Photographing Mt Yasur Volcano, Vanuatu - Part I: Timing, Shooting Locations & Other Tips
Photographing a volcano is not always as easy as you might hope! So a little bit of planning goes a long way …
Best Time of Day to Photograph the Volcano
Now we are sure you can achieve lots of interesting scenes of the volcano during the day. But for us, the blue hour of dusk, and then in particular the dark of night, are when the most spectacular images can be achieved.
The reason is simple - the less the ambient light, the more impressive the brightness and colours of the lava. And while during the day the volcano smoke is often an obscuring haze, as darkness descends it becomes lit by the smouldering cauldron below, resulting in a vivid red backdrop that accentuates rather than detracts from your images.
The darkness of night also provides a greater opportunity for long exposures, which means trails of piping hot magma and lava bombs arcing through the air.
So if you are keen on your photography, we highly recommend the Evening Tour which commences around 4.30pm and sees you up on the volcano from around 5.00pm. The element of the tour where you are actually on the volcano officially ends around 6.30pm.
Thereafter we understand guests are provided a light meal back at the Reception Centre (though we never availed ourselves of this part of the tour - for reasons outlined below).
The problem with this official finishing time is the photography is really, literally, just heating up at this stage, and you will not want to be dragged away with the masses.
Because at 6.30pm, it will have only just started to get properly dark (in fact some residual light from the sun will likely still exist). That leads us to …
Our Top Tip When Visiting the Mt Yasur Volcano
(Regardless of your Photography Plans)!
If you do decide to take the Evening Tour, try to pre-arrange to stay up on the volcano after the main tour ends! It took some negotiating, and admittedly was not cheap, but for both of our excursions we were able to lock in an additional hour after everyone has left. While this not only means you have the volcano all to yourself (or close to it) the most important thing is you get to stay long enough for the dark to truly set in, giving you the very best chance of achieving those highly memorable images and providing an even more impressive experience.
The Sunrise Tour would also provide plenty of photo opportunities in the dark of night, and we are sure a spectacular sunrise from atop the caldera would be a memorable experience. However we did not sample these particular delights on this occasion (perhaps something to do with the 3:30am start…).
If you can only do the day tour… definitely still do it - the volcano is incredibly impressive and it will still be a highly memorable experience. However we would suggest you temper your photo expectations.
Planning your Photo Shoot
All visitors to Mt Yasur Volcano must take part in a guided tour. Unaccompanied access is prohibited, and rightly so, for your own safety. The tours commence at 4.30pm, with a welcome ceremony from the traditional custodians of the land, followed by a short safety briefing. Guests then pile into the back of several utes for the short drive up the edge of the volcano, arriving at the dropoff point at around 5.00pm. This means you will still have around an hour on the volcano before the sun sets. And roughly a further 30 minutes before the sun’s light truly dissipates.
Of course when you first make it to the volcano edge, you will want to get those first few shots, just to prove you were there, and to quickly tell the story of your visit. So get to it and knock yourself out!
If you then drift to the west and face to the north east, you should be able to achieve a shot of the volcano depression in the foreground with the (hopefully still blue) sea and sky behind.
Then we suggest you turn to capturing some interesting images of the tour scene, ie. The tour guides, the crowd of visitors, the surrounding landscapes, etc. The ridge along the western edge provides a perspective worth considering, including with the sun setting behind it, and the railing, and other visitors, snaking upwards along its line.
Once the sun has set, and the golden hour fades to blue and then black, this is when the photography of the volcano itself, and its explosions, really starts to appeal.
Best Spots to Shoot the Volcano
There is no single best spot to shoot the volcano - it will depend on the type of images you are seeking to achieve, your keenness to be creative and of course the equipment you have.
So if you are like us and want to maximise your image opportunities, as well as your experience, we recommend planning to move around and try different locations. Even when you find a spot that is working for you, don’t let your entire visit be taken up from just that one view point. If you do, you run the risk of a long list of largely the same images, plus if it turns out there was something about that location that didn’t quite work (and which you don’t notice until you are processing your photos later that night) you will have missed your chance to make amends!
