Beautiful and terrifying molten lava in this Hawaii Volcano timelapse!

by Keith AlvendiaLeave a Comment

QT Luong sent us his fascinating timelapse of Hawaiian Volcanoes and a whole bunch of behind the scenes which has even more photos and info.

I'd like to bring to your attention “Hawaii Volcanoes”, a time-lapse video as the first to transport the viewer on a sea-to-summit journey to the volcanoes of Hawaii, where they witness some of the the most dynamic landscapes on earth.

Taking place mostly in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the video features awe-inspiring nature scenes ranging from lava flowing to the ocean as clouds of steam rise from the meeting of fire and water, to a sunrise from the top of 600-feet cliffs overlooking the immense Mokuaweoweo caldera on the top of Mauna Loa, the world's largest volcano.

Shot on 5Dmk2 & 5Dmk3 cameras using time-lapse photography and video in 2011 and 2013, its filming required backpacking on difficult volcanic terrain, including overnight stays near an active lava flow and the 13700 feet Mauna Loa summit in sub-freezing temperatures.

Initially trained as a scientist in France, QT Luong settled in California and became a full-time photographer – published in more than 30 countries – after coming to love the US National Parks. He is noted for being the first to photograph each of the 59 of them – in large format. In order to find new ways to tell the story of the National Parks, he recently added film-making to his repertoire of techniques.

Hawaii Volcanoes

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I have photographed each of the 59 US National Parks, often with an ancient-looking large-format camera. The volcanoes of Hawaii are such a dynamic landscape that to tell their story, I felt inspired to interpret them through motion using time-lapse and DSLR video. Although I've been shooting clips for years, this is my first completed video.

Here are highlights of this unique sea-to-summit project, filmed in 2011/2013, mostly in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:

1. One of the most mesmerizing spectacles of nature I've witnessed is lava flowing to the ocean as clouds of steam rise from the meeting of fire and water. I stood mere feet away from the 2000F lava. After everybody had left, I stayed to record the pulse of the flow over an entire night.

2. Since 2008, the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater at Kilauea Summit contains an active lava lake which at night illuminates a large gas plume. I captured the Milky Way appearing in a weather break above by setting up my camera in driving rain.

3. Besides filming Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, from Mauna Kea and Haleakala (I've included a shot of the “world's most beautiful sunrise”), I backpacked for a solitary dozen miles on steep and sharp lava rocks to its 13,700 feet summit. In the morning, my water bottle was frozen solid after I had camped to capture what is likely the first night-time and sunrise time-lapses from the top of the summit cliffs overlooking the immense Mokuaweoweo caldera. They bookend the video.

More detailed guides/trip reports/behind the scenes:

Website (with 30,000+ photographs):
Hawaii Volcanoes picture gallery:


I am a widely published, full-time photographer, accepting assignments worldwide. Most of the film footage is available in 4K. Contact:

Canon EOS 5D Mark II & Canon EOS 5D Mark III cameras
Canon 24mm f1.4,
Canon 24-105mm,
Canon 100-400mm,
Nikkor 12-24mm.
Lightroom 4, Adobe CS5 (Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere Pro), LRTimelapse 2, GBDeflicker.

I am grateful to zero-project for the CC-licensed (edited) track “Ride of the Dark Knight”, and Steven for guidance and advice.



During the day, molten lava can be visible to a close observer as red or yellow patches, but doesn’t appear much brighter than the rest of the land. Most of the time, it will have a grey/silvery color, slightly lighter than hardened lava. An overcast day helps there, as lava glows more in the dimmer light. Twilight and night are when molten lava comes alive, with an impressive glow which also lights up the steam and parts of the ocean and land.


The time around sunrise and sunset, extending to twilight is by far the best for photography. The ideal window is quite brief, so one should plan carefully. During that time, brightness differences between lava and land or sea are small enough that both can be properly exposed in a single exposure: there is enough ambiant light that you can see details in the landscape, but it is dark enough for the lava to glow. In my opinion, dawn is preferable to dusk for several reasons:

Arriving in the dark makes it easier to see where the lava flows are.
Flow areas can be very crowded at sunset if the hike is short. When I was there, there were more than a hundred visitors, which, besides degrading the experience, makes it difficult to work. By contrast, there were less than a dozen people at sunrise.
On that stretch of coast, the sun rises over the ocean, but sets over land.
Because of the direction of trade winds, you’ll most likely be standing East of the ocean entry, so the direction of light would be more favorable at dawn.


While the sight is most dramatic at night time, I was surprised at how difficult it was to photograph then. Because of the extreme difference of brightness between the flowing lava – which is the light source, the illuminated steam, and the land and sea, multiple exposures are needed (I had to bracket with a 4EV range). Those exposures are not easy to blend: since the steam is constantly shifting, you are not dealing with a static scene. A full moon usually isn’t great for night photography because resulting images look too much day-like, but because of the presence of the lava acting as light source, this is a situation where I think a full moon would work the best.


