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The Incredibly Real Beauty of Nature’s Explosive Power

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Colima Volcano in Mexico shows a powerful night explosion with lightning, ballistic projectiles and incandescent rockfalls; image taken in the Comala municipality in Colima, Mexico.

Sergio Tapiro has been photographing the Colima volcano outside his home town of Colima, Mexico, for the past 14 years. “One of the lessons I have learned from this volcano is if you want to take a good picture you have to know your subject—you have to study, to read, to see, and learn to watch what the volcano is doing,” he says. “If you don’t study your subject your chances of having the greatest photo of your life are less. If you know perfectly what you are doing, the chances are huge.”

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A series of images shows the sequence of events culminating in Tapiro’s award-winning photo.

Tapiro’s collection of photos, taken over the years, shows the volcano in various states—emitting billowing plumes of smoke during the day, standing sentinel at night under swirls of stars. But the greatest photo of his life (so far) is the dramatic shot of ash, lava, and lightning above, which recently won a World Press Photo award.

Colima, also known as the Volcano of Fire, is one of the most active in Latin America, Tapiro says. He monitors the activity via a webcam, studies seismographs, and even owns a restaurant close by. He had been observing an uptick in activity at several points over the last year, when explosions and plumes of erupting ash charged the atmosphere, sparking lightning. Tapiro was on the lookout to capture this extraordinary activity.

When explosions began on the clear, starry evening of December 13, 2015, Tapiro was ready with his tripod-mounted DSLR and remotely triggered shutter set for eight-second exposures. One, two, three, four shots. And then, with the fifth, “I saw this marvelous lightning, the biggest lightning I have seen with this volcano.” The 1,600- to 1,900-foot strike was like a giant strobe, he says, illuminating the side of the mountain and clouds of ash.

“Volcanos have something that inspire and remind you about the power of creation and how the Earth makes marvelous things,” Tapiro says.

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