Photographing Volcanos With Landscape Pro Ian Plant

Right. You always gotta be thinking about how you can take things up to the next level. You can’t just rest on your laurels. If you want to make really compelling photographs.

Greetings my excellent friends. It’s Josh Cripps here on this episode of how I got the shot. I’m very excited to welcome a special guest. One of the best landscape photographers in the world, and someone I’m proud to call a personal friend, Ian plant. I’ve been following Ian’s work since the very early days of my own career. And one of the things that has always impressed me about his work is his dedication to the shot. Once he’s got an idea for an image, no matter how crazy or adventurous it is, he goes for it. And he does what it takes to execute his vision. And the photo he’s going to be telling us all about today is no different a magnificent portrait at this volcano, but I’m gonna let him tell you all about it. So without any further ado, let’s dive in ed plant. Welcome. And thank you so much for joining me here on how I got the shot. How are you doing today?

I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me, Josh. It’s a real honor and privilege to speak with you as always.

Hey man, it’s absolutely my pleasure. And I’m so stoked to talk to you about this photograph because you didn’t give me an idea in advance, what you were going to be talking about, what photos you’re going to be showing. And when these volcano images popped up on my screen, I just had to hear the story there’s so much going on in these photos that, that we could talk about, not just the technical aspects and the exposure, but also the colors, the composition, the whole story behind it. I can’t wait to get into it. So I’m going to turn the ball over to you. Why don’t you just get us go and tell me what the heck are we looking at? Where is this and how did you get there?

Well, this is a great story. In fact, it’s an explosive story. See what I did there, a little volcano pawn. So this is actually a sequence of photos. I wanted to share with everyone, my process, as I explored this beautiful volcano, this volcano is in the Island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. And it is literally halfway across the world. From where I live. It was quite an adventure getting there. And I spent a week photographing this volcano. And with this subject, like with my other landscape subjects, I usually spend a fair amount of time trying to understand the subject, get in tune with its rhythms and to really assess what the creative potentials are. And usually what happens is my work goes through this iterative process where one shot, you know, just kind of leads to the next. And so instead of just showing one image and explaining how I got it, I thought it might be fun to go through the series of photos that I took while I was there for one week photographing.

And so it’s really interesting because you get to this remote Island in the middle of the South Pacific and the, uh, scenery is pretty much dominated by this one, giant massive volcano and it’s, and it’s really quite huge. So the first photo I’m sharing here is just a reference photo, and this is a shot I took with my drone after climbing up to the top of the volcano. I launched my drone and flew it up as high as I could looking back down just to give a sense of scale. This is a huge, huge landscape, uh, feature. And this is volcano. Crater is probably, I don’t know, at least a half a mile or a mile across. And you can see there’s these lava pools down at the bottom and they look quite small in this picture. That gives you an idea how big this volcanic crater is.

So that love of pool on the left. In this first photo, you can see the smoke rain coming out of it. That is an explosion that is just happening right there. So there’s magma coming out of this lava pool and it is going hundreds and hundreds of feet into the sky. And it looks very, very tiny. And this smoke ring that you’re seeing coming out of that lava pool is hundreds and hundreds of feet across. I mean, I don’t even know how big it is. It’s just this massive plume of smoke that I saw when I was standing there on the crater edge of the volcano, but from the distance with my drone, it looks very small relative to the overall size of the landscape. So this is just an odd, inspiring humongous landscape, which presented a huge challenge photographically.

Now, how do you get to this? You hike up there or is it, uh, you have to take a guide or a donkey or a horse, or what’s the story like, how do you actually get to the rim there to observe this incredible landscape?

So what I did is I stayed at this little lodge, this Villa that was right below the, uh, the volcano. And, you know, I could see the volcano from where I was. And from there you go into the volcanic park and you hire a guide and the guide takes you up in like a four by four vehicle and you can park below the crater rim and then you have to climb several hundred feet up to the top of the crater rim with your guide. And there’s actually a fair number of tourists that go there. And so in the evening there might be another 30 or 40 people going up there with you. So it’s quite the tourist event, but you could also go up in the early morning before sunrise. And I did that a lot. And typically there were, there weren’t really any other people then. So a lot of times I’d be up there by myself with, uh, with my photo buddy, who I was traveling with. We’d be up there all by ourselves in the morning. And it was really incredible to have that this, this amazing natural landscape, this amazing event, all to ourselves.

