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!

O is for Off Limits Pit

When I found Off Limits in the ACS database the background story provided by Bill Varnedoe instantly intrigued me. Huntsville is home to Redstone Arsenal, which besides being home of NASA is also of course a military base for the US Army. The cave was surveyed in 1971 so some time in the early 1970’s some cavers – also US Army – were late returning from leave. Why where they late? They were out exploring this very pit. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, declared the pit off limits to all its personnel. Never mind the other thousands of pits in Alabama much less TAG!

Billy, Emory, Brian and I headed down into the cove on a cold Saturday morning. What we found was paradise. The gentleman who owns it is very friendly and has an amazing location for both his home and the wedding chapel and cabins he runs. I am actually quite surprised I have not heard of it from other cavers having weddings there as it is so beautiful with all the karst and as a photographer I kept seeing all the wonderful photo opportunities for such an occasion. On that note, I would recommend anyone interested in caving in that area call ahead and make sure there are no weddings one would interrupt.

We followed the stream up the mountain until it was time to turn and head straight up it. The hike was not bad at all, and although the entrance coordinates were a bit off Billy spotted it shortly after we fanned out. There is a very landmark tree at the entrance, happily eating a breakfast (and lunch and dinner) of ROCKS.

Rock Eating TreeIt is so hungry, it is breaking the rocks!

The tree can be seen from downhill, so it is worth keeping an eye for as one approaches the pit. The entrance itself is right behind it, and is about 10×10 foot hole with some nice old formations.

Entrance of Off Limits PitBilly sadly forgot his helmet, and Emory is new to vertical and came for the hike, so it ended up that only Brian and I actually entered the cave. Right away on rappel you see a pretty little side room, that is visible from the top but you can actually see into it better about 15-feet down. The formations are all old and dry but it still looks neat.

Fun Side RoomThe light filtered into the entrance drop as the sun peered through the clouds. The shaft reminded me somewhat of Natural Well, but only half as deep. The way onward is a canyon about six feet up from the floor of the pit. It’s a narrow canyon with lots of protrusions and it required us slide through on our sides. It is nerve-wracking as it is, of course, sloped into the second drop.

Entrance DropBrian sitting at the entrance to the canyon – don’t worry it narrows right away!

The second drop has two bolts, an old homemade angle-iron hanger and a newer Petzl. The presence of the Petzl one made us feel better, but it did wiggle ever so slightly so we went ahead and just rigged both with a double figure-8. The force angles on the hangers were appropriate, they were well-placed despite being a little low! Instead of being like Mystery Falls low side, where they are high enough to rig in high and not drop as you swing off from sitting on the lip, these are at chest-height. And, unlike Mystery where you have a safety to approach sitting at the lip, here, you don’t. Although they are actually more in-reach than the bolts at Mystery, and the narrow canyon is easy to wedge yourself as you rig.

Rigging Drop 2Rigging the second drop. See? You can wedge yourself in the canyon to rig in!

Still, my heart was beating a bit faster! Once rigged in and sliding off the ledge to weight the rope it actually was not that bad, and the rope only barely touched in two places and doesn’t really need padding. And to make it even more awesome, there is a dome with a hundred foot tall waterfall pouring right next to you, although the drop itself is dry. Perfect!

Drop 2 Top-down_1Hand-held light painting is hard….but you can see the waterfall in the adjacent dome!

Once down, we were treated to spectacular views. The domes were quite decorated with a lot of flowstone, some helectites hanging in alcoves, and small draperies and, as one of my good friends calls, some small “jellyfish”. Oh, and did I forget to mention the waterfall?

100-ft Waterfall DomeIn keeping my camera dry, we stayed in the dry dome for the photo.

It really reminded me of a mini-version of Topless Dome in Tumbling Rock. So…let’s follow the water! Down the canyon we go. And go. And go. And go and go. Never-ending narrow ledgy sharp jabby canyon. Take your pack off and walk sideways canyon. I wish some of its 30-foot height had been width instead.

Canyon Passage This was a wide part! Two helmets wide!

We made it to the formations, which choked up the passage and meant the way on was a wet crawl. We decided to turn around, as it was just the two of us and there was a 20-foot drop? downclimb? coming up we didn’t have rope for. The survey didn’t make it clear and it was a Torode map so we thought it might be some crazy freeclimb! So between a wet potentially difficult downclimb and a wet low crawl to get there and it was freezing outside, we decided it was time to turn back. The formations were lovely, but they were nothing spectacular despite seeming out of place in the middle of a carved canyon passage.

