Sergio Tapiro has a love affair with volcanoes. Well, one volcano. He’s spent 14 years making thousands of photos of the Colima Volcano in the southwest corner of Mexico. His perseverance paid off in December with the shot of a lifetime.
His photo captures a remarkable moment—the volcano erupting in a plume of ash and lava as lightning strikes, illuminating the scene against a sky filled with stars. For Tapiro, it underscores everything that makes Colima beautiful. “Every time you take a picture of a volcano, it reminds you of the beginning of this world,” he says.
At an elevation of over 12,000 feet, Colima Volcano is a complex of volcanos that includes Nevado de Colima on the north, Volcán de Colima on the south, and the extinct El Cantaro. The “volcano of fire” was particularly active in 2015, as was Tapiro. Some people might grow bored photographing the same thing over and over and over, but Tapiro never tires of it. “I’m like a child,” he says. “Every day amazes me with something like the sunset, the moon, and this volcano.”
Tapiro grew up with a love of nature, and taught himself photography in 2002. He combined the two passions when he decided to start documenting the Colima volcano, which is just 20 miles from his home in Colima city. He took his first photo of the volcano in January of that year. “I didn’t know this was going to be a life project. I just started taking pictures,” he says.
It’s since become something of an obsession, and Tamiro estimates he has some 300,000 images—but claims only 100 are ‘good.’ He visits the volcano year-round, shooting at different locations and times of day. The images capture Colima in all its moods—statuesque and still in the quiet of an afternoon, coughing plumes of grey ash, or dazzling by the light of a thousand stars caught in a long exposure. When he isn’t at Colima, he’s learning more about Colima, reading up on its weather, daily activity, even the phases of the moon. Such information leads to the best possible photos. “It’s a bit of luck and a lot of preparation,” he says.
That rigorous attention to detail paid off on December 13. A few days before, he’d noticed volcanic ash flowing more quickly than usual, so he decided to keep a close eye on the volcano. He made camp 7 miles away and waited. And waited. And waited some more. After three days, at around 11 pm on the 13th, he caught a flash of incandescence at the peak, indicating an imminent eruption. He set his Canon 6D with a 70-200 lens on a tripod pointed toward Colima with an 8-second exposure. Using a remote shutter, he fired off 15 or so frames. He knew there’d been a lightning strike, but had no idea whether he’d captured it.
He downloaded the images onto his laptop the next day and was awestruck. The bolt of lightning perfectly illuminated the ash and rock, revealing rich detail. “When I opened the RAW file, I noticed that it was almost perfect. It was unbelievable,” he says.
The photo recently placed third in World Press Photo’s nature category. Tapiro remains thrilled by the recognition, but is always thinking about the next picture. And so he returns as often as he can to the volcano he loves. “It’s a personal project, it’s not a project for agencies or to be famous or to obtain money,” he says. “It’s still my life project. You have to return to work.”
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