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How To Photograph Caves: A Tutorial From The Reed Flute Cave In Guilin
Before I get into this tutorial, we first have to make a distinction between wild caves and commercial caves. Wild caves are what the name suggests – wild. There are no guides, lights, and paths. They are a good deal more difficult to photograph and can even be dangerous to navigate. I will focus this tutorial on commercial caves, as they are probably the most likely cave you as travellers will visit. They are usually well lit already and you won’t have to worry about banging your head in the dark or bringing along a whole array of flashes.
The Reed Flute Cave is such a commercial cave, located about 5km outside of downtown Guilin. It gets its poetic name from the reeds growing outside the cave, which apparently can be used for making flutes. Over 180 million years old, Reed Flute Cave – according to numerous poems scribbled on the walls – seems to have been popular around the year 800 during the Tang Dynasty but was only rediscovered in the 1940s when a group of refugees stumbled upon it in a search for shelter. The cave is a fascinating world of limestone formations and like many other caves in Asia, this one is lit up beautifully in different colors. Add in water which reflects the stalagmites and stalactites and you won’t even know where to look first. There was also hardly anyone there and they had no problem with people bringing tripods. It’s a great place to visit if you are in the area, make sure to check it out if you travel to Guangxi Province.
What equipment I brought along:
I’m no fan of carrying around everything but the kitchen sink, so I always try to plan ahead for the location I’m about to shoot. For the Reed Flute Cave, I knew I was going to deal with big, open caverns and only brought along my Canon 700D with the Sigma 10-20 super-wide lens on, as well as a tripod and a remote shutter release. I had my regular 18-55mm lens as well but didn’t end up using it.
Shoot in RAW Format
This is a photography tip in general – you should be shooting your photos in RAW format at all times anyway. If you shoot RAWs, as opposed to JPGs, you get more data to work with in post-processing. With RAWs you can record greater levels of brightness, which means there are a lot more tones from black to white. All this additional detail, in turn, makes it a lot easier to, for example, correct under or overexposed images and white balance in post-processing. And because a lot more data from the sensor gets recorded, later editing won’t cause a drastic reduction of quality. Since caves are, even if lit up properly, still pretty dark, shooting in RAW makes it a lot easier to make the adjustments needed later on.
Bring a Tripod & Remote Shutter Release
To get a sharp image during longer exposures, you obviously need a tripod. Make sure to check ahead with the cave of your choice whether or not you can bring a tripod inside. Some places won’t allow it al all, require you to get special permission or only let you show up with one before opening or after closing time. It’s always best to get informed ahead of time to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
If your cave doesn’t allow tripods, bring along a big backpack and set your camera on it for a stable and more elevated shot. The fact is, that caves are too dark to shoot handheld without amping up the ISO too much.
Well, a tripod is a must, but did you know that even the tiny vibrations from you pressing the shutter button to cause your image to become less sharp? To avoid that, bring along a remote shutter release, or if you don’t have one, set your camera to the 2 second (good) or 10 seconds (even better) timer. If you want to go the extra mile, lock up your mirror as well. This setting flips up the mirror way before the shutter opens, which allows the vibrations to die down before exposing.
Lower your ISO
This one depends a bit on the cave you are visiting. If you are in an incredibly well-lit cave like the Reed Flute Cave and are allowed to use a tripod, you are in luck and can keep the ISO at 100. In darker caves, you might have to up the ISO to 400 to 800 to gather enough light. Keep in mind though, that the lower the ISO the better. Do a couple of test shots to see how low you can go.
Bring a Wide-Angle or Super-Wide Lens
Some caves have many narrow tunnels, but mostly they consist of big, open caverns. To capture it all and show the whole impressive scale of it, bring at least a wide-angle lens, if not a super-wide if you can. I brought along my Sigma 10-20 super-wide and was glad to have had that width. There are of course some shots you could do with a zoom lens, but if you had to settle for one, I’d say bring a wide or super-wide. It is probably best if you choose the lens you want to use ahead of time and stick with it, as switching lenses in damp, dusty caves obviously aren’t ideal.
When your scene is too dark, your autofocus will be confused and either refuse to focus at all, or it might focus on the wrong thing resulting in a blurry image. Even in a fairly well-lit cave, don’t take the risk and just manual focus instead. Go to your live view and use the zoom button to zoom in as far as you can on the spot you want to focus on and then play with the focus until the image on the monitor is sharp. This spot should be somewhat lit, and if the cave doesn’t provide this already, bring along a little flashlight and use that to help you focus. If everything in your shot is far enough away and you have a very dark scene, you can also just focus on infinity.
Use Shapes, Shadows, and Reflections to Your Advantage
Photographing caves is all about composition and finding interesting patterns and formations in the rock. Often there is water and you can incorporate the reflections into the image as I did with the image below. If there is colorful lighting, play with it. You can see this shot below is very similar to the first photo I showed, but here I used the lights at the edge of the path to creating a shot that looks like a scene straight out of a science fiction movie.