Through the Gadling Lens: taking photographs in caves

This week, I got a great email from Gadling reader Matthew, about a really exciting upcoming trip:

Dear Karen,

My friends and I are going on a week long trip to Varadero in Cuba in two weeks. One of the main attractions that I’m looking forward to is the cuevas de bellamar, I’ll be taking my Nikon D60 with the stock lens. I’m not sure what settings I should be using to capture that low ambient lighting in the caves. I was able to find some pictures of the caves on Flickr. Any tips? I love the column keep them coming.

– Matthew

I love this question, and as it happens, I’ve had a little bit of experience shooting in in caves: one of my favourite places to visit when I go home to Trinidad is the Gasparee caves, and the last time I was there, I tried my hand at trying to capture some images of them. What did I learn? Shooting in caves isn’t easy. But I’ll share some of the tricks I picked up, and hopefully, Matthew, you’ll end up grabbing some really memorable shots.

1. First off, caves are dark
. I know, I know — I’m stating the obvious. But, still, the fact that it’s dark is a good thing to keep in mind. The reason?

Chances are, if you use the flash on your camera, you’re going to get a shockingly bright shot of the stalactite right in front of you, and the dark void behind it. Turn the flash off.

I know it might seem counterintuitive to turn your flash off in a cave, but trust me on this — and a great example is the beautiful shot uploaded by StrudelMonkey into the Gadling flickr pool, above. In this shot, StrudelMonkey used the available light in the cave to really capture the eerieness and mystery of the surroundings. And Matthew, since you’ve already done a search of the Cuevas de Bellamar on Flickr, you know that these Cuban caves are similarly lit to enhance their beauty — and therefore, the trick is going to be how to capture the available light.

2. Switch your camera to program (or “fully automatic”) mode. You were expecting to tell you how to adjust your aperture to get great depth of field, or adjust your shutter speed, and that sort of thing, weren’t you? Yeah, forget all that. I mean, it’s a great idea, in theory, to manually adjust all of these items on your camera, but honestly? See #1 above — you’re in a cave. It’s dark. And you’re not going to be able to see what you’re doing. It’s just much better if you set the camera to help you take the shot as easily as possible.

3. Examine your light source, and adjust your white balance accordingly. We haven’t actually talked about white balance before, so let’s take a moment to step back and understand what your white balance does.

Have you ever taken a shot inside of your house at night, say, and you decided not to use your flash, but instead try to capture the scene in the available light — and the result is this very yellow image? This is because in general, your camera is designed to take photographs in sunlight — and your lamplight is cooler and more yellow than sunlight. Also, ever notice how green you look in florescent light? So guess what colour your photographs will look under that light?

This is where white balance comes in: if you refer to your camera manual and look at your camera (and Matthew, I know that you shoot with a Nikon D60), you’ll notice that there’s likely a setting for “white balance” or “WB.” This helps tell your camera what kind of light source is available for you to take your shot. So, therefore, if you’re shooting in caves that are lit like the ones where StrudelMonkey took his photograph in the shot above, you’ll probably want to set your camera to take photographs in incandescent light (probably indicated by a little lightbulb icon) — that way your photographs won’t end up looking too yellow.

If, however, the spot where your taking your shots actually is lit by sunlight, through openings in the cave ceiling or walls (as shown in the beautiful image captured by Bernard-SD, above), then make sure that your camera is set to take photographs in natural light (likely indicated by a small sun icon) — and that way, your photographs won’t end up looking too blue.

4. Get yourself a gorillapod. A Gorillapod is a small, portable tripod that twists in ways that you can steady your camera on just about any kind of surface. In this dark setting, a Gorillapod can be invaluable, and here’s why:

Remember when, a few months ago, we talked about ISOs and “light catchers”? Because you’re going to be in a low light setting, and you’ve set your camera to fully automatic, your camera is going to notice how dark it is, and think to itself, “Self, I’m going to have to keep the shutter open forever, so that the light catchers are able to catch as much available light as possible in order to develop the photograph.” And when that happens, the slightest movement of the camera … the slightest movement of your wrist … is going to create image blur. So to make sure that your images are as crisp as possible, you’re going to want to steady the camera — and since flat surfaces might be hard to come by in the caves, a tripod which can steady itself on a rock outcropping, a stalagmite, or even just around the railing of the steps into the cave would be worth its weight in gold. And happily? Gorillapods don’t cost the same as krugerrands — the large one, suitable for most SLR cameras, is currently available for US$ 44.95 online.

5. Set your ISO to a relatively low number, aim, and shoot. Okay, so now you’ve set your camera to automatic, you’ve secured it to the Gorillapod, and you’ve secured it to … whatever. A lower ISO number is going to give you a less grainy shot than a high ISO number, so sort of ballpark it — 400 or 600, say. Then aim the camera, set the self-timer, click the shutter, and walk away. Why set the self-timer, you ask? Because in the dark, even the action of pressing the shutter might cause blur. So set the timer, press the shutter, and then step away, and let the camera settle itself to take the shot. The shutter is going to stay open for a long time (see #4, above), but don’t worry, let it do its thing. Once you look at your image, you’ll likely have a lovely, crisp, ambient shot.

So, that’s about it! Matthew, good luck on your trip and safe travels — I know there’s a lot to take in here on this post
, but my suggestion? Practice in a dark room in your house, with low light, and play with the settings as I’ve suggested, and see how it works for you (and obviously, if you have any questions, feel free to email me). Also, when you return, I hope you’ll share your shots with us here at Gadling. I can’t wait to see what you capture!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks, and feel free to send her your photography questions directly to karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom. She’ll happily tackle them in upcoming posts.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.