Adventures in cave photography
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
I've been a Caver on and off since my teens. I first ventured underground at about 13 years old, when I was dragged kicking and screaming down Carlswalk Caven, Derbyshire, by my Father who was adamant at the time that I would enjoy it! Eventually, Once I became used to the bruised knees and being wet and cold for hours my father's persistence paid off and It's been a passion ever since. In early 2000's I was able to combine another of my hobbies, Scuba Diving, with my love of Caving and have been diving and exploring the flooded caves of the UK and Europe ever since. I've been extremely privileged to have dived in some amazing cave systems and even had the opportunity to explore previously unexplored caves, and to name and survey my discoveries.
Despite spending many years studying and working professionally as a photographer, I'd lost interest completely in photography during the industry's transition from film to digital, and I sold all my camera kit after a career change many years ago. However, after a change in personal circumstances and as a result of my rapidly deteriorating mental health, craving solitude and the need for a more mindful pursuits, I reinvested in some decent, camera equipment. Gradually, over the next few years my camera became a dependable companion. I often reflect on the significance of that new camera purchase and the effect it had on my life. How, during my lowest times,it helped me ride out the storm, replacing the "black dog of depression" as my day to day companion.
I have been having some success with my recent landscape photography, but I hadn't actually considered taking my camera underground to photograph some subterranean landscapes. It suddenly struck me, a few years back, after helping one of my caving friends Clive Westlake with some photography in Wales, that I could combine another of my passions, in with my Caving/Cave Diving. I decided to invest in yet more kit and give it a go for myself.
I soon discovered that one of the more challenging elements of cave photography, is the practical logistics of transporting expensive, heavy and fragile equipment in and out of the cave, in one piece, without destroying it or exhausting yourself in the process. I made the following YouTube video of some of my adventures over the past few years, which should give any non-Cavers/Cave Divers an insight into some typical cave environments in the UK, and how totally inappropriate they are for complex, fragile electronics!
The most significant difference between the cave environments and the landscape above ground, is it's dark. Really dark. In fact, there is a 100% absence of light beyond the cave entrance, so you need to bring your own in order to photograph it! One thing I quickly learned, is that caves eat light, and that big caves need loads of it. Which makes large cave passages and chambers, complex and expensive things to photograph.
Light also behaves very differently in the caves, depending on the colour of the limestone, how wet it is, and the texture of the rock. It took a lot of experimenting with how the cave takes the light, before i had any real success.
Caves are far cry from a modern photographic studio, where you can casually reposition flash units whilst chatting to your colleagues, with a cup of tea in your hand! Slipping, falling and smashing yourself and your camera to bits, was never really a concern when photographing tubes of toothpaste!
I've been slowly purchasing more equipment over the past few years, starting with a pair of Yongnuo flash guns and remote triggers. I kept things simple for my first attempts at cave photography, with a simple kick light to the rear of the subject, and one off camera flash, to the left of camera. This standard technique can achieve nice results, particularly portraits and the kit is pretty minimal. It also gave me the opportunity to get even with my Dad, by dragging him out of retirement, to pose for a few photos!
This second shot of my Friend, Alan Purcell, in the same cave, only this time shooting a slightly wider scene and using three flash guns. two to the rear, and one flash off camera, to the left. I was pleased with the results at the time, and both these early attempts were awarded second place in consecutive years, in the Mendip Cave Photography Competition.
Cave photography is a pretty steep learning curve, and I soon learnt a few valuable lessons during my first few trips underground with the camera.
I had to take into account, that whilst it might be pretty exciting for the person behind the camera, it's a tedious job for the people posing or holding flash guns, who often find themselves sitting around, soaking wet, on cold rock, in a cave with an ambient temperature of 10 degrees, constantly being told "just one more picture," by a faffing photographer, while he buggers about with malfunctioning flash guns. It's not referred to as Faffography, by cavers for nothing! So it's important to be nice to your helpers. Buy them beer afterwards, send them copies of the photos, and they might help you again!
Composing pictures in the dark is not easy. Put the camera on auto mode, use a tripod and your head lamp on flood and take a few pictures till you find the best composition. Then distribute flash guns around the cave and attempt to light it properly.
Make sure the batteries are in your flash guns the right way round, and your flash trigger hot shoes are free of grit, and firing properly. Ideally these checks would be done before sending someone to the far end of the cave!
Photographing larger spaces requires more kit than small spaces. You can never have too much kit, but just for an idea of what you might need, below is what I have at present. With this, I can make it work for me in most situations, and I have a few friends with compatible kit, so pooling kit together is an option.
1) Peli case, not the easiest to move round the cave but very durable water tight.
2) DSLR with wide angle zoom lens.
3) 2 x Godox AD200 portable studio flash guns.
4) Bare bulb attachments for AD200
5) Comapact tripod
6) Lens cleaning cloths
7) Hand cleaning cloths
8) 3 x Yongnuo flash 1 x back up (very old) Sigma flash gun
9) 1 x Yongnuo flash trigger 1 x Gogox trigger
10) AA Batteries
11) Various takles sacks and dry bags
12) Lens hood
13) Mini flash soft box
14) 4 Yongnuo flash triggers
For diving camera equipment through a flooded cave sections called "Sumps", I would typically use the slightly more specialist equipment shown above. The two white drums containing camera kit, fit within the large, submersible, dry tube. It's already quite heavy, but it displaces quite a bit of water, therefore, it takes about 17kg of dive lead to make it neutrally buoyant, and ready to dive. You can see from the picture of me below, emerging from a sump in South Wales, that as a cave diver, you are already burdened with quite lot of equipment in order to stay alive. The addition of camera equipment to any cave dive, makes it significantly more challenging and requires teamwork.
The following photographs were taken using a mixture of techniques, including blended multiple exposures, a mixture of the AD200 bare bulbs and Yongnuo flash guns from my standard cave photography kit, listed above.
As a first time blogger its not easy knowing where to start and even harder knowing where to finish so I think I'll probably leave it there for now. If you made it this far, thanks very much for taking the time to read until the end.
Please feel free to comment or message me with any questions.
Some useful links for anyone interested in more information on Caving / Cave diving
Caving clubs in the UK and more general info on caving and getting started