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Cave Photography

By Alan Coase

Caves and potholes present a challenge to the photographer which is both difficult and extremely rewarding.  As well as the obvious physical difficulties which might, for example, involves a 300ft. crawl with equipment though a tube more suited to an undersized worm than to a human being, there are problems of darkness, mud, condensation, grit, and carriage to be overcome.

The fact that one is working in a completely dark environment is of surprisingly little consequence.  Indeed, it might be regarded as an advantage, for the photographer is entirely in control of his lighting.  Problems of condensation can be minimised by the use of calotherm cloth (a few shillings from photographers or opticians) or the permanent fitted UV (ultra violet) filter. Use of an angle flash bracket-cum-pistol grip also reduces the handling of the camera body which can be further protected by construction of a neoprene rubber ever-ready case.  Carrying problems are best overcome by the use of surplus ammunition boxes which are cheap, waterproof and very strong.  These come in two sizes and can also be used to accommodate the necessary spares – lighting, food, first-aid, etc. – that should be carried on every trip.

Photography underground tends to take two forms.  It may be an incidental part of a general purpose trip for which the photographer might best aim at self-sufficiently – a small ammunition box, compact camera, small flash gun, etc. – or it may be a specifically photographic trip where the assistance of a willing team is essential.  Here more elaborate equipment, such as a more versatile camera, a really substantial tripod, and a quantity of large flashbulbs, etc, may be needed.

In the first category any camera can be used successfully though a clear viewfinder and full synchronisation are desirable.  In the second, greater versatility may be obtained though use of a camera in which the lenses are interchangeable.  In this respect I find a single lens reflex with a wide angle of view with the facility to use accessories for close-ups, etc.  It also gives up to 36 pictures on a cassette of 35mm film without having to reload – always difficult in a dark and dirty underground situation.  Space does not permit a full appraisal of suitable cameras but the folding roll-film camera deserves mention for it is very compact and is often obtainable very cheaply.

One further camera deserves mention for it is the only one specifically designed for such rugged conditions.  This is the Calypso-Nikkor II (formerly Nikonos) which is compact, completely waterproof, tough and easy to use.  Furthermore, is possesses very clear controls, an excellent viewfinder and a wide angle lens.  Regrettably its high price (over £100) is one of its chief disadvantages though second hand models should be found more cheaply.

Choice of flash equipment is also very important for it again should be compact and lightweight.  This tends to rule out the larger electronic outfits, which are also costly, but I find a small unit convenient for incidental photography, for close-ups and for fill in, or foreground illumination, on large shots.  By and large, however, bulb flash is more suitable.  It is initially cheaper, very much more powerful and fairly lightweight. A convenient method of firing off the gun is desirable, while one gun should be able to fire PF100 bulbs or similar.

Film choice is clearly a personal matter but a relatively fast film is desirable.  I have found FP4 Ilford (125 ASA) and Kodak High Speed Ektachrome (160 ASA) to my liking, although in terms of colour it is worth noting that very good and even faster colour transparency films (up to 500ASA) are now readily available (from ANSCO).

Equipment, however, is far less important than technique, many aspects of which are acquired through experience.  Certain general observations can be made however:

FLASH BULB AND ELECTRIC FLASH UNIT GUIDE NUMBERS – are computed for a ‘normal room’.  Caves rarely fit the specification; so numbers must be adjusted accordingly except where photographing very bright formations. I ‘down-rate’ guide numbers and/or film speeds very drastically – perhaps by a third in a modest sized passage but by even more in a large chamber.

Flash techniques:

1.                  Flash-on-the camera.  This is satisfactory, perhaps essential, for record and action shots but generally most undesirable, especially on formations which will appear flat and uninteresting.

2.                  Flash-off-the-camera.  It is far better to have the flashgun to one side – either on the camera bracket/pistol grip, or at arms length on an extension lead.  In some cases extreme lighting from the side, or even back lighting, can yield beautiful results.

3.                  Multi-flash techniques.  For these the camera must be set up on a tripod and a series of flashes fired. This may be done by:

a)                  Extensions leads giving synchronised flash (but suspect because damp, grit, etc., often short circuits the system and bulbs fire prematurely or not at all) or

b)                  A count-down in complete darkness by the cameraman with a number of bulbs being fired as near as simultaneously as possible, or

c)                  By ‘painting’ the chamber or passage with one flash gun being held and fired by a member of the team at predetermined points.  Lights again need to be doused so this technique cannot be recommended where large pitches occur!

With each of these methods the light source should normally be shielded, as far as possible placed away from passage walls where overexposure will result.  Care, too, should be taken to avoid ‘ghosts’.

The obvious rewards for all this effort lie in the incredible delicacy and beauty of formation, the purity of a new discovery or the importance of a first climb.  Less obvious, but of increasing importance, is the role of the cave photographer as a scientist or recorder, for many of Britain’s caves are being thoughtlessly desecrated.  He should bear in mind the ‘motto’ “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing behind but footprints” and also remember that competence as a caver comes before skill as a cave photographer.

Good luck – and watch out for the cave gremlins that always fill cameras and sockets with sand, and cause batteries and bulbs to fail just as you have got your models chest – deep in the lake!

(Reprinted from the Scouter with permission of the author).