Cave Photography

by Lutz Nücker

One sad note to start this article: I cannot illustrate this article with some of my own photographs (yet). Look for them in the Outers Club Gallery in the near future. I only shot one roll of film inside the caves. After we came back to FREEZING COLD Sudbury, we didn't spend that much time sorting out our caving clothes. Before I realized where my coverall was, part of our group was already on its way to Quebec, my coverall in their plastic bag, my film in my coverall :( ...

The first thing you want to make sure when you take a camera along on a caving trip is to make sure you'll still be able to use it afterwards. Dirt and water are the things you want to avoid somehow. You can use padded munitions boxes, but you still have to take your camera out of it every once in a while and your hands might not be as clean as you want them to be, then. You can wrap your camera in plastic bags so you can still use it or get one of those underwater-bags (for example ewa-marine).

What kind of equipment should you bring? Not your one and only hi-tech autofocus, unless you can effectively protect it against dust and water. It should give you the possibility of adjusting your exposure by hand (including B) and accept a cable release or alternatively have a self-timer. A small tripod is sometimes helpful, but you really want to carry as little stuff as you can. Usually setting a camera on a rock, using your gloves or a lenscap to get it into a horizontal position, will work as well.

Normally, there isn't any light in caves, so you have the unique opportunity (and difficulty) of creating your own light. While it is possible to take available light shots on very fast black and white or colour film, this only works for portraits and small areas. If you want to take pictures of larger caves you will need electronic flashes. One of the problems with electronic flashes is that their light is very directional, and also usually in exactly the same direction as the camera. Everybody knows this effect from the unnatural-looking portraits taken with a direct flash. Putting a diffuser in front of the flash can alleviate this somewhat, but the only way to actually get some structure and depth into your picture is to move the source of light out of the path of the camera. The flash light also has one very unwelcome characteristic. It diminishes very fast (exponentially) with the distance to your subject. This creates some problems if you want to shoot a formation at an angle. Above ground, there will always be other light sources around that usually don't let this contrast get too big. In a cave the flash is the one major source of light. When you have several photographers on a trip, there is quite an effective way to get around this. You have to find a place to put your camera for a bulb (or 10-second or so if your camera can do that) exposure. Then you and some others can illuminate even big rooms from different positions by firing the flashes once the shutter is open. To avoid flashing directly at the camera you just have to make sure that you cannot see the camera from the position where you hold your flash. Depending on the film you use and how far you stop your lens down, you might have to fire several flashes. To some extent, determining the exposure is subject to trial and error, so you may want to try different settings on your camera. In this situation it comes in very handy to have several photographers around - because, who would want to carry three flashes around? It is NOT a good idea to use your one flash and walk around to fire it from different angles. Walking around in total darkness in a cave is never a good idea...

Another problem you might encounter is fogging, as there is a relatively high humidity in some caves. It happens mainly shortly after coming to a cave from the outside, when the camera is much colder than it is in the cave. There is no way around this that I know of besides waiting until the camera has adjusted to this environment. Remove your lenscap early, but don't wipe the lens. It would fog again.

Last, not least, you will need lots of time and a patient and understanding company (preferably photographers as well, see electronic flashes above), as setting up a picture takes a lot of time and non-photographers might get very impatient after the fifth or sixth shot. Using them as models will work for a while - hey who wouldn't want to have a picture of himself in a cave? But don't spend all your time in the cave photographing, because after all, you wanted to do some caving yourself, didn't you?

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last updated July 16, 1998