That sounds utterly unbelievable. It’s such a primal landscape. So tell me as you come up to the creator for the first time and you’re looking down and you’re seeing this magma and these, and you’re hearing this and feeling, uh, what, what do you, what are your sensory experiences? Like? What does it smell? Like? What does it sound like? Do you feel anything in your chest and how does that start to guide the process for you of coming up with an idea for a photo that flowed downhill into this final image?

Yeah, it’s interesting. Cause I really didn’t know what to expect. I had seen a few photos from this location, but it’s not exactly on the map for most photographers. It’s kind of Terra incognita. And so the first experience you have is sound because as you’re climbing up, you hear these explosions that are going on. What’s really unique about Yasir volcano is that it basically erupts everything that it’s, it’s very predictable and the eruptions are the result of magma building up in these lava pools. As the pressure builds up, it releases in this giant explosion that just causes all these magma bombs, do a flying hundreds and hundreds of feet into the air. And so as you’re climbing up, you can’t see anything, but you can hear those explosions. So you hear these, this banging noise, it’s kind of like distant artillery, like maybe a cannon going off or something like that.

And then when you get up to the top of the rim, you’re not really able to look down and see the lava pools from where you’re standing, but every few minutes suddenly you feel this wave of pressure passing you. There’s a shock wave. There’s the sound of the explosion. Uh, so the explosion sound comes first, then the shockwave passes and you can just feel the pressure in your chest. And then you see these giant magma bombs, uh, coming up above the crater rim and just flying in the air in front of you, hundreds of feet above you, it’s really quite a stunning sight. And it’s quite a stunning thing to be just standing there when it happens. It’d be like the noise of the explosions. If you’re not paying attention, it could, uh, it can startle you. And as I said, you could feel it, that sound wave passing through you. And it’s quite an incredible feeling.

So are you in any danger at all of these magnet bombs landing on the rim?

I would say that the danger is pretty low. The guides are very good and they tell you when you see an explosion to keep your eye on the magma bombs. And they, um, because the, the volcanic activity is pretty stable and predictable, the guides know where you can go safely and where not to go. They tell people all the time, don’t climb down below the edge of the crater rim. And you do hear stories occasionally about tourists getting killed, but that’s because they break the rules and they go down into the crater and that’s the danger zone. So as long as you listen to your guides and pay attention, it’s perfectly safe. And as I said, they bring up hundreds of tourists there every month. So it’s actually quite safe and really amazing.

And I’m just imagining some drunk frat like, uh, but you won’t go touch the lava betta who will no offense to drunk frat boys. All right. So you get up on the rim. You’re seeing these magma bombs, you’re feeling the shockwaves pass through your body. And somehow you, as a photographer are starting to think about how you can capture this place and capture what it is you’re feeling and seeing in an image that does justice to it in some way. So what was the process for you like in taking these sensory experiences in understanding a little bit more about the story of this volcano and then turning it into a photo?

Well, the first step with this landscape location as with any landscape location, it’s kind of figuring it out. So doing some scouting, exploring on foot where you can to find out what the angles are, to see what you can see basically. And I can extend that by using my drone. And I actually did some drone photography while I was there. This was kind of like in my early days when I first had a drone, so I wasn’t really doing it as much as I do it now. And so I didn’t take that many drone photos. And so the next photo in the sequence is a, uh, another drone shot this time. You know, the first shot was just a reference shot. Uh, and it was, you know, me being involved in the process of exploring the area and trying to figure out what it had to offer.

The second drone shot is, uh, a bit more specific in its artistic goals. And so for the second shot, I, I was flying lower and exploring the lava pools and the scene kind of looked like an evil face to me. So that’s what attracted me to the second composition, because you can see the two little eyes, which are the lava pools and then the steam, or like bushy eyebrows. And then there’s this Ridge with Ash on it. That looks kind of like a, a nose and maybe an evil smile. And so this was really interesting taking this photo because I had to fly the drone low enough to get this perspective. Cause, you know, as I said, this is a really huge crater. And so I was flying the drone down into the crater and I would fly it over the lava pools, but then there would be the inevitable explosion.

