It was a hastily-planned trip. I wasn’t really up to speed on how things were in Iceland. It was only after I booked that I saw all the headlines: ERUPTION IMMINENT, VOLCANO NEAR REYKJAVIK, ALIENS STOLE MY BABY (don’t check National Enquirer)
Let’s begin with some facts about Iceland. Iceland is an island nation of approximately 365000 people. Reykjavik, the capital, is in the southwest part of the island. Reykjavik and the surrounding towns are known as the Capital Region, which has a population of 233000 people, meaning 2/3 of Iceland’s population lives in and around Reykjavik on the southwest part of the island.
Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall Volcano
….so now let’s get to the volcano. Iceland is a volcanic island and remains active to this day. As recently as 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted with a giant ash cloud that not only shut down commercial aviation over the Atlantic Ocean but also confused newsreaders and broadcasters as they tried to pronounce it.
In recent months, seismographs began to pick up small earthquakes on the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is a fairly large outcropping to the southwest of Reykjavik and is also where the lone international airport, Keflavik International Airport, is located. Then they picked up more quakes. And then more. All in all, there were 50,000 registered seismic events. It was clear an eruption of the volcano, called Fagradalsfjall, was imminent.
I landed on Friday morning. Friday evening, the volcano erupted.
Keflavik Airport closed as a precaution as lava started to flow. Scientists immediately began doing random acts of science as they flew over the eruption and found what actually turned out to be a relatively small eruption. There was no cataclysmic explosion and no immediate risk to the local populace nor the Capital Region close by. Airspace reopened over Keflavik Airport and life went on.
And then the onlookers showed up, on foot and by air.
Incredible drone footage and a random visit by one of my favorite landscape photographers in the world, Chris Burkard, got my attention.
Going to visit the volcano
Many of you know I use Sony and Fuji cameras. I’m a member of a few Facebook groups for both camera brands and “met” an Icelandic chap called Petur who used the same camera as I did. He knew I would be coming to Iceland and reached out about going to visit the volcano, saying it was about a 7km walk to the caldera. Having never met the guy, I depended on the General Kindness of People and went for it. I hopped in my car and made my way back to Reykjavik, meeting up with Petur and making our way out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, when he received a call from a friend who had some seats open on a monster truck, making the trip out there much easier.
We showed up at the garage and saw the enormous Dodge Ram we’d be taking. I just had to laugh.
Four days ago I was in Dallas. Now I was hopping onto a monster truck to go visit a volcano with photography friends I had never met in person. Ah, the traveling life!
It was about a 40 minutes drive out to the caldera over land and dirt, after which we arrived at an enormous hill. The truck would be too heavy to make it up, we’d climb it on foot (jealous of the others who were in vehicles light enough to scamper up the hill).
(the picture doesn’t do it justice, it was a huge hill)
The Icelandic blokes scampered up the hill while I followed at a more leisurely pace. I still ride my Peloton quite a bit but man were my calves shot! At the top of the hill I made a small right turn and went up another hill. As I crested that hill, I caught my first glimpses of lava thrown screaming into the air. And, because of course there was, some guys getting a drone ready to fly. The weather was cold and extremely windy, so I tipped my hat to any drone owner willing to risk their drone for footage of a lifetime as I walked towards my friends who were patiently waiting.
And then I was there, face to face with the Fagradalsfjall volcano.
The eruption was coming from a lava plug at the bottom of a small basin in the mountain. As I started thinking about how to photograph such a scene I set up my new Fuji GFX100S camera just to get some setting shots.
And then a huge chunk of the volcano broke off.
As I watched the new earth flow down like a river I realized that the best thing to do would be to just set up my camera and watch what happened…and that’s what I did for the next five hours.
I cannot quite describe it, as there are no words for being
dangerously so close to an erupting volcano. You see the lava flowing down and hear the pops as the lava is churned out. You feel the earth rumble as parts of the crater break off and realize that you’re not in control, the volcano is.
