I had finished working on a wind farm project in Australia when I decided to head back to Central America for a while. Guatemala stood out to me because I had been reading about the relaxed lifestyle and great outdoor activities available in the country. I also learned their Spanish is some of the clearest in Latin America so I figured I could get some language practice in also. I didn’t have a plan before arriving, but as usual, I would figure it out as I went.
Guatemala is home to a diverse range of geographies and landscapes. There are 37 volcanos in Guatemala but only 3 of them are active. Pacaya and Fuego both have lava flows and Santiaguito only erupts smoke and ash. They can be seen from several different vantage points from all around the country.
I landed in Guatemala City and took a taxi to my Airbnb in Antigua, about 40 minutes from Guatemala City. Antigua has a better backpacking scene than Guatemala City and is the jumpoff spot for many of the adventures in Guatemala. The city is small enough that everywhere is walkable but tuk-tuks and taxis are readily available to take you anywhere you want to go.
After doing some research, I decided to start photographing volcanos with Pacaya. I scheduled a driver, who was also the guide, to take me there from one of the many tour agencies or hostels in the town.
The drive was a little over an hour so we left in the afternoon to get there in time for the sunset. The hike to the top usually takes about an hour. I’m a slow hiker and my guide said I did it in about 50 minutes. There are also horses available to ride to the top if you want that option. The views were already amazing when I got to the top but the sun still wouldn’t set for a while. There were other volcanos in the distance and a small structure at the top to stand on to get higher views. Some other people walked closer to Pacaya Volcano to roast marshmallows on the heat vents coming from the ground. My guide said we already had the best views and going further wasn’t worth it so I set up my gear and searched for my compositions.
Pacaya Volcano is the closest volcano seen from the top but other volcanos can be seen also. Volcano Atitlan, Agua, and Acatenango can be seen in the distance. They are more photogenic than the actual Pacaya Volcano so that’s where I focused my shots. With the sun setting over the cloud line, this made for some really colorful photographs.
The 16-35 f/2.8 III was the best lens for photographing volcanos and the sunset in the same shot. The clouds made for interesting cover and fog around the volcanos.
In the distance from Pacaya Volcano are Agua, Fuego, and Atitlan volcanos clustered together. I figured my 70-200 f/2.8 II telephoto lens would be the best option for this composition. It’s one of my favorite landscape lenses because it compresses the subject in the distance to make it tight and pleasing to the eyes instead of wide and distorted like some wide-angle lenses can.
I brought all of my gear to Guatemala but not on this particular shoot. I didn’t know what to expect as far as difficulty so I kept my setup to only the essentials to keep the weight down. The Canon 5D MarkIII is the one I chose to bring with me on this trip. It performed wonderfully as it should and the full-frame captured not only the volcanos in the distance but the surrounding landscape.
In hindsight, I would have brought my 7D Mark I with me because of the increased focal length due to the cropped sensor. The ASP-C cropped sensor is a 35mm equivalent which increases the focal length by 1.6x. So the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens times the 1.6x equals 112-320mm. I can gain an increased focal length with the same lens just by switching from the 5D to the 7D. The smaller sensor on the 7D doesn’t affect the composition that much because most final edited photographs are cropped to some degree.
I knew I wanted to take long exposures of the sunset and clouds so I made sure to bring my tripod. The Gitzo Mountaineer 3541L is the go-to tripod that I use on most of my shoots. It’s carbon fiber and very sturdy. With the legs fully extended, it’s a little higher than eye level. A stronger tripod is necessary at the top of volcanos and mountains because it’s usually windy with unstable, rocky terrain. The 70-200 f/2.8 II coupled with the 5D Mark III requires a sturdier tripod so it can handle the weight. Be sure to mount the lens on the tripod instead of the camera body on the tripod. The tripod ring on the lens is designed for it to be mounted directly on the tripod and provides a stable center of gravity.
Indian Nose is one of the best locations in the area for photographing volcanos around Lake Atitlan. It’s about two and a half hours outside of Antigua. A passenger bus comes around and picks everyone up and takes us to the Indian Nose trailhead. The hike to the top of the hill is a little less than an hour but it gets steep at times. We started when it was still dark, about 4:30 am, and I got to the top before the sun started rising. No one else had a tripod in the group that was with us. This allowed me to set up my camera in a prime spot. It was definitely worth the hike.
