13 Tips for Gorgeous Cave Photography

Cave photography is exhilarating, powerful and breathtaking all at once. But caves pose unique challenges for photographers; low light levels make it difficult to capture detailed exposure, and cave conditions can be uncomfortable or downright dangerous.

In this article, I share my top tips for great cave photos. Concretely, I explain:

  • The techniques (and gear) you should use for detailed shooting
  • How to create a sense of scale in your images
  • How to maintain yourself – and your equipment! – sure
  • Much more!

So if you are thinking of going on an adventure in cave photography or just want to improve your knowledge of cave photography, keep reading!

1. Protect your gear

In cave photography, you are (obviously!) surrounded by rocks. And in my experience, cameras don’t like to come in contact with rocks. (Neither do lenses or tripods.)

It is therefore important when exploring a cave to keep your camera and lens well covered and your tripod legs tucked in. I encourage you to keep your gear stored until you absolutely need it; you will be in uncharted territory and walking on uneven surfaces. Sometimes you will be crawling. Bring a padded bag or backpack and make sure your camera stays inside until you’re ready to take a photo.

Caves also tend to be damp, and moisture often drops from the ceiling. So bring a towel or cloth to wipe down your camera. You can also consider draping it over your camera and lens when shooting. (If you’re deeply concerned about water damage, you can even use a rain cover.) Often the water droplets will carry a number of minerals that are best cleaned up as soon as possible.

2. Bring a tripod

The caves are extremely dark which means you need a longer shutter speed to capture a detailed exposure. The longer the shutter speed, the more likely you are to shake. If you want to maximize your chances of taking sharp photos, a tripod is essential.

Unfortunately, some caves explored by commercial companies do not allow the use of tripods. Check the rules beforehand, and if tripods aren’t an option, be sure to bring cameras and lenses with image stabilization. I also encourage you to use fast lenses (f/2.8 or wider is best) and pack a flash for artificial lighting.

cave photography

3. Use a remote trigger

Tripods are great, but if you don’t use the proper technique, you’ll end up with blurry photos anyway.

Pressing the shutter button, for example, can generate camera shake and cause image-destroying blur. This is where a remote shutter comes in handy; it will allow you to trigger the camera shutter remotely. Simply set up your camera on the tripod, press the remote shutter button, and you’ll capture a cave photo – without ever needing to hit the shutter button.

If you don’t have a remote shutter and aren’t planning on buying one, you can always use your camera’s self-timer feature, which will delay the moment of capture by up to a few seconds. after you press the shutter button. It works great, but it can be annoying to wait several seconds after each shot, so I encourage you to grab a remote shutter if you can!

cave photography

4. Use an external flash

As I mentioned in a previous tip, flashes can be extremely useful, especially if tripods are prohibited. They will illuminate the cave so you can capture a well-exposed image without a long shutter speed.

But be sure to bring an external flash. Photos with flash on the camera tend to look flat and two-dimensional. With an external flash, however, you can hold the flash sideways, giving your images more depth. (And more than one flash can be used to light up the cave!)

5. Wear a headlamp

When you do rock photography, you still want two light sources:

A flash (discussed above).

And a headlamp.

The headlamp will light your way and prevent you from any unpleasant accident. A flashlight can also work, but it helps to have both hands free when setting up your tripod and camera.

6. Set White Balance to Flash

I encourage you to always use a flash when doing cave photography (assuming the cave is not commercially lit).

So before you go underground, set your camera’s white balance setting to its Flash option.

This is one of those life-saving steps that will help you take great photos with minimal editing. That said, if you forget to adjust the white balance, it’s not the end of the world as long as you follow my next tip:

7. Shoot in RAW

Want to capture beautiful and professional cave photos? Then you need to shoot in RAW.

RAW files will give you the most leeway when adjusting exposure and white balance in the digital darkroom.

And if you shoot in RAW, you can recover detail that would otherwise be lost in a JPEG.

cave photography

8. Lower your ISO

As you may know, a higher ISO leads to more noise – tiny flecks of light and color that look terrible and quickly ruin images.

And it’s true: the higher your ISO, the more you can speed up your shutter speed and the easier it is to avoid camera shake.

But if you’re using a tripod, there’s no reason to increase that ISO to ridiculous heights. Instead, rely on your tripod to hold your camera steady and keep the ISO as low as possible. I would recommend working at ISO 100 or 200 if possible, and only pushing higher if absolutely necessary!

9. Don’t be afraid to lengthen your shutter speed

As long as you use a sturdy tripod, you can reduce your shutter speed to 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds and more.

I encourage you to experiment with different shutter speed options (especially when combining the longer shutter speed with flash). You want to get images with lots of shadow detail, but at the same time, it’s important to avoid blowing out areas of the cave that are being lit by your flash.

It can be helpful to take several test shots while keeping all your settings constant – including flash brightness – but varying shutter speed. You can also consider using HDR techniques if you have trouble exposing shadows and highlights properly.

10. Use Manual Focus

The caves are dark – and in dark conditions your camera’s autofocus system will struggle a lot.

If you’re desperate to use autofocus, try pointing your headlamp at the edge of a high-contrast feature, then use that area to set your focus point.

But in general, it’s best to just switch your lens to manual focus. This way you can set the focus point without worrying about your camera going haywire.

Note: If you are using a wide-angle lens and the main cave subjects are far away, you may find manual focus difficult. First, turn the focus ring all the way to infinity. Then step back a bit. After you’ve taken your photo, review on the LCD screen – try zooming in to check for perfect sharpness! – and adjust as needed.

11. Make adjustments when working in commercial cellars

Commercial caves are designed for exploration, so they tend to be very bright. (Caves in national parks, for example, tend to be beautifully lit!)

These caves are often a lot of fun because they are already well lit and don’t require a flash. A tripod will always come in handy, so check to see if the cave rules allow you to bring one.

If you are on tour things can move quickly, you may not find much time to take photos and you may have to deal with crowds. Check with the tour operator in advance if you can go during a slow part of the day. You can also ask if it’s ok for you if you hang back a bit as the tour continues. The answer can often be “No”, but asking can open doors to possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise have considered, so give the guide a chance to help!

cave photography

12. Bring a wide-angle lens

Caves come in all shapes and sizes, but most scenes are large scale – so bring the widest lens you have. I would suggest starting around 18mm for an APS-C sensor or 28mm if your camera is full frame. This way you can capture many extended images showing the whole scene.

That said, caves offer the possibility of close-up compositions that benefit from a longer lens. So if you have the space, bring a telephoto lens and change it as needed. But remember: caves are filled with moisture, so be careful when switching objectives and keep changes to a minimum.

13. Put a person in the photo

Some caves are huge, while others are tiny – but when taking photos the scale of the cave is often lost without a point of reference.

And while close-up shots won’t really benefit from the addition of a human, wider shots will look much better if you include someone standing in the frame.

Note that you will need to pose the person and have them stand still during the shot. Otherwise they will end up blurry (assuming you are using a long shutter speed). Conversely, if you want to capture creative effects, you can ask your subject to move. Try different approaches and see what works for you!

Cave Photography Tips: Final Words

Well, now you have it:

Thirteen tips to take your cave photography to the next level.

So the next time you go to explore the cave, remember the tips I shared. Make sure you bring the right gear, use the right settings, and stay safe. Also, have fun!

Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Where will you take pictures of caves? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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