How I Got That Shot – Lava Faces

Slow motion live lava backlights a tree branch. Volcano National Park. Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.

How I Got That Shot?

Photographing Lava Faces

Now that Pele is busy reshaping Hawaii Island, I found myself revisiting a few images of live lava I took years ago, while on the island, in Hawaii Volcano National Park, capturing the many forms and shapes live lava takes while on its way to the ocean.

Molted Lava Faces. Lava Photography by Alina Oswald.
One-eyed molten lava peeks through solidified lava, creating a half-faced creature. Photo by Alina Oswald.

But first, a few things about Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island of Hawaii:

  • The Big Island of Hawaii is the closest to the West Coast of the United States, and the largest (in size) of the Aloha Aloha Islands…hence, its name
  • While on the Big Island, one can experience almost all climates of the world–everything from sun and summer temps on lava beaches to snow on Mauna Loa crater
  • The two most important cities on Hawaii Island are Hilo, on the east side of the island, and Kona, on the west side of the island and known for Kona coffee and nearby coffee plantations
  • Hawaii Island offers breathtaking views of green lava beaches, as well as lava trees, lava caves, and the Hawaii Volcano National Park–home to Kilauea volcano, which has been quite active lately

When I visited Hawaii, and the Big Island, years ago, there wasn’t much lava activity. Still, it was still very much worth it to fly over Kilauea during the day and visit the Volcano National Park in the evening and night, to photograph the lava flow from above as well as up close and personal. To this day I find it surreal watching Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, at work.

People silhouetted by live lava. Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
People silhouetted by lava glow. Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind, when photographing lava up close:

  • arrive before it gets dark, the best time to get there is during the sunset golden hour or, at the latest, during the blue hour that follows it
  • bring a flashlight; it gets pitch dark once the sun disappears below the horizon
  • watch your step; take park rangers’ advice to heart
  • at all times, do respect Pele, the fiery goddess, and Mother Nature, in general; it’s for your own safety
  • bring a tripod or monopod; keep in mind that a monopod weighs much less and takes less space, and it’s easier to carry; plus, not necessary in the Volcano National Park, but in general, a monopod is many times allowed in places where a tripod is not allowed, something to keep in mind
Live Lava Photography by Alina Oswald. Volcano National Park. Big Island of Hawaii.
Marking the Road. Live lava taking over the road. Hawaii Volcano National Park. Photo by Alina Oswald.
  • if anything possible, find a good spot from where to watch and photograph lava
  • watch the live lava as it spills over the rim of the crater, and then, seemingly slowly, finds its way to the ocean
  • look for shapes it creates on its way to the ocean, and watch how these shapes distort and deform, and morph into other shapes
  • zoom in and out, to capture the lava flow up close, as well as the bigger picture
  • zoom in closely and, if possible, use the lava glow as side light, to enhance texture in the already solidified or solidifying lava
  • capture silhouettes of people or of trees engulfed by the fire, against the lava glow
Slow motion live lava backlights a tree branch. Volcano National Park. Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Slow-motion live lava backlights a tree branch. Volcano National Park. Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.

When shooting at night or in dim light, it’s a good idea to:

  • use a higher ISO to capture details in the darkness surrounding the lava but make sure you don’t overexpose the lava, which is pretty bright
  • use a slower shutter speed, as slow as the lens allows you to, especially when hand-holding the camera
  • experiment with exposing for the lava (the brightest object in the frame)

When in Hawaii National Park, years ago, I had a 70-200mm lens and a 15-55mm lens, but no tripod. So, I had to become a tripod, myself. A nice fellow who was also there to watch the lava offered his tripod, but his tripod wouldn’t have been sturdy enough for my lens and camera. Hence, I used my better-half’s shoulder as a tripod or, should I say, a solid surface.

Lava Face
Photographing lava faces in Hawaii Volcano National Park. Photo by Alina Oswald.

While shooting live lava, I found myself fascinated by the fluid shapes it formed as it spilled out of the crater and down to the ocean. At one point I noticed a face, I called it “Lava Face.” Two eyebrows and two eyes, a mouth, hair, and, at times, something resembling a nose. And as I was watching, the lava face started to change, and deform, offering different facets of…grotesque.

Lava Face
Photographing lava faces in Hawaii Volcano National Park. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Zooming in and out, I tried to capture the lava face as it began to change. Its fiery hair changed colors, just slightly. One eye opened wide, as the other eye became a thin line, barely visible. Its nose disappeared completely. Its smile stretched over its face.

After a while, its nose reappeared, and one eye became wide open as if looking back at us, while the other eye started to decompose into tiny glowing pieces.

Also, here are a few more images taken during daylight, of Kilauea volcano from the ground, and of lava fields from the air.

Photo by Alina Oswald.
Kilauea. Hawaii Volcano National Park. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Smoking lava fields of Hawaii, aerial photography by Alina Oswald.
Aerial photography of lava reaching the ocean. Award-winning image, part of SoHo Photo Gallery show. Photo by Alina Oswald.

I’m always amazed by Mother Nature, Pele the goddess of fire, and the destruction and creation that they leave behind. I look forward to visiting Hawaii and the Big Island again, hopefully sometime soon.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald


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