And when that happened, I had to zoom my drone up as high as quickly, full throttle going straight up so that I could avoid that magma coming up. And so usually, uh, I was able to avoid the Ash cloud, but sometimes I’d be flying and all of a sudden I’d just see this wall of black coming towards my drone. And those moments were a little scary, but the Ash cloud turned out to be harmless. And luckily I never lost my drone to the magma, but the drone allowed me to kind of scout a little bit more and to understand what the potential compositions would be in addition to what I was doing on land. And then it was a moment of figuring out the best timing to take these shots, the best kind of light. And it’s a bit tricky because the magma is bright now during the day, you can’t really see it that well.

And it doesn’t really show up in the photographs that well, because there’s so much ambient light. So the, I figured out very quickly that the best times to shoot the magma were after the sun had dropped in the evening or before the sun Rose in the morning. So in the Twilight and in the dark. And so when it was very dark out, it was easy to photograph the magma, but it was too dark to pick up any of the surrounding landscape or anything in the sky. So I very quickly realized that the best thing to do was to wait for that moment during the Twilight, when the ambient light levels had dropped enough that they balanced with the native glow of the Magna. So when the exposure for the magma and the Twilight sky were about the same, that was the best time to take a photo because I could capture the magma and it would stand out really nicely and I’d get its color really nice, but I’d also pick up some of the ambient light on the landscape and in the Twilight sky. And there was usually about a five to 10 minute window of opportunity when the Twilight and the magma were balanced and exposure. So I would have a very short window of opportunity in the evening or in the morning to get that balanced exposure, to get the light in the color that I was looking for.

Well, I love that man, because so often as landscape photographers, we show up at a certain time, we evaluate what’s happening in the scene and we take the best shot that we can in that moment. And then we leave, but it takes it that next step, that little bit of vision to realize, you know, what’s going to actually make this shot sing is the balance between the exposure of the magma and the ambient exposure. So when is that going to happen to be able to think that through and problem solve that to end up with a photo that gives you that nice overall exposure while letting the magma really seeing that’s such a great takeaway for any nature photographers to think about, not just what are the conditions right now, but if you were to wait a little while or come back another time, would the light help you tell the story that you want to tell any more effective way?

And the result you can see here? I mean the color contrast you’ve got is absolutely stunning between these arcs of magma and the deep blues of the Twilight there in the background. And I’m looking at a photo right now that has this wonderful billowing steam clouds and smoke, and it looks like there’s cloud in the background as well. And you’ve got these vivid reds and these intense blues and that color contrast really, really makes this photo pop. So can you talk a little bit about how you worked with the coloration of the scene to make such an effective image

As we go through this progression of photos into the third and the fourth photo, you can see that trying to get that complimentary color scheme between the blues of Twilight and that row, that warm color of the magma. And this is just a technique I like to use a lot with my landscape photography is to juxtapose opposite colors. And this is called complimentary colors if a, if you’re in the art world. And so usually what that means is a warm color juxtapose against a cooler color. And what happens is when you juxtapose these opposite colors, they make each seem more vibrant. They pop out a lot more. And I think in digital photography, there’s this temptation to warm up the scene, too much people like those warm colors, those fiery sunrises and sunsets. But if you do that too much, you’re going to lose those cooler tones.

You’re going to lose that complimentary color scheme. And I think as a result, you’re doing your photos a disservice. So preserving that color scheme was part the result of field work. You know, picking that timing. When I had that ambient light balance with the magma, I knew that the two colors would work together really effectively in these final photos. The other part was in the editing process, which was making sure I selected a white balance that wasn’t going to evaporate that complimentary color scheme that was going to preserve those blue colors. And so once I like worked out the timing when I wanted to be there to shoot and the colors that I was looking for, then it was two other things that I had to figure out. So the first was making sure that I had good clouds in the sky. And so there are a lot of examples in these photos where the sky was pretty clear.