The Formations

Soda straws and flowstone

Shoes for ScaleA column too, with feet for scale. The low crawl is to the left.

On the way out I stopped a few times on the second drop to view the waterfall and formations and fossils. There were a few layers with some swirly snailshells, and of course lots of crinoids. The entrance drop has a ledge about 10 feet down from the top and so I stopped off and went to the little side room, which was a dead end. I decided to hang out to get a photo of Brian making his way out. All in all it was a fun and interesting cave worth seeing once.

Main Entrance

N Means There is No Turkey for Jerry!

Back to less known caves for N! The cave survey database has a short story in it about how Jerry’s mom was sick over Thanksgiving, so he didn’t get any turkey. Caves can have funny names like that. For another example, O Positive, so named because it was an enlarged entrance which one of the people lost a bit of blood to!

The coordinates were slightly off, so Robert took a new GPS point. We had a verbal description of “at the base of a tree near a flat rock, a small triangular entrance about 2 x 2 feet”. Well, around here, everything fits that. Trees near flat rocks? Unheard of in karst terrain, right? ha! We did eventually find it!

No Turkey Entrance holeThe tree does make a great rig! Robert went first as he was the smallest there, and he slid through without any trouble. As there was no map we had no clue what this pit looked like, and in fact, the database had this mixed up with Blasted Shirt Well, so we really had no idea what we were getting into. Robert hollered up there was enough space, so down I went. It was easier than I thought to negotiate the tiny hole.

I was pleasantly surprised with our “find”. About halfway down some water comes into the pit from a little tiny hole, and from there on is flowstone. Massive amounts of flowstone, all the way down. Eventually it breaks into two curtains, that would be bacon, if bacon were a foot thick! There is also another dome room, and a high lead that I suspect there is an entire parallel dome.

Looking UpwardThe bottom of the pit forms a funnel of sorts, and there is a large collection of bones from multiple bodies. Lots of rodents judging by the teeth on some of the skulls, and some odd larger weight bearing bones such as (I believe was) a femur. The larger ones were not from a small rodent. It was quite creepy! Here is a photo of about a third of what was there.

BonesRobert went to head on out. I worked on doing a little bit of photography and exploring, being sure to stay out of the rockfall zone of course. There are some pretty little helectites and nice fluting and water sculpting on the walls. Some time goes by and Robert is just about off rope. All of a sudden we hear a very emphatic “ROCK!!!!!” The bottom of the cave is a funnel of sorts, an angled narrowing loose rock floor. While neither Brian or I were in direct danger, a crushed foot still is no fun. In making a dive for cover behind a large boulder to protect from anything that rolled, I managed to twist my ankle and bang my knee on a sharp rock. It’s enough to get you a bit shaky, but these things happen. We hollered up we were fine, of course. No one really knew where it came from, there wasn’t anything loose anyone had seen.

I decided it was time to get out, my left leg was shaking but I didn’t want to look at it until I’d climbed out of the pit even though it was starting to throb. So I got on rope and started to climb, keeping an eye for any rope damage we hadn’t seen. Usually I climb more left-sided, meaning I tend to make more progress on my ropewalker with my left step. But this time I actually climbed more on my right, and rested my left as much as possible as I realized as soon as I started putting weight on it that there was something off with my ankle. I didn’t see any bad spots in the rope, so that was good news!

About 10 feet from the top, I saw an empty spot. There was some dirt still in place on the top and bottom, it was basketball sized but more rectangular. Well, I found where the rock came from! Everything in that layer looked like part of the solid wall of the pit. Sure there was some dirt because it was near the surface but all the walls appeared and felt solid. Sometimes, it’s just a rock’s turn to fall.

It was actually easier to make it out of the tiny hole than it was to slide in, much to my surprise. On solid ground I checked my knee, and I had about a 1/8 inch deep, 1″ long and 1/2 inch wide bat-shaped cut. No kidding. It looks like a classic bat shape. All the skin is just gone in precisely the shape of a bat. Maybe I’m a little weird, but I think that’s pretty cool. Rock falls, knee gets banged, and I’m sure it will be an awesome bat scar! My ankle was sore but just bruised and a bit swollen. No harm done.

