Cave photography is exhilarating, powerful, and breathtaking all at the same time. But caves do pose some unique challenges for photographers; the low light levels make it difficult to capture a detailed exposure, and cave conditions can be uncomfortable or downright unsafe.
In this article, I share my best tips for gorgeous cave photos. Specifically, I explain:
- The techniques (and gear) you must use for a detailed shot
- How to create a sense of scale in your images
- How to keep yourself – and your gear! – safe
- Much more!
So if you’re planning to head off on a cave photo adventure, or you simply want to level up your cave photography knowledge, then keep reading!
1. Protect your gear
In cave photography, you are (obviously!) surrounded by rocks. And in my experience, cameras don’t like to come in contact with rocks. (Nor do lenses or tripods.)
So it’s important when exploring a cave to keep your camera and lens well-covered and your tripod legs tucked in. I’d encourage you to keep your gear packed away until you absolutely need it; you’ll be in unfamiliar territory and walking on uneven surfaces. Sometimes, you’ll be crawling. Bring a padded bag or backpack, and make sure your camera remains inside until you’re ready to take a photo.
Caves also tend to be wet, and moisture often falls from the ceiling. So bring a hand towel or cloth to wipe down your camera. You might also consider draping it over your camera and lens when you’re shooting. (If you’re deeply worried about water damage, you could even use a rain cover.) Often, the water droplets will be carrying a number of minerals that are best cleaned off sooner rather than later.
2. Bring a tripod
Caves are extremely dark, which means that you need a longer shutter speed to capture a detailed exposure. The longer the shutter speed, the more you risk camera shake – so if you want to maximize your chances of taking sharp photos, a tripod is essential.
Unfortunately, some caves explored by commercial companies don’t allow the use of tripods. Check the rules in advance, and if tripods aren’t an option, then be sure to bring image-stabilized cameras and lenses. I’d also encourage you to use fast lenses (f/2.8 or wider is best) and carry a flash for artificial lighting.
3. Use a remote shutter release
Tripods are great, but if you don’t use proper technique, you’ll end up with blurry photos anyway.
Pressing the shutter button, for instance, can generate camera shake and cause image-destroying blur. That’s where a remote shutter release comes in handy; it’ll let you trigger the camera shutter from a distance. Simply set your camera up on the tripod, hit the remote release button, and you’ll capture a cave photo – without ever needing to touch the shutter button.
If you don’t own a remote release and don’t plan on buying one, you can always use your camera’s self-timer function, which will delay the moment of capture until a few seconds after you hit the shutter button. This works just fine, but it can be annoying to wait for several seconds after each shot, so I encourage you to grab a remote release if you can!
4. Use an off-camera flash
As I mentioned in a previous tip, flashes can be hugely useful, especially if tripods are off limits. They’ll illuminate the cave so you can grab a well-exposed image without a long shutter speed.
But make sure to bring an off-camera flash. On-camera flash photos tend to look flat and two-dimensional. With an off-camera flash, however, you can hold the flash off to the side, giving more depth to your images. (And more than one flash can be used to light up the cave!)
5. Wear a headlamp
When doing cave photography, you always want two light sources:
A flash (discussed above).
And a headlamp.
The headlamp will light your way and prevent you from having any nasty accidents. A flashlight can work, too, but it’s helpful to have two free hands when setting up your tripod and camera.
6. Set the white balance to Flash
I encourage you to always use a flash when doing cave photography (assuming the cave isn’t commercially lit).
So before heading underground, set your camera’s white balance setting to its Flash option.
This is one of those life-simplifying steps that will help you good shots with minimal editing. That said, if you forget to set the white balance, it’s not the end of the world as long as you follow my next tip:
7. Shoot in RAW
Want to capture cave photos that look gorgeous and professional? Then you must shoot in RAW.
RAW files will give you the most latitude when you adjust the exposure and white balance in the digital darkroom.
And if you shoot in RAW, you can recover details that would otherwise be lost in a JPEG.
8. Lower your ISO
And it’s true: The higher your ISO, the faster you can make your shutter speed and the easier it is to avoid camera shake.
But if you’re using a tripod, there’s no reason to boost that ISO to ridiculous heights. Instead, rely on your tripod to keep your camera steady, and keep the ISO as low as possible. I’d recommend working at ISO 100 or 200 if possible, and only push it higher if absolutely necessary!
9. Don’t be afraid to lengthen your shutter speed
As long as you’re using a sturdy tripod, you can drop your shutter speed to 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, and more.
I’d encourage you to experiment with different shutter speed options (especially when combining the longer shutter speed with flash). You want to get images with plenty of shadow detail, but at the same time, it’s important to avoid blowing out areas of the cave that are illuminated by your flash.
It can be helpful to take several test shots while keeping all your settings constant – including flash brightness – but varying the shutter speed. You may also want to consider using HDR techniques if you find that you’re struggling to correctly expose for both the shadows and the highlights.
10. Use manual focus
Caves are dark – and in dark conditions, your camera’s autofocus system will struggle mightily.
If you desperately want to use autofocus, then try pointing your headlamp at the edge of a contrasty feature, then use that area to set your point of focus.
But in general, it’s best to just switch your lens over to manual focus. That way, you can set the point of focus without worrying about your camera going haywire.
Note: If you’re using a wide-angle lens and the main cave subjects are off in the distance you may find manual focusing difficult. First, turn the focus ring all the way to infinity. Then back off a little. After you take your shot, review on the LCD – try zooming in to check for perfect sharpness! – and adjust as needed.
11. Make adjustments when working in commercial caves
Commercial caves are designed for exploration, so they tend to feature plenty of lights. (Caves in national parks, for instance, tend to be beautifully lit!)
These caves are often a lot of fun as they’re already well-lit and won’t require a flash. A tripod will still be useful, though, so check to see if the cave rules allow you to bring one.
If you’re on a tour, things may move along quickly, you may not find much time to take photos, and you may have to deal with crowds. Check with the tour operator in advance to see if you can go during a slow part of the day. You might also ask if it’d be okay if you hang back a bit while the tour moves on. The answer may often be “No,” but asking can open doors to possibilities you wouldn’t have otherwise considered, so give the guide a chance to help you out!
12. Bring a wide-angle lens
Caves come in all shapes and sizes, but most scenes are large-scale – so bring the widest lens you own. I’d suggest starting around 18mm for an APS-C sensor or 28mm if your camera is full frame. That way, you can capture plenty of expansive images showing the entire scene.
That said, caves do offer the opportunity for close-up compositions that benefit from a longer lens. So if you have the space, bring a telephoto lens and switch over as needed. But remember: Caves are filled with moisture, so be careful when swapping lenses and keep the changes to a minimum.
13. Put a person in the picture
Some caves are huge, while others are tiny – but when taking photos, the scale of the cave is often lost without a reference point.
And while close-up shots won’t really benefit from adding in a human, the wider shots will look a lot better if you include someone standing in the frame.
Note that you’ll need to pose the person and have them remain still while shooting. Otherwise, they’ll end up blurred (assuming you’re using a long shutter speed). Conversely, if you want to capture creative effects, you can ask your subject to move around. Try different approaches and see what works for you!
Cave photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
Thirteen tips to take your cave photos to the next level.
So the next time you go cave exploring, remember the advice that I’ve shared. Make sure you bring the right equipment, use the right settings, and stay safe. Also, have fun!
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Where will you capture cave photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!