The Perils and Awe of Photographing an Erupting Volcano for the First Time

The Perils and Awe of Photographing an Erupting Volcano for the First Time

Longtime USA Today staff photographer Robert Hanashiro has photographed a lot of things during his illustrious career, but standing within an arm’s reach of a lava flow on Hawai’i Island was atypical even for him. Hanashiro spent a few days covering the dramatic events unfolding in Leilani Estates, 40 minutes south of Hilo. I caught up with him as he was flying back to Los Angeles to cover a Dodgers game.


RH: First off I am by no means an expert in shooting volcanoes and lava. All I know is what I learned while covering this latest eruption of Kilauea. I am very fortunate that because of the Sports Shooter Academy workshop I had several friends that helped me throughout the week I was on Hilo covering the volcano. Bruce Omori, Jamm Aquino, Baron Sekiya, Eugene Tanner and George Lee all provided me with advice, guidance and answers to (often) dumb questions.


The fissures and lava flow are occurring in a small geographic region. What are the ground conditions like?

RH: If you’re in the town of Hilo proper there is little sign of the devastation the latest eruption of Kilauea. But when you get into the evacuation areas of the Leilani Estates subdivision and you see literally a river of lava for the very first time your jaw hits the ground because it is a scene right out of a Steven Spielberg movie. Except it is not computer generated. I was in the back of a pickup truck with three other photographers when we drove down a street that I thought was a cul-de-sac but at the end of was a 25-foot high wall of lava. When the sun starts to set that’s when the scene became totally surreal. The entire night sky had a red glow and the lava shooting into the air took on an picturesque quality, right in front of me was the backyard of a family home and 50 yards beyond that was prehistoric landscape of lava shooting high into the air.

It is hauntingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

During my time there, you would see a handful of residents making their way to the lava flow to take snapshots and shoot Facetime videos. Talking to them was interesting. I’ve covered hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes; been to war zones and riots. Unlike the “victims” of those, the people in Leilani Estates don’t refer to their homes as being “destroyed” or “devastated” or even “lost” … they say their homes were “taken.” I guess this is in reference to the spiritual nature of Hawaii and volcanoes. There is a sadness obviously but there is a feeling of inevitability that they are resigned to the fact that their home and property are going back to the land.

We’ve seen reports of toxic steam and noxious odors. Did you bring any specialized equipment (e.g. respirator) to deal with the shooting environment? How close have you been to the lava flows? And have you felt fearful at all?

RH: The concern is sulfur dioxide and I was warned by those in the know to bring a respirator that filtered out that gas. It is not something you can find at your local hardware store, so my first chore before I left for Hilo was to find a respirator and most importantly the SO2 filter. I was leaving in a day but thank God for Amazon! I was able to order one and get it delivered overnight. On escorted trips into the area with the National Guard, there was always someone with us monitoring the air for SO2 and there were a could of incidents where I had to back away because the wind had shifted and the levels increased to near the hazard level. The streets and ground near any of the lava areas were cracked and uneven. So even walking around especially at night was a bit dangerous. I never had to use the respirator but we had a very stern warning from the National Guard major in charge of our “missions” into the lava areas: “If you see me reaching for my mask, drop your gear and run back to the truck.” Needless to say that set the tone for being extremely cautious.

When the lava flow reaches the Pacific Ocean a huge cloud of steam forms and rises above it. This cloud is composed of sulfuric acid and tiny glass particles, obviously very dangerous. I took a boat ride out to that area where two rivers of lava hit the ocean, but because of the steam I couldn’t see lava. That toxic cloud above looked like stretched for a couple of miles. The air from the distance the boat maintained was safe and the bubbling waters and steam caused the temperature to heat up to well over 100 degrees and I have to admit was very uncomfortable. The 70-minute ride out there was the roughest I’d every experienced and I have to warn people that it is not for the faint of heart or those that have the slightest trouble with motion sickness.


The brightness of the lava seems to vary dramatically depending on its temperature. Have you had challenges dealing with exposure or other technical aspects of photography (e.g. dust)?

RH: I tried to keep the gear to a minimum, so I would work with two camera bodies, a 24-70mm and 70-300mm zoom lenses. I don’t want to sound like a commercial but during the nighttime “missions” into the lava areas shooting with the Nikon D850 was a huge plus. The wide dynamic range allowed me to get subjects in the darkness in my foregrounds and still keep details in the brightness of the red lava in the backgrounds. I had to produce videos as well as still images, so I had a small video camera tucked away in a pocket of a vest.


Any advice for photographers considering a visit to the area?

RH: I have received several emails and messages from people wanting to know how to get access to the lava areas and I tell them this is an active volcano in an on-going disaster and is very, very dangerous. Do not go there. Also out of respect to Kilauea and the homes it has taken it is best to stay away. The residents, the National Guard and emergency workers have enough to deal with than keeping track of people that really should not be there. You can take a helicopter tour or a boat tour if you want to spend the money.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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