Although rarely needed, a respirator can be handy, particulary if you plan to stick around areas where you could be exposed to toxic gases. The gases are also bad for your eyes, but a half-mask is enough, maybe in conjuction with goggles if you have sensitive eyes. The volcano photographers I have talked to use a respirator designed for paints and chemicals – good against the hydrochloric acids present in the plume – available in hardware stores such as Home Depot or ACE (I carried this one from Walmart).


For photographing the cascades of lava pouring into the ocean, you will want a telephoto lens, since you won’t be able to get very close. A super tele (400mm or longer) is useful for close-up of spigots, while a short tele or normal lens frames the whole coastline. A wide-angle lens is mostly useful for photographing the surface flows rather than the ocean entries: you can get as close to those slow lava flows as you can bear the intense heat. Since the best photography is at twilight, you’ll need a tripod. Bring a good one, since it is often windy there, and you’ll be using telephotos.



Once you get to the ocean entry, there are a number of potentially lethal hazards to be aware of. The most obvious, is that you may have to cross surface flows or walk above lava tubes that travel under you. However, even if you cannot see the glow by daylight, the intense heat will leave no doubt as to the nature of what lies underneath. As long as the hardened lava doesn’t crack when you step on it, you are probably safe. Lava hardens surprisingly fast.



Although working from the land will provide the best opportunities, in no small part because you can use a tripod and lower shutter speeds, a boat tour can provide you a different angle not available from the land. In particular, you are able to photograph lava flowing down cliffs that are difficult to see from the land, as well as reflections in the water. It is also a good solution for those who cannot or do not want to hike, although note that the ride can be pretty rough. When riding against the swell, the boat to rises up and then slaps the water at the back of the swells very hard, which is why the operators warm that the trip is unsuitable for people with neck/back/spine injuries. Also, there is no protection against rain and often huge waves in the open boat.


For the hike, I signed up with the friendly and laid-back David Ewing because (unlike others) he agreed to let me stay there for the night with my car parked at his home on the lava flows and come back by myself the next day. The hike was actually lead by his assistant Skylar, a very nice young man. Although the flow was only a 2 1/4 mile (each way) from David’s house, overnighting certainly beat spending only about an hour there, then hiking back in the dark, and forth again in the dark for dawn. I brought sleeping gear consisting of a thin sleeping bag, short foam mat, and one-person shelter (against wind and rain), a gallon of water, and some cold food. Although I wasn’t sure if this was going to be possible, I found a spot suitable for sleeping very close to the flow. Was it preferable to sleep, or be up all night – like the Man, Bryan Lowry, whom I had the pleasure to see in the morning ? I am not sure. By being up all night, one certainly could be alert for the best configurations since they change constantly. One could also scout more areas to be ready for a great sunrise. On the other hand, since this was the beginning of the trip, I was still feeling quite tired, and I thought that the best opportunities were at twilight anyways. My night was pretty short, and I cherished every minute of the time I spent with the flow, especially after the other visitors had departed, when the only sound I could hear besides the crashing waves was the crackling of the lava.


For the boat tour, I traveled with Lava Ocean Adventures. All the sunrise tours were sold out for 5 days. Although the booking was less than smooth, things got ironed out. A few reviewers have described them as unsafe for running tours in borderline conditions, but although I felt that the ride was uncomfortably bumpy, I never thought it was out of control. The passengers in front of me even seemed to enjoy it, hollering each time the front of the boat jumped 6 feet in the air. It was quite thrilling the first few times, when we were heading out in the dark, but on the return trip, jarred and soaking wet, I couldn’t wait to return to “port” – you actually get in and out of the boat through a ladder on the campground’s parking lot. When we got back, many people, who had already paid, were lining up for the next tour, but the captain cancelled it because of ocean conditions. During my tour, the conditions were awful for photography. The seas were so choppy and it was so dark (because of the rain clouds, no pre-dawn glow nor sunrise !) that I used mostly my 24-105. The boat was rocking so much that longer focal lengths were problematic. As it wasn’t raining when we departed, I forgot to pack my rain cover. It started to rain heavily at the ocean entry. My 100-400 got wet and unusable for the rest of the trip. I had to send it to CPS where they diagnosed it as “submerged in water” and charged hundreds dollars for repair. I am still glad to have taken the boat tour for the different perspective, interesting images that I managed to squeeze out (largely thanks to a new processing technique) and experience, but I am not sure I would repeat it when hiking offers such a rich and satisfying connection to the land.

LEARN TIMELAPSE: If you'd like to learn more about timelapse, I recommend this ebook Time-lapse Step-by-step

(cover photo credit: snap from the post)

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