A photograph of a volcanic eruption showing red hot lava meeting the sea. Plumes of smoke rise from the coast.

Creation, by Luis Vilariño

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: navigating the lava fields

Luis Vilariño's award-winning photograph of the erupting Kīlauea Volcano is a fascinating insight into thrills and threats of nature photography.  

Luis won the Earth's Environments category in the fifty-fifth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for his photograph, Creation. The image is an astonishing aerial shot that captures the collision boundary between molten rock and water, giving rise to new land.

The dramatic photo was taken off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island during the volcano's three-month eruption in 2018. The event destroyed over 700 homes, and the lava eventually solidified to create hundreds of acres of new land.

A dangerous landscape

Photographing a volcanic eruption is a dangerous task, and Luis's adventures on the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park are as fascinating as the photo itself. Luis and his team hired a helicopter, then trekked through the park for 18 days, an experience he describes as 'incredible'.

He says, 'Sometimes you could tell that the lava was very close to the surface, as the ground was so hot that it burned. The smell of rock burning at over 1,000°C was overwhelming and in some areas, and there are fumes that can cause death under certain conditions.'

A photograph of Luis standing next to a red hot lava stream, steam can be seen rising from the ground in the background.

Credit: Luis Vilariño


Sadly, this was the case for photographer Sean King, who died while leading a tour on the Kalapana moors in February 2018. Sean was caught off guard by a sudden downpour of torrential rain which interacted with the lava to produce toxic gases. This was a tragic incident that highlights the dangers of this type of photography.

But the white clouds in Luis's shot Creation are the product of a different kind of reaction.

Luis explains, 'The interaction of lava and cold seawater produces steam clouds loaded mainly with highly toxic hydrochloric acid. Geologists call this phenomenon laze, which comes from combining the words lava and haze.'

The view from above

The clouds of laze feature prominently in Luis's photograph, which was taken through the open door of a helicopter. 'Initially the approach was from the ground,' explains Luis, 'but my second trip to the region coincided with the largest eruption in the last 200 years in the LERZ (Lower East Rift Zone).

'As a result, the authorities had denied everyone access to the entire area, so the only way to document the eruption was through the sea or air. Although more expensive and complicated, I chose to concentrate my resources and effort on planning several flights.'

Luis gained a different perspective from the air, but this new approach was still hazardous: 'When you are flying higher than 1,000 metres in a small helicopter with no doors, over lava rivers and clouds of toxic vapor, you must stay focussed and keep a cool head in order to make the most of every minute of flight.'

While Luis was lucky to capture the dramatic coastline during a break among the plumes of steam, much of his success was down to meticulous planning and his clear vision of what he hoped to achieve.

'To create the atmosphere I wanted, I knew I would need the side light that occurs at dawn or dusk. This would provide more relief to the clouds of steam and provide the colour and contrast that the scene needed. Months of planning culminated when I pressed the shutter button on my camera as I flew over the lava rivers entering the Pacific.'

A photograph of Luis in a rocky landscape. He is wearing a gas mask and is standing next to his camera on a triopod.

Credit: Luis Vilariño


Despite the dangers and challenges faced by Luis, he was able to enjoy many breathtaking views from the air.

'During one of the flights, the sky darkened and it began to rain heavily. The lava river stood out among a sea of black rock from which clouds of steam rose, producing an apocalyptic scene. This was undoubtedly one of the most memorable experiences of my career as a photographer.'

Changing environments

'With Creation, it was my intent to capture the essence of a landscape in permanent change. This doesn't happen anywhere else in the world like it does on Hawaii's Big Island,' explains Luis.

'Incandescent rock fountains spilled in unpredictable forms that could be buried in a matter of hours or minutes by the next lava fountain, leaving sculptures as spectacular as they were ephemeral.'

Luis favours the kind of lighting that is 'produced in the heart of storm', so he's no stranger to working in extreme weather and challenging environments. 'I love the paintings of Turner, Constable or John Martin. But to catch these moments you have to be willing to get wet and muddy.'

There is also an environmental cause at the heart of Luis' work - he has been travelling the world for more than three decades as a photographer and as a biologist. 'For years I have been immersed in a project where the objective is to photograph singular landscapes illuminated by extraordinary lights, to make the population aware of the need to preserve the beauty of our environment,' he says. 

The Dramatic Light

Luis's project, The Dramatic Light, led him to work in a variety of challenging environments, including a hair-raising experience in the southwestern Badlands of the USA.

He says, 'As I photographed lightning falling on a spectacular landscape, I was not aware that I was being surrounded by an arm of the storm that was outside my field of vision.'

'By the time I realised what was happening, it was too late. Lightning was falling everywhere within a few feet of me, the noise was deafening and I was terrified.'

'To get back to my car I had to cross a plateau of several kilometres in which the only thing that stood out on the plain was me, loaded with 20 kilos of photographic equipment. I arrived at my vehicle exhausted and scared to death. The images I took that day were awarded in competitions, but I would not repeat the experience.'

'Some of my best photographs have required waiting days or weeks for ideal conditions to occur in really uncomfortable situations. Most of the time, waiting doesn't lead to anything. You go home empty-handed.'

'However, there are times when magic happens. You are prepared to catch that unique moment that no one else is witnessing. It is those moments that make up for all your efforts and encourage you to keep trying.'

Visit Luis's website to see a wider selection of photos and video footage of his expeditions. 

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