I didn’t take as many pictures as I thought I would, and after a few hours I put my cameras away altogether. I wanted to enjoy this with my eyes and make memories that would last forever.
But don’t worry, I still got some great pictures 🙂
How to photograph a volcano
At first I decided to stay up a little higher on the basin while my friends went down closer to the lava. I wasn’t scared, I just wanted to take the whole scene in at first. It led to some awesome and mind-bending perspective shots showing the audacity of man, approaching something so raw and powerful with little but a messenger bag and a camera.
I looked at the detail in the lava flow that was creating new earth. In some places it flowed like a river, in others it fell off escarpments like a thick soup.
As my friends made their way down to the lava I couldn’t help but grab a picture of them, they couldn’t have been nicer and I’m so glad I met them.
The primary flow of lava was continuous and surprisingly fast. Another chamber was open on the right and gradually grew, the gas expunged from the depths of the earth. I switched to a longer exposure time to make the lava flow look more like a river.
Another piece of the crater near the top of the volcano broke off and, by switching lenses, I was able to get a glimpse inside the magma chamber!
Walking down to the lava
My friends returned and I asked what it was like down there. They said the heat was not nearly as bad as the gas. Volcanoes release lots of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide when they erupt, and the Icelandic government had some Official Looking People there in chemical suits walking around with gas meters, ensuring the gas levels were not toxic for the now hundreds of people at the site.
I decided to walk down to the lava, because when in Iceland, right?
It was INTENSE. And also, randomly, I saw Chris Burkard with some of his crew, filming some content. Small world.
I wanted to show the slow crawl of the new earth over the old one. As I prepared for my shot, I could tell that the fumes were not great for me. The heat was bearable, but man it was hard to breathe. I did the responsible thing and
went back up the hill away from the lava and toxic gasses you idiot stayed there for some photos.
Every once in a while a new channel of lava would open up, the vivid oranges almost looking fake against the dull blackness of the fresh earth underneath.
I finally had enough of the gas and made my way up the hill, talking to Chris a little before meeting back up with my friends. The entire time, nobody would take their eyes off the scene in front of us, for good reason. Suddenly, the sidewall of the crater broke off, sending a cascade of rock and lava onto the crater around it.
As afternoon turned to dusk and dusk turned into evening, the cloudy sky had just a tinge of blue against it, making the orange glow of the lava pop even more.
We knew we’d need to leave soon, grateful that most of our journey back would be on the monster truck and not on foot. I went down to the lava for one last look at a new flow that opened up. I got as close as I could tolerate, about six feet away. And I got the shot of a lifetime.
I ran back about 20 feet to take a breath and went back in for a few more.
I couldn’t get over the spectacle I was seeing. Old earth being layered over by the thick magma soup, buried into history as new earth reigned over it.
Deciding that I needed air, I bravely escaped up the basin a bit, where we all bade farewell to the volcano. We walked back to the monster truck in the dark, slipping on the loose dirt of the hill. Finally we arrived and Kristjan, the driver, told me to look at the sky. It was insane. The embers of the lava reflecting off the thick clouds above were like nothing I’d ever seen A fitting image to end an amazing day.
We were lucky to get in when we did. Over the next few days the basin would be closed at times because of dangerous gas levels. And many people had to be rescued by government authorities the night we were there, as the walk back to their cars was much longer than they expected and the weather got a little snowy. I still have a bit of a lingering cough from the fumes, but am otherwise not worse for wear.
I hope you enjoyed these pictures but there’s just no recreating what was there. I did the best I could but I’m so glad I put the camera away and remembered with my eyes. During the most unique time of my life to be traveling internationally, trusting relative strangers from social media. hopping into monster trucks, and somehow having it all work out as well as it did just felt like a gift. I’m a religious person and that was my resounding prayer: of gratitude. I’m thankful that I got to experience the Fagradalsfjall volcano up close, and even more thankful that it didn’t become an absolute disaster like many feared.
Which picture was your favorite? Tell me in the comments below!