Light & Dark: Working with Angles

This past weekend I got to visit Pretty Well with some good friends. There is a very classic large formation inside, of which there are many photographs of. I’ve taken some larger panoramic shots in the past, but today wanted to take some quick snaps and as usual for these shots, only work with one slave flash (which is handled by a person manually firing on the count of three – see a past blog post for my method!).

Looking at the set of photographs I saw exactly what I try to explain to people new to cave photography – and what I sometimes must remind myself – regarding light placement. Underground we have no light, but this does mean we have full control of how we wish to light something up! This is quite the double-edge sword and learning to work with not just camera angle but also lighting angle is necessary to change a poor snapshot to a good photo to a great image.

Image One: The Good Photo

Annette at Big ColumnThe good photo is well-lit, has scale that doesn’t detract from the image, and has some shadows to show depth. It showcases a pretty area and a distinct formation that is the classic one to see in this cave. A nice photo of a fun trip, with really nothing technically wrong. Past the “foggy with ghosts and spots from on board camera snaps” this is the most common type of cave image out there. And it certainly has it’s place, there is nothing “wrong” with it, it is simply a good photo.


Image Two: The Better Photo

Annette at Big Column - contrast lightingOkay, now we moved the light source and have some very high-contrast. I like contrast, it gives the image something interesting to look at. The formations on the ceiling pop and we have a nice shadow of the model on the formation. We perhaps moved the light source too far, however, as although the negative space on the left of the formation is interesting, it is getting towards dominating of the photograph and some may not like it due to that large dark space. This, I feel, is somewhat a matter of taste, and overall I believe this image is more interesting than Image One. It makes me want to look beyond, to peer into the darkness. So I classify this as, the Better Photo. We are starting to get somewhere!


Image Three: The Great Photo

Ken at Big ColumnNow we fix what we didn’t like before. We have some great contrast lighting, so let’s change the framing! The shadows now provide depth, without being overwhelming in the image. Go back to Image One and look at how much better the formations pop out, providing interest. The only thing we did was change to a portrait to tighten up the frame cutting the shadows with our better lighting angle. Now we are on our way to a Great Photo.


Image Four: The Amazing Photo

Annette & The ColumnLet’s go a little farther. This portrait framing is nice, but let’s make it more dynamic. Ah….we are back to a higher level of contrast giving us a good bit of darkness in the image, but now the darkness is controlled, and it flows through the image at appealing locations. Having the wall behind the formation lit up makes your eye complete it, despite it being negative space. The eye moves through the image following the line of dark and light creating a tantalizing underground landscape with a discrete yet clearly visible caver for scale. Thus, I would classify this as an Amazing Photo.

Of course, tastes vary, and this is what makes artists/photographers unique. Tastes also change and develop as we find our niche; what I shoot for now is not what I aimed to achieve four years ago, or even two years ago. So, find how you like photos to look, light up theses spaces, and work towards making your vision as awe-inspiring as possible. And don’t forget to try something different every now and then, you might like it!

A Rappeller’s View: Unique Cave Photo Technique

Almost two years ago I caught a “oopsie” image during my first trip to Surprise Pit, a 404-ft pit inside Fern Cave in Alabama, USA. I was setting up for a typical shot and accidentally pressed the shutter button, capturing by complete accident a rappeller coming in for landing.

The result intrigued me. I started to wonder how I could capture a full rappel in these deep dark spaces. Not a photo of the pit, a photo of the RAPPEL.

Typical pit shots follow certain formulas. Stage people on ropes to fire flash bulbs. Have someone shine a light / fire a bulb / fire a flash at various points, often stitching images together in post process. Even flash powder! A combination of these techniques is often used as well.

The whole point is: Light up the pit.

That’s not what I wanted to do. And that is what makes this unique.

On top of the unique point of view – not the pit, the rappel – I wanted to stay true to my overarching technique of minimal and light gear. I wouldn’t be making or using any custom lights, large cameras, fancy lenses, etc. Simple is my form.

Using a Zebra Light (standard caving headlamp used by many around here, costs <$100), Lumix LX5, and a mini tripod, is all it took! It weighs under a pound. Technically, the Zebra Light shouldn’t even be on the scale, as it’s just the standard headlamp always in use.

There was no setup.

No external lighting of any kind.

No communication of where to look or what to do.

Just a rappel.

“3…2…1…On Rappel!”

I open the shutter for 60 seconds.

Brian lands and starts getting off rope.

Shutter closes.

The result?

A photo of the rappel. The streak of the rope. The spinning.The moisture and fog in the air. What the rappeller sees, you see.

This isn’t a photo of Mystery Falls, it is a photo of what it is like to rappel Mystery Falls.

That is what makes it unique.

