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.