Cave Photography How To
Taking Photographs Inside Developed CavesBy Guest Contributor Jim McCain
Works by Jim McCain at Fine Art America
Works by Jim McClain on DotPhoto
Published June 15, 2012 ©
Two Types of Caves - Commercial and WildSome of the most beautiful places on earth are often found right under your feet. Caves and lava tubes contain a hidden world that many people never see. If you are one of those adventurous photographers who would love to document a cave, consider the 2 types of cave photography. Commercial cave photography allows you to access caves with walkways, lighting and a tour guide. Wild caving is actually that... Wild ... no lighting, no walkways, no guide and very limited access. Only those with specialized training, specialized equipment and mapping should ever attempt this. There are inherent dangers both to cavers and the cave itself, so please don't attempt this without being prepared. This lesson will discuss commercial cave photography which can be done by most anyone. With the advent of digital photography, the process is inherently easier because of the ability to see the results as soon as you shoot the photo. For this reason, this will be a fairly general lesson.
Cave EtiquetteWe'll begin with a few rules on cave etiquette - for your safety and the safety of the cave. Never, ever touch any cave formation with your hands. Oil from the skin attaches to the formation and damages it by either slowing the growth or killing it entirely. Growth of a formation is caused by minerals in the water being deposited on the formation. Oil prohibits the mineral from attaching. Never stray off the trail. Whatever you carry into a cave, be sure to carry it out. Even food crumbs can cause damage to the environment. Never carry out any part of the cave as a souvenir. Always inquire about the use of flash, tripods, monopods or camera bags before making the trip. The size of the cave pathways will determine how much room you have to work, how much lighting is required and what equipment is allowed.
Preparing for the Tour
So let's get started on the tour. Be ready when the tour is called. It is usually best to stay at the back of the tour. This allows you more time and space for shooting but it is also a spot preferred by many participants. Usually a photographer gets the respect of his craft and is allowed to stay back. If this is not your first tour, try to have your camera preset to save time. Some tours move rather quickly and lights are turned off behind the tour so you don't want to be left in the dark. It is advisable to take a small light source so that you might view any non-lighted camera settings.
Even though I have photographed many caves in several states, I learned a new lesson at Caverns of Sonora in Sonora, Texas a few years back. This is a good start to getting you ready to shoot. As it happens, I was there on a slow day and myself and the guide were the only ones on the tour. So we took off, entering the cave from a hot environment of southwest Texas to a cool 71 degrees and 98 % humidity level. I began to shoot and everything was coming out blurry. I double checked my settings, found nothing wrong, then turned my lens up to check it and found that it was covered with moisture. The act of bringing the hot camera into the cooler moist cave caused dew to form on the lens. Lesson learned...
So acclimate your camera as much as possible especially if you are south in the summer. Preset as much as possible. Settings are many times determined by the type and amount of lighting provided in the cave and the distance you are from a formation. Flash is of negligible use because either the distance is too far or too close. It will either not reach the formation or will wash out the color by over compensating the provided light. It is possible to use off camera flash if you have a partner to hold the flash away from the camera via sync cord or remote flash. This allows the flash to create shadows behind or beside the formations which gives them a 3D look or depth in the photo. This requires a little more planning so consult the tour guide before the tour to see if it is allowed. As a general rule I shoot with a telephoto zoom lens which give you wide angle capability for large rooms and telephoto to zoom in to singular features.
Though some cave features are well lighted and auto focus will work, not all will be, so use manual focus if your camera's auto focus will not lock on in low light circumstances. Set your lens to the largest f-stop (normally 2.8 or 3.5) and use Image Stabilizer if available. Use bracketing if available to give you a variety of settings on each shot. Also use the camera's white balance adjustment to match the type of lighting in the cave (usually incandescent).
Using the camera's manual setting, I usually start with an ISO of 1600 and a shutter speed of 1/100. Depending on the lighting in the area, these settings can be adjusted until you get the best results available. Lower ISO's for instance yields better quality photos without as much noise. Shooting in RAW format gives you more latitude for adjustments at the PC. Remember that going below 1/30 of a second on the shutter speed will likely lead to camera shake or blur if handheld. If shooting from a tripod, slower speeds will cause overexposure of well lit parts of a subject. Making necessary adjustments to ISO, f-stop and shutter speeds as well as incorporating use of on camera flash will usually lead to satisfactory results.