In today’s digital era, where Instagram is king, “likes” are a form of digital currency, and outdoor corporate brands are among the best platforms for content distribution, planning adventure travel is a highly valued skillset for freelance photographers. Whether capturing a tiny person amidst a big mountainous landscape, a selfie next to a Great White, or an exploding volcano in the heart of Africa, the adventure lifestyle brand covers a huge genre and is categorically in high demand. The final output can be magical, alluring, and seemingly effortless. So much so that it often masks the tireless hours of hard work necessary to identify a location, create an expedition, plan the logistics and then quest forth like a modern-day frontiersman into a foreign land.
To fill in the blanks around what’s required to “get the shot,” I’m going to share the details of one of my latest trips to ascend Mt. Nyiragongo, the most active volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Identifying a location
Part of the fun of adventure travel is ideating upon the wonders of the world, gravitating towards particular locations, researching images and mentally tucking away gems like a squirrel hoarding acorns for the long winter. There are at least a thousand and one locations that I would up and travel to on a moment’s notice. As a passionate semi-pro photographer working to go full time pro, the trick for me is anticipating opportunities for travel, seizing them, and then turning them into low or no cost expeditions.
In the instance of Nyiragongo, I had separate work travel to Rwanda already lined up. So, a quick weekend jaunt over the western border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to sleep atop the rim of the continent’s most active volcano seemed like a no brainer. Creating overlapping opportunities in this way has been critical to getting started as an adventure travel photographer.
Before committing to Nyiragongo, from the comfortable confines of my apartment in San Francisco, I spent about 2–3 hours researching images of tourist destinations across Rwanda. There are great web tools available for this, such as the website, 500px, or Instagram’s “search by location” feature. I found everything from gorillas trekking in the jungle to tension bridges suspended over the oldest forests on the continent. The land of a thousand hills is ripe with opportunities for gorgeous adventure photos. With only one solid weekend available in the country, the question became how to choose where to go. In hindsight, the determining factor was probably an old National Geographic article featuring Nyiragongo. It contained epic Carsten Peter photos of moon-men in silver suits collecting scientific samples with spewing lava in the background, deep in the bowels of the volcanic crater. My subconscious was sold on the idea years ago – hook line and sinker.
In addition to choosing the location and researching a few shot ideas for that location, we also had to figure out on-the-ground logistics. Where do we cross the border? Do we hire a driver or drive ourselves? What about food? Permits? Safety? Gear? Road tripping in the middle of Africa, where there are almost no roads, can be… shall we say… complicated.
First, we secured the necessary permits to climb the volcano along with tourist visas to enter the country. Fortunately, visitvirunga.org does an excellent job providing links to the required paperwork. Unfortunately, after submitting the documents, we were unknowingly provided with all but one key document in return. This led to being detained while crossing the border into the Congo for an extra three hours. I’ll get into that later.
Second, we packed our kit. For camera gear, I brought along the following:
- Canon EOS 5DS DSLR body, plus two fully charged battery packs and one 64GB memory card
- EF 16–35mm f/2.8L II USM for landscape shots
- EF 24–70mm f/2.8L II USM as a "bread and butter" lens
- EF 70–200mm f/2.8L II USM for people and compressed landscape shots
- EF 50mm f/1.2L USM for portraits
- Promaster XC525 tripod
- Peak Design camera slings, a handful of lens cleaning wipes
In addition to two days of packaged food and gallons of bottled water, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, rain gear and a headlamp, this may seem like a lot of gear, but it ended up being about ~25-30 pounds in my pack. Manageable. My rule of thumb is to always bring along the highest quality gear on the wildest adventures. That’s how you get the best shots! This often means hauling extra weight in precarious circumstances, but if you want to be an adventure photographer, that's part of the deal. Smaller and lighter mirror-less cameras have come a long way in the past year, however, in my opinion, the optical quality of a high-end DSLR with premium lenses still wins. Also, the huge image sensor on the EOS 5DS, registering 50.6 megapixels, tends to leave more digital room to work with in post-production, which is a critical value-add to my workflow.
With gear packed and permits acquired, two friends and I hopped into an SUV around 4am and drove northwest from Kigali to Goma in the Congo. We decided to forgo a guide or driver, confident that we could handle the journey on our own (part of the rationale being increased freedom). It’s generally easier to scout for the perfect photo vantage point while driving and to stop at just the right moment, when in control of your own vehicle. For instance, the sunrise photo below required gunning it to just the right bend in the road and jogging down a little bluff as the sun was breaking the horizon. The sun rises very quickly at the equator, so lacking control of this chain of events probably would have nixed the photo. It’s also categorically more fun to drive in Africa. I highly recommend it. If you’re American, just don’t forget about the whole opposite side of the road thing in Anglophone Africa.
