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Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: ‘Volcanoman’

November 25, 2011 Profile & Interviews 4 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

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.

lewis photog Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

I was out at a remote ocean entry with a fellow volcano photographer one night when ocean water entered the lava tube, creating huge explosions, as the cold water interacted with the hot water in the confined space of the tube. People in volcano photos are important for scale and perspective.

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.

lewis lava flying Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

This is one of my most published volcano images. I actually had to walk away from my tripod during this 30 second exposure, due to flying lava


lewis lava ocean Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

Lava flowing into the ocean. Earth Birth. Creation. Beauty. Elements coming together. A reminder that the Earth is alive. Forever growing and expanding. When I view hot lava gushing from the Earth, flowing down her flanks, and pouring into the ocean, I feel wonderfully small and insignificant, yet empowered by the eternal dynamics that make life possible on this planet.

untitled Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

I captured the image "Pele's Heartbeat", at the Pu'u O'o vent of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The spatter cone was less than a day old when I helicoptered into the eruption site, with camping gear, two camera systems, and a hundred rolls of film. Newly formed spatter cones are one of my favorite features on Kilauea, the most active volcano on the planet. Towards evening, lava started to explode out of the center of the cone. I was fortunate to press the shutter at the exact moment that this particular burst of lava (30 feet in diameter) happened to be in the shape of a heart. A true gift from Pele, the volcano goddess.

lewis lava tube Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

A river of lava being tubed over as it enters the Pacific Ocean.


lewis lava bubble Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

Exploding Lava Bubble. Ocean water entering a lava tube creates large bubbles of lava to form and explode near the ocean entry were lava pours into the Pacific Ocean. Kamoamoa. Hawaii Volcano National Park. Hawaii.

lewis doubles arch Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

Galaxias. This is my latest volcano image, that I took a few miles from my home on the Volcano Golf Course. It shows both of the active vents of Kilauea Volcano, with a healthy dose of Milky Way.

lewis transition Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

This image was taken in November of 1992 at Kamoamoa, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kamoamoa was a very significant archaeology site, with many Hawaiian trails, canoe sheds, and heiaus. (Hawaiian temples). Ancient Hawaiians used to launch their canoes here, and had a significant village area. The hot lava flows came into Kamoamoa a couple of months before I took this image. They skirted many significant sites, most notable the Moa Heiau. The lava surrounded this temple for a couple of years before finally covering it. Lava entering the ocean at Kamoamoa formed a black sand beach almost a mile long. It was an excellent place to view the lava entering the ocean. One day, the lava flow surged and destroyed what was left of this area. I had been practically living at Kamoamoa, due to the large amount of archaeological sites being buried that I wanted to document before they were erased forever. The grassy area in the background of this image, was a meeting place for many people. Modern Hawaiian cultural festivals used to be held here. I made my first nose flute here in 1984. It was with sadness that I watched it being buried, but also with the knowing that what Pele creates, she also can take away, so it is best not to be too attached. This is my best selling print in galleries.

lewis halemaumau Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

Halemaumau vent lava lake and full moon. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hawaii.


lewis lava rvr Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
Lava River. A very large river of lava pours from the MLK vent (less than 24 hours old) on the south side of the Pu’u O’o vent on Kilauea Volcano. Hawaii Volcano National Park. Hawaii.
lewis Lava Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
This is the lava flow that kept me trapped overnight on Kilauea Volcano, as I was waiting for the magic light that would help me out in getting this movement. I felt like John Muir trapped on Mt. Shasta, sleeping on a steam vent… Ah, memories..
lewis puuOo Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
Looking into the Pu’u O’o vent as lava gushing from a spatter cone creates a lava lake that fills the entire vent. This lava lake overflowed from both sides of the vent several hours later. I was camped near this spot, and had to be careful that the lava pouring out of the vent did not cut off my escape route.
lewis spatter Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
Spatter Cone. A newly formed spatter cone on the outside of the Pu’u O’o vent of Kilauea Volcano. This image reminds me of a haiku.
lewis Rainforest Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
Hawaiian Rainforest. On my way to shoot an early morning lava flow, I stopped on the way to capture the rays of light streaking through this native forest.
lewis double arch Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
I took this image a few days ago in Arches National Park. A couple very carefully placed candles, and head lamp, and voila! Magic.
lewis wave Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
I shot this 30 foot wave in Waimea Bay, on the North Shore of Oahu. The first finger of sunshine touched the face of this monster as I took the photo. The Eddie Aikau Big Wave invitational happened this day, and my friend Noah Johnson won it. A very good day…
lewis rte 66 Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman
I recently did a two-week, 2500 mile road trip, to photograph the many beauties of Nature, that sustain us all in so many ways. I took over 45,000 frames in three states, and had a total blast. Now that I am shooting time lapse scenes, I am glad I have duel memory-card ports in my Nikon D3s, with 64 gigs on-board at all times. So, of all the awesome Nature images I captured, (with thanks and gratitude…) one of my favorite images from this trip is of a wonderful woman I met in Barstow CA. who owns a hotel on Route 66. I stopped by to ask for permission to photograph some very cool old cars on her property, but when I walked into the office, I knew the shot was there, all around me, with her as the subject surrounded by all the knick-knacks honoring the history of Route 66. It took over an hour listening to her unfold the history of her hotel and Route 66 lore, until the time was right to ask her permission to photograph her, there, then. These kinds of shots are way more challenging than capturing a classic nature shot. Thank you Ved and Mridu Shandil at Route 66 Motel for your Aloha! (I ended up staying there and shot throughout the night and the next morning)

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.

Brads Books:

lewis volcano Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanomanlewis volcano red Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

If you are as awed by Brad’s work as I am, please leave a comment.

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bh wl Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: Volcanoman

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful imagery Brad. The volcano images are so varied – I love how you share the many faces of the fiery beast.

    The Waimea wave is incredible – I keep coming back to that one. The energy and the light are great elements that, for me, make the image stand out.

    Good luck and happy travelling on your imminent road trip.



  2. Doug Otto says:

    Thanks for inviting Brad to guest-blog, Charlie. I “discovered” Brad’s work during a workshop on the big island. I really love his work.

  3. kristy says:

    love it!

  4. [...] Posts: Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: ‘Volcanoman’,  Some Breathaking Imagery by the Photographer Known As: [...]

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