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Capturing caves

Capturing caves - Caves hold many secrets and amazing formations very few people have ever seen. Four cave photographers from different parts of the world tell ePHOTOzine how we can capture some of the amazing places hidden below our feet.

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Photograph by Steve Sharp
 Photograph by Steve Sharp.

"Try it once and you will like it. It's an amazing world and you really feel privileged to see something that most people don't even imagine. What's down there is really different from what you see on the top and that kind of scenery only exists in the humidity conditions you have there.  You can't imagine how incredible it is until you actually see it and I try to bring a little of that feeling out in my photos," explains Nuno Frade, an avid cave photographer and explorer from Portugal.

Caves are incredibly fragile environments and exploring them is something you will either love or hate - there is no in between.

"The first time I went caving I was hooked, it's a passion for me that's very strong," explained Kelly Rowland who lives in the USA.

Kelly has only recently began taking pictures of caves while Rob Eavis has been around caves and cave photography all his life:

"My father has been caving for 40 years and so the caving lifestyle has always been around me. If you enjoy exploring, it's hard not to enjoy caving! If you learn about the formation of caves you can then attempt to discover new cave passages that nobody has ever seen before. This is an amazing thrill. However if you don't take photos of your find, no non-caver will ever see it and understand your feelings."

Preparation plays an important role in all the photographers lives and how much and what they prepare for depends on the trip.

Photograph by Kelly Rowland
  Photograph by Kelly Rowland.

"Some of my trips are not chosen for the photography, but for the desire to explore the cave. I take my camera in case I see anything special. Other trips are dedicated photography trip where I know beforehand what I shall photograph (either by having been there before or by viewing other people's photos/descriptions)," explained Rob.

Steve Sharp's preparations are focused around his kit: "My pictures are based on long exposure so I always use a tripod. We dress in Caving kit (Over suit, Undersuit, Wellington boots, Arm and Kneepads plus a helmet, light) and a good stong caving bag) - We sometimes use a survey to negotiate our way around a cave system but this knowledge is built up on."

Nuno's plans are a lot more specific with routes planned and equipment pre packed in the order that it's going to be used.

"We only carry what we need for that particular plan. The equipment is heavy: ropes, all the SRT (single rope technique) equipment, extra light sources, water, food. It really weighs a lot and there is no short-cut you can take to get something you forgot. Also it's very tiring to progress in caves so we need to go as light as we can.

We also follow a tight schedule. This really is very important because there are parts of the route like tight spots for example, where if you take 5 - 10 more minutes than you planned, multiply that by 4 - 8 people and suddenly you're adding hours to the plan. You carry extra batteries and food but it's not unlimited. Also it's cold down there.

Taking photographs in caves takes some time and you have to plan for it. Also it's not efficient to have all the team taking photos so usually we split into two groups. One takes photos and the other goes to some other planned activity.

Photograph by Rob Eavis
 Photograph by Rob Eavis.

Also regarding the camera itself it's not easy to make it survive the trip. You really can't take it in a conventional case. The bag where the camera is will be thrown, will dangle beneath and bang the wall when you're on the rope and will be dragged around tied to your feet in tight places. It really needs to have a very protective, heavily cushioned, water tight carrying case.

For some time I used a surplus ammo box padded with camping mattress material and foam but it was way too heavy and dangerous because of the sharp edges. I then changed to a plastic cylinder canister."

Finding caves to investigate can be easy if you want to explore the popular ones as the ones in the UK are well detailed in guidebooks and the caves Nuno explores are found in old surveys, or by following the Holy Grail of a cave photographer - water trails. Other cavers can offer insight into good locations and local groups can be found online.

"Some parts of some caves are difficult to get to though," explained Rob. "But that is part of the fun. Whether it is really tight and awkward, involve swimming or lots of ropes, or just due to the fact that it's a long way, that's what makes the trip really worth it. It about the challenge! And if you can make it there with all the camera equipment you may be able to photograph a passage or formation that nobody has ever photographed before!"

Steve added: "Some of the caves can be very demanding, the Daren Cilau cave has an hour long entrance, it can be very tight and claustrophobic in places and parts of the crawl have lots of water so camera gear needs to be tightly packed into waterproof and shockproof containers, once you pass this point the cave system is enormous. If you had a serious accident in Daren Cilau e.g. a broken back, you would probably never get out alive due to the entrance crawl."

 Photograph by Nuno Frade
 Photograph by Nuno Frade.

Without a bit of due caution and intelligence this demonstrates how dangerous caving can be.

"If something goes wrong it really goes wrong so everything you learn and the techniques you use are made to minimise the risk. The floor is rarely leveled, there's lot's of places to hurt yourself and then you have to deal with ropes and vertical progression. If you have a serious injury down there there's no helicopter coming to rescue you. You will have to be assisted on site and that will take a long time. That's why we use a space blanket folded inside our helmet in case we need to wait. If you have to be carried on a stretcher then all the cave from the entrance to where you are will probably need to be equipped with ropes and tight passages made wider. So we always travel at the speed of the slowest member as being tired leads to mistakes. We trust each other a lot and take care of each other. When on the rope we're always attached to at least two devices all the time. Safety is really a main concern. In the hundreds of explorations my group has done in dozens of years, the worst accident we had was a guy that badly hurt his knee with a falling rock," added Nuno.

You can see more work by the photographers interviewed for the piece here:



See part two for more cave photography insights.

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