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Swimming with Fire: BTS Video and Q&A with Two Daredevil Lava Photographers


We’ve introduced you to best friends CJ Kale and Nick Selway before, back in 2012 when we first shared the beautiful photography they created for their gallery “Lava Light Galleries.” But today, you get to go into the water with them while they tell you about capturing amazing shots while, at times, swimming in 110°F water.

The BTS video above is yet another installment of the SmugMug Films series we’ve shared with you a couple of times before. From the skies, to the studio, to the waves, SmugMug has followed around some of the best in the business to show you what it takes to create great art.

But if the video above leaves you wanting more, have no fear. Kale and Selway were kind enough to send us over a completed Q&A they put together in which they answer some of the most common questions they get — from how they got into photography, to the gear they use, to how they manage to stay safe while doing what they do.

It’s not a quick read, but it is a fascinating one, so don’t skip it!

Lava surf

How did you both get started with photography?

I started shooting at a very young age because my mom shot portraits and surfers. She gave me a camera, and I was hooked. I was always so excited to get my film back and see what worked. Nick picked up the camera in college. He always had a love for the outdoors and learned later that he had an eye for photography.

What drew you to Kilauea Kona to continue pursuing photography?

What drew us here was the diversity of the landscape and the ever-changing volcanic terrain. Hawaii is a land of color. The motion of the sea and lava in the scene add excitement. That’s our goal, to take our viewers on a journey through an exciting landscape.

You have to be ready for anything and be prepared for disappointment. Things are so unpredictable that your only option is to pick a day and go. If the conditions don’t work that day, suck up the disappointment and go the next day, because it will be completely different.

What are some of the dangers involved in photographing an active volcano?

There is always the danger of being burned by hot lava. But it’s the things you have very little control over that are the most dangerous: lava tubes, and crevasses, flying molten hot lava rocks, methane gas explosions, and bench collapses, where acres of land just suddenly drop off into the sea. When we swim with the volcano, there’s acidic water, volcanic glass, floating lava bombs—all while swimming in pounding surf.

As former rescue swimmers and lifeguards, we’re both fantastic in the water and well-experienced in the surf. Also, if a problem were to occur, we’re each other’s best hope.


What’s a typical day like for you?

We find a suitable location to shoot, wake up at 2:00 a.m., drive two hours, hike out two hours, check for safe routes if we need to run, spend a few hours out at the flow, then hike back two hours, drive back two hours, sometimes stopping at waterfalls or beaches, then either stop in one of our galleries or home to rest from the adventure.

What do you look for in a “safe route” out?

Nothing’s going to be 100% safe, but we look for paths that don’t have boulders, loose rocks, big cracks, or crevasses we’d trip over or fall into if we have to run. You’re always aware of the direction you have to run so if something blows up toward you, you won’t trip or fall when you’re in a panic.

One time Nick and I had picked out our path and knew exactly where we needed to run. The lava had been blowing up about 100 feet all night, and then one explosion blew up about 250 feet and came right toward us. We both shot a frame in sync—the shutters went off in stereo—and then I looked at him, he looked at me, and we just stood there and waited. The path we had chosen to run got coated in lava: a thousand flaming hot lava rocks right where we would have run to. As it was, we had a few rocks that landed within two feet of us, including a few rocks that traveled over our heads and landed behind us.

Luckily, we didn’t get hit by the rocks, and after the rocks cooled down, we just walked out. Sometimes you map out a direction that you think is going to be great but if the lava flies in that direction, it doesn’t work out.


What’s your go-to kit for capturing lava and waves?

I use a lot of different camera gear when I shoot. My normal hike-out-to-the-volcano kit is a Nikon D800e, a Canon 5dMkIII, a 16–35 L lens for Canon, 14–24 for Nikon, a 50mm and an 85mm prime, and a 50–500 Sigma for my preferred telephoto lens. For waves, I use a 15mm fisheye and SPL water housing.

I used to use a 24–70 to have the zoom range, but it has a 2.8 maximum aperture. With primes I get 1.4, which does better in low light. And carrying a 50mm prime and an 85mm prime is no more weight than carrying a 24–70.

Are exposures tricky given how bright the lava is?

Yes, that is why split neutral-density (ND) gradient filters are a must if you want to capture a photograph in camera, which is what we believe in. Nowadays everyone just Photoshops tricky exposures. They take three photos and then stack them together, but I consider that graphic arts. Photography is being able to do the same thing using only photographic techniques to capture it in one frame.

Volcano images Kilauea Hawaii

How do you use your ND grads?

I have a set of grads: 1-, 2-, and 3-stop hard grads; 1-, 2-, and 3-stop soft grads; as well as a 4-stop soft and a 3-stop reverse. When it’s dark out, I’ll use the grads upside down to balance the light from the lava, because the lava is far brighter than anything else in the scene. In the daytime, I use it right side up because the sun will eventually be brighter than the lava is. It’s all just balancing light.

