Spelunking with your camera :: Digital Photo Secrets

Spelunking with your camera

by David Peterson 0 comments

I love visiting caves. First of all, they're great on hot days when the outside world is oppressive, because they're usually a nice cool refrigerator temperature inside. But they're also beautiful—caves are full of interesting structures and formations that you don't see anywhere else in the world, and if you're not taking photographs when you're visiting one of these beautiful places, you are missing out. Keep reading for some tips on how to get amazing photos in commercial caves.

[ Top image Cave Adventure by Flickr user darkday.]

It can be really tricky to take photographs inside of a cave. First of all, commercial caves may have a lot of restrictions placed on photographers, from a moratorium against tripods to outright banning flash. The good news is that modern camera technology gives us a lot of ways around these restrictions, so you just have to have a plan and a good understanding of how to capture fabulous photographs in low light.

Protect your gear

The first thing to remember about commercial caves is that they are made out of rock. Your camera and solid rock aren't friends. And quite often you are going to be walking down staircases, ducking through narrow walkways with low ceilings, and there is going to be rock sticking out at all angles pretty much everywhere you go. If your camera isn't protected, that may be the end of your camera (and I won't even mention the part where the park service will really not appreciate you bashing your camera against those fragile stalagmites). Make sure you're carrying your camera on a strap around your neck so there's no risk of dropping it, and carry it in front of your body so that there's no chance of bashing it against a wall or staircase. It's a good idea to put your camera in a padded sleeve instead of wearing it naked around your neck—that is going to help protect against unexpected happenings like if you stumble over a step or encounter a protrusion you didn't see in the dark. And I probably don't need to lecture you too much about your own personal safety—commercial caving operations aren't going to let you in without a helmet, knee pads or other safety gear (depending on if you're on a walking tour or are planning to repel into the cave). So follow all safety guidelines laid out by the operation, and don't do anything or go anywhere that isn't permitted on the tour.

What to bring

It's useful to ask in advance whether or not tripods are allowed—if you're taking a tour, it's probably going to be moving along pretty quickly, so it might be worth asking if it's okay for you to hang back for a few minutes while you set up your tripod and take a photo. Be prepared, however, to be told that tripods simply aren't allowed—most tours just prefer to not have to worry about someone who might spend too much time lagging behind the group or getting in the way. If you are told that tripods are OK, make sure you have a tripod with a quick release so you can set up and break down quickly and avoid inconveniencing anyone (the last thing you want is to be the guy that convinced them to adopt a "no tripod" policy). If the cave allows self-guided tours or private tours, that might be a better option—just be sure you're not getting in the way of other groups of people.

If tripods are allowed, make sure you also have some way to remotely release your shutter, because you don't want to muck up that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with camera shake. If you have a remote shutter release bring one, if not, make sure you know how to use your camera's self timer. Most commercial caves are well-lit enough that you won't need to use shutter speeds in excess of 30 seconds, so your self-timer function should be enough. Just set it to countdown five seconds and that should be enough time for the vibration to cease before the shutter actually opens.

Most commercial caves allow flash photography, but some don't. It's always a good idea to find out what the policy is for the cave you're planning to visit, since the answer will impact your decisions about what addtional gear you might need to bring with you. If the cave does allow flash, make sure you're using an off-camera flash. On-camera flash really isn't going to produce satisfying pictures—because it's direct, you're not going to get a lot of detail-defining shadow, and you're probably also going to get unwanted anomalies such as glare, especially off of damp surfaces (which tend to be everywhere inside of caves). And because caves are often full of airborne moisture, you may end up with images that have a hazy appearance, which can happen when that direct light reflects off those airborne water particles and back towards the camera.

You can use your external flash with a synch cord or with a slave unit—the synch chord is a connected way of firing the flash at the same time as you make the exposure, while the slave unit is a remote trigger. But if you're using a tripod you may find it simpler to just put your camera in bulb mode and then walk to wherever you need the light, and fire it manually. This is going to give you a lot of flexibility because it will allow you to add light to multiple parts of the scene in a single exposure. Remember also to adjust the strength of your flash if you're getting light that seems too bright or overly harsh.

