Photographing the Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

We were moments away from diving into a hot-tub with our friends after a nice dinner when Gyða´s mother called. The eruption had started.

We happened to be in Reykjavík but we had already packed and planned everything in case the eruption would start. Our mobile home was ready.

The main road out of Reykjavík into the Reykjanes peninsula was packed with cars. Looking into the darkness the road formed a red line from the long line of cars and their breaking lights. Shortly after leaving Reykjavík a police car with flashing lights came rushing in front of us and stopped us. We were only two yards from crashing into the police car – feeling like we had jumped into stunt action in a movie.

Just our luck to be the first car to be stopped.

Few moments later we were allowed to keep driving and shortly before we drove past Vogar we shot one photo from the side of the road. The read sky promised a magnificent eruption.

We spent the night in Grindavík at the camping site. Only one tourist was there. The plan was to have breakfast, finish a planned Zoom meeting and then have a look at the area near the roadblocks and contact our favorite pilot and see if it would be possible to fly over the eruption.

After lunch we decided to go for the long walk to the volcano. Few cars had parked on the side of the road near a roadblock and we found a safe location for our mobile home.

We parked the car on a gravel car park near two superjeeps. Near one of the jeeps were members of the rescue teams. Approaching them, one of them tried to scare us by telling us about the dangerous gas near the eruption site. It can be extremely dangerous in calm wind conditions. Having been at the Holuhraun eruption in 2014 we knew the safest bet was to have the wind to your back at all times.

Shortly after we started our walk we met a American fireman who came walking from the east. We were heading north towards Nátthagi. He was tired, had been walking for up to three hours without finding the eruption site. Said he knew everything about fires, dangerous gasses and terrorism, but he was not much into hiking. He was heading back, having ordered a plane the day after. He was not going to miss the eruption.

It was amazing to see the first signs of the eruption. After walking for more than two hours with about 300 yards climb we saw a white smoke in the distance. Our legs started to move faster over the 800 year old mossy–lava–landscape. Only Volcanic eruptions make a photographers heart beat this fast – except perhaps extra 15 kilos of cameras and lenses. It was a moment of happiness to be able to put down the tripod and the bag and start shooting.

A geologist had stated the eruption in the Geldingadal walley was tiny and sorry-looking. Being sorry was not on our minds when we saw the spitting volcano and the red beautiful lava. Size does not matter. This was by far more beautiful eruption than Holuhraun in 2014. Holuhraun was magnificent and scary looking – The Geldingadalsgos eruption is elegant, beautiful and symmetrical in every way. The location is a small walley reminding of the Roman colosseum where spectators can view the natural wonder from all sides sitting on soft mossy hills.

This eruption is a feast for photographers and a wonderful experience. When we arrived about 50 people were already there. Every single one smiling all the time. Many photographers were there finding gold with their motives – others holding their phone with live broadcast to Instagram, SnapChat. This was a day for lava-selfies.

When we got close to the lava the heat was a blessing. The cold chill after the walk had threatened to cool us down beyond comfort. In few minutes all the clothes were dry.

Some of the photos might indicate the people were not being responsible. In fact the lenses compress the landscape and distances are longer than one might think.

Strong wind from the south made sure the smoke and the gas from the lava was not a danger. There is no doubt that in calm wind it can be very dangerous to go near lava so it´s important to be aware at all times of the wind direction. The dangerous gasses are odorless and they can knock one unconscious without warning. In calm conditions depressions in the landscape can have the dangerous gasses.

All day people kept arriving to the area. Some were not sensibly prepared and the media has been hammering on the fact that the walk to the area is not for everyone. It is only for experienced hikers.

Most importantly one has to expect cold and rain conditions. There is no water in the area so it´s also important to bring water and some snacks to keep up the energy. The walk back has proved difficult for some people, but thanks to the rescue teams no serious accidents have happend so far.

It seems the government did not expect heavy traffic of hikers since Geldingadalur is far away from the road system, but volcanic eruptions tend to get Icelanders excited – not scared.

The best light for photography is shortly before nightfall. That´s a double edged sword – since it´can take two to three hours to walk back. Walking over lava fields and down mountains in total darkness is where the accidents might happen. We wanted to get back before dark but excitement and seeing the glowing lava delayed our walk back. We walked the last hour in total darkness and that´s where the headlights came in handy.

Having a headlight and extra batteries is a absolute must.

When this is written – on day three of the eruption – the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management is making a new marked hiking route to Geldingadalur, making the total hike shorter – „only 7 km“.  The area was closed on day three – when about 1000 people hiked to the area – most of them well prepared, but some not prepared at all and the rescue teams where picking up hikers in the darkness all over the peninsula.

Einar Gudmann and Gyda Henningsdóttir at the volcanic eruption in Geldingadalur. Geldingadalur is in Fagradalsfall mountain on the Reykjanes peninsula, only 20 km from Reykjavík in Iceland.

Our photos from this adventure are on our websites – and We will also make a video for our YouTube channel –