The rope has a different ending. Near the bottom of the pit is a ledge, and the rock hit the rope at that ledge. So our rope had a baby rope, what was a 200 foot rope is now a 65 and 135.

Brian the Rope RatWe did survey the cave as the ACS database had no map for it. So enjoy! This tiny hole in the ground is actually quite lovely and worth a visit. There is a high lead so I’d like to return someday and check that out.

Brian in the Entrance

No Turkey for Jerry3

M is for Moses Tomb

A divergence from the more rarely visited or forgotten caves, I went to Moses Tomb on January 1st! It is arguably a TAG Classic and it has been on my “to-do” list for a long time. The whole mountainside got hit bad by tornadoes a few years back, and it took a while to create a new trail. Still, surrounding us everywhere was massive damage. We finally made it up to the entrance…which with all the downed trees has a pretty nice view.

Rigging to TreesThe pit entrance is so tiny but I’ve been in tighter. I was amazed at all the flowstone and other speleothems that appeared once inside. The tiny hole bells out and gets to be a nice size area.

Annette Coming out of Moses TombAnnette negotiating the tight entrance.

There is a lovely little side area that we had some fun with. Brian was the first down, followed by Jen aka Google (we have many Jen/Jenny/Jennifers here, nicknames are starting to appear!). Then I rappelled. There is a small hole at the floor level in this decorated spot, and we shoved the rope down it to play a prank! Google hid around the corner, and Brian and I told Ty once he arrived to just stay on rope, and check out the nice lower level. He went over and looked at it…and said, “nawww.” So I egged him on with, “Oh come on, I fit! I didn’t even get that muddy, see?” Of course that made it so he *had* to try to check it out! All in all we had him going for a few minutes, and then he saw Google hiding above where he was. We attempted to prank Ken and Annette as well, but it didn’t work as well.

Ken in the TombThe side room with decorations.

Google hopped on rope first to climb out. While she was busy making her way up, I started to set up for some pit photos. Classic sort of lighting here, and you get an idea of scale with Google about halfway up the pit.

Moses Tomb PanoramicI really prefer higher contrast though, I feel it enhances the sense of being in cave. So I decided to try a second photo with different lighting to develop this style I am loving. I’ve started to trend towards it in my cave photography and am now actively trying to evolve my technique for it. And check it out…the flowstone towers come alive!

Moses Tomb Contrast LightingIt was a fun day with fun new friends, laughs, giggles, pranks, and good food. I can’t ask for a better way to start 2015!

J is for Johnston Cave

There is very little information about Johnston Cave other than a very sketchy (and hard to identify Johnston from due to lack of any detail) map. The coordinates seemed somewhat accurate, and is in an area that I know some people used to cave in regularly in their youth. With a few texts and a phone call, I got the description of what they remembered to be the entrance “back then” (10 years? 20 years? some long time ago!). Basically, a small crawling entrance with a tight squeeze, that you continue crawling through for a while, then it opens up to borehole and there is a 60 foot drop to a lower level that dries out. I was warned that the entrance is at the bottom of a wash, and takes lots of debris (not uncommon in the location as it takes a lot of water when it rains). Be careful, don’t go when rain is in the forecast, and the entrance will probably need opened back up (from all the debris).

So on a Wednesday morning, Troy and I decided to do some scout work. First stop was some houses nearby to find the landowner and get permission. Some really friendly people let us park on their land and walk in. We at least wanted to find the entrance and confirm coordinates. We found this, right near where it “should be”. Seems to fit that description of the entrance, yes?

So we pulled out the logs, dug out the leaves, and went in. Air was blowing – always a great sign! But about 15 feet in, we hit a jam. The passage ducked down in a U shape, and in the bottom of the U was a boulder making it too tight. We dug some, as much of the rock is held in with mud, and got it more open than it was, but no way either of us would fit.

It’s tight in here! And we won’t be getting it open today.

So we gave up after about three hours or so, and I showed Troy another really pretty entrance I found a couple hundred feet away (I had gone looking while he took a turn digging). It in no way fit the description of Johnston, so I was thinking it might be a different cave, or perhaps one just not turned in to the survey database yet as much of this area has probably not been well ridgewalked.

Impressive entrance! Check out the size of those boulders compared to little tiny person! Oh, and did I forget to mention the waterfall?