The East View Point (to the Right)
The actual mouth of the volcano is not visible from the East View Point, in fact you can’t see down into the caldera all that much at all. But…
The prevailing winds are from the east, so this spot will “usually” see less smoke, steam, sulphur and ash relative to the west.
It also means less of those elements between you and the action when an explosion occurs.
So for that reason, assuming the winds are following their familiar pattern, head first to the east. It means a chance to get those first few action shots before you run the risk of camera issues to the west (see below).
At this point, you are a little higher than the highest point of the majority of flying debris, but not so high the perspective disappoints.
Once you have a couple of good shots from here, don’t delay. There are some very good view points to the west which you won’t want to miss. Plus you may wish to come back here for some last minute creativity…
You see at the time of our visit, part of the wooden railing had fallen down at the East View Point which we found resulted in an ideal spot to take silhouetted images of each other with the red glow behind us producing the pleasing halo (and helping to tell the story of how close we were to an active volcano).
The East View Point has plenty of room to move, meaning the photographer can get behind and far enough back of their subject to achieve a good shot with no risk of falling down the external slope of the mountain.
Though do still be careful with the rocks sticking out of the ground. On more than one occasion as the photographer moved to position themselves behind the subject a trip ensued, nearly resulting in both the individuals, and all the camera gear, flying over the cliff edge!!!
The West View Point
The West View Point allows images of the actual volcano openings including shots of the source of any explosions.
We found it also produced an interesting image whereby to the left of the two visible openings was perched a modest rock tower.
The tower obviously had another, less active, opening behind it, but which still produced good red light. This meant when the smoke and steam dissipated, you could achieve an image with two bubbling volcano openings, plus the faint outline of the tower to the left with a light red halo! Definitely like a scene from Mordor…
The downward perspective is in our view not quite as photogenic as images taken more parallel to the subject.
And then there is the biggest draw back of the West View Point …
More often than not, all the smoke, steam, sulphur and ash will be blown in that direction.
There are several potential outcomes from this -
At best, just sore eyes,
An irritated throat and uncontrollable coughing,
Images with a lot of smoke in between you and the action,
At worst, a very dirty, and even moist, camera and lens resulting in blurry images or quite potentially ruined gear!
The West Ridge (on the way to the West View Point)
D found a location to his liking roughly half way between the far west look out area and the initial view point. While there was no view of the actual volcano openings, it was much less of a downward angle to the flying debris, and the sea behind the volcano was easily included in the shot.
When an explosion occurred, the resulting fire works were more often just below or even at or above his height, which we felt provided a satisfying composition.
Tip Number 2 When Visiting the Mt Yasur Volcano
(Particularly Relevant to Keen Photographers)
Go more than once! The awe inspiring sights, sounds and feelings are reason enough to go a second time, but for a photographer it is an even more invaluable opportunity for a number of reasons. The first, is there is every chance the weather and prevailing conditions won’t be perfect the first time you go. So planning a second visit right from the beginning means you know there will be a second chance if things don’t work out. This also means you are less likely to push things too hard first time round and risk ruining your camera gear! The other important reason we would suggest you plan to go a second time is you will likely have learned from your first experience and your photos will improve second time around.
Extra Notes re the risk of camera damage …
Sure, hundreds of people head up onto the volcano every day and most won’t be taking any of the precautions we have discussed regarding their cameras. They will walk up with their point and shoots, sometimes even with some quality kit, take a few shots and come away non-the-wiser to the risk they just took.
And if you prefer to take that approach, go for it, we wish you all the best.
But the risk to camera gear from the ash and its associated dust on a volcano is real, and that is on any volcano around the world, not just Yasur. So if you have invested your hard earned, and your soul, into your camera equipment as many keen photographers have, it would well pay to take some care. Good luck :)
Photographing Mount Yasur Volcano: Part 3 – Image Types & Camera Settings (Still to come)