It's a very good idea to shoot in RAW since it's going to be difficult to predict the color of the light. In commercial caves, the light is likely to be incandescent, but if you're adding flash then you're going to have more of a mixed-lighting situation. Because it's extremely simple to adjust white balance after the fact when you're shooting in RAW, it's a very good idea to put your camera in that mode so that you can adjust the white balance later if you didn't get it right in camera. And because you run the risk of over under-exposing in certain areas especially in those dimly lit caves, shooting in RAW will capture the most detail that your camera is capable of capturing, which means that you'll be able to make exposure corrections as well.

This is also an excellent argument for lowering your ISO. Your photos are going to have some dark areas, and higher ISOs will increase the chance of noise appearing in those places. Try not to deliberately underexpose photos with the idea of lightening them later in post-processing because that can actually exacerbate the noise problem. If you're going to be hand-holding your your camera (which may be necessary if you're taking a guided tour), err on the side of overexposing at higher ISOs rather than underexposing at lower ISOs. If you're lucky enough to be allowed a tripod, keep your ISO low and opt for longer shutter speeds.

  • Canon EOS 6D

Warm glow by Flickr user xeno_sapien

Ideally, you want to shoot at larger apertures instead of higher ISOs, so bring a 50mm prime lens if you have one. A 50mm prime lens has a maximum available aperture of at least f/1.8, which will allow you to shoot in those darker underground conditions. If you are on a group tour, you can take a few photos with your off-camera flash but remember to be courteous—most people are going to find it really annoying to have that flash going off repeatedly over the course of the tour, so save your flash for only the most photo-worthy rooms in the cave.

Use a wide-angle lens

Most of the caverns in a cave are quite spectacular in scale, depending of course on the individual cave. It does pay to have a zoom lens with a wide end, say 17 to 35. Without that wide angle it's difficult to capture the scale and structure of acavern, so it's nice to have a wide end as well as a somewhat narrower end for shooting details. You can bring multiple lenses but remember that there's a lot of moisture in the air inside a cave, and moisture could lead to condensation inside your camera if you're switching lenses. It's best to avoid too much lens-switching while you're inside the cave, and avoid it altogether if possible.

Another thing that can help create a sense of scale in your photographs is to add a person—place your subject at the mouth of the cave, for example, then stand back a little and use a wide angle lens to capture the scene (remember that you'll need to expose for the cave itself or your camera may default to exposing for those elements outside the mouth of the cave). The diminutive size of the person compared to the mouth of the cave and the cavern itself will create a sense of enormity in your image, which can help communicate three dimensions to your viewer.


It's worth noting that the presence of your camera may cut back somewhat on the adventurous parts of your cave visit—don't expect to be doing a whole lot of repelling or crawling around on your belly with your expensive DSLR in tow, unless of course you promise not to blame me for the destruction of your gear. While it certainly is possible to spelunk in an extreme sort of way with your gear, you do so at your own risk. And even if you don't plan to do anything claustrophobic, remember that not only are caves full of potential camera-destroying hazards, but a camera whacked hard against a feature of the cave can also cause damage to the cave as well. So exercise great caution and if you're at all concerned, consider buying a military style case to protect your gear from bumps and moisture. And don't forget courtesy, too, the last thing you want is to be banished from a commercial cave because you didn't follow the rules. Above all, make sure you take as much time as is allowed to think through your photos, and take lots of them. Consider your cave visit to be a once-in-a-great while opportunity, so make the best of it.


  1. Protect your gear
    • Carry your camera in front of you
    • Choose a soft body case
    • Don't change lenses while in the cave
  2. What to bring
    • Ask if tripod or flash is allowed
    • If tripods are permitted, bring a remote release
    • Use an external flash
  3. Shoot in RAW
  4. Keep your ISO low
  5. Shoot at larger apertures
  6. Use a wide-angle lens
  7. Include a person to give the image a sense of scale

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