Yes, this doesn’t fit the verbal description as I understood it at all, but it was worth checking out! We didn’t even bother taking vertical gear inside, as the entrance you can climb down. Once down we made it into a hands and knees crawling stream passage, with some large white (no pigment) catfish and a white alligator snapping turtle. Probably all were washed in at some point, as this cave clearly took a lot of water as well and the water flows through from a stream. We crawled along, hitting the annoying cobblestone crawl (in my opinion, cobbles are the worst things to crawl on!). Troy pushed it and popped back into the water, so I followed. We didn’t even bother bringing our packs through the crawl, thinking there is no way this is anything known as it didn’t match up at all and we just wanted to scout it out quick.

We came to a maze section, some junctions shooting off in five directions, with only a few feet before more turning options. I stationed at a crucial one while Troy took a few more turns – we were attempting to follow the water, but passable passage wise meant some of our twists took us out of the water and we had to re-find it again. We were at the point of no further without high potential for getting lost, and Troy made one more turn, and popped into borehole! Yay! That’s great, we can follow the water back out it won’t be too bad and we had left a few sticks as markers at crucial turns (did I mention this cave takes lots of water? there was some debris in it but by no means a choke-it-up quantity). We continued until we came upon a hole in the floor – well, more of a crack. It looked about 20 feet deep. Then another crack. And another. Each getting progressively deeper. Then a fourth crack of about 50 feet we estimated. Huh. Okay so the really bad map of Johnston, the four circles must be these four drops, because the four circles were above the lower level but from the map there is no way to know if it was a rock/boulders or a hole or what! Convinced we had actually found Johnston, and with time running late and rain was predicted that evening, we headed back out with plans to return that weekend with more people and vertical gear.

So a few days later we returned, again asked permission and got it, parked, and hiked on in. The catfish were still there (and we saw more than before!) but the snapper was not in sight (fine with me!). It was slower going through all the crawling with a rope and larger packs full of vertical gear and rigging, plus now we had four people rather than two.

Crawling, after about 100 feet of cobbles, back in the water, before the maze.

The maze was easy to find the route in this time, and soon enough we popped out into the walking passage. Borehole isn’t quite right of a name for where you enter it, but at least it is walking! If, that is, you know *where* to walk…

Ceiling rifts winding through the passage…walk circuitously or crawl on cobbles – your choice!

One could tell there was a poor rock/silt/something layer because there were huge slabs of rock fallen from the same ceiling level as the top of the rifts; there were bus-sized chunks down on the floor that perfectly fit back up to where they’d fallen from.

Once through this part it does open up into more what I would call borehole, and the stream is still present but a distant roar grows louder. The floor turns from cobble to sculpted water, with little potholes and swirling down to the lower level.

Swirls! And here is a cool video of it in action!:  Swirling Water

Onward! We got to the 50/60 foot drop; Troy brought a disto and got 62 feet. We had an 80 foot rope and some webbing, and found a BFR to rig the 20 feet of webbing around and had the perfect length of rope to do the drop. Nice high rig only needing a pad where it falls over the rock, otherwise all freehanging through the small crack in the floor.

I wasn’t kidding about the crack thing…

It was a really beautiful drop, not in the waterfall at all but next to it, and very wide open after the three feet or so of solid rock right at the top. It is the right choice to rig here, as if you were to rig a crack further back you wouldn’t make it to the bottom and then have to drag the rope down over the last tumble (or maybe more) of the waterfall, and you’d be in it the entire time. The landing zone was a bunch of huge breakdown, gnarly crumbling rock and razor sharp edges.

With all the mist in the air combining with steam rising off our bodies, it was really difficult to see much of anything. We could tell we were in a chamber, but where to go next was the question. From the poor “map” (if one could even call it that) we were now in a elongated teardrop shape that trended south. Seriously, that was the only clue. That was it. No more detail or help than the upper level had been other than a notation of “gypsum needles” in nowhere particular. So we checked the south side and found some walking passage with a rift in the floor to the water below to chimney over. It lead us to a sump. Above, there was a belly crawl. Not even army crawl, belly. On rocks the size of golfballs. You could garden a path a bit, but it didn’t really help at all. Ugh. Troy went ahead and after about 50 feet of suck there is a sandy bottom and one could sit up, so Danny and I went to join. Brian wasn’t going to have any of that crappy crawling though. We tried saying “OOOH look, gypsum needles!” but it didn’t fool him. He would wait and look around in the area he was in.

