How you can Photograph Caves

Caves are some of the most challenging places on earth to explore – and if exploration alone is so tricky, imaginable how difficult it can be in order to photograph them. I recently produced a trip to Belum Caverns in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. We struggled to capture all of them for the first two days. Yet as time went by, I started getting more satisfactory results and learned how gratifying they could be.

I am a firm believer that you don’t get a good photograph of a picture unless you enjoy it in the first place. So , this article will go into more than just tips on how to photograph caves, but also the right way to enjoy them.

Table of Contents

Appreciating Caves

I reached the entry gates of the Belum cave system at nine AM on a Saturday. I desired to be the first person in order to enter to avoid the masses.

My very first day of the visit was obviously a “recce, ” or exactly what most of us call a  scouting trip . Belum is an elaborate labyrinth associated with caves that spans 3 kilometers, and I wanted to slowly understand the opportunities for photography instead of rushing in. It was only the second day   that I headed back using my gear prepared.

In total, I invested four days at Belum Caves and explored each channel. Even then, I would have been happy with  some more days in hand.

Cave photography isn’t for everybody. It certainly isn’t an excellent environment for smartphone snapshots or Instagram selfies (and I saw plenty of people try and fail to get such pictures in the harsh, metal halide light. ) But if you might have the patience and preparing to accept the challenges they will throw at you, caves can be highly rewarding in order to admire and photograph.

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Challenges

Here are some of the challenges of visiting caves, let alone photographing them:

  • As you go deeper in an exceedingly cave, the humidity plus, in most cases, the temperature helps to keep increasing. You’ll probably perspire enough to drench your shirts. You can also expect to consume about 3-5 times the amount of water you’d typically need outside the cave. Make sure to furthermore bring some food or even drink that can replenish your own salts and electrolytes.
  • The majority of caves are wet, especially the narrow ones. Choose suitable footwear.
  • Caves are usually abodes of bats. Bats reside in numbers of hundreds or even, in most cases, thousands. So be ready to be in the smell plus walk over bat droppings. A good medical-grade mask is a good idea in some caves to avoid getting too much dust.
  • If you are a bit claustrophobic, caves may exacerbate the problem. Don’t run away too far from an entrance if this is a concern.
  • You will need at least one headlamp. Some of the famous caves will have lighting in many places. But it is always advisable to have a headlamp.

Once you understand all those challenges and prepare for all of them, you can focus your energy upon getting good photos!

Stalactites

Some of the most rewarding features of a cave program are the mineral formations. These formations are prevalent inside erosion caves – AKA, caves formed by flowing water.

What causes mineral formations to appear? Commonly it’s due to rainwater. Rain tends to be mildly acidic, so that as it naturally flows externally world into the ceiling from the cave, it dissolves some of the calcium-based minerals on the surface of the cave.

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Stalactite beginning to form on the ceiling

The particular droplets of calcium-rich drinking water trickle down slowly, and they also leave a small trail from the sediment behind. It’s much like what happens when hard, alkaline water trickles down a leaking tap.

Over the years (or millennia), these small trails of yeast sediment form beautiful ceiling artwork that we call stalactites.

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Stalactite formations

The old the cave, the more evident the formations tend to be. It also depends on the mineral content plus amount of water that reaches the particular cave.

Stalagmites

Stalagmites are an additional major formation found in the majority of caves. They’re made of exactly the same material as stalactites, however they differ because they form on the ground rather than the ceiling. Stalagmites form when water flows more than a particular area of the cave, or even when it drips down from stalactites.

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Stalagmite formation on the right, created by an underground flow

Since we have a basic understanding of caves, let’s go through what you need to understand in order to photograph them.

Gear recommendations

Tripod

A sturdy tripod is first item on the list for cave photography because we all deal with extremely low lighting inside caves. Most of the time, you’ll be at multi-second shutter speeds and need all the help a tripod will offer.

My suggestion for a tripod is to use 1 with the highest max height and lowest minimum elevation. The perspective of items in a cave can change dramatically as you change tripod elevation, especially in smaller caves. You might want to be at “eye level” with stalactites to avoid perspective distortion, or at walk out pointed upward to emphasize the sheer size of specific formations.

