14 Tips For Cave Photography

14 Tips For Cave Photography

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Copyright Hidden Creek Photography

Copyright Hidden Creek 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

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Copyright Hidden Creek Photography

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.

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

Creative Commons Copyright ex_magician

Creative Commons Copyright ex_magician

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?).

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

Creative Commons Copyright Kurt Thomas Hunt

Creative Commons Copyright Kurt Thomas Hunt

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!

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)?

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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 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.

  • Thanks great tips I have yet to go photographing in a cave but if I do I hopefully will remember the great advice you gave me! *fingers crossed*

  • Jeff Plum

    Spelunking good!

  • thanks!
    [img]http://www.reysbro.com/Israel-Travel/Bet-Jamal-Avshalom-Cave-and/MG6502/583645606_DmuMs-S-2.jpg[/img]

  • I can only recommend taking a Gorillapod: http://www.phoque.de/bilder/schoensteinhoehle/

  • Chris

    Hmmm, might just be me but i sorta like the first picture of the cave ceiling. Much more contrast =)
    Great read though, would like to visit a cave one day but cant say theres too many around south australia

  • gbhildebrand
  • Seems like a extremely difficult lighting situation

  • I would also try setting the camera for (very) long exposures, and then light the walls with a torch / lantern or an external flash; using color filters may be fun, too.

  • Rhys

    Great guide. And Chris, are you serious? South Australia is well known for its extensive caves systems, both walk-in and diving even, have a google 🙂

  • Nice. Thanks for the post. Here’s one I took in Gibraltar at St. Michael’s Cave. My wife and buddy in the shot, about a 5 second exposure (if I remember) and I popped a handheld strobe on full manual. If I were to do it again I’d obviously gel the flash CTO and set WB to tungsten.

  • glenn

    I can’t believe all this talk of flash use. I photograph underground frequently, we never use a flash. Long exposures and light painting give far superior results.

    Underground is the perfect environment for this – absoloutly no stray background light.

    Similarly long exposure by candlelight or carbide lamp can succesfully light even large underground voids.

    Avoid the flash at all costs.

  • cave photography happens to be my passion, and while im still learning, i consider myself experienced enough, to say, yes the above tips are good, I strongly suggest a pelican box, otter box or somthing like, my canon has survived many grueling trips unharmed due to my pelican case,
    lighting is definatly an issue, multiple flashes on synced slaves help, but sometimes you have to go big,
    when you get a chamber or grotto that ,,,, well seems to suck up all the light, its time to break out the,
    “mega flash”, this system will bring sunlight to where pitch black rules the day, ive not had to progress this far yet, but im working towards it,
    nice read by the way, great pics as well

  • Dr Chawngthu Lalhmingliana

    Very interesting article. Thank you so much much Carey ! Please contribute more !

  • Muddyfox

    I shoot underground every weeked.

    I used a flash for one shot – about 3 years ago,

    Flash is not the way, as Glen says, long exposure and light painting FTW.

    OH, and dont forget, using a flash in a cave is 101% a no-no if there are bats (indeed here in the UK if they prosecute you for upsetting bats its £2000 fine PER BAT!

  • tchudson
  • I can appreciate the “no flash in caves” mantra. I makes a lot of sense because you can selectively light your scene in a subtle way. I also depends on the cave though. In pitch black environments, light paint away; but if the cave is a commercial-type cave with artificial lighting, long exposure isn’t always an option. I’ve been following the off-camera lighting scene (D.H., McNally, Tejada, Arias) and the work you can do with a flash is quite amazing. It is, however, quite time consuming and has a time and a place.

    The strobe is a great tool. Use it wisely, don’t abuse it and always bounce your key or take it off camera. Most of all though, don’t try and add it in when you don’t need it.

  • Great article, thanks for the info. I did a shoot with a model in the “Rat’s Nest Cave” in Canmore, Alberta. I brought my Nikon D300 with two off-camera flashes, one SB800 fired remotely via a pocket wizard and the other, an SB900 set up as a slave. We used our head lamps to light the model’s face just enough so the camera’s auto focus system worked. I try not to shoot manual focus unless it is absolutely necessary. You can see the results here: Rat’s Nest Cave Shoot. For the shots with the amazing blue color I used a gel over one of the flashes.

  • Joy Watson

    Thankyou for sharing these points. I have found them extremely helpful. I was recently given the opportunity to try some cave photography for the first time and appreciated finding your site. I am finding it both challenging and fun. Thanks.

  • Thanks for some excellent cave photo tips. I’m going out to shoot some !

  • Omar Spence

    A fisheye lens and some off camera flashes would be great. If you have only one hot shoe flash, you can put your camera on a tripod, leaving the sutter open for 30 seconds and hand trigger the flash with the test button while pointing it at structures of interest.

  • Pravin Dwiwedi

Some Older Comments

  • Omar Spence May 18, 2013 02:49 pm

    A fisheye lens and some off camera flashes would be great. If you have only one hot shoe flash, you can put your camera on a tripod, leaving the sutter open for 30 seconds and hand trigger the flash with the test button while pointing it at structures of interest.

  • RyukyuMike February 10, 2013 06:06 pm

    Thanks for some excellent cave photo tips. I'm going out to shoot some !