Danny, Troy, and I continued on. Crawling and crawling and more belly crawling. Most of it the use-your-toes-to-scootch-forward kind. A mix of sandy floor and the golfball rock floor. A couple hundred feet of this fun and Troy, in front, said it ended but he could probably dig out a spot and slide under the ceiling rock. He did and we heard, “Hey guys, it’s borehole!” Excited by this we, about 50 feet behind him, pushed on, making a left after the gold.

Gold! We’re rich! Okay, maybe not…

About when Danny was sliding through, we heard a “BO!”. For those not from around here, TAG cavers have long used a loud “BO” as a method of communication both in ridgewalking and inside caves. The sound carries extremely well. One “BO” is a marker, calling out to nearby people for a reply, like radar pings off of objects, to determine where people are. Two, “BO! BO!” means “I am coming to you!” and three “BO! BO! BO!” means “Come to me!” and typically means someone found the cave entrance, or the way on. And then of course three sets of three is an emergency.

Anyway, so we heard a BO from Brian! We replied. After Troy, Danny, and I got into the borehole, we were able to ping BO’s back and forth and find each other. Brian had found a really short not-so-tight crawl that went to walking passage, and just came around a different loop to us. So we didn’t need to do those hundreds of feet of terrible crawling after all! Oh well, it’s all in the adventure.

We got into large passage full of huge breakdown. Unstable breakdown. As in, test ALL of your footing as it has probably rarely been walked on, your particular rock might have never had weight on it, and it juuuust might skitter all the way to the floor or down a crack 20 feet below. On top of that, the rocks were covered in a thin layer of slimy mud. So boots can’t grip the mud as it’s not deep enough, but it’s too much to stick to the rock. We spotted some pretty helectites though.

Still looking for the elusive gypsum needles notated on the map. All the way at the back of the cave is where we found them! I have seen better ones but these weren’t bad, and they were pretty, and there were some flowers and snow-like specks too.

Needles with the dust/snow like sparkles surrounding them

Cute little flower/curl

A little further on back a section was wet, and there were some nice draperies, soda straws, and other little decorations. The undecorated crawl between the two areas confused Troy a little bit though.

Wait, is this how to crawl? I’m confused…

We turned around and headed back out, this time opting to go the way Brian had found. There was a really cool cracked mud floor with mud rimstone. It was hard to tell if the water formed the mud like this, or if it’s covering up actual formations. Some of these areas definitely see water, some rarely, some periodically, some with every rain that hits.

There was also a high level formation room, full of soda straws, bottlebrushes, and small stalagmites.

On the way out, Brian was excited to show us his amazing find! He has thought it was a shark’s tooth when he first saw it, but it has ridges and bumps, and is hollow. It is quite impressive, maybe six inches long, and in very good condition. We don’t know what it was, but I will keep searching and will update this post if/when I find out.
We know what it is! Dr. Jim Lacefield who is an expert on fossils in this region identified it as a conularid, which is really rare. It is in excellent condition except for being “smushed flat” by the fossilization process.


An amazing find! We ogled it for a bit before continuing on out. I wanted to get a shot of the drop from the bottom, but the fog and mist made it nigh impossible so I changed the plan. Troy climbed up first, I second. I could then set up for some top-down shots, Brian firing the flash from below Danny who was on rope for the photos. They turned out pretty decent; extremely well considering the conditions.

An idea of scale/size. He is about halfway up in this shot.

Looking down through the crack from the rig point, this is probably one of my favorite shots of the entire trip.

So we headed on out. There is so much more to Johnston than what is on that map. It says about 3000 feet of passage, it is easily over a mile and that’s just the downstream side. With more water crawling, there is upstream passage too that we didn’t get a chance to check out. The upstream isn’t on the map at all. It would make a great survey project if one could get permission from the landowners to do that.


Some interesting history I wish to add: Johnston cave is indeed named after Jim Johnston, the same as who the Johnston entrance of the Fern Cave System is named. It appears the original map was a classic Bill Varnado sketch after running through the cave pulling tape. The survey file has not been updated since originally created in 1957, until now with the more accurate GPS coordinates and photographs. This cave continues to give awesome historical and geological tidbits even now, weeks after my visit!