So I didn’t really get great clouds, but I think that the photos with clouds are a bit more effective because the clouds bring extra color and shape to the sky. They bring some texture to the sky. And then the final variable was my shutter speed. And I quickly learned that with these, uh, when it got darker and I had these longer exposures that the magmas and it was flying through the sky would create these beautiful streaks of color. And so I quickly settled on doing exposure times between eight seconds and 15 seconds to optimize those glowing arcs of light that were coming out. And so, you know, you can begin to do the math here. I would have five or 10 minutes of optimal lighting conditions every evening. And I’m doing these like these eight to 15 second exposures, and you do a few of those and you’ve run out of that window of time. So that’s part of the reason why I spent so much time at this location a whole week, photographing this place, going up every evening, going up every morning, 14 bites at the Apple was because I needed to figure all this stuff out. You kind of have to go through it first to figure out the optimal light and the compositions. And then once you get those variables, those variables decided what you want to include in your final photos. Then it’s a matter of just patiently waiting until you get them

You want, and it paid off wonderfully here. And I’m looking at this fourth photo in the series here. And to me, this has all those elements you’ve been talking about. It’s got the arcs, it’s got beautiful control over the exposure, not only of the magma, but also the ambient exposure with those deep blues in the background, in those beautiful billowing clouds. Me personally, I would have been stoked to see this pop up with the back of my camera. I probably would have dusted my hands off and said, great, I got the shot. It’s time to move on to something else, but it wouldn’t be an Ian plant photo if you didn’t think about how can I take this to that next level? And if I jump over to the next photo in this series, all of a sudden things change really dramatically. And they go from just a picture of the landscape to a picture of the landscape with a person in it. So what happened there? What was your thought process? Why did you decide to put yourself in the photo and then take us all the way through the rest of the series? How this developed?

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, you’re right. You always gotta be thinking about how you can take things up to the next level. You can’t just rest on your laurels if you want to make really compelling photographs. And so one of the challenges of this, this massive volcano is that because it’s so big, you’ve got to use a wide angle of view to capture everything. And also because you’re working in times of the day, when a lot of the landscape is pretty dark, you quickly lose this sense of place and the sense of scale. And so my thought was, I need to introduce a human element to make the composition more interesting, and to also create a compelling point of interest for these photographs, because you’re just looking at these photographs and you’re just seeing this lava that’s streaking through the air, and it’s kind of hard to figure out what it is.

And it’s kind of hard to really tell a story effectively. So by inserting a human element to these photos, I figured I could create a, you know, a deeper sense of place and scale, and also create a proxy for the viewer. When you insert a human element into a landscape photo that basically invites the viewer into the scene, they can imagine them being that person and it gives them a vicarious thrill. So I’d worked out these variables. I knew I had to shoot during the Twilight. I knew I wanted clouds. I knew I wanted these eight seconds to 15 second exposures with the streaking magma. And now I wanted a human element and it can be often difficult unless you have a professional model that you’re paying to get someone to work with you. So often when I’m out there in the field, instead of asking these random tourists who are walking by doing their own thing to post for me, I insert myself into the photograph.

And so what I did is I would set up my basic composition. I kind of figure out where the magma activity was the strongest, and I would set up the composition and get all my variable set, shutter speed, ISO aperture, et cetera. And then I would use my remote cable. I would trigger the shutter and then I would lock it. And so what would happen is let’s say I had eight second exposures. The camera was then taking consecutive eight second exposures. And then I would just walk into the scene and figure out the best pose and the posture. And I would stand there for two or three or four minutes just waiting for really good eruptions to happen. And once I had quite a few eruptions, I’d go back, stop the camera from taking exposures, review my shots really quickly make any adjustments as necessary to my settings or my composition or my pose, and then keep going while I still had.