Now, onto the border crossing. The Rwanda–Congo border crossing at Goma is steeped in a turbulent history. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu fled Rwanda at this crossing during the genocide. To this day, one of the largest refugee camps in the world sits just across the border in Goma. UN convoys flank the makeshift roads in droves, replete with soldiers in bulletproof vests sitting atop turrets. A constellation of rebel groups occasionally test their mettle with violent confrontations on the Ugandan and Rwanda borders. This is not a place to monkey around. Unless, of course, you are a monkey, in which case this place is heaven.
Comically, we first tried to drive through the walk-across border, against the pulsing tide of human migrants. Our mistake. We turned around and found the right border crossing a half-mile south. After following protocol at various checkpoints, we got stuck at the final gate. Possessing no translator and confronted with a narrowing window of time to climb the volcano that day, we had to quickly sort through the bureaucracy. Not ideal. Ultimately, a local wearing a very hip leather jacket helped us to navigate the maze. We were through the gate!
Finding the trail at the base of the volcano turned out to be another mini-adventure. We paid a few “fees” to pass through artificial “gates,” then got lost without the benefit of Google Maps or any real signage to speak of. The rangers on the volcano leave every day at 1pm sharp, with no exceptions, according to their website. It was 1:30pm and we were still driving around, debating if the turn-off was ahead of us or behind us, up this jungle path or that one. It was stressful. Fortunately, we arrived just as the rangers were departing. We were lucky. And then the monsoon rains came. We were unlucky.
Photographing the Volcano
The adventure truly began once we stepped out of the car, put on our packs and ponchos and started wading through the newly formed rivers on the trail. With muddy shoes soaked through and torrential rains above, I became giddy with glee. It’s true that the best photos often come from the worst conditions. Blizzards, flash storms, freezing cold, all can be stellar ingredients of visual narrative. In this instance, the camera lens fogged up right away. The long hood of the EF 70–200mm lens helped to keep rain off of the glass, but despite best efforts with a cloth, most of the photos taken during the monsoonal downpour did not turn out. C’est la vie.
I generally go into overdrive mode on adventures like this and take photos of nearly every possible scene. Running ahead of the group crouching down with a pack on, lagging behind, gaining a vantage point, jumping back up ahead again. Not necessarily “spraying it down” in terms of taking lots of shots in rapid succession, but taking a few shots of a scene and then quickly composing a new scene, and so on and so forth for hours upon hours as we walked up the volcano. Think of it as street photography meets photojournalism meets adventure. Fitness and a willingness to be physically uncomfortable is key.
Once at the top, cresting the lip of the crater, we became awe-struck by the primal scene below us. It took our breath away. The primordial noises of lava splashing about, like highly viscous ocean waves crashing against a rocky coast. I quickly began scouting the rim for an optimal notch to shoot from, finding one a few hundred yards away.
Setting out along the slope, I was intercepted by our ranger who was not pleased. Rightfully concerned for our safety, he did not want anyone “wandering off.” As a mountaineer, I felt comfortable assessing and managing the risks on my own, but how to communicate this… after a bit of stubbornness on my part, we compromised and ventured forth together. The unplanned photo below came a short time later during a quick rest. Of the 900+ photos taken during the trip, the most common theme was probably “ranger in the jungle with a gun.” You work with what you’ve got! The dramatic backdrop of this shot made it my favorite of the bunch. To capture the photo, I balanced on top of a pointy and precarious rock, holding the camera high above my head in hopes of capturing the perspective. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to shoot from anywhere but eye level. Seeing the world from new vantage points is part of what captivates a viewer’s imagination.
The magic hour that evening was consumed by fog. We scarfed down fresh avocados, mangos and bread. Who needs a stove? Temperatures quickly dropped to hand-numbing levels, driving us to the comfort of our sleeping bags. Waking up that night to the dimly lit glowing red fog, intensifying towards the abyss, it was as if from an eerie dream. Mesmerized by the lava lake below, we spent hours composing photographs. Some captured with a high ISO to freeze the motion and some with low ISO to bump up the image quality. Some were taken on a tripod while others, like the photo below, were handheld for perspective. Some were zoomed in, some wide angle. You get the idea. In nighttime scenes I often use small amounts of “minus” Exposure Compensation to increase the color richness. Lastly, I also use mirror-lock up mode on a two-second timer to mitigate tripod shake post capture. The article’s first image is the end result from all of this tinkering.
All in all it was a grand African weekend adventure. We successfully climbed Africa’s most active volcano, which fortunately did not erupt (as it has done every four years, on average, since 1882). We experienced a small part of the Congo, captured some great shots and left with a few stories to tell. Hopefully this adventure travel story was enjoyable to read and helps to illustrate the process involved.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.