There’s also a chance that you will need to bracket images for an HDR or focus bunch in order to get the photo you want. In either case, a tripod is essential.

One little bit of good news is that there is usually not much wind or motion in a cave system, so you don’t have to worry about external sources of vibration on your tripod (unless you put one of the legs within a flowing stream). As long as you use a remote shutter release and the electronic shutter, you can expand the tripod as much as you desire – even the center line – and still get tack-sharp photos.

Lens Recommendations

For the entire Belum caves trip, I used the particular Nikkor 20mm f/1. 8G prime. Without a doubt, a wide angle lens is the way to go in most cave systems. Anything broader than 28mm (full body equivalent) is ideal.

If you’re using a tripod, the maximum aperture may not be critical, yet a lens with f/1. 8 or f/2. almost eight can still make it easier to concentrate and compose compared to a slow f/5. 6 zoom lens. Wide apertures also let you get a shallow depth of field and highlight person formations. So , I recommend an f/2. 8 lens or wider if possible.

Camera Recommendations

Contrary to exactly what some photographers may think, you’ll usually be photographing the cave at base ISO so long as you’re using a tripod. And because of the difficult lights conditions in a lot of cave systems, dynamic range is a crucial factor. So , a full-frame camera with good powerful range is ideal, but a smaller sensor aps-c or mini four thirds camera isn’t a dealbreaker.

If you do plan to shoot handheld, though – since not all cave systems allow tripods – you’ll definitely want a camera with the best possible high ISO performance. And preferably combine it with an f/1. 8 or f/1. 4 lens.

External Light Source

Caves are some from the darkest environments on Earth, and a lot of them don’t have any illumination installed, so you’ll have to bring your own sources of illumination. Other, more famous caves may have lights installed already – but these can be more annoying than helpful.

If the authorities had been sensible enough to use consistently colored light sources, it might be a lot better. But often , you’ll end up with conflicting lighting as shown below:

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Odd lighting is more of the challenge than support in some cases

In addition to creating disco-like effects, these types of high-intensity lights tend to generate blown-out highlights as well as dark areas with almost completely dropped details.

Even in caves like this, you’ll generally be able to find areas with out terrible artificial lighting, which explains why it’s important to bring light sources of your own. I recommend a minimum of two or three external light resources with similar color heat range. I’ll cover this a bit more later in the article, but anything from headlamps in order to remote-triggered flashes could work.

Photographing Caves

Now that you’re prepared using the gear above, let’s have the process of photographing caves.

Caves are generally composed of hallways, narrow passages, pools/rivers of water, and vitamin formations (stalactites and stalagmites). Instead of giving you a list of tricks and tips, I’ll instead explain could recommend shooting each of those people sorts of subjects.

Photographing Hallways plus Large Chambers

Generally, though not always, the entrance to caverns are wide crevasses that tapper as we go deeper. The photo below is one such example, so let me take you through the step-by-step process of how I captured this.

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Belum Caverns Entrance
  1. Utilizing a tripod, I set the camera to base INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG (100 in my case) and stopped the aperture in order to f/5. 6 to get good sharpness across the frame (since f/5. 6 is the sharpest aperture on my lens). Granted, f/5. 6 isn’t quite enough depth associated with field here, but I can get back to that in a time. Matrix metering recommended a shutter speed of 6 seconds.
  2. I positioned the particular tripod at a height of approximately one foot, emphasizing the pathway that led up the cave. I wanted to give the perspective of taking an viewer into the cave.
  3. In order to get enough depth of field, We decided to focus stack 4 images in post-production. I first focused on the packet pathway at the foreground, after that halfway down the pathway, then just in front of the light, and finally on the wall in the background. It was just barely bright good enough that I could autofocus every time, but I easily might have focused by shining the flashlight if needed.
  4. After i took each photo, I actually made sure not to jolt the camera during the long publicity. I also used a remote shutter release and electronic front-curtain shutter to avoid causing camera shake.
  5. Back at my computer, I used Photoshop’s Auto-Blend Layers option to focus bunch the images. The process is incredibly simple:
    1. Import all the resource images as layers in one Photoshop document.
    2. If the images have any misalignment, choose all the layers and visit the menu option Edit > Auto-Align layers. This will get rid of the mismatch in composition, if any.
    3. Highlight all the levels and go to Edit > Auto-Blend Layers. Select “Stack Images. ” I also recommend keeping the two other options – “Seamless tones and colors” and “Content-aware fill clear areas” selected.
  6. On this specific photo, I then converted the particular photo to black and white. Low-key monochrome images are some of my favorites, and the contrast here works great in monochrome.
  7. I then did some leftover curves adjustments to adjust the particular contrast and bring out the details I wanted. Done!

