Brad Lewis is a photographer who lives on the edge; literally the edge of volcano’s where he captures some of the most amazing volcano images the world has seen.
For decades his imagery has graced the covers of some of the highest profile publications such as Life, Natural History, Geo, Natures Best, and appeared as well in National Geographic, Outside, Time, Newsweek, and many more.
I have seen his work published for years, and like many other photographers, wondered just how he captures his images in such seemingly dangerous conditions, so we decided to ask him.
Please tell us how you got started and how long you have been in the business.
I guess it all started when I found a Brownie camera under the Christmas tree when I was 5 years old. It didn’t take long to get hooked. I have been in the business now for about 30 years. I have worked hard to create home bases in three states. Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii, so I am constantly exposed to colossal beauty. I never have to look far for interesting subjects to photograph. When I moved to Hawaii in 1982, and Kilauea Volcano started to erupt a few months later, I made the effort to finally quit traveling so much so that I could focus on my career in photography.
Volcano photography is certainly a niche specialty. Were you a photographer first or more a Volcanologist who became interested in photography?
I was a photographer first. I have dabbled in many professions along the way, all of them integrating photography in one way or another. I have been an archaeologist, anthropologist, and geologist.
The writing was on the wall for all of these professions, as it seemed that the more money you made, the less field time you got. Forget that. The field time was what it was all about for me. Once I got involved with photographing volcanoes, I started doing serious research on volcanology. I would take college text books with me when I flew into the volcano, and study them during the ample bad-weather days that come with erupting volcanoes.
Some of your images are very close to the action, how do you get so close?
Kilauea is a “drive-in” volcano, safer than most. That is one reason I chose it as my primary zone for volcano photography. It is a shield volcano, which makes it much safer than strato volcanos, like St. Helens, Pinatubo, and the many volcanoes that surround my place in Alaska. Over the years, I have become very familiar with its many moods. I have learned of the dangers and developed strategies to avoid them. The bottom line for me is listening to my intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, I move on.
This is obviously photography fraught with dangers so when I see pictures of photographers shooting the eruptions while standing on the crust, I think they will break through. Just how dangerous is it really?
It can be extremely dangerous. Thin-roofed lava tubes are one of the main hazards to recognize and avoid. A fiend of mine once fell into hot lava up to his knee. His protective gaiters, and a waiting helicopter saved his leg, but this is a situation to avoid at all costs.
Have you had any close calls while shooting volcanic eruptions?
I have had a few close calls, especially in the beginning of my relationship with Kilauea Volcano. I have some great stories, but ones that are best to share over a campfire and cocktail…
You have been published widely and are recognized as the go-to guy for volcano photography. Have there been any dream assignments or career changing opportunities?
Constantly. My volcano photography basically jump-started my career, saving me about a decade of efforts of what it would normally take to get as widely published as I immediately was. My first published photo was a double page in LIFE magazine. I went on to get a cover shot on LIFE a few years later. Due to this kind of exposure, I had dozens of other major magazines and agents knocking on my door. Fortunately, that was before Getty ruined the stock photography industry, and it was still a viable option to make serious money.
What other, if any, areas of photography do you spend time shooting?
I am currently living at my Park City, Utah location (for my daughters high school years), so its all about skiing, mountain biking and landscape photography now. I got into time lapse photography about six months ago, and have been shooting it non-stop. I was recently on a two week road trip, covering 2500 miles and shooting more than 49,000 frames. I am headed out on another road trip when I finish this interview, this time with a custom made dolly for my time lapse work, so I suspect I will go through even more gigs than my last trip.
I feel that today’s markets are more suited for the niche specialist than the nature generalist, have you enjoyed the fruits of a being a niche photographer in this difficult time of change in professional photography?
Definitely. Being known world-wide as the Volcanoman, the go-to guy for volcano photography, continues to be a lucrative opportunity. I probably sell as many non-volcanic images through my various agencies, since I shoot so many subjects besides erupting volcanoes, but the volcano work, at least for now, is what I am mainly recognized for.
You have a print business that sells your fine art photography. Do you also license your own stock or use a stock agency?
I do license my own images, but I encourage most stock sales to go through one of my agencies. I am down to a handful of agencies now, after Getty gobbled many of them up in their quest to dominate the industry. There are still strong sales to be made, just not as often as before.
Certainly some of our readers and others want to know how to go about photographing volcanoes. What advice and cautions do you have for them?
Do your research. There is so much information available at our fingertips that there is no excuse to be unprepared or uninformed. Unfortunately, most of the unlimited access I have had over the years is no longer available to anyone. So finding out what the legal access is, and what the inherent dangers are, is mandatory. Always carry a respirator designed specifically for volcanic fumes. Have protective clothing, and boots with the soles sewed on, not glued. Otherwise they will likely melt off during the first serious outing over hot lava. And try not to get so mesmerized as you take in the glories of Earth Birth, that you don’t notice that big A’a flow bearing down upon you from behind….
Can we look at some of your images and have you describe them?
By all means. I will pull a few images from my various locations.
Please tell our readers where they can learn more about you.
My web sites are www.volcanoman.com and www.volcanoman.ifps.com, and I recently joined Facebook (after avoiding it like the plague for years. I now have copyright attorneys combing the web for unauthorized uses of my images, which takes the edge off…). www.facebook.com/G.Brad.Lewis. I have several books out. The latest ones are “Volcano: Creation in Motion“, distributed by Mutual Publishing. And “The Red Volcanoes. Face to Face with the Mountains of Fire“, published by Thames and Hudson. I am featured on several TV documentaries on a regular basis. The next one will be filmed in January for Smithsonian Television. I have taught workshops, but prefer spending my precious time shooting on my own, or with a select small group of other inspiring photographers. My prints are offered in dozens of galleries throughout Hawaii.
If you are as awed by Brad’s work as I am, please leave a comment.