Good. And so the series of images shows you a bunch of different experiments with having a human element in the photograph. So the first photo is me and, you know, I was trying different poses. Some friends of mine jokingly referred to this as the Fonzie pose. I don’t know why, I guess I looked like the Fonz and this a, so the first photo I had some really good clouds in the sky and I had that really nice Twilight glow. So there’s some blues and purples in the sky and the clouds. And then you’ve got the orange and the yellows and the reds down below, which is really nice. The second photo, I didn’t really have many clouds, but I do have a bit of a starry sky in the background. And then in the third photo, I started to experiment with putting a camera in the shot to kind of create this metaconcept and to find a more interesting way of, of bringing the viewer into the photograph.

So this is a secondary camera that I had with me, my backup camera on a secondary backup tripod, and I put it into the shot and I turned on the live view of the camera. And then I started taking photos. And whenever the live view would turn off, I’d go back and turn it on. And that way I could get a photo of the magma erupting and then a view of that in the live view of the camera. So I thought that was kind of an interesting way of portraying the scene. And you can see that I continue to evolve this concept. And so the next photo shows the camera set up with the live view, engaged and interruption in the background, but then I inserted myself into the scene as well. And so I sat down next to my camera. I wanted to create this vicarious experience for the viewer so that they could feel like that was them taking the picture that evening, watching the volcano erupt.

And then finally the final photo in the series, which is the one photo. I think that brings all this together. This is the closest thing to the perfect execution of all these concepts into one photo. This is actually not me. This is another photographer that was there, uh, who was standing on the crater rim, photographing the eruption. So I stepped back as far as I could and made this photograph, incorporating him in the scene. And I got a really nice eruption behind him, but what makes this shot work in my opinion is the really dynamic clouds in the sky. So they’ve got this really great shape and they fill that space in the sky. So I’m able to bring together that Twilight glow, the complimentary color scheme of the blues of the sky and the warm colors of the magma, the human element, and some interesting cloud shapes. So this is the closest I was able to get to achieving that vision that was in my head.

Well, that’s a really fantastic evolution. And what I enjoyed about that story just now is that it shows that it’s not just about rocking up to the location, slapping camera on the tripod, hitting that shutter button. And you’re good to go, you know, to really create any vocative iconic photograph. It’s about having an idea. First of all, then spending the time to get to know the place, then developing that idea and seeing where it takes you. But there are so many other elements that you can’t control, right? Like mother nature. And so even if you could position this photographer in this exact spot and have your exposure dialed, you’re also dependent on the clouds. You’re also dependent on where the magma bursts happen and do they create the right silhouette or are they in the wrong spot? So this is such, just a beautiful epitome of what it’s like to be a nature photographer, where you bring your a game and mother nature brings her a game and it all kind of comes together in this half controlled half chaotic dance, this beautiful expression of the world that we live in. And I’ve got two questions for you. Now, one is, um, you said that this was the closest that you got to capturing the vision that you had in your head. Is there something that you would do differently if you could go back another time?

Yeah, absolutely. And you know, one other part of this process, this dance that you’re talking about is, is your own creative exploration and evolution. And so what often happens is when you’re out making photos in the field, you take a moment to step back when you’re done and really look critically at what you’ve done. And sometimes you are able to say, you know, I got it this time, everything worked out great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Other times you realize that there might’ve been a better way of doing things. And so one of the challenges I had when I was making these photographs is that the crater rim was very narrow at the top. And as a result, I was never able to really back away from someone I was photographing, whether it was myself or someone else. And so, as a result, the people in these photographs are fairly big relative to the overall scene.

And so the background landscape, this massive volcano, even these massive eruptions end up looking a little small relative to the silhouette of the person in the foreground. And so I would like to reverse that now I wasn’t able to get farther away from these people to make them shrink in the landscape, uh, because of the crater rim sloped so much. If you started moving backwards, you started going down and you lost the angle on the person and you couldn’t see the eruption behind them anymore, the volcano behind them. So I think the answer to this is if I do return is to try to use my drone, to do the same thing and the drone can fly farther back and, uh, it can also fly higher up. So I can keep that perspective where I’ve got that big, massive explosion in the background, but I can shrink the person in the foreground so that I can have the landscape scene look bigger than the person. So I think that would be a, a better way of showing the sense of scale and creating a dramatic image. And actually I was supposed to be back at this location this past may, but the pandemic completely screwed up my travel plans. So I’m going to probably have to wait maybe another year until I can go back and try this new concept and see if I can’t bring these images up to a higher level.