  • Joy Watson March 16, 2011 04:29 pm

    Thankyou for sharing these points. I have found them extremely helpful. I was recently given the opportunity to try some cave photography for the first time and appreciated finding your site. I am finding it both challenging and fun. Thanks.

  • Al Del Degan November 2, 2009 05:50 am

    Great article, thanks for the info. I did a shoot with a model in the "Rat's Nest Cave" in Canmore, Alberta. I brought my Nikon D300 with two off-camera flashes, one SB800 fired remotely via a pocket wizard and the other, an SB900 set up as a slave. We used our head lamps to light the model's face just enough so the camera's auto focus system worked. I try not to shoot manual focus unless it is absolutely necessary. You can see the results here: Rat's Nest Cave Shoot. For the shots with the amazing blue color I used a gel over one of the flashes.

  • Chris Biele November 1, 2009 04:06 am

    I can appreciate the "no flash in caves" mantra. I makes a lot of sense because you can selectively light your scene in a subtle way. I also depends on the cave though. In pitch black environments, light paint away; but if the cave is a commercial-type cave with artificial lighting, long exposure isn't always an option. I've been following the off-camera lighting scene (D.H., McNally, Tejada, Arias) and the work you can do with a flash is quite amazing. It is, however, quite time consuming and has a time and a place.

    The strobe is a great tool. Use it wisely, don't abuse it and always bounce your key or take it off camera. Most of all though, don't try and add it in when you don't need it.

  • tchudson October 31, 2009 03:40 am

    Check out these cave photos:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alan_cressler/sets/72157600033868033/

  • Muddyfox October 30, 2009 11:40 pm

    I shoot underground every weeked.

    I used a flash for one shot - about 3 years ago,

    Flash is not the way, as Glen says, long exposure and light painting FTW.

    OH, and dont forget, using a flash in a cave is 101% a no-no if there are bats (indeed here in the UK if they prosecute you for upsetting bats its £2000 fine PER BAT!

  • Dr Chawngthu Lalhmingliana October 30, 2009 10:45 pm

    Very interesting article. Thank you so much much Carey ! Please contribute more !

  • Bull Snook October 30, 2009 10:18 am

    cave photography happens to be my passion, and while im still learning, i consider myself experienced enough, to say, yes the above tips are good, I strongly suggest a pelican box, otter box or somthing like, my canon has survived many grueling trips unharmed due to my pelican case,
    lighting is definatly an issue, multiple flashes on synced slaves help, but sometimes you have to go big,
    when you get a chamber or grotto that ,,,, well seems to suck up all the light, its time to break out the,
    "mega flash", this system will bring sunlight to where pitch black rules the day, ive not had to progress this far yet, but im working towards it,
    nice read by the way, great pics as well

  • glenn October 30, 2009 06:19 am

    I can't believe all this talk of flash use. I photograph underground frequently, we never use a flash. Long exposures and light painting give far superior results.

    Underground is the perfect environment for this - absoloutly no stray background light.

    Similarly long exposure by candlelight or carbide lamp can succesfully light even large underground voids.

    Avoid the flash at all costs.

  • Chris Biele October 30, 2009 05:42 am

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3140/2679189043_19b4c6faa8.jpg

  • Chris Biele October 30, 2009 05:41 am

    Nice. Thanks for the post. Here's one I took in Gibraltar at St. Michael's Cave. My wife and buddy in the shot, about a 5 second exposure (if I remember) and I popped a handheld strobe on full manual. If I were to do it again I'd obviously gel the flash CTO and set WB to tungsten.

  • Rhys October 29, 2009 11:29 pm

    Great guide. And Chris, are you serious? South Australia is well known for its extensive caves systems, both walk-in and diving even, have a google :-)

  • Eduardo Pérez October 29, 2009 08:58 pm

    I would also try setting the camera for (very) long exposures, and then light the walls with a torch / lantern or an external flash; using color filters may be fun, too.

  • John Kim October 29, 2009 08:42 am

    Seems like a extremely difficult lighting situation

  • gbhildebrand October 28, 2009 08:39 am

    Check out my friend's shots from Brazil. Hope you can access these shots.
    http://www.orkut.com.br/Main#AlbumZoom?rl=psc&uid=1074202595588062135&aid=1241444369&pid=1241469818180$pid=1241469824351[img]http://www.orkut.com.br/Main#AlbumZoom?rl=psc&uid=1074202595588062135&aid=1241444369&pid=1241469818180$pid=1241469824351[/img]

  • Chris October 27, 2009 11:39 pm

    Hmmm, might just be me but i sorta like the first picture of the cave ceiling. Much more contrast =)
    Great read though, would like to visit a cave one day but cant say theres too many around south australia

  • Nils October 27, 2009 07:32 pm

    I can only recommend taking a Gorillapod: http://www.phoque.de/bilder/schoensteinhoehle/

  • reysbro October 27, 2009 08:43 am

    thanks!
    [img]http://www.reysbro.com/Israel-Travel/Bet-Jamal-Avshalom-Cave-and/MG6502/583645606_DmuMs-S-2.jpg[/img]

  • Jeff Plum October 27, 2009 07:57 am

    Spelunking good!

  • sbunting108 October 27, 2009 06:44 am

    Thanks great tips I have yet to go photographing in a cave but if I do I hopefully will remember the great advice you gave me! *fingers crossed*

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