hoping to add more images of this eruption to my page soon because I have not had the time.  The internet connection is so bad here and I haven’t been able to [add new images] but I´m “taken” next week to go back in to town (I live in Reykjavik) to upload new images to my archive and see my family since 20th of March (when the eruption started).

From an exhausted photographer who has been published all around the world, thanks to PhotoShelter! (I had the cover of The Sunday Telegraph!) I do want to thank you for this opportunity and I hope that people enjoy these photographs.

Thanks, so much for your recognition of my images!!!


Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by

PhotoShelter CEO. Follow on Twitter: @awfingerman and Instagram: @awfinger

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *