Playing with fire: documenting life in the shadow of an active volcano

Adventure photographer Ulla Lohmann began her documentary series for German TV in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Here, she reveals why the Canon EOS R5 and the EOS R5 C cinema camera were the ideal tools for the project.
A portrait of a young child in a bright red dress with a smoking volcano in the background, taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Ulla Lohmann

The Vanuatu archipelago has been part of Ulla Lohmann's life since she wasn't much more than a child herself. "I have a very strong connection with the people," explains the documentary and adventure photographer. "Some of them have known me since I was 19 years old." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 42mm, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 320. © Ulla Lohmann

Canon Ambassador Ulla Lohmann is a photographer synonymous with high-octane image-making – particularly active volcanoes. She has been obsessed with these natural phenomena since she was a child: when she was eight, her father took her to Pompeii and she was captivated; at 19, financed by winnings from a scientific competition, she went on a life-changing journey around the globe to experience active volcanoes up close. "​My entire life is dedicated to volcanoes," she says.

Though she is undeniably fascinated by volcanos themselves, it is the "volcano people" who have made the strongest impression. "I am interested in how volcanoes change our Earth but also in how many people around the world live with them," she explains. "I realised what these people have in common – a deep respect for nature."

At the time of this interview Ulla was in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific Ocean, where she'd been filming a documentary series for German TV about people living alongside active volcanoes. Audible in the background are sounds of dogs barking and the rumbling of volcanoes – the island nation has nine of them. "The first episode, filmed in Vanuatu, aired in November 2023," Ulla says. "Now we're planning a whole series, hopefully visiting the same countries as I covered in my book Volcano People."

A group of children play football, with vegetation and a smoking volcano in the background, in a photograph taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Ulla Lohmann.

"Scientists can monitor volcanoes nowadays, but the indigenous people often don't have these tools," explains Ulla. "To be safe, they sense when an eruption is approaching by looking at animal behaviour." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 61mm, 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 1000. © Ulla Lohmann

There are volcanoes from Greece to Guatemala and most are formed along the boundaries of tectonic plates, when they collide or move apart. While we have these openings in the Earth's crust to thank for creating more than 80% of its surface, volcanoes are also obviously dangerous to visit, photograph and live beside. The deadliest volcanic eruption recorded was in 1815 in Indonesia, when it's estimated that upwards of 250,000 people perished.

As she speaks to us, Ulla's face is covered in ash. "My skin burns a little from the acid rain," she adds. For those living permanently by volcanoes this, of course, is amplified. Ash and gas emissions can poison some crops, she explains, although rich in magnesium and potassium, the volcano deposits also produce fertile soil. Because of acid rain, however, "the locals have to get water from the river half an hour away and carry everything uphill."

There are risks and there are benefits, and the impact on a local population also varies depending on the location. Some communities, such as those in Vanuatu, enjoy an economic boost from the extra tourists the volcano attracts. "There are some volcanoes with lava lakes, for example, there are some with explosive activity, there are some with lava flows. So they all shape the lives of the people very, very differently. Mount Yasur, behind me, for example, I can just tell in about two minutes it will be raining ash." She pauses to take a quick video to demonstrate. And sure enough, it does.

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A lone figure walks across a dusty volcanic landscape in a photograph taken by Ulla Lohmann on a Canon EOS R5.

It is essential for Ulla that her kit comes through for her in all conditions – humid or dusty. "These cameras can take pretty much everything and anything," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/4000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 160. © Ulla Lohmann

Equipment to rely on

Ulla is used to shooting in extreme environments, and it's important to her that her Canon kit is tough. She used to shoot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, but has now upgraded to the mirrorless EOS R System and says she hasn't looked back. For this trip, she packed her Canon EOS R5, the compact EOS R5 C, Canon's smallest Cinema EOS camera, and an EOS R3. "I only take cameras that are dust and water-resistant, because only those can withstand the harsh conditions," she says. "I especially love that the cameras can take a lot of weather as well."

Ulla also carried a range of RF lenses – the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM, RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM and RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM – plus a tripod. "The RF lenses match really well with the cameras – they are the perfect team," she says. "They work perfectly together. They've never failed me. The sharpness, the focus, the speed are just incredible.

"Everything I bring with me is essential," she adds. "I have to carry everything with me when I climb the volcano, so I keep my kit to a minimum. I consider a high fitness level as part of my work, so I train by rock climbing. I rely on my body as well as my equipment."

A young boy poses wearing body paint and a traditional tribal outfit in a photo by Ulla Lohmann.

Ulla's son Manuk, who joined her on the trip, saw his first volcano at six months, has visited 50 countries, and has witnessed more than 900 volcanic eruptions. He is even named after a volcano. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 48mm, 1/800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 1600. © Ulla Lohmann

Ulla and her family stayed with the villagers, who welcomed them into their homes, especially her five-year-old son Manuk, who they first met as a tiny baby. "They love him," she says. "They even initiated him and me into the tribe at a traditional hair-cutting ceremony."

