Shots in the dark

April 03, 2007|by ROWAN COPLEY

GROTTOES, Va. - During a recent expedition to Fountain Cave near Grottoes, I learned the basics of shooting photographs in caves - what works, what doesn't, how to see in the dark.

Lesson one: Dress down. It's not exactly the cleanest hobby. You'll want to wear the most unloved clothes you can find - as long as they will keep you warm.

My caving trip was a basic intro to cave photography, hosted by District of Columbia Grotto, the Washington, D.C.-area spelunking society. My uncle, Doug Viner, is taking his turn as president of the group and he invited me along.

Twenty-five cavers showed up - an assortment of mountain men, suburban professionals and combinations thereof. They wore coveralls, heavy boots and hardhats with headlamps, and most of them had brought cameras with them.


Unlike most caves, where you have to crawl in through a narrow opening, there is actually a door to Fountain Cave. So we just walked in and descended together into the black depths.

Inside caves, the temperature remains a balmy 52 degrees or so year-round. It's damp and muddy. Getting around is hard, because it's slippery and dark.

You're walking around on piles of rocks and mud. The flashlight on your head is your only source of illumination.

So it's not the safest place to bring expensive photography gear. However, this is exactly what we did.

One caver, Ed Devine, brought a camera setup for shooting footage in 3D, using . Also in the group were Peter and Ann Bosted, renowned cave photographers, who graciously showed the less experienced photographers the ropes.

Our first stopping point inside Fountain Cave was a giant flowstone column in one of the larger caverns. Flowstone is a type of rock formation common to caves. It can take the form of a waterfall, a column, draperies, a stalactite or just a mound on the floor of the cave.

At the column, the set up their first photo shoot, arranging several flash "slaves" to light the subject. Slaves are flashes that trigger when they sense another flash going off, quickly enough to make it into the photograph.

Lesson two from the Bosteds: Put someone in the image. Having people do something in the photo instead of just looking at the camera can really enhance the scene. Also, putting people in the shot gives the viewer a scene gives the viewer a sense of scale, something which can be lacking inside caves. So after setting up cameras and flashes, Ann Bosted modeled for us. Others took turns getting in our photos.

The important thing to remember about cave photography is that every photograph is a blank slate, completely black. All light in every shot (with very few exceptions) is artificial. So - lesson No. 3 - how you place your lights is absolutely key to creating your image.

Place lights several feet from your camera to create shadows around your subject. Also, set up lighting deep in your image to illuminate things further from you. If you just use a camera-mounted flash, your shots are going to look very flat and boring, with little or no shadows. Also, you won't be able to see much beyond about 15 feet.

Lesson No. 4- "Paint" your picture. Another technique of lighting shots (especially if you don't have flash slaves) is called painting. To do this, put your camera on a tripod to hold it still. Turn off all lights, then open the camera's shutter. Then turn on a headlamp or flashlight, essentially "painting" the scene. You can even move the light around, shining on one part of the image, then on another part. Several of these techniques used in one shot can yield great results.

All told, we spent a good seven hours inside Fountain Cave, practicing good cave photography.

I had a great time, I was one of the last people out of the cave. Coming out of the cave, squinting in the bright light, warm air hitting my face, I was surrounded by light. I saw everything around me - rocks, mud, clothing, foliage - in tiny detail.

Lighting was a lot more important than I realized.

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