If you’re as fascinated with the raw, elemental power of active volcanoes as I am, you’re going to love the currently erupting volcano on the Reykjavik peninsula.
It’s no secret that the Icelandic volcanic eruption has sparked global attention. The visceral spectacle of molten lava painting a fiery palette across the land is indeed breathtaking.
Capturing these magnificent moments with a drone adds another layer of exhilaration, not to mention the potential for some truly epic shots!
But, as thrilling as it is to photograph active volcanoes and ash clouds, it does come with its own set of challenges. I’ve fielded many questions about the best way to navigate a drone over these fiery giants and have distilled my experiences into my top 10 tips.
1. Keep a Safe Distance from the Lava
This may sound obvious, but keeping a safe distance from the lava is crucial to avoid damage to your drone. How high can you go? There isn’t a definitive answer. But always have a visual eye on your drone’s location, and don’t fly into the hot gas.
The wind will help in keeping the temperatures under control, and heights above 40-50m are fairly safe.
2. Manual Control is Key for Volcano Photography
Automated features on your drone might seem tempting, but they can fail you over a volcanic eruption.
The ferromagnetic elements present in volcanic magma and the high-temperature environment can disrupt the local magnetic field, which can adversely affect your drone’s compass, leading to misreadings and errors in navigation, and you may find your drone not returning home or crashing.
Always make sure you can manually navigate your drone back to your location.
3. Use Bracketed Shots and RAW
The stark contrast between the bright, glowing lava and the dark terrain can be tricky to navigate. Save your shots in RAW format for more editing possibilities post-shooting. Also, consider bracketing your shots – one underexposed, one overexposed, and one normal exposure – to capture the detail and vibrancy of the scene.
The Luminar Neo HDR plugin is the perfect tool to help you quickly combine your brackets shots, enabling further image enhancement.
4. Keep Your Drone Moving
Hovering too long over one area, especially above boiling magma, can cause your drone to overheat and possibly melt. It’s advisable to keep the drone in motion and allow the drone to cool down between shots.
If you have two drones, even better, you can alternate between them. This will also allow time to back up your footage between flights (see point 6).
5. Beware of Wind and Updrafts
Iceland is notorious for being a windy country, and these winds can affect your drone’s stability and battery consumption. Moreover, the hot air from the lava mixing with the cold air can create sudden updrafts. Be vigilant, and if your drone is struggling to stay level, don’t make sudden movements and evaluate if it is safe to continue to fly or better to land.
6. Swap Out SD Cards Between Flights
In the unfortunate event that you lose your drone, it’s better to swap out SD cards between flights. That way, you still have the footage from previous flights safe and sound.
Alternatively, if you can, back up the footage between flights. I use GNARBOX for quick backups on the field, but this amazing device is unfortunately discontinued (the company behind it bankrupted). But if you can find one on eBay, I still recommend getting one (I have two…). I wrote in detail about its capabilities in my in-depth GNARBOX 2.0 SSD Review.
7. Steer Clear of Other Drones
At the erupting site, I counted around 20 drones flying simultaneously. Interference from other drones can degrade your control and transmission quality, so keep your distance from other drone pilots, and if you’re flying frequently, be respectful of others enjoying the eruption and avoid flying too close to them and in any risky way.
8. Choose Your Drone Wisely
If you have multiple drones, always use the one with the best wind resistance. Smaller drones can struggle against wind, so in case of high winds, it’s safer to opt for the bigger one. On my last adventure, I used a Mavic 2 Pro and a Mini 3 Pro. The larger Mavic had a much easier time flying in the strong wind and was my first choice, but on some moments of reduced wind power, I also used the Mini to capture some vertical videos for social media (the Mini can flip the camera vertically, and capture amazing 4K videos).
9. Always Keep Battery Margin
It’s important always to keep a substantial battery reserve. This ensures you have sufficient power to safely navigate your drone back, particularly if unexpected winds make the journey more challenging. The last thing you want is to be forced into an emergency landing in an active volcano zone.
10. Gas Masks and Respiratory Safety for Active Volcanoes
While capturing the majestic power of an active volcano can result in stunning photographs, your safety is of paramount importance. Here are some guidelines regarding the use of gas masks and other safety concerns when photographing near active volcanoes.
Mask and eye protection
Volcanic gases and smoke can be harmful and even lethal in high concentrations. Gasses such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide can pose significant health risks. Therefore, a gas mask is essential when approaching an active volcano.
As we returned from the active volcano, a number of individuals were persistently coughing. However, due to our preventive measures, we fortunately did not encounter any respiration problems.
Choose mask filters that are specially designed to filter harmful gasses (filters made just for dust are ineffective). Ensure the mask is fitted properly, covering both your mouth and nose. Regular checks and maintenance of your gas mask are crucial to ensure it’s functioning correctly and providing the necessary protection.
In my case, I got a JSP safety mask, with ABEK1 P3 filter for most all strong substances, dust, gas, and toxic fumes. This was also the kit used by the Icelandic Search and Rescue team at the volcano site. Please note that these kinds of masks are fine for short stays in areas with harmful gasses, as they don’t supplement additional oxygen that might be needed in heavily polluted areas.
Volcanic gasses can also irritate the eyes, so wearing eye protection like goggles is recommended. Ensure that they are designed to cover the sides and don’t allow the passage of dust.
Thermal Hazards and Terrain
Active volcanoes emit intense heat, which can be a risk, especially when you get closer to the vent. Avoid getting too close to the lava flow or the volcanic crater, and don’t walk on hardened lava: it might look safe, but lava that looks hard and cold on the surface can easily break and reveal a still very hot underlying core.
Volcanic Eruption Monitoring and Advisory Information
Follow the official path to the eruption and stay updated with the latest advisories and warnings from local geological or volcano monitoring agencies. These institutions have the best understanding of the current volcanic activity and can provide vital information on safe distances and potential eruption forecasts.
Also, have emergency supplies ready, such as a first-aid kit, extra food, and water.
Lastly, consider hiring a local guide who is experienced in navigating volcanic terrains. They can provide valuable advice and guidance, ensuring your safety while helping you find the best spots for photography.
Remember, no photo is worth risking your safety. Stay aware, stay equipped, and respect the power of nature.
Bonus – Explore Iceland to Capture other Amazing Volcanoes
If you are too late for the active volcano on the Reykjavik peninsula, Iceland has plenty of amazing views offered by now-extinct volcanoes.
Especially the Highlands, where dormant volcanoes are now filled by turquoise lakes or adorned by red iron powder rims.
These volcanoes offer a glimpse of how our planet took shape and evolved, and I absolutely love to explore and capture them.