During these summer months, I’ve been traveling to various caves in Romania. First, I will show you the pictures I took with Nikon D40x, 18mm lens, and then I will tell you how to obtain something similar yourself.
Doing cave photography is an exercise in frustration. The biggest problem is that you are working in near total darkness. Trying to photograph large formations, especially when they are beyond the limits of your headlamp, can be nearly impossible. (It’s best to have your own lamp with you, however, in my case, the cave was illuminated for tourists since many years).
Composition is based on everything you already know about landscape photography as much as it is on your headlamp. Focusing can be similarly difficult. Lighting placement may seem easy at first until you get your processed images back and discover the glaringly over or underexposed portions of the photograph. By this time, you’re probably miles away from the cave with no intention of returning to it anytime soon. This can be very frustrating.
As for composition, you can make landscapes, covering the entire cave, you can focus on details – certain interesting formations, or, you can have a person standing there, adding the human factor to the natural environment of the cave. But, to be more specific, a good photograph does not have a person “standing” in the picture, but actually “doing” something: climbing or other action inside the cave.
The camera settings I used are:
1. shutter speed mode: around 1/30sec (longer exposure time will likely cause motion blur and overexposed areas near the lighting source)
2. ISO 1600 (Slower speeds limit your capability with the light sources you carry, faster speeds give you more of a problem with contrast and graininess)
3. exposure +3,+4, +5 (depending on how illuminated the scene was) – if your camera supports bracketing, do so – it’s very hard to get the right exposure from the first shot
4. flash on: rear mode (this is what creates a different light color in the pictures – the blue one, for near objects)
5. manual white balance (I played a bit with this one in the ice cave)
Now let’s talk about lighting – illuminating the scene. Using the flash is not necessary if you want to create a mystery scene in which all is black but the lamp illuminated formation. But, I do believe that lighting is the most effective tool of a great cave picture (and, after all, you are providing all the lighting for the image), so I’m going to point out some tips from ephotozine:
Cave photographers mostly use flashguns as their primary light, followed by bulbs as their second main source. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Bulbs of all shapes and sizes are still used a lot by cave photographers. There are several reasons why they have not been totally replaced by the use of flashguns – they have a higher light output than many strobes. When photographing a large room, nothing beats the output of a flashbulb. They also give off a wider arc of light than a strobe.
Slaves are remote electronic switches that you attach to each of the different flash units distributed around your cave photo area. The flash on your camera sends out the message to all the slaves to fire when your camera shutter opens. In this way, they are all synchronized and give you the perfect exposure. This also helps to eliminate the need for tripod.
A dramatic effect can be created by strongly backlighting a subject (along with a properly lit foreground) such that the backlight creates a slightly burned edge to offset it from the darker background. Try putting a light on either side of a subject with the lights aimed at one another.
In close-up shots, the use of a softened light (soft box or even just a piece of tissue over the flash tube) is frequently better than a hard light. Sometimes the cave passage itself, if it is reflective, can serve as a bit of soft box on its own.
As a last word, I remember you to do not touch or walk on formations or clean areas that are off trail – protect the nature or else you will only picture the past and not the eternity.