13 Nov PHOTO TRIP OF A LIFETIME – SHOOTING ICELAND’S SPECTACULAR MERADALIR ERUPTION
On August 3rd 2022 a new volcanic eruption began on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland not far from Reykjavik. I’d always wanted to witness an erupting volcano – a bucket list ambition from long before my love of photography. As images and information spread over the next couple of days it became apparent that, much like the 2021 eruption at nearby Fagradalsfjall, this was likely an ideal eruption to visit and photograph. The local authorities in Iceland quickly secured a rough hiking route to the eruption site and it was obvious after a few days that this was going to be a perfect ‘tourist eruption’: relatively safe and relatively accessible.
Despite the publicity surrounding the eruption last minute flights and car hire were reasonably priced, so after a couple of days of procrastination I booked a departure on the 10th August. It was hard to get a feel for just how impressive the eruption would be. It looked photogenic no doubt, but it was changing on a daily basis. Webcams at the site looked kind of underwhelming and put alot of doubt in my mind. I touched down at Keflavik around 3pm local time, collected my car and drove the short distance south to the small town of Grindavik which was the closest settlement to the eruption site. I threw up my tent at the local campsite and drove out along the coast road to the trailhead. It was an impressive site – room for several hundred vehicles – much of it in use already and a constant stream of people moving up and down a wide trail on the mountainside. Plenty of marshals, police and search and rescue personnel were in place to keep everything safe and orderly.
Not knowing exactly what to expect I brought everything – Canon R5 body, 3 lenses, tripod and my Mavic 2 Pro drone. Add in snacks, water and warm clothes and my little backpack was like an overflowing Tardis and weighed about 12kg. The trail itself was flat and easy to begin with, but soon kicked up to a much steeper gradient, winding back and forth until it reached the lava fields from the 2021 eruption. After this it flattened out but the trail, which until now was surfaced with volcanic gravel and soft dirt, petered out into a rocky boulder field with marker posts to show the way. The going was arduous and quite a few people were finding the terrain difficult to negotiate. From here the plume of steam and smoke from the eruption was plainly visible giving me renewed impetus and energy. Like a good movie Meradalir was building the suspense and not showing itself too early.
But nothing could prepare me for the final reveal. Walking across a gently rising slope, I could see a line of people on the skyline a few hundred meters away, framed against the roiling volcanic plume. A splatter of lava shot high above them into the sky, hung suspended for a second or two and then began to fall slowly out of sight. I had voiced a completely involuntary and impolite expression of surprise.The intimation was of something on a scale I hadn’t envisioned. Despite my heavy pack I double timed it across the last stretch to the line of people. I was completely floored by what I saw and heard and felt.
Standing on the rim of a vast bowl I was looking directly across the Meradalir eruption site. What had begun as a fissure eruption had now coalesced into a couple of splatter cones surrounded by a vast lava lake. The largest cone contained a tumultuous cauldron of lava which it sent skyward every few seconds in great plumes and explosions – some of them at least 70 or 80m high. Even at the distance of several hundred metes the heat was palpable and the noise, a guttural liquid rumbling, a steady soundtrack punctuated by frequent explosive percussions.
I must have just stood there dumbstruck for 10 or 15 minutes, taking in the magnitude of it all, before remembering I had cameras to think of. Not that there was an immediate rush, I was here for the evening and only expected the lava light-show to get better and better as the ambient light faded into blue hour. More important in Iceland, even in summer, is to get wrapped up and stay warm, especially after a strenuous hike. Luckily the site was both sheltered from the wind and was also bathed in steady warmth (even heat) from the eruption, Right away though I realised my favourite RF 15-35mm wide angle zoom was going to be pretty much useless, and in the three subsequent trips I made to the eruption site, I never carried it again. The field of play was undeniably vast, but there was no foreground element to hold a truly wide shot together, and anyway, a really wide shot only served to de-emphasise the size and power of the main crater.
What was going to be key was the drone, both for video and stills. The whine of several drones was audible over the eruption, and throughout my time there that was always the case. Daring POV drones darted as close as they dared over the crater while the Mavics held a more conservative orbit and the occasional Inspire more conservative again. Above the drone circus, a steady procession of helicopters and light aircraft circled, and at one point, flights departing Keflavik were routing directly overhead to afford their passengers a glimpse of the eruption. Rather than trying to ban drone use, which was forseeably hazardous with the volume of sight-seeing flights, the Icelandic police simply used DJI to issue mobile alerts to drone users requesting compliance with altitude laws.
Some video above of the eruption shot on the Mavic 2 Pro.
The drone certainly gave a great elevated overview of the site, and the video looked surreal, but the magic of the drone for stills was for top-down shots of the lava lake and lava flows. These were simply mesmerising viewed through the RC screen. At one point I became so engrossed shooting directly above the lava that when I brought the drone back for a battery change I realised I had come seriously close to losing it. The rubber port seals had warped in the heat and were hanging down and I’d lost the outer glass of the downward sensors and lights. A close call and a reminder to be more cautious. Several drones were indeed lost that evening – melted back down and lost forever in the newest layers of Icelandic rock.
But the main camera still offered room for creativity – I enjoyed using 1 sec shutter speeds to give an energy blur to the jets of lava. Something I hadn’t figured on was the softening and distortion caused by the heat shimmer above the lava lake. For 10 or 15 maddening minutes I fought with what I assumed to be focus/depth of field issues with some lower elevation images of the crater shot at 120mm on my 100-500 RF zoom. I concluded in the end that no matter what I did the extreme heat shimmer was going to leave every image from this angle and focal length looking out of focus.
Dynamic range was also an issue around dusk, as the luminance of the hottest lava became many EVs brighter than the surrounding landscape and sky. Exposure blending helped here, but obviously something that wasn’t possible in the video which on the Mavic is already quite compressed. You can see this clearly with the hottest lava blowing out and rendering as white rather than the correct yellow/orange. The guys shooting on Inspires maybe were in a better position to deal with this, especially if they were shooting in RAW, but I wouldn’t have envied them on the hike.
Ultimately though I would also have to say that images and video of this event did not approach the experience of being there. The visceral impact of being so close to the heat and noise, smell and vibrations of an eruption are impossible to convey in imagery. As a testament to how impressive the experience was I repeated the 3 hour round trip three more times during my week there. The final time I was sure I would add little to what I had already shot, and the eruption was already beginning to diminish, But I just couldn’t resist one more trip. Would I go back? Absolutely. I’m thinking aurora over a volcanic eruption – that would be kind of neat!
UPDATE: The Meradalir eruption was quite shortlived and was declared over by the end of August. In summer 2023 a new fissure opened a few kilometres to the northeast of Meradalir. This eruption was also quite shortlived and was much harder and more dangerous to access. At the time of writing the town of Grindavik where I stayed throughout my visit has been evacuated and a new, and possibly much larger eruption is imminent.