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Consumed by cave photography

Tim Curtis loves all types of photography but his main love is with photographing what not many humans have photographed before. His great sense of curiosity means exploring caves are a favourite pastime and here he tells us why we shouldn't be afraid to try this dangerous hobby.

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Cave by Tim Curtis
 Photo by Tim Curtis.

A need to know what's round the next corner and having a great sense of curiosity makes Tim Curtis a keen explorer. From a very young age he was captivated by caves and now he tries to go where no human has ever gone before to take a unique and beautiful photograph. Caves are a great challenge for humans as nature tries to stop you entering and exploring them every step of the way.

"If you can make it through the cave without breaking a leg, falling down a pit, drowning, freezing, or one of the hundreds of other ways the cave could stop you, you might get lucky and actually take a good photograph. The bottom line is that you definitely have to want to go into a cave to do it and most people don't even try."

Nature photography is Tim's main focus with cave photography being his speciality. He's been an avid cave photographer for over 30 years and he decided to start taking photos during his cave expeditions to illustrate the natural wonder to his colleges who would never enter such dangerous places.

Cave by Tim Vurtis
  Photo by Tim Curtis.

"I come home battered and bruised after every cave trip. That is just the way it is and we accept it as part of caving. I cannot stress enough the importance of proper training if you think that you might want to explore caves yourself. It can make the difference between a great experience that you will remember for the rest of your life versus a horrible experience where somebody requires a rescue. An accident and resulting rescue should be avoided at all cost since it would require the response of a great many rescue personnel who ultimately put their own life on the line to save you. You can never let your guard down while exploring a cave. As soon as you do, you are likely to be injured."

All caves are unique and for this reason Tim researches and carries out preliminary trips into the caves to study what equipment will be required to make a good photo. This is especially important for lighting as you can be in a space with no elbow room or in a vast chamber that you can easily get lost in. No two cave shots are the same and you have to be properly prepared to get the perfect shot. Tim begins his research with his local network of members from the National Speleological Society (NSS). It's members are very familiar with locations where the best caves can be found and documented. He's also a member of the Tennessee Cave Survey, a group that collects cave data on caves located in his home town of Tennessee. In the USA you need to seek permission to avoid trespassing as the majority of caves in the region Tim lives are on private land.

Cave by Tim Curtis
  Photo by Tim Curtis.

Once you know where you're going you need a group to go with as if you want to be seen again going on your own is not a good idea.

"It is extremely important to notify somebody who will not be going on the trip and to let them know what your plans are, and when you should be safely out of the cave. I provide them with the exact location of the cave entrance as well. If you change your plans later and do not tell anybody, you are really taking a huge chance that you will not be found if something goes wrong. This has happened far too many times and the results are normally very bad."

Caves are dark and very, very brown but Tim uses models in bright clothes and hard hats to add some colour to the pictures.

"Red or yellow clothes work best to brighten up the photo. They also show up well in black and white if you choose to convert your image later on from colour to B&W.

 Photo by Tim Curtis
  Photo by Tim Curtis.

Getting the proper colour balance setting on a digital camera can be troublesome in cave photography since you must light everything that you are photographing. You must be very careful not to mix light sources with different colour temperatures. An example of this would be lighting a scene with a clear flashbulb and an electronic strobe. They are a vastly different colour and would make the photo look very odd and unnatural. When it comes to light I am experimenting constantly with new lighting techniques, I have also built many custom lights to fit my needs. I also use a tripod although this isn't always required for cave photography. The reason for this is simple, caves are dark, really dark. For that reason, some source of light is always required to get a proper exposure. Whether that light source is an electronic strobe or an antique flashbulb, the flash duration is almost always very fast. The short flash duration sets the exposure (along with the aperture) so there is little chance of blurring the scene by shooting hand held. I can think of at least one exception to that statement. In the past, we have used some Irish manufactured flashbulbs from a company called Meggaflash. The Meggaflash PF330 flashbulb is called a "flood flash" bulb. It contains a magnesium strip that burns at full intensity for almost 2 seconds. You must use a tripod with those types of flashbulbs. Another reason to utilize a tripod in cave photography would be so that you can take multiple frames and get the same exact composition. That can be important when you are literally standing on your head trying to get a shot."

Photo by Tim Curtis
  Photo by Tim Curtis.

As Tim often finds himself upside down or hanging from a rope he thinks wisely about his camera gear choices. Good cameras are expensive and caves are one of the most abusive environments you can ever use them in. Of the course the intended outcome for the photographs changes Tim's choice of equipment. Will it be posted online or will it be made into a huge enlargement? Both of theses factors determine the required resolution.

"Most of the time I must choose based on the cave conditions more than anything. I have to ask myself questions like, will I be shooting while in water, while in extremely muddy conditions, while hanging from a rope etc. Whatever camera I use I transport it in sealed & hardened waterproof cases. While I do try to use the best camera for the job, I firmly believe that a good photographer can take a great photo with almost any camera in working order. Lens choice is a bit easier, grab the widest one that you have for the camera chosen. I almost never use telephoto lenses in cave photography because the photographer is usually in a small, confined space."

Tim shoots on ISO100 as often as possible to lessen noise and never shoots above ISO400 in a cave environment. Getting proper focus is the hardest part since the caves are totally dark. Tim always uses a bright spotlight on the subject while he focuses the lens manually.

Cave by Tim Curtis
  Photo by Tim Curtis.

"Metering a cave scene is not practical either since everything is dark until the flash fires. It can be extremely difficult to even set the composition since you can barely see what you are doing in the dark. I have enough experience that I can usually guess the correct exposure on the first frame but it is not a simple task. It is complicated by the fact that cave walls vary drastically in colour and light reflectivity. Remember, since the flash duration overrules the shutter speed, you simply adjust the aperture and ISO settings to get a correct exposure. That is assuming that you chose the proper size flashbulb or set the strobe power correctly in the first place."

When shooting cave entrances in daylight Tim sometimes uses split ND filters to balance the exposure while shooting he also uses HDR when photographing cave entrances too.

"In these conditions you encounter a need for a vast amount of dynamic range, far more than any camera can achieve today. I start by shooting the area outside the cave at the correct exposure. I then start bracketing my shots down by a ½ stop for each frame until I reach the correct exposure for the inside of the cave. Obviously, the camera is mounted onto a strong tripod for the entire sequence of shots. I usually even weight the tripod down to further stabilize the frames. All of my post processing is done manually in Adobe Photoshop by layering everything together and carefully removing what I do not want in the scene. I realise that this is the longest and most difficult way to get the results that I want but I have full control by using this method."

Visit Tim Curtis' website for more information.

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