How one image captures 21 hours of a volcanic eruption

Photographer Stephen Wilkes documented Iceland’s fiery peak as day turned to night, merging 70 photos into one stunning frame.

By Maya Wei-Haas
Published 11 Nov 2021, 14:43 GMT
Stephen Wilkes documented an eruption in Iceland for 21 hours straight, making images of the fiery scene as day turned to night.
Composite Image by Stephen Wilkes

A volcano’s colours can be felt as much as seen. At the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, about 19 miles from the capital, Reykjavík, the hottest lava radiates whitish yellow but cools to orange, red, and eventually midnight black. This “extraordinary dynamic range” is one of many colourful phenomena that photographer Stephen Wilkes observes in his May image of the eruption.

The image shows the landscape transition 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 starts on the lower right with a photo taken at 1:54 p.m. and progresses diagonally to the upper left, blending together Wilkes’s favourite moments. “I’m re-creating my memory, in many ways,” he says.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Stephen Wilkes’s photography and storytelling about the natural world since 2017.

The process of making the image was a whirlwind. After an overnight flight to Iceland, Wilkes passed a COVID-19 test and ate a quick lunch before boarding a helicopter to scout sites. He chose a steep hill to the east of Fagradalsfjall; from there, by his calculations, the setting sun would line up with the fiery volcanic peak. Steady 45-mile-an-hour winds buffeted Wilkes and his team as they drove stakes into the ground to anchor the camera’s tripod. Then Wilkes settled in to track the ever changing scene. The precariousness of the rocky slope underfoot forced him to stand the entire day and night—but tired legs and frigid fingers didn’t distract him from the volcanic light show.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, the volcano fell quiet, and Wilkes watched with rising concern: “I do all this planning,” he notes, “but at the end of the day, I just have to react to what’s in front of me.” Just when it seemed his plans were foiled, the volcano sputtered back to life, and Wilkes got the much anticipated image.

Watching the deepening colours of the sunset above the golden lava from the volcano—a union of forces that have shaped our planet’s surface since its infancy—he says he felt an almost spiritual connection: “That is where it all began.”

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.

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


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