On The Go

I recently asked some of my followers on my facebook page what topics they would like me to blog about. One of the requests was about how to decrease the time spent taking a photo underground, perhaps not for “professional” shots but for decent snapshots of the trip.

Firstly, I should explain part of the speed is about understanding your photography kit and working with a lot. Eventually you just know what setting your camera needs (and you should have it programed already – most decent cameras will remember last settings, and/or have custom programmable options) so potentially it’s all set before you even pull it out of your bag. It also has a lot to do with who you cave with – do you have a regular helper or helpers? Do you explain how to fire a flash to someone before you go underground, or, more ideally, use the same person every time? The more you work together with your cave buddies, the faster these things go.

Not to be overlooked should be how you pack your kit. If you put your camera and such on the bottom of your cave pack, how are you supposed to get to it quickly? It should be on top for easy access. When in an area with many photo opportunities, I won’t even repack between shots, I have a carabiner on the outside of my cave pack to clip my camera case to for a short jaunt.

Additionally, I use a simple kit. I have a flash gun. A. Singular. One. I don’t even mess with slave flashes on a normal trip. I have a buddy fire it for me on the count of 3. So long as no one close to the shot has their light on, it won’t pick up their ambient helmet light. A 1/2 second or second exposure is plenty long enough with a well timed partner. No tripods, no muss, no fuss.

Light painting, on the other hand, is something I use for close up shots, shots to cut through fog, or huge pits. It will be more time consuming typically, as there is painting variance shot to shot. In addition, for the long exposures of light painting one must set up a tripod or set the camera somewhere, which takes extra time and effort. The flash gun method I find by far to be the quickest. I don’t even mess with changing settings on the flash, if need be, I change my aperture or ISO on my camera if it’s too bright.

My standard rule of thumb is if I am not seeing what I envisioned within 3 shots, it’s time to move on. Some days, the angle just doesn’t work, or the fog is getting in the way too much, or <insert reasons here>. I just don’t see a need to fiddle relentlessly. If I can’t get the shot, clearly I am lacking the skill at that time and day to achieve what I vision. Simple as that. At this point, usually the first shot is what I wanted, or it’s close, and a few tweaks and few shots later is correct. This just comes from experience and understanding your particular photo gear. Still, I’d recommend if you aren’t seeing the results you want in 5-10 attempts, change your approach completely or move on.

For Example:

This past weekend was a trip to Roaring River. It was not a photo trip, so certainly not one to spend a long time taking pictures. However, it is a very limited access cave on private land that takes a long time to get access and permission to. I definitely wanted photos! The cave itself is not very decorated in the way of formations, but the name is very accurate, there is a river, and it does roar! (For my UK readers, it reminded me of the streamway of OFD1. There was one spot I had some déjà-vu!) What interested me most was the structure/layout of the cave, and the lovely scalloped limestone. The beauty was in the rock and water itself rather than standard formations.

Luckily, Mark was along on this trip, and he dabbles a bit in photography and understands how to use a flash. There was one area in particular he commented on, and I agreed it would make a lovely photo. Keep in mind we are towards the end of a group of eight people, sloshing through cold knee-deep water with decent current.

I quickly pulled out my flash and handed it to Mark, and we grabbed Tina to model in the shot. We took two photos. The first didn’t light up the crevasse above us to my liking, so I yelled (it was a ROARING river) upstream to Mark to point the light upwards more and hold it up closer to the crack. Fired a second shot. Satisfied, I quickly repacked and we were back with the group within a minute, we were delayed not more than 2-3 minutes in total. The result?

I rather like it! It’s probably my favorite shot of the entire trip. Daresay I would categorize this as a “professional” shot even. But yet, it took a only a few minutes, and didn’t delay us or the group in the slightest. I don’t know if anyone even noticed we were gone!

Cave Cameras

Before I write too much about what makes a good cave camera and why I like the Lumix LX series, I wish to start with this semi-popular story:

Once upon a time a photographer was invited to have dinner. During meal the host comments to the photographer “Your pictures are beautiful. You must have a great camera.” The photographer nods politely.

After finishing dinner the photographer comments to the host “That was a terrific meal. You must have a great oven!

While the metaphor neglects some things, it hits home to the heart of many photographers because, I for one (and I’m sure many more), are sick and tired of being asked, “What camera do you use to get such great pictures?!”. The answer isn’t in so much the camera, as it is in the photographer.

Photography is simply painting with light (if you don’t believe me, research the roots of the word!). In our world, the camera is like the canvas. Light is the paint. In cave photography, typically we deal with ZERO light, other than what we bring with us. The more I have learned about cave photography, the more I have realized it is not about the camera at all, it is about the setup of the scene not only of the people and framing of the image, but in where the light needs to be, at what angle, at what intensity, color temperature, etc etc etc. A myriad of considerations that complicate an already complex situation.

