Came across this very dramatic video yesterday of a group of freelance photographers and adventures heading down into a volcano, and right away I was amazed by what people were saying, but not for the reasons you may think.

“With Fire Brigade breathing apparatus and heat proof proximity suit it was possible to stand on the very edge and view the incredible show for over 40 minutes,” they wrote of the experience. The Marum Volcano’s lava lake is located on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, in the Pacific and they’re claiming no one has ever come closer.

Yes it is a stunning sight to see an ocean of lava come spewing out of the earth with the violence of an erupting sun and the yet the rhythmic tranquility of a baby kicking around in a small tub, but I was more amazed by how people were reacting to the pictures of a man in a heat resisitant suit seemingly inches from harms way, and yet he was safe. Calculated safe. He was close, closer than what we would consider safe but he wasn’t as close as it appeared.

It’s generally agreed that our human eyes are roughly the equivalent of a 22mm (although this number is often debated as each person’s vision differs from the next), meaning everything above that and below that is unnatural to our brain because it is not how we normally see the world.

This brings up another issue I’ve pondered for some time: is a 200mm picture or a 8mm less true than a 22mm (or 35mm, or 50mm, or 28mm … like I said, it’s up for debate) … but that’s just food for thought right now.

If you play the video, you’ll notice that it appears he is very close to the gushing waves of molten death, but at the the 17 second mark we move to a slightly wider angle and we get a sense of the scale and distance between the man and the edge of the drop off.

Now in light of this, notice how the long lense makes it more dramatic and tells the story better. This is important, they aren’t lying, they’re helping a viewer understand what it feels like to be there. Being transparent with the process puts us all on the same page.

This is all made possible because of lens selection and knowing how to use it.

Longer lenses compress a scene down and flatten out the distance between objects. This is why sports photos shot with a 200mm look much more compact than sports photos shot with a 35mm. From the background to the foreground, it appears that objects are closer then they would with your naked eye. That tension and fear we feel when watching a man in seeming peril touches us in way that wider lens would not have.

Viewers weren’t tricked, we just happened to not take into account how lens optics compress a scene. And that’s why I felt compelled to write about it, it’s a great video for seeing how lens selection can effect the mode of an image.

Also, wow, lava geyser dude.