7 Photo Tips for Capturing Epic Lava Shots 100% In-Camera


CJ Kale and Nick Selway long ago fell in love with Hawaii and founded Lava Light, a photography gallery focused on capturing the ever-changing landscape created by an active volcano and crashing waves — and sometimes both together when the conditions are just right. And if swimming with fire and dodging lava bombs weren’t challenging enough, these photographers believe in creating their images completely in-camera.

Balancing exposures between sky, water and lava can be incredibly tricky. Luckily, Lava Light has shared some tips to help you get the shot without combining exposures or using HDR.

Photo Tip #1

To capture lava and stars together, put a neutral-density (ND) gradient filter on your lens upside down to balance the extreme exposures between the lava and stars.


Photo Tip #2

When photographing lava in the daytime, use the ND grad right side up to balance the light from the sunrise, because the sun will eventually be brighter than the lava is.


Photo Tip #3

For front-lit scenes, a hard ND grad balances light from a bright sky and a dark foreground, allowing you to darken the sky and deepen colors. For example, in this shot I used a polarizer to intensify the rainbow, but it left the sky a fraction too bright. So I added a 1-stop hard ND grad across the entire sky to darken it and get its depth and color to match with the lava and everything that’s front lit below.


Photo Tip #4

To capture the little curvature of a wave, a shutter speed around 1/3 of a second is usually enough to get a little light blur to the water but keep that shape in the wave.


Photo Tip #5

If you’re trying to capture a really misty feel, where the water almost looks like fog, use a 2- to 3-second exposure.


Photo Tip #6

Since we capture everything in-camera, sometimes we have to compromise on exposures and accept some clipping of highlights or shadows. So maybe a rock by the lava won’t have any detail in the shadows because I want to capture the detail in the lava instead, and I prioritize my exposure for the lava.


Photo Tip #7

Prepare the right gear for the day. My normal, hike-out-to-the-volcano kit includes a Nikon D800e, Canon 5dMkIII, 16–35 L lens for Canon, 14–24 for Nikon, a 50mm and an 85mm prime, and a 50–500 Sigma telephoto. Because sometimes you want a wide-angle shot, like the rainbow and lava, and others you want to zoom in on the drip, which requires a telephoto.


Hope you enjoyed these lava photography tips! To see more from CJ and Nick, head over to Lava Light Galleries or check out the behind the scenes video and Q&A we posted just a few hours ago by clicking here.

This article was re-published with express permission from SmugMug and Lava Light Galleries. It originally appeared on the SmugMug blog here.

Image credits: Photographs by CJ Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries and used with permission

  • Thekaph

    Photo Tip #8: Live close to a volcano.

    Photo Tip #9: Act like Pierce Brosnan.

  • Pickle

    Who cares if the images were processed in camera? The writer keeps mentioning “In camera” as if there are extra points for that. “In camera” is meaningless in the digital world because the only true “In camera” is a raw image which can’t be viewed without some processing.

    I get that we try to get as close to perfect as we can with our exposure, but does it make any difference whether the image was processed by the camera’s built in “photoshop” or by a computer back in the office? Actually, YES! The one processed in office, all things equal, will have a better chance at having corrected colors and instead of taking the easy way out and letting the camera decide what highlights to lower and what blacks to raise, the photographer takes control and does it.

    Please don’t encourage lazy “in camera” photography. Even Ansel Adams post processed his pictures. Don’t forget also that image processors continue to evolve so long after your camera is no longer in use, keeping the raw images will be a gift that keeps on giving using the best processing available at the time.

  • Pickle

    They talk as if this is such a common thing that ordinary people have access to like it’s pet photography or something.

  • Eden Wong

    Good, simple, common sense tips that an advanced beginner can easily apply in lots of different situations.

  • Wuz nt Me

    Maybe it’s one of those things we lose sight of as we get older. I vaguely recall coming in close proximity to lava many times as a child and I might not have lived through it if I hadn’t been able to jump from the couch to the arm chair.

  • Pickle

    It’s all fun and games until someone slips and has to go to the ER!

  • Spaghetti888

    A lot of what they do makes sense, regardless of whether they post-process or not. I find it commendable they they even have the ability to get such images in-camera.

    Pickle: Of course processing RAW would allow much greater degree of control, but I think that would be missing the point. Just like a street photographer might restrict themselves to film in order to expand their creativity in other ways, so do these guys. The use of in-camera one take shots yields a different kind of look which others might not have achieved otherwise using full unlocked access to dynamic range in LR. It would be like telling a light-painter to not bother and just paint over a photo in Photoshop….

  • chudez

    i disagree with the notion that getting the picture as close to your vision as possible “in camera” is encouraging people to be “lazy”. if anything, it demands you think about what image you want to take even before you take it – from composition to sources of light to the highlights and shadows in the scene. learning to do this in camera is just another tool in the toolbox

  • Rūdolfs Rancāns

    for me ”tips for lava photography” goes into the same boat as ”tips for glamoruos unicorn portraits”. Not very useful :(

  • sara

    Iit was so great that l cannot explain my feeling.thank you

  • PaulaReidvsu

    my friend’s sister
    makes $81 hourly on the computer . She has been fired for eight months but
    last month her pay check was $13406 just working on the computer for a few
    hours. read here Works77­.­C­O­­M

  • bob cooley

    In-camera is the least lazy form of photography. It takes a lot of preparation a and planning to get it right the first time.

    Ask any working photographer whose ever worked with slides, in mixed lighting conditions how “lazy” getting it correct in-camera is.

    It’s certainly not meaningless. I agree with you that we can make enhancements in post that will make almost any image better, but getting it to that 95% is a best practice, and certainly not lazy.

    It seems that the main point of this article is to show that you can create images with great dynamic range and great results without having to resort to using HDR software, which is always an inferior solution, even in the best of hands.

    Ansel did some post, but the whole point of the Zone system was to get it as correct in camera as possible, and then perfect the tonality of the image through processing. He actually did very little ‘post’ in the sense of the way we speak of it today.

  • 3ric15

    This comment wins the internet.

  • OtterMatt

    You win.

  • OtterMatt

    A man can dream. A man can dream…

  • Eden Wong

    Not true, Rūdolfs. Learning the basics of ND filters or a polarizer or shooting scenes with huge lighting contrasts is useful knowledge for any beginner.

    Don’t look at these as just photos of lava, look at them in terms of light. For example, replace the lava in Photo #1 with a few of your friends sitting around a bonfire. Same principle.

  • Cj Kale

    Actually what I mean when I say in camera is a single raw not combining exposures. I still shoot raw and do my final processing myself. I just don’t call three shots a hole in one. I believe one shot is a photograph and three combined in photoshop is graphic arts. Get it right in camera not on the computer is my way.

  • Cj Kale

    Exactly! More lazy to me to just shop it later then it is to put the work into getting the shot right while taking it. And as a landscape and nature photographer you have to decide where you want to spend your time. Out in nature or inside in front of the computer.

  • Cj Kale

    Exactly what the point of this article was. Ansel Adams never combined images to make one shot. He worked on one image to make it right for print.

  • Cj Kale

    We do process a raw file. If not the camera would process that one raw anyway. We just get it in one shot is how it was supposed to be put.

  • Cj Kale

    Been there a few times.

  • bob cooley

    And you’ve got some great results to show for it- thanks for sharing them CJ.

  • John McQuiston

    Another tip they left out is be careful changing lenses! I found out the hard way just how much volcanic ash is floating around even if you don’t see or feel it.