That being said, there are things to look for in a cave camera to make life easier. And that doesn’t mean expense necessarily, it simply means being thoughtful in what is helpful underground. As many know already, I hate carrying a bunch of gear, and I don’t have a bunch of money to spend on such frivolous things as cameras. While there are many situations where other “mega-equipment” of cave photography is very useful, and indeed, times when it is likely necessary, I find the majority of people are simply interested in how to get decent snapshots of their trips. Or perhaps they are intrigued by my unique style (but perhaps I flatter myself).

It’s no secret. It never has been. The answer to your question is simply LIGHT. Put enough light with the right techniques and any ol’ camera will do terrific underground.

But for a second let’s ignore techniques it requires to be a good photographer, ignore our paint (the light) and focus on the canvas, the camera.

My list of cave photography camera requirements:

  • Cheap. As in <$200. Cameras get destroyed underground unless you want to spend thousands on weather sealed systems. Which, I’m not willing. I was once told to plan on a cave camera to last about a year if you take good care of it, and this seems to hold true in practice. Of course, an option is to pay big bucks for a super camera with an amazing replacement plan. I do know folks who go that route, but it requires having enough money up front (which I do not).
  • Small. I don’t like bulk, I don’t like weight. I am not interested in dSLR’s or even Micro 4/3 cameras underground. Too much weight and bulk for my taste. I want something the size of a point-and-shoot.
  • Manual Focus. Cameras do not and will not auto focus correctly underground. Closeup shots, perhaps. If you can set it to infinity for landscape stuff, perhaps. But it is extremely difficult to fight with focus all the time. Save the trouble, go manual. Real manual, not the faux manual some companies (especially I find Nikon guilty of this) saying a camera has manual focus when really it means you can use a dial to select a point on a grid for the camera to auto focus to. That’s…assisted auto. Not manual.
  • Manual exposure mode. Those little dials on the top of dSLR cameras? Yeah. One of those fancy dials. M is fully manual. S is shutter priority. A is aperture priority. Those little letters, you want them. This isn’t a how-to so that’s as far as I’m describing them for today. Use the power of Google for more details.
  • RAW format. This is basically a negative in digital format. If the camera has it, the software that comes with the camera will read it, and upon editing you can output to classic jpg files so you needn’t worry about that. It is extremely handy to have maximum data for post processing, which is a whole different topic all together.
  • Maximum sensor size. Most small compact cameras have terribly small sensor sizes (read for information and a nice comparison graphic) and the thing is, the smaller the sensor size, the worst it is going to be in low light. Some are worse than others though, so it’s worth looking into. Let’s be honest: if we want the best sensor, we’re going to spend thousands on a full frame camera. But that is not what this post is about.
  • Fast lens. Most small cameras have lowest f/stop of 3.6 or similar. f/stop is not a linear scale, and the lower the number, the more light can be let in. There is a whole balance to the art of how various ways of making an image brighter are used, but underground, I want flexibility.

Ignore promises about high-ISO’s making shooting in low light “a breeze!”. This is a marketing tactic of little to no value. A small sensor means noise (those speckled artifacts of ugliness) increases much faster with a higher ISO. I personally don’t go above 400 ISO underground, and usually keep it to 100.

So when it all comes down to it, perhaps you just want me to tell you. Okay, fine. IN MY OPINION, Nikon and Canon are behind the times when it comes to making a halfway decent point and shoot. Okay fine, some new Nikon P series and some new Canon G series are okay, but they are NEW and hence costly. There are many tertiary brands who have been making wonderful small cameras for going on a decade. I am personally most impressed with Leica cameras, but they are expensive. However looking a little closer one finds a lot of Panasonic cameras are the same as Leica with bit different body and different software but the core is the same. It is for this and many reasons I have come to love the Panasonic Lumix LX series. I wouldn’t recommend any versions earlier than the LX3. But the LX3 is easily obtainable used these days for as low as $100. It fits into a Pelican 1030 case perfectly for protection.

The Lumix LX3 (and later in the LX series, currently on LX7 I believe) hits every necessary point. In addition, it has one of the fastest lens out there (f/2.0-2.8) in the point and shoot range of cameras, something that Canon and Nikon struggle to meet. The sensor is as big as you’ll find on this camera range as well. Fully manual control over image and focusing. It has the bonus of a wider than normal lens, 24mm (35mm equiv), again something most brands struggle to compete with. The dials are easy to use and convenient, on the left side as faced in the above photo, is the switch from manual to auto focus. On the back is a little joystick to set the focus, with focus assist blowing up the area of the image you desire along with a range of what is “in focus” based on the aperture setting on the display. It is quite accurate. C1 and C2 are custom programmable options. One I leave set for long exposures for my typical light painting, the other is set for flash photography. It can’t get much easier than that!

There you go. Now you know my “secret”. Good luck!