Photographing Tight Crevasses

As we venture to the much deeper parts of caves, they generally department out and tighten. For instance , take a look at the image below:

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Tight crevasses as one venture into the deeper parts of caves

This is when the power of ultra-wide lenses is especially clear. An extended lens would simply eliminate too much context in a great deal of cases. Here, a 20mm prime did the trick for me.

I lit the image above by light painting during a 30 second exposure. Light painting is by using a low-intensity light to illuminate portions of the scene during a long exposure. It’s common in landscape pictures at night, but the dark atmosphere of caves is equally suited to light painting.

Here, I primarily painted the formations which were close to the camera. I did this in order to create a “fade” effect and sense of range progressing into the background. And I made sure to point the light from a slight angle to be able to create interesting shadows.

You need to move the original source of light at a pretty constant speed as you sparkle it on your subject, or you’ll end up casting harsh highlights on some locations more than others.   Light painting usually takes a few attempts to get right, but it’s very rewarding when you do.

Here’s one more example of photographing a narrow give passage:

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Small passage inside caves

This time, I actually deliberately left parts of the photo darker by lighting up only the most interesting formations. The end result has a bit of a “natural vignette” and guides the viewer’s eye through the photo the way i want. Here, I lit the image by placing the cellphone in the middle ground and a flashlight out of frame in the background. And, as prior to, I converted the image to black and white in order to emphasize the amazing shapes and forms of the particular cave.

Photographing Stalactites and Stalagmites

When i mentioned earlier in the article, stalactites and stalagmites are some of the most interesting attractions in a cave. But they’re not at all times easy to photograph. Take a look at the particular picture below, which I do not think works very well:

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Stalactite Formations – Lacking enough of a tale to be an interesting photo

This is the see I got with a 20mm zoom lens mounted as high as possible to the tripod and filling the frame with a stalactite. It could make a good documentary picture, but it lacks a story and isn’t a very interesting creative photo.

That goes to show something important about cave photography: You still have to tell a story, just like in outdoor landscape photography. Rather than capturing a “documentary” position of a single subject, how about showing it in context to the rest of the scene? Compare the image above to the 1 below:

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Stalactite and Stalagmite formations together give a closed composition

To me, this one tells a better story.   Here’s how I captured it:

  1. I envisioned the and realized my 20mm lens wasn’t wide enough to capture it in a single shot. So , I planned to take a panorama, beginning with my camera mounted  in landscape orientation (horizontally).
  2. Panoramas don’t always blend nicely with ultra-wide lenses, therefore it’s best to leave extra room in case you need to plants a lot later. Here, the particular splashes of water at the end of the photo are very necessary to my composition, so the first photo in the panorama pointed mostly below all of them, just to be safe.
  3. The next shot was taken by slanting the camera vertically. I made sure there was at least a 30% overlap between the two images.
  4. I took 4 more shots, each time crafting a bit higher until I put plenty of space above the stalactite at the top.
  5. At home, We used Photoshop’s Photomerge option to stitch them together. Because I had included extra room on the top and bottom associated with my frame, it was easy to crop the composition I wanted without losing any important component of the composition.

Conclusion

In this post, I’ve tried to give you all the information you need in order to appreciate plus photograph caves while staying safe.

Maybe you’ve wondered why a lot of photos in this article are monochrome. There are several reasons, but one of these is that the usual pale colours in a cave (and the particular unusual artificial light) will often be distractions that don’t add much to the meaning of a photo. At least for me, the amazing contrasts and shapes within a cave translate better to monochrome. I also love black and white in the first place, so it’s a good reason for me to use it.

If you have any questions about this article or want to combine any more pointers, please feel free to do so in the comments area below. Happy caving, and happy clicking!

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