Low light photography can be really challenging. Most of us don’t get to explore caves like a photographer for National Geographic magazine. But going into the underground realm on a tour still feels like an adventure. When it comes to taking home memories of your trip by shooting in a cave challenges can arise. There may be prohibitions against using a flash for protection of the cave environment or for safety reasons. How would you like to be descending a steep stairway when someone blasts a flash in your eyes? Probably not a good outcome. So a cave environment is one of many examples where you may need to know how to do low light photography.
We took a day to explore some natural wonders of the Ozarks. One of those was Mystic Caverns in Harrison, AR. The photos in this post were taken inside the two caverns at the site. You can visit their website here.
First Challenge- Lighting
The first challenge you face when shooting in a cave is lighting. The caverns are lit by lights placed around the caverns, but those lights illuminate the formations and walkways and are far from the light levels you just left on the surface out in the sunlight. Be prepared to bump your ISO up quite a bit to compensate. To get scenes in focus you can’t open up your aperture all the way or the background will not be in focus. I found that even at f3.5 on my 18-250 mm travel lens, with an ISO at 800 my shutter speed was still 1/8 second. Although 1/60 of a second is supposed to be the slowest shutter speed to shoot handheld, I found by using a rail as a brace I was able to get acceptable sharpness at this slow shutter speed.
Second Challenge- Cool and Damp
The second challenge you face with low light photography going into a cave is the cool, damp conditions. If you visit during the summer you may want to have a long sleeve shirt to put on when you go underground. The temperature in the cave is around 68 degrees year-round if I remember correctly. If you get a chill you won’t be able to hold your camera steady. The damp conditions underground make it possible you might need a lens cloth to remove fog from your lens. I carried one in my fanny pack just in case. I also always carry a spare battery and spare SD card in case of any issues. Be sure and wear good rubber-soled shoes too, because the stairs can be slippery.
Third Challenge- Don’t forget to adjust your white balance.
I noted that most of the lighting used in the caverns added an orange cast to my photos. This was similar to shooting at night in the city around sodium vapor lamps. There were also white lights too, creating a difficult situation as far as lighting. After a couple of trials, I was able to get the white balance set to render realistic colors and prevent a lot of extra work once I got back home and loaded the photos into Photoshop. My advice would be to set your white balance to around 3200K and adjust from there. That should get you in the ballpark when it comes to white balance.
Fourth Challenge- Finding your camera controls in the dark
I suggest having quite a bit of experience with your camera before heading into the dark world of a cave. Although there is light to see to walk, it’s almost impossible to read the small markings on your camera. Be able to operate your camera by feel, and you’ll feel confident in the shots you are getting. On a tour, you don’t have a lot of time to go chimping at your LCD screen after every shot. Make sure you are comfortable with your camera and manipulating the controls in dim lighting conditions.
So there you have a few things to consider before going into a cave with your camera. Shooting in a cave can be challenging. Consider these challenges before going, and you’ll be able to take some shots you’ll be proud to share when you get back home. As an average guy photographer, you may not get to shoot in a cave like the pros do with 10 people to hold your equipment and flashes. But you can get some pretty amazing shots with a DSLR and the right lens and camera settings. If you are in an area with caves it can be fun shooting in a cave. Give it a try.
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