14 Tips For Cave Photography

1. Protect Your Gear
One of the most important aspects of cave photography is rock surrounds you, obviously.  Cameras don’t like to come in contact with rocks in a harsh way.  It’s important while you’re exploring a cave to keep your camera well covered.  You’ll be in an unfamiliar territory and walking on uneven surfaces, often on all fours depending on the cave system.  A camera pouch or backpack is a good idea to keep your camera safe while exploring.

Also caves tend to be wet with moisture falling from the ceiling.  As well as packing away your camera while moving about, bring a hand towel or cloth to wipe down your camera.  It can also be draped over the camera while shooting to help further protect it.  Often the water dripping from above will be carrying a number of minerals which are best cleaned off sooner than later.

2. Bring A Tripod
Bring a tripod if you can.  Some caves explored by commercial companies don’t allow use of tripods so check before you go.

3. Use A Remote Shutter Release Or Self-Timer Function
Camera shake can ruin a picture that takes time to produce.  There are two ways around this: Use a remote shutter release cable or your camera’s self-timer.  If you anticipate wanting to hold the shutter open more than your camera’s slowest speed (often 30 seconds) you’ll need a cable to decrease shake.  Otherwise, using the self-timer function works great.

4. Use An Off-Camera Flash
If you can procure an off-camera flash, bring it.  Pictures shot with the on-camera flash tend to be flat and two dimensional.  With an off-camera flash you can introduce more shadow, giving depth to images.  More than one flash can be used at a time to light up the cave.

5. Wear A Headlamp
When caving you’ll always want two light sources with you.  Make your primary light a headlamp.  This will leave your hands free to setup the tripod and frame the shot.  An LED headlamp works best because the light temperature is closest to your flash, but that really doesn’t matter because you’ll….

6. Set Your White Balance To Flash
Before heading underground, set your white balance to the flash setting if this is an option.  As all your shots will be with the flash while in the depths (assuming you’re not in a commercially lit cave), this is one of those life simplifying steps to remove error from creeping in.  In the end it doesn’t matter because you are going to….

7. Shoot In RAW
Shooting in RAW really is the way to go underground.  It will give you the most latitude in the digital darkroom later for both exposure and white balance (which you set to flash already, right?).

8. Lower Your ISO
Even though you’ll be using your flash to light most areas of the scene, you may still have very black patches here and there.  To reduce the chance of noise creeping in, bring down the ISO to 800 or lower depending on your camera’s capabilities.  

9. Long Shutter Times Are Double Edged Swords
One thing you'll find easy to do is to leave the shutter open for 30 seconds at a time and then fill the area with light from the flash.  If your camera has hot spots on the CCD that show up with the shutter open this long, you may want to speed things up a bit or handle the spots in post-processing.  

10. Use Manual Focus
This fits in the removing variables category with ISO and RAW.  Get used to using manual focus in a cave.  If there are not a lot of light sources and flashlights/headlamps are moving around while you’re setting up the scene, your camera will try to grab on to anything it can see.  This may not be to your liking after the picture is shot.  If you’re using a wide angle lens and the subjects are distant and focusing is hard, first turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then back off a little.  After you take one shot, you can review on the LCD and adjust as needed.

11. Dealing With Commercial Caves
Commercial Caves are those setup with lights aplenty.  This can also include many national parks around the world.  These caves can often be a lot of fun as they are already well lit and won’t require supplemental lights.  

They may also have areas setup for using a tripod or a guide may be able to help with placement.  If you are on a tour, things may move along quickly and there may be crowds to deal with.  Check with the tour operator and see if you can find when the slow part of the day is, or if it’d be ok if you stayed back a little. The answer may often be, “No” but asking is often opens doors to possibilities you might not have considered, so give the guide a chance to help you out.  If it is a self paced trip, you’re all set!

12. Bring A Wide Lens
Bring as wide a lens as you can.  Caves come in all shapes and sizes but most scenes are large scale. 

13. Put A Person In The Picture
Often the scale of a cave is lost without a reference point.  While close up shots won’t really benefit from adding in a human, the larger scale shots come out better with someone standing there.  You’ll need to pose the person and have them remain still while shooting or they will show up blurred with a longer shutter speed.  

Conversely, you can have them move to multiple shots if you want to play around.  Or have them move out of a slightly lit area to create a ghosting effect.  Try different things and see what works for you!

14. Turn The Frown (Camera) Upside Down
What’s the difference between the two photos below, both taken with the flash attached to the camera?  First, this is a section of cave ceiling very close to the ground to give you the perspective.  Second, all shooting parameters are the same (ISO 640, 1/125 f/2.8).  Now can you tell the difference (beside the focus point being closer in one)?

Answer: The image above is shot with the camera upside down.  This allowed better lighting from the flash, less shadow and a different angle. Experimentation is the name of the game at this point. As a primer, these are some of the basics to help get you started in photographing caves.

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