Is the difference between hard, soft, and reverse filters the gradient?

Yeah. A reverse is actually hard in the middle and then fades up to the top. A hard is the exact same amount of darkness all the way across—there’s no gradient to it. Half of it is dark, and half sn’t. And then a soft is full darkness on the top with a gradient end.

Any tips on which gradient works best for which shot you’re going for?

If the sun is higher in the sky, use a soft gradient. Put the darkest portion over the sun, and the gradient will fade into the scene. If the sun is on the horizon, use a reverse gradient. Put your grad at the horizon line and it will fade upward so you don’t wind up with a completely dark sky. The hard filter I use to balance a bright sky and if I have a front-lit scene. Place the gradient line at the horizon line so it darkens the sky and brings out its depth and color to match with the lava and everything below that’s front lit.


Ever need to stack or combine your NDs?

I try to avoid it, but sometimes you need to. Say it’s bright out and you want to get water motion, you’ll use a solid ND to darken the whole scene so you can get a slower shutter speed. Then you’d add a split grad if you’re shooting into the sun: if the sun is high, use soft; if the sun’s low, use hard.

But what if you want to retain reflections on the water? The sun’s up high, and you’ve got a beam of light coming across the water that you want to capture. If you just use a hard grad, the beam of light is going to be blown out. So instead use a 3-stop soft and push it down so the darkest part is on the sun and the soft gradient is going across the water, exposing for that beam of light.

Do you ever have to compromise on exposure and accept some clipping?

The art of photography is being able to make those decisions on what highlights are going to get blown out and what shadows are going to stay as deep shadows. Now in the day of graphic arts, no one makes that choice anymore. For us, though, it’s about being able to make that choice and decide we want to see detail in the lava, so maybe that rock nearby won’t have any detail because my exposure prioritizes the lava. But maybe the detail on the rock is cooler and we want to show that instead, so you won’t see the detail in the lava—it’ll blur together and almost look like a light saber when done.

You make similar decisions based on capturing detail versus motion.

Yes, though we adjust shutter speed more depending on which we want. To capture the little curvature of a wave of water, normally about 1/3 of a second is enough to get a light blur to the water but still have shape in the wave.

If you want a more misty look, water that almost looks like fog, then you’re talking about 2 to 3 seconds. If you’re trying to capture the flow of water rolling down a black sand beach, a second or two will do.

Knowing which to shoot for comes with experience from seeing the landscape and how the water moves across it.


Do you have to compensate for heat distortion at all?

Sometimes distortion from the heat will make it impossible to capture a sharp image in a given location. The only option is to try and shoot from another location.

What do you look for when choosing locations?

Mainly I’m looking for great light and great lava conditions, but that doesn’t always happen. You get out there and sometimes you have a fantastic sunset but you can’t even see the lava because it’s covered in steam. Then sometimes you get there and there’s fantastic lava, and the sky is drab. But we can use that. That’s the day for telephoto shots—just close-ups of lava because the sky’s not going to do you any good.

What do you consider perfect conditions?

Perfect light like early morning sunrise, good color in the sky with a little bit of volcanic-originated gas because it diffuses the sun. When the sun does come through, you get these really deep reds and oranges. If you darken them a bit with an ND grad, they become this beautiful red that almost perfectly matches the lava. You don’t get that that often. I’ve seen it maybe five days in my entire 18 years of shooting.

And of course the lava wave photos. Any day we can shoot into the sun with the steam blowing the opposite way, and we can actually get into the water to swim and shoot, is great. But those are very rare, too. We’ve only had five days in the water with the volcano active in 18 years. Extremely rare conditions, but that’s why we live and photograph here.

Lava surf

How do you process your photos when you come back for the day?

Our post is kept to a bare minimum. If shot digitally, we’ll make minor adjustments while processing the RAW to a printable jpeg. We’ll use Lightroom to make minor adjustments to contrast, white balance, saturation, highlights, and shadows.

The trick is to get it right in the camera. To keep our photography pure, if we can’t achieve a photo on film, then we won’t do it digitally. We like to spend our time in the field, not in front of a computer.

What do you love most about what you do?

We love the excitement of witnessing the creation and destruction of the landscape right before our eyes.

Any advice for those thinking about pursuing a similar path?

Enjoy the ride and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t accomplish your goals. If your work is pure it will always stand on its own against any scrutiny and be appreciated by those who value photography.

There’s a lot of great tips in there if you ever intend to photograph lava, but if you’d like more specifics before you book that trip to Hawaii, stay tuned because we’ll be publishing a list of photo tips that the duo was kind enough to send our way.

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