The film follows Ulla as she takes photographs on the archipelago. Her schedule during the shoot revolved around the locals' routines. There is no electricity – light is supplied via solar-powered torches – and no running water. The day begins at around 5am with feeding the pigs, though the roosters tend to crow around 3am, nature's alarm clock. Locals work in the fields in the morning, bringing back whatever is ripe for the women to cook on volcanic rocks heated by fire.

Ulla's approach to filming was shaped by the TV channel's specifications (50fps, no 4K and no Canon Log) but she appreciated the recording times of both cameras. The EOS R5 has a time limit of 29 minutes per clip, while the internal fan in the EOS R5 C enables long duration recording, no matter what mode you are in. "We could always record for as long as we needed," she explains.

A group of people dance wearing body paint and traditional tribal outfits in a photograph by Ulla Lohmann.

Manuk was initiated into the local tribe, as Ulla had been before him, in a traditional ceremony. He wore body paint and joined in tribal dances. "The entire village gathered to watch," Ulla remembers. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 1600. © Ulla Lohmann

Filming handheld

The EOS R5 C is only 30g heavier than the EOS R5, despite the addition of the fan. While the video-first EOS R5 C is similar in appearance to the EOS R5, it features additional tools for filmmakers, including waveform monitors, false colour, the option to use a shutter angle instead of shutter speed, and a Face Only AF mode. Having a lightweight camera was "perfect for this type of shoot," says Ulla, as it was portable, and compact enough not to be intimidating.

Great image stabilisation is essential when shooting handheld, particularly when getting close to active volcanoes. "Having a tripod in this situation slows you down, so it's safer without," says Ulla. "I think most of the film, except some interviews, was shot handheld." The in-camera 5-axis image stabilisation in the Canon EOS R5 physically shifts the sensor to counteract movement, while the Electronic IS in the EOS R5 C compensates for camera shake by digitally shifting the image to counter movement detected by in-camera gyro systems. Both systems coordinate seamlessly with the optical IS found in Canon lenses, but you get a noticeable improvement when using an IS-equipped RF lens thanks to the faster communication made possible by the RF mount. "The cameras' image stabilisation is really wonderful," Ulla adds.

Ulla mainly switched between the EOS R5 and the EOS R5 C depending on which lens she needed, as she had a different lens attached to each body, and used the EOS R3 as a backup. "I used the wide-angle lens for landscape shots, the long lens for close-up volcano shots, and the RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM mostly for action shots with people," she explains.

Both the EOS R5 and EOS R5 C feature Dual Pixel CMOS AF for responsive and accurate tracking when the situation demands, and benefit from EOS iTR AF X, an advanced deep-learning autofocus technology. "We used the autofocus most of the time," Ulla continues. "It was really good. It also had no problem recognising people with darker skin tones against the dark volcanic sand of the volcano. We had been concerned about this but it worked perfectly. It was also very fast, which was useful when we filmed the dances."

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 Ulla Lohmann stands with her arms in the air in front of a volcano spewing lava and smoke in a photograph taken on a Canon EOS R5 by her son Manuk.

Manuk is already following in his mother's footsteps, taking his own pictures using her Canon EOS R5 such as this one beside the volcanoes of Vanuatu. "The film features scenes with him photographing and filming too," Ulla says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 3.2 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 3200. © Manuk Hoffmann

The communities living in the shadow of volcanoes are ever watchful for signs of an imminent eruption, having developed an acute awareness of their natural surroundings that Ulla believes the rest of us could learn from. "They know that, at any second, the volcano can destroy their livelihoods," she says. "They observe nature more closely. We look at our phones for the weather forecast. We don't look at the sky anymore."

Her advice to photographers and filmmakers interested in exploring similar subjects is to be guided by people. "Listen," she says. "If there is something your heart is telling you to do, that is usually a really good story.

"It's important to get out of your comfort zone and overcome your fears," she adds. "I hope that my pictures can motivate others to do that too. I love exploring new places and going where nobody else has been. It really intrigues me. I use my work to satisfy my curiosity. I love a challenge – the harder it is, the better I get."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Ulla Lohmann's kitbag

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Adventure photographer Ulla Lohmann holding a Canon EOS R5.


Canon EOS R5

Rethink what you know about hybrid mirrorless cameras. Whether you shoot photos, video or a mixture of both, the EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your creativity.

Canon EOS R5 C

Shoot incredible 8K movies and capture rich, detailed 45MP stills, all from the beautifully compact EOS R5 C; a camera that combines the best of Cinema EOS with all the advantages of the EOS R System.

Canon EOS R3

A camera that lets you photograph sport, wildlife and news like never before. Stay ahead of the competition with 30fps continuous shooting and advanced connectivity that lets you smash your deadline.


Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Canon's fastest ultra-wide-angle zoom and part of a trinity of essential pro lenses, boasting a Nano USM motor, 5-stops of image stabilisation plus three Aspherical and two UD elements for stunning sharpness.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture the world with outstanding flexibility and quality with a super compact f/2.8 telephoto zoom that incorporates a 5-stop Image Stabilizer for great handheld results, closer focusing down to 0.7m and fastest-ever AF.

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