It gets very dark when you’re a quarter-mile underground. Very. Dark. I waved my hand a few inches in front of my face. I felt the breeze, but couldn’t see the tips of my fingers. Finally, the guide turned his light back on. I nearly ran to him like Gollum, “My precious! My preeeecious!” Now I’m not a complete newbie when it comes to cave photography. I’ve had a little experience underground before, on a photography tour of Longhorn Cavern in Burnet. Part of the state park system, its a well-lit cave with beautiful walls carved by the wind. It regularly hosts orchestras and wedding receptions. It’s a great place for photographers to learn about light painting and practice some of the basics of cave photography – long exposures in low light. Kickapoo Cavern, near Brackettville, is something entirely different. Kickapoo is a wild cave from the moment the gate is opened and you duck down the small opening into the vast opening. Huge chunks of loose limestone rubble cover the floor, rattling and rocking underfoot. There aren’t any lights other than what you carry in. Stalactites and stalagmites rise in jagged points from floor and ceiling, forming columns with alien shapes water-worn into the sides. Water drips from the ceiling and pools on the floor in spots, building new formations in milky puddles of limestone. This makes for some very interesting photography opportunities, but also some serious challenges. Intense humidity – the guide says there is regularly over 90% humidity in the cave – kept fogging up my glasses and soaked me with sweat before long. Carrying a camera, tripod and flashlight made for some dicey moments when I needed to react quickly and choose a hand to reach out with and grab a rock to keep from sliding. I came back with a few images, but this turned into more of a scouting trip. Scouting can be frustrating – I just drove all the way out here, and now I’m going to have to come back to get a decent shot? - but it is rewarding in the end when the preparation works out. So we’ll file that under a learning experience, add the cavern to the list of places to return to, and move on. This cave intrigues me, though - it feels like an underappreciated little brother compared to the sophistication of Longhorn Cavern. I'll be back.
And now a few of you are nodding, and some of you are looking at the screen like I’m crazy.
“You can’t take photographs in the dark!,” they say. “All you get is….dark!”
Not at all. With a tripod and long exposures, you would be amazed at some of the results.
What brought this to mind is my self-assigned photo assignment for next week – going to Kickapoo Cavern State Park to take a tour of the cavern and (hopefully) get some good pictures of the dark and gloomy depths.
Night photography is always fun, especially around big cities. There’s always at least a little light to play with, and I have a weak spot for long exposures with lights streaming across the screen or print.
If you haven’t tried any night photography, the basics are fairly straightforward. For a shot like what’s pictured above, find an overpass with a sidewalk that gives you a clear view of the street below. Use a tripod. Smile and be polite when people start looking at you and wondering what you’re doing.
Set up your camera with a low ISO and a long exposure time – this will help reduce the digital noise that can result from long exposures. Some cameras will have a noise-reduction mode, as well. Shoot, and enjoy.
Cave photography is a little different. Caves that get a lot of tourists have artificial lighting, but many are kept in a natural state.
That means you can play with light painting – once you click the shutter, you use a flashlight to illuminate different parts of the cave in order to create an exposure. This can be a lot of fun, and result in all kinds of interesting pictures.
I’ll report back next week with the results of my trek.