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Caving Photography For The Inexperienced

Submitted by on October 14, 2011 – 10:32 am

© Jonathan McIntyre - SACCNUSSONS-TRAIL

Basic Photography Tips For Even The Most Novice Of Caving Photographers

Like many I have always seen really cool images of the Carlsbad Caverns. Great huge spaces filled with stalactites, long exposed lights and a few folks with cave helmets walking around. I have always thought those images were mysterious and exciting but not having been to Carlsbad I never thought I would get a chance to try it.

On a recent vacation to Mount Saint Helens however I found out about some amazing lava tubes that run from the mountain called the Ape Caves. My first thought was that it might be weird to visit lava tubes of an “active” volcano but apparently these caves were cut, not during the last eruption in the 80′s, but hundreds of years ago, so I had to give it a look.

Soon I found myself trecking into the dark, cool and multi-mile depths of the caves to see what sort of photographic damage I could do. It was quite apparent within moments that their would be no light except that of my flashlight & speed-lights. I have heard folks talk about a place being pitch black, but this was beyond anything I had ever experienced.

After going in a quarter mile I found a great location, set up my equipment and quickly decided on a game plan for gaining some great shots.

Bring what you need

You need to bring the kitchen sink. You don’t want to get a mile down and then find out you forgot some extra batteries in the car. Personally I brought two camera bodies, two speed-lights, a couple of wide angle lenses, tripod, extra batteries, cable release (very important), cleaning cloths and other miscellaneous equipment.

Keep your arms free

The cave can be slippery and of course is not stable so make sure your arms are free to balance. Shoulder bags could be a big problem here as they would throw you off balance. I would recommend a Lowepro camera belt system like I use, or some sort of backpack for your equipment.

© Jonathan McIntyre - SACCNUSSONS-TRAIL 2

Increase your ISO

You might think you should set your ISO to 3200 to get a good image but we want to balance the amount of light with the quality of the final product. The higher the ISO the grainier the image and the less you will be able to do with it once your done. I found that an ISO of 800 worked just fine. I was a good balance between quality and sensitivity.

Don’t get out of your depth

My first thought in such a dark lighting condition was to open my camera appature all the way but then I realized that it might result in a shallow depth of field that could effect the image where the side of the cave walls was concerned. Here I chose to set my F-stop at F11 to give me a good balance between depth and light.

Wait for “paint”

One I had my tripod and camera ready, composed my image, placed on a speed-light, set my ISO to 800 and placed the camera in Manual mode at F11, I placed the last part of my plan into action… I waited for light.

I decided that since these caves did not have any light to help distinguish features around me the best thing to do would be to wait for other cave explorers with lanterns and flashlights to come by and help me illuminate things.

Even with the speed-light I could only record a slight amount of information so I decided to listen and wait for other explorers. When I decided that they were just around the corner I would take the picture. Since my camera was in manual mode the speed-light would fire but I would leave the aperture open for anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 full minutes. In that amount of time folks would walk past me, their lanterns and flashlights illuminating the walls of the cave as the went down and past me further into the cave.

Because they were moving so quickly and the length of exposure was so long they wouldn’t be seen in the final image and in this way I was able to get light down every point of the tunnel.

Practice might make perfection

Now, I have a few images here that turned out amazing but I also have many more that didn’t turn out at all or looked terrible. This type of photography is a trial and error process with the emphasis many times on error. However, with enough trial and time, the more you practice, the more you might find perfection.

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