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Capturing caves

Capturing caves - Kelly Rowland, Nuno Frade, Steve Sharp and Rob Eavis continue to tell ePHOTOzine how we can capture some of the amazing places hidden below our feet.

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Photography by Nuno Frade
Photograph by Nuno Frade. 

To ensure you're safe it's best to go in groups when photographing or exploring caves. Other people can also help you create scale in your images and add foreground interest too as Nuno explains:

"I like to photograph the actual people in action and usually the equipment contrasts nicely with the surrounding browns and reds."

"I also auto focus on the LED of the models headlight to make sure my images are sharp," explained Rob.

"A tripod and constantly telling people to keep still is important for this too. Its also best to take about three or four shots of the same scene. Colour can be important and for this you may be surprised to hear that my Canon compact is better at than my Pentax SLR, so don't think expensive equipment always gives the best results," added Steve.

As it would get very expensive to keep breaking SLRs underground all these photographers choose to use compacts.

"The small size is great for some caves where you may travel for +5 hours, sometimes in very restricted passages, to get to where you wish to photograph. Obviously there is zero light down there so full manual control is a must! I always use it in an underwater housing, to protect it from mud and water," explained Rob."I also use tripods as they are a necessity for some shots which is unfortunate as they can be bulky to get through caves."

Photograph by Steve Sharp
 Photograph by Steve Sharp.

Caves are dark so you need to supply all the light yourself.

"The secret is to use white LED lights and experiment with placing the lights in different positions around the subjects. I use a Scurion lamp, this is a relatively new technology and they are extremely bright LED lights," explained Steve.

"I use spot lights, slave flash and of course you also have the lights on the helmets," added Kelly.

Rob has two approaches when it comes to lighting . He uses flash guns which he dots around the scene and fires remotely by either using people to set them off (tripod is needed for the long exposures) or by using slave units working from the on-board flash.

"Because most caves are quite damp there is very high humidity. Any flash gun near to the camera will light up the moisture in the air, creating white circles. To avoid this I put a piece of film negative across the camera's on-board flash. The IR light still triggers the slave units."

He also uses the technique, light painting: "LEDs are becoming so powerful that it is possible now to light the caves up without flash guns. This does require tripods to allow the long exposures, but opens up many techniques, such as blurred water or "softer" light sources by shifting the torch's position during the shot."

 Photograph by Rob Eavis
 Photograph by Rob Eavis.

Nuno has tried using slave flashguns but as he needs powerful flashes or flashbulbs it isn't something he does often.

"I mainly use one technique: It make a long exposure of about 2 to 10 seconds using a tripod. Me and other members then use conventional electronic flashguns to paint the scenery. It's mostly a trial and error process, but a digital camera makes this possible. I don't really pre-plan every setting as conventional rules don't really work with no light and very complex shiny surfaces all around. Don't forget the long exposures, to avoid noise I use an ISO around 100."

Digital photography has made cave photography easier. You can now look at your picture after you've taken it and adjust for things such as exposure accordingly. After time you may be able to get it right first time but until then practise is the key.

"I do a couple of test shots and then look at the results," explained Steve.

Rob doesn't like anyone to wait too long so if he's using models he tries to be as quick as possible so no-ne gets cold. Nuno also uses people but his technique is a lot more precise: "We like to try and experiment but usually this is how it goes: I place myself with a camera and tripod in a nice place and the other members scatter around in the scene. There are several reasons why it's a good idea to have people in the photo. One is that you really don't have a sense of scale in that landscape. Some scenes are very big rooms that look like macro photos. Using a person gives us a sense of scale. The other reason is that the light sources need to be scattered in several places, shadows are what gives us a sense of depth and you need to use them in creative ways. So we frame the photo and sometimes the only thing you see in the viewfinder is the headlamps but usually that's enough. When everything is ready I give a voice command, everybody stays still and we fire a predefined number of flashes. Everyone has to hold their breath at this point otherwise you'll just see a big vapour cloud. I then Check how it worked out, readjust and repeat until right."

Photograph by Kelly Rowland
Photograph by Kelly Rowland.

It can be difficult to get the light in exactly the right place so sometimes a little post-production is needed. Steve adjusts colour and levels and Rob uses the process to remove noise and adjust the light:"Maybe there is a rock in the way, or you cannot physically reach the best position for the flash gun.  Also cave photographs are generally much better with people in the shot, to give the image scale and personality. This means that you may need helpers to stay still until you get the shot right. In some conditions it is better to not waste people's time in the cave while you get the lighting perfect, when instead you can adjust it warm and comfortable at your desk. I also run noise reduction on a lot of my photos due to the long exposure times and the small sensors of the compact cameras."

Of course some people don't like changing pictures, Kelly only makes slight changes and Nuno doesn't make any at all.

"What you see is what you get. I don't mind small mistakes, it makes everything more real. Conventional rules don't apply here, you really need to experiment and just have fun."

A thought echoed by Steve: "The best way to take pictures is to use your imagination and be creative in what you see, try and look for a good picture opportunity whilst you travel through the cave system. Always try to go with someone who knows the Cave system, wear the right equipment and have a good light. A great way to learn is to assist an experienced photographer who in turn will teach you his craft."

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


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