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Cave Photography

flash camera caves light

Anglo-Australian Observatory, RMIT University

Caves, lava tubes, and their man-made relatives sewers and mines, are challenging and rewarding photographic subjects. Some are also potentially dangerous. They are a part of the natural world that is mostly inaccessible to many people.

A few walk-in caves may be photographed as easily as any other dark space, but others are very big and an on-camera flash will not be adequate. In addition, the unusual and wonderful formations found in caves are best revealed with off-axis lighting so anything other than direct on camera snapshots will require some specialized skills, imagination, and perhaps customized equipment.

There are many problems to be faced by the serious speleological photographer. These include water and condensation; confined, slippery, and muddy conditions; and sometimes poor ventilation as well as the more obvious dangers of caves in general. There is also (usually) a complete absence of natural light. This last problem can be turned into an advantage, since the photographer has complete control over the lighting that is used. On the other hand, some of the most spectacular caves are vast, so lighting and composition can be a challenge. Also, access to some caves which may be under water or severely cramped, will limit the size of camera and light sources that can be conveniently carried in. As a consequence of the variety of locations and many possible variations, it is impossible to be specific.

For anything other than on-camera flash, the darkness of a cave allows the photographer to paint the scene with light using a series of carefully aimed flashes with the camera shutter left open. This requires some practice to produce natural-looking yet dramatic results. The process can be simplified by using a slave with a flash, triggered by the main flash. Of course such slaves can be triggered by anyone else’s flash as well, so caution may be necessary. Some serious cave photographers prefer the superior light output of flashbulbs, but these are difficult to obtain and are bulky in quantity. In most cases an experienced helper is an advantage and is essential in situations where a fall or other potential injuries could be life-threatening.

A more flexible alternative is to use a digital camera and take a series of images with different lighting without moving the camera. These can be composited in software at an appropriate time with appropriate adjustments of the separate images as individual layers. This approach allows the incorporation of as many images as necessary to obtain the desired result, eliminating those that add nothing. This method also allows focus shifts and the incorporation of natural light (from cave entrances, for example).

Whatever method is used, protection of equipment from knocks and scrapes, mud, and water is essential. Fast, wide-angle lenses are preferable, but a zoom may be useful for inaccessible detail. Other requirements are powerful flash guns and flash-activated slaves or flashbulbs, with an appropriate power supply. Big caves seem to soak up light, so a powerful flashlight is essential for focusing and composition—autofocus may not work in high humidity, or where contrast is low. It will be useful to know the guide number of your flash gun, but beware of fog from breath or clothing reflected flashlight, especially from on-camera flashes. When practicing film techniques with small formats and fast lenses, an ISO 200 film is a reasonable compromise between speed and quality for middle and long shots. For larger formats (and thus slower lenses) ISO 400 to 800 should be considered.

Finally, a cave can be a delicate yet potentially very dangerous natural environment that is easily and permanently damaged by unthinking visitors, especially those inclined to wander.

I want to thank Paul Fretwell with his help with this topic.

Cavendish, George (1499–c. 1562) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Cavazzoni, Girolamo

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