I started the shoot with the 16-35 f2.8 Mark III. I chose this one because it’s wide enough to capture both the volcanos and the lake in one shot. This lens was also better for sunrises because it included the wider landscape and not just the volcanos. I switched to the 70-200 after the sunrise to photograph the volcanos in the distance behind the lake. It’s a more targeted lens and doesn’t capture too much of the surrounding scenery, good for distant compositions.
I went with the 5D again for this shoot. The compositions at Indian Nose are larger and closer than at Pacaya Volcano so a camera with a wide full-frame was ideal for the closer landscapes. Even the volcanos in the distance were close enough that I didn’t need the extra length gained from using the 7D.
The Gitzo Mountaineer was the preferred choice of tripod again for this trip. The fully extended legs gave me more than enough clearance over the vegetation to get the quality shots of the sun rising. I don’t think I would have been able to photograph such a clean shot without it.
While researching other photography destinations to visit, I met a man that told me about Parque Chuiraxamolo. It’s one of the best national parks in Guatemala for photographing volcanos. The problem was that it was being renovated and it wasn’t open to the public yet. Luckily this guy knew the construction crews working there and made arrangements for me to stay overnight. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to scam me but I went along anyway. It was obvious that he was telling the truth when we arrived. The main building and entranceways were torn apart and being rebuilt. I stayed in the main hall overnight and into the next day. Fortunately, they had running water and working toilets. This was the best location so far that I’ve found to photograph the most volcanos at once. Other than the workers, I had the entire park to myself.
I used a combination of the 16-35 and 70-200. Both lenses provided options for multiple compositions of the volcanos, lakes, and stars, in one setting.
The first picture is at 31mm on the 16-35 wide-angle. You can see Acatenango Volcano erupting in the background where the red arrow is pointing. This lens is wide enough to capture the lake, foreground, and surrounding landscape along with the background and stars.
The below picture is from the same spot but at 200mm with the 70-200 telephoto lens. It’s better equipped for a more surgical approach. If you look close enough at the volcano to the left, you see a faint white dot on the top of the volcano. That’s Pacaya Volcano erupting at the same time Acatenango Volcano was erupting! I didn’t see either of these erupting at the time I took the picture. I didn’t notice them until days later when I got back to Antigua and looked through my photos. The 70-200 is probably my favorite landscape lens and I don’t think I would have captured these dual volcano eruptions without it.
I stayed with the 5D for this shoot at Parque Chuiraxamolo. Other features make it better suited for this environment than the 7D besides the extended focal range. The 5D is far superior to the 7D in low light. Even though my camera was on a tripod and in bulb mode, the 5D allowed me to keep my ISO at the minimum 50 and maintain the exposure time I wanted. If I had used my 7D, I would have had to have longer exposure times at a higher ISO to get the same result. Higher ISOs can introduce noise into the photo when shooting for longer exposures. Long exposures can make your sensor heat up which introduces noise into the photo as well. Be sure to keep the ISO low to avoid this potential problem.
Most newer DSLR cameras come with a noise reduction feature that keeps the noise low by taking an equally long exposure and using the blacks from that exposure to replace the blacks in the original photo. This is very beneficial to reducing noise on longer exposures but can cause you time when you have rapidly changing light. You won’t be able to use any functions of the camera while this second exposure is taking place.
I used my Gitzo Mountaineer 3541L on this shoot as well. It’s hard to find a better tripod that’s strong enough to handle my different gear configurations and tall enough to use without lifting the center column. I do have a center column that I can extend to get added height but this also raises the center of gravity. The Mountaineer is solid enough to hold my heaviest configuration of Canon 5D mark iii and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II with the center column raised but I wouldn’t risk it anyway. You also want a tripod that’s eye level because you may be standing for some time. You don’t want to be crouched over while working with your camera and tripod for extended periods, this would get uncomfortable after a while.
After photographing the volcanos in Parque Chuiraxamolo, I went back to the states to Atlanta, then Colombia, Curaçao, and back to Guatemala. I had heard Acatenango had the best volcano eruptions to photograph but also had the most difficult hike compared to the others. The hike was about four to five hours straight up Acatenango Volcano. The first two hours are the toughest because the ground is very loose and sandy. It felt like I would take two steps forward and slide back one step. It gets more solid as the hike progresses but it also gets steeper. We stopped about every thirty minutes for a break. There were porters carrying some supplies up with us but we had our own supplies that we were carrying also. They would carry our gear up for us for $25 if we didn’t want to carry it. I hesitated for about half the journey up but I had more gear than everyone else so I used the porters. It was worth it to get all that weight off me and I was able to enjoy the hike more.