Cool. That sounds totally Epic. And I hope that we can get traveling again, because I want to see you get back there and take that photo, because I’m trying to imagine how that anything could be cooler than this, but if you think it could be next level than I really want to see it. And that leads into my last question that I’ve got for you right now, Ian, which is you spent a lot of time at this volcano, right? You, you were there for a week. You went up at sunrise and sunset every day. Why spend that much time? And you’re talking now about going back another time, you know, a lot of photographers would say, okay, I’ve got a week in Vanuatu. This is awesome. I’m going to hit 14 different locations at sunrise and sunset. You said, I’m going to hit the same location, every single sunrise and sunset. What’s your thought process? Why do you approach photography in that kind of way to go deep instead of broad?

Speaker 1: (27:59)
Well, I think first of all, that, you know, a lot of people are of the mindset that they want to see as much as they can photograph as much as they can and whatever time they have, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that the end result is more likely to be maybe a bunch of good photos, but not that many great photos. If you want to make really great photos, you really got to put in some time and effort. Like sometimes you can just show up and get lucky, but usually you’ve got to scout the location, figure out what the best compositions are, figuring out the best light. And you can’t just, I mean, you can do some research ahead of time, but you really can’t understand how the light is going to work with a particular landscape until you’ve sat through it.

And you’ve seen exactly how it will play upon the landforms. And so you’ve got to put in some time there, but, you know, as we said earlier, you know, during this dance with mother nature, she’s not always bringing her best. And so sometimes you’ve got to wait it out. And I think it’s important to have a vision in your head and try to impose that vision on the real world. And the only way you can really do that is through patients because you have to wait for the real world to spontaneously align and converge in a way that is close to what your creative vision is. Hopefully you’ll get it to align in a way exactly the way it’s in your brain, but more often than not, you’ll just get as close as you possibly can to something that you’ve thought of. And I think the other thing to keep in mind here is that you’re probably going to make your best photographs when you are photographing something that inspires you.

And this was a place that really inspired. I mean, it really spoke to me in a dramatic and compelling way. And so if you’ve got a place that you really love, if you’ve kind of figured it out, but you didn’t get exactly what you wanted, then the best thing you can do is find a way to get back to that spot and keep working it until you get what you want. Because I don’t know. I think back at the parts of my evolution as a photographer that I regret the most and I, I don’t regret getting to a spot and taking photos, even if it’s a spot I’ve been to many, many times before, what I regret are the shots that get away from me the, the, the times where I was somewhere. And for some reason, I wasn’t able to execute at the highest level. That’s what you regret. And that’s what I try to avoid doing. I mean, I, I just shoot what inspires me and I just try to get the best shots that I can from those places that inspire me. And if I don’t get my very best, then I find a way to get back there and make it happen.

Well, you inspire me, man. I think that’s a great takeaway for everybody out there. Listening is the more meaningful photography that you want to do. It’s worth that time to execute on your vision, to make it happen, to follow the stories that inspire you as deeply as you can, to really get to know those subjects. The last thing the world needs is a thousand photographers skipping across the surface, creating cotton candy, pretty pictures. We need more meaningful imagery that tells these stories of what a marvelous, extraordinary place the planet really is. Right? So thank you so much, Ian. I really appreciate being able to spend this time with you to learn about a place that I didn’t even know existed, first of all, and to see these wonderful images and to know that you’re going to go back and shoot some more cool stuff that maybe we can have a chance to talk about again, in the future for everybody out there, who’s not already following Ian, please do yourself a favor. I’m going to link all of his stuff down below in the video description, go follow him. You’re going to be blown away by the quality of the photography and the commitment to creating these images. It’s really, really inspiring. It’s always great to talk to you, man. Thank you so much for being here on the program. It’s been an honor to talk to you.

Thank you, Josh. The honor is all mine.

All right, everybody. That’s going to do it for this episode of how I got the shot. So until next time have fun and happy shooting.

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