Volcanic mountains

How an image captures 21 hours of a volcanic eruption

The colors of a volcano can be felt as well as seen. On the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, about 30 km from the capital, Reykjavík, the hottest lava emits a whitish-yellow but cools to midnight orange, red and eventually black. This “extraordinary dynamic range” is one of many colorful phenomena that the photographer Stephen Wilkes observed in his May image of the eruption.

The image shows the transition of the landscape from day to night in a single frame. Wilkes created the effect by compiling 70 of the 1,123 photographs he took from a single vantage point over 21 hours. The composition begins at the bottom right with a photo taken at 1:54 p.m. and progresses diagonally to the top left, blending together Wilkes’ favorite moments. “I recreate my memory, in many ways,” he says.

The image-making process was a whirlwind. After an overnight flight to Iceland, Wilkes took a COVID-19 test and ate a quick lunch before boarding a helicopter to scout sites. He chose a steep hill east of Fagradalsfjall; from there, according to his calculations, the setting sun would line up with the fiery volcanic peak. Steady 45-mile-per-hour winds rattled Wilkes and his team as they drove stakes into the ground to anchor the camera tripod. Then Wilkes settled in to keep up with the ever-changing scene. The precariousness of the rocky slope beneath his feet kept him on his feet all day and night, but the tired legs and icy fingers didn’t distract him from the volcanic light show. (How volcanic eruptions help feed the world)

As the sun set towards the horizon, the volcano subsided and Wilkes watched with growing concern: “I’m doing all this planning,” he notes, “but in the end I just have to react to what is in front of me.” Just when it seemed his plans had been foiled, the volcano sprang back to life and Wilkes got the long-awaited image.

Watching the deepening colors of the sunset above the volcano’s golden lava – a union of forces that have shaped our planet’s surface since its inception – he says he felt an almost spiritual connection: “It’s where it all began.”

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This story appears in the December 2021 issue of National geographic magazine.