Shooting in Caves


Shooting in Caves

Cave Archaeology in Armenia.
Cave Archaeology in Armenia.

One of the most challenging photo shoots that I have ever done was photographing caves. Mayan Caves. In Belize. When I was asked if I had ever shot in caves before, my honest answer was “of course I have.” And this was true. In fact, just last year, I shot a fantastic cave in Armenia. The Archaeologists in charge of the cave needed me to shoot some artifacts that they have found in this cave. Some of these items include the oldest wine press ever found, the oldest grape seeds, the oldest copper smelt ever found, the oldest shoe ever found and yes, the oldest preserved human brain ever found. This cave was so beautiful and the remaining artifacts include various pots and large vessels & baskets. I was able to get some great shots and came home happy. Some of these shots have recently been published in “Back Dirt”, a prestigious magazine created by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.

So yes, I did have experience shooting in caves.

But whoa! When I stepped into the first cave in Belize (this past January 2013), I instantly freaked. These caves were HUGE. The caverns were, well, cavernous! Stalactites, stalagmites, strange rock formations jutting in every direction. The team started with a mere 2 fluorescent lights, a couple of hand-held flashlights, and our little helmet lights. Some were a variety of flourescent, halogen and incandescent – each emitting a different temperature, ergo a different color of light. How on Earth was I going to shoot these oddly-shaped oddly-sized spaces with such a little amount of non-standard lights? Again, I freaked.

Secret discoveries in an ancient Mayan crawl-through.
Secret discoveries in an ancient Mayan crawl-through.

We dove in anyway, and began by setting up the lights in various places around the first cavern. I shot, moved the lights, shot, moved the lights, shot, moved the lights ad nauseam throughout the day. When I got back to the dig house that night, I reviewed the photos and was aghast! They weren’t even close to what I wanted. Again, I freaked.

What the heck was I going to do? How was I going to get the shots I wanted? What the heck was I forgetting?!?

I sat up most of the night in a complete panic combing the internet looking for clues as to what I was forgetting. But the only real thing I could come up with was that I simply didn’t have enough lights for the space I was trying to shoot.

But here I was, way down in a third world country with no electronic stores, camera stores nor even a Radio Shack. And there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I just had to buckle down and shoot the best I could with the available lighting. OMG!

So back we went the next day [bags under my eyes and all], and began again. But this time we took 2 more lights for a total of 4. Again, still not enough. But better.

Caves are interesting because they are pitch black. So black that you can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. So the only light we have are the lights we brought. In photography, lighting is EVERYTHING. Without adequate lighting, it is pretty near impossible to get great photos. But we soldiered on.

Gathering more light than we actually had

This huge chamber presented a wide variety of photographic challenges, mostly related to lighting.
This huge chamber presented a wide variety of photographic challenges, mostly related to lighting.

The best way to increase the amount of light without actually increasing the number of lights, is to leave the lens open longer. This gives the camera’s sensor the opportunity to collect more light and build on it. The longer you leave the lens open, the brighter the photo gets. Now this isn’t necessarily a perfect substitute for having good lighting to start with, but it did increase the chances of getting better shots.

In each cavern, we would place the 4 lights high up behind jutting rocks, down low behind beautiful stalagmites, and any other place that would shed light throughout the space. And we shot and shot and shot.

Each night I reviewed the shots and each night they were better than the night before.

On the last day, I approached Dr. Moyes to let her know that I had finished shooting her list of desired shots. She looked at me and grinned and said, “Go back into the next room (chamber) and see what Mark has for you!” So off I went to the ‘big’ room. And big it was. Mark was there waiting for me to shoot the entire (huge) cavern in a single shot.

I freaked.

But we were ready. We placed the  4 lights around the space, and opened the lens for 12-ish seconds. But no matter how hard I tried, there were still large dark areas in the shots – mostly (but not all) around the edges. We just didn’t have enough lights to light the entire space. So taking our flashlights and head lamps, we again opened up the lens, but this time we used our flashlights & head lamps to ‘paint’ light into each of the dark places in turn. And voila, we some beautiful shots of the ENTIRE HUGE CAVERN!



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