I found that my 16-35 and 70-200 worked best on this shoot based on the time of day and the composition. Before it got dark, I got some nice above-the-cloud shots with the 70-200. It was too bright for the wide-angle so I didn’t use it much at first.
As this was my first time photographing volcanos, it hadn’t even occurred to me how I was going to focus when it got dark. We were so far up above the lights and clouds that I didn’t have any light to focus on the volcano, and it was completely black.
I managed to figure out a way to use the light from the eruptions to focus my 70-200 on the volcano. The problem with this was that the eruptions were very unpredictable. The next eruption may come in five minutes, one hour, thirty seconds, thirty minutes, one minute, an hour and a half, or twenty minutes. There wasn’t any warning or way to know when one was coming, I just had to be super ready all the time, which was a little tiring but I was fueled with adrenaline.
After sacrificing some eruptions to focus my lens, establish my composition, and decide what shutter speed was best, I captured the shot below. I was beyond excited when I saw the eruption! I knew I had the shot I was waiting for even before I saw the final photo. Like when a basketball player shoots the ball and knows it’s going in as soon as it leaves his hand.
Once again, the Canon 5d comes through for me. With the four to five-hour hike up the steep volcano, I wanted to limit my weight so I left the 7D back in my Airbnb. The low light performance really came in handy with only using the lava light to focus. Much like the dual eruptions that I didn’t know I photographed in Parque Chuiraxamolo, I found another surprise from this shoot.
While going through my photos, I noticed a weird dotted line going through the top of the photo. I thought it was a plane or a star but it looked so out of place that it didn’t make sense. I later found out it was the International Space Station. It’s in the photo below by the red arrow. I didn’t even know I had captured it at the time. I was very fortunate to photograph the International Space Station and an erupting volcano in the same shot.
Click on the photo to see a larger view of this photo.
Before I left the states, I sent my Gitzo tripod for servicing and repair. Some of the fittings on the inside had corroded and broken away due to improper maintenance. I shoot around beaches and waterfalls and I failed to clean and maintain my tripod from the sand and saltwater. I sent it with more than enough time for it to be returned to me before I left for Guatemala. The day before I flew out, I learned UPS lost my tripod and they wouldn’t have it back to me before I left. I didn’t have time to find one so I hoped to find one when I landed back in Guatemala. In Antigua, I was lucky to find the only tripod out of three camera stores in town, a Manfrotto 190Go.
The Manfrotto performed very well and supported my different configurations with no problems. It wasn’t as tall as my Gitzo Mountaineer but it was more than what I needed to get the job done. One benefit the Manfrotto has over the Gitzo is the reduction in weight. It’s a much lighter and smaller tripod and definitely has its advantages over the larger, more robust Gitzo Mountaineer. I’m very happy with the results of the Manfrotto on this shoot and I’m glad to have both of them in my collection now.
Moral of the Story
Of all the necessary skills needed to be a travel photographer, I believe adaptability is the most important. I’m not sure if anyone can ever plan for everything on a photo trip because there are too many variables and unknowns. Knowing how to handle yourself and still get the shot is what separates a photographer from someone just taking snapshots. Anyone can take photos in perfect conditions. It takes someone with the troubleshooting and adaptability mindset to overcome variables and not just give up when conditions aren’t ideal.
There were other people with cameras on my trip to Acatenango Volcano. They couldn’t take pictures after the sun went down because they didn’t know how to compensate for the dark sky and had no way to focus. All of the shoots that I’ve done in the past and my thorough camera knowledge allowed me to make adjustments in an unexpected situation to still get some wonderful shots of Fuego Volcano.
As I’m writing this, I’m watching season 17 of Top Chef. Top Chef is an American tv show that puts the best chefs in the country against each other in extreme cook-off challenges. I just heard the winner of one of the competitions say that what separates a cook from a chef is the ability to make rapid adaptations and work with what you have instead of what you want in unforeseen circumstances. I feel the same way about a photographer and someone just taking pictures.
Click the link to view my full Guatemala portfolio.