A Few Tips on taking Pictures in South African Caves

You may wonder; why an article on cave photography, surely photography is photography, no matter where you are? Well, yes and no….   Yes…all the obvious basic rules of photography still apply
  • know your camera and how it operates
  • how light, lenses and apertures work
  • how to compose a good picture
With ONE major difference:
The conditions in a cave vary notably from the normal average conditions under which a "regular" camera works most of its life.

As is the case with underwater photography, operating a camera in a hostile environment such as underwater or in a wet, dusty, dark cave, differs considerably from the average wildlife photographer's camera in a game reserve.

In fact, usually normal land cameras are used in caves and, in contrast to underwater cameras, you don't get special cave cameras.

1. Caving conditions and your camera


The most notable difference in caves is the light, or rather the lack thereof. You find yourself in total darkness with only helmet lights with which to see.

Firstly, you need a decent flashgun. Usually the built in one on a camera is reasonably OK for relatively short distances (< 2m), but if you want to capture an awesome cavern, you are going to need something more powerful.

A flashgun with a guide number of 30 (in meters) is considered the minimum entry-level flashgun.

If it is a dedicated flashgun with TTL (through the lens) metering capability, even better, but beware relying too much on automatic settings, as these don't necessarily give the best results. Often manual light settings provide better results.

When you look through your camera's small viewfinder in a dark cave, you see nothing! More importantly, if you cannot see, usually your camera's auto-focus cannot see either, so blurry, out-of-focus photos!
To overcome this problem it is a good practice to shine your torch onto your subject and get your buddy to do the same. Now, at least, you can see what you are aiming at.

You still often only see one or more orange dots in the centre of your viewfinder and it takes a little intuition to guess where your composition's edges are. Beware though that lamplights create orange hot spots, usually in the centre of your photo, which are often rather distracting in a photograph.

It is different though if you are taking a picture of a person looking at something using a lamp.

In this case the lamplight (and the subject's line of vision) should focus on an important aspect in your photograph's composition, drawing the viewer of your photograph towards this focal point

I have found that the best method of overcoming this hot spot problem is to use the lamp to find your focus and then to turn your head until your helmet lamp is shining outside the composition of your picture, before releasing the shutter. This takes some practice to get it right.

Also beware of the limitations of your flashgun, it is tempting to want to capture the 40m high roof of this cathedral-like cavern you are in, using your camera's built-in flash… forget it, take pictures within the limitations of your equipment.

Water, dust and mud

Unless you have an underwater camera, or a camera in an underwater housing, you are going to get water, dust and mud on your camera in a cave. Remember, cave formations are made by water dripping and there may be a lot of water dripping from the roof.

At the same time, there is often a lot of mud on the floor too, and you may have to crawl through it to reach the next chamber. Protect your camera, keep it in a protective bag until you need to take a picture and never point the lens upwards unnecessarily.

Keep the lens cap on at all times, only remove it to take a picture and then replace it immediately. Always point your camera downwards when removing or replacing the lens cap in case there is a drop of water or a speck of dust stuck to it ready to fall onto the lens.

I always carry a damp cloth soaked with some dishwashing liquid to use to clean my hands before taking my camera out of its case. I also make a mental note to try not to use my hands where possible, or to use the outside of my hands while keeping the insides relatively clean, when negotiating narrow passages.

Hard on the knuckles, knees and elbows though! While some parts of a cave may be wet and muddy, other parts may be dry, giving rise to fine dust particles being blown into the cave air by hiking boots walking across the floor.

Due to the low lighting conditions in a cave, these dust particles are not always visible, but have a tendency to accumulate on your camera's lens. Once again, it is best to keep the lens cap on at all times.


One of the biggest problems facing the cave photographer is the often very high relative humidity in some of our caves.

This phenomenon is often encountered when you are in dead-ends or at or near the groundwater table. In places, the humidity results in instantaneous fogging of the lens the moment the lens cap is removed.

Even worse, the photographer is often enveloped in a cloud of steam rising from his own body and, no matter how you try to duck and dive, you cannot get out of the cloud; terribly frustrating!

The first problem of condensation on the lens can sometimes be overcome by lightly blowing over the lens. Not directly on the lens, but past it, aiming slightly away from the lens.

Also remember not to point the lens upwards while doing so! The second part of the cloud of steam rising from the photographer is sometimes overcome using a willing buddy to fan it away from the photographer and camera for the duration of composing the photograph.

Physical damage to your camera

Often caves are not easily accessible or negotiable.

You have to climb, crawl slide and jump to negotiate a cave. You have to climb up and down ropes and ladders and help your buddies do the same.

In this process, you've still got to protect your camera slung over your shoulder from being bashed into rocks. A decent, padded, water-resistant camera bag is essential. I sometimes wrap my camera in its bag in a plastic bag to protect it from moisture.

Also remember to clean your camera and flashgun after your caving excursion. Mud left to dry hardens and comes off very difficultly later on.

2. Taking the shot

You have protected your camera against damage; you have learnt how to see through a small viewfinder in almost pitch darkness; you have even taken the plunge and started using manual settings on your camera and flashgun; you are now ready to take that prize-winning shot.

Here are a few hints you may want to consider before taking the plunge.

Understand the limitations of your camera and flashgun.
  • By looking around, you are always aware of a much greater field of vision than what you can capture through the lens of a camera.
  • Compose a shot carefully and try and picture how it would look as a print.
  • Try and capture a "moment in time" in the cave you are visiting.
  • This article is not going to attempt to teach you how to compose a perfect shot. There are many books on the subject. In caves though, my advice is to focus on 2 aspects.
Firstly, try and capture the beauty of cave and its formations.
Often looking up, in other words lying flat on the floor will create an awesome picture of an ordinary stalactite.

Try moving your flashgun away from the camera to create a greater sense of depth. Try backlighting; most of the cave formations are translucent. Oh yes, incidentally, first find yourself a VERY patient buddy to help you. If you have the time to set up your equipment, take along a tripod and use time exposures to make use of ambient light from helmet lamps or more powerful lighting sources.

This is one of the ways to capture the 40m high roof of that cathedral-like cavern we talked about earlier. Use your flash to illuminate the foreground and a 1 to 5 second exposure to capture the distant objects. Illuminate the distant objects by moving spotlights to and fro across the area within your composition for the duration of your

exposure. This eliminates hot spots and illuminates a much wider area. You could really get stunning photographs using these techniques, but you need time...

Secondly, get some shots of other cavers interacting with the cave.
Here I don't mean getting your buddies to stand in a group in the cave and taking a snap of them, rather try to capture the hardship and exhilaration of climbing and crawling.

Using different camera angles often enhances the image quality and gives the viewer a real "feel" of the cave in your photograph.

Lastly, hold your camera horizontal.

This is probably one of the most basic mistakes people make when taking photographs of e.g. the sea. There is nothing so distracting than expecting the sea to start draining off your picture. Likewise, a stalactite with a crystal clear water droplet hanging at any angle but straight down will ultimately end up in the dustbin.

3. Respecting the cave

This paragraph has nothing to do with cave photography but I feel it should be mentioned nevertheless.
Often a photographer gets so carried away in composing that perfect shot that he forgets he is working within a very sensitive and fragile environment. It is so easy to knock down a fragile cave formation with your hard hat, or to inadvertently put a permanent dirty hand mark on a pure white formation in an attempt to stabilise your camera in an awkward position.

Be aware of your environment and be careful.

I trust that this very brief article on cave photography will assist you in obtaining that perfect shot.

Garfield Krige

Photographer Garfield Krige (centre) after a trip to K3