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14 Tips For Cave Photography

cave photography

Hawai’i’s Big Island is rife with photography opportunities, including those below the surface.  I recently was a guest on an underground tour of the Kazumura Cave, the world’s longest lava tube with a length over 40 miles.  While I didn’t explore the whole length (only a small fraction) this was my second time in a lava tube and first time with my DSLR.  My guide Jeffery from Kilauea Caverns Of Fire was gracious enough to let me spend some time experimenting with shooting in the cave.  Along with online research, it was tremendous learning experience for me and I’d like to pass on what I’ve learnt.  Let’s start with some basics.

Protect Your Gear

One of the most important aspects of cave photography is rock surrounds you, obviously.  Cameras, I’ve found, don’t like to come in contact with rocks in a harsh way.  It’s important while you’re exploring a cave to keep your camera well covered.  You’ll be in an unfamiliar territory and walking on uneven surfaces, often on all fours depending on the cave system.  A camera pouch or backpack is a good idea to keep your camera safe while exploring.

Also caves tend to be wet with moisture falling from the ceiling.  As well as packing away your camera while moving about, bring a hand towel or cloth to wipe down your camera.  It can also be draped over the camera while shooting to help further protect it.  Often the water dripping from above will be carrying a number of minerals which are best cleaned off sooner than later.

Bring A Tripod

Because I was traveling to this location lightly, I didn’t bring a tripod.  Bad idea.  This made shooting more difficult than with a tripod.  Bring a tripod if you can.  Some caves explored by commercial companies don’t allow use of tripods so check before you go.

cave photography

Use A Remote Shutter Release Or Self-Timer Function

Camera shake can ruin a picture that takes time to produce.  There are two ways around this: Use a remote shutter release cable or your camera’s self-timer.  If you anticipate wanting to hold the shutter open more than your camera’s slowest speed (often 30 seconds) you’ll need a cable to decrease shake.  Otherwise, using the self-timer function works great.

Use An Off-Camera Flash

If you can procure an off-camera flash, bring it.  Pictures shot with the on-camera flash tend to be flat and two dimensional.  With an off-camera flash you can introduce more shadow, giving depth to images.  More than one flash can be used at a time to light up the cave.

Wear A Headlamp

When caving you’ll always want two light sources with you.  Make your primary light a headlamp.  This will leave your hands free to setup the tripod and frame the shot.  An LED headlamp works best because the light temperature is closest to your flash, but that really doesn’t matter because you’ll….

Set Your White Balance To Flash

Before heading underground set your white balance to the flash setting if this is an option.  As all your shots will be with the flash while in the depths (assuming you’re not in a commercially lit cave), this is one of those life simplifying steps to remove error from creeping in.  In the end it doesn’t matter because you are going to….

Shoot In RAW

Shooting in RAW really is the way to go underground.  It will give you the most latitude in the digital darkroom later for both exposure and white balance (which you set to flash already, right?).

cave photography

Lower Your ISO

Even though you’ll be using your flash to light most areas of the scene, you may still have very black patches here and there.  To reduce the chance of noise creeping in, bring down the ISO.  I’d suggest 800 or lower depending on your camera’s capabilities.  I ended shooting at ISO 640 as a compromise but believe I should have gone lower.  I’m happy with the lack of noise but could I have gone lower?  Hmmmm….

Long Shutter Times Are Double Edged Swords

One thing I found easy to do was to leave the shutter open for 30 seconds at a time and then fill the area with light from the flash.  If your camera has hot spots on the CCD that show up with the shutter open this long, you may want to speed things up a bit or handle the spots in post-processing.  I’ll explain my technique in a second post.

Use Manual Focus

This fits in the removing variables category with ISO and RAW.  Get used to using manual focus in a cave.  If there are not a lot of light sources and flashlights/headlamps are moving around while you’re setting up the scene, your camera will try to grab on to anything it can see.  This may not be to your liking after the picture is shot.  If you’re using a wide angle lens and the subjects are distant and focusing is hard, first turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then back off a little.  After you take one shot, you can review on the LCD and adjust as needed.

Dealing With Commercial Caves

Commercial Caves are those setup with lights aplenty.  This can also include many national parks around the world.  These caves can often be a lot of fun as they are already well lit and won’t require supplemental lights.  They may also have areas setup for using a tripod or a guide may be able to help with placement.  If you are on a tour things may move along quickly and there may be crowds to deal with.  Check with the tour operator and see if you can find when the slow part of the day is, or if it’d be ok if you stayed back a little.  The answer may often be, “No” but asking is often opens doors to possibilities you might not have considered, so give the guide a chance to help you out.  If it is a self paced trip, you’re all set!

cave photography

Bring A Wide Lens

Bring as wide a lens as you can.  Caves come in all shapes and sizes but most scenes are large scale.  I’d suggest starting around 18mm for an APS size sensor or 28mm for full frame.  I ended up using a 16-35mm zoom and I loved having the width.  That being said, there is some close up work that would benefit from a tighter prime or telephoto.  If you have the space, bring both but just remember, caves are filled with moisture, often airborne, so be careful changing lenses and keep it to a minimum if you must.

Put A Person In The Picture

Often the scale of a cave is lost without a reference point.  While close up shots won’t really benefit from adding in a human, the larger scale shots come out better with someone standing there.  You’ll need to pose the person and have them remain still while shooting or they will show up blurred with a longer shutter speed.  Conversely, you can have them move to multiple shots if you want to play around.  Or have them move out of a slightly lit area to create a ghosting effect.  Try different things and see what works for you!

Turn The Frown (Camera) Upside Down

What’s the difference between the two photos below, both taken with the flash attached to the camera?  First, this is a section of cave ceiling very close to the ground to give you the perspective.  Second, all shooting parameters are the same (ISO 640, 1/125 f/2.8).  Now can you tell the difference (beside the focus point being closer in one)?

cave photography
cave photography

Answer: The image at right is shot with the camera upside down.  This allowed for better lighting from the flash, less shadow and a different angle.  While I could have picked a better focus point (did I mention it’s really dark in caves?) I hoped to illustrate how taking a different tact can give different results. Experimentation is the name of the game at this point.

As a primer, these are some of the basics to help get you started in photographing caves.  Look for a post in the coming days where I get into the specifics of how I took a couple photos, including showing all the mistakes I made so hopefully you won’t have to!

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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