Discover what it takes to go exploring in some of the most dangerous locations on Earth with groundbreaking tips from these seven pro photographers .
In 1866, an American chemist by the name of Charles Waldack did something few dared to try: he photographed Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. At the time, cameras were in their infancy, and to contend with the darkness of the cave, Waldack had to use magnesium tape—a dangerous lighting method with the potential for catastrophic consequences. Luckily, he was an expert, and he lived to tell the tale. When he emerged, he introduced the world to some of the very first (and possibly the first) photographs ever taken inside a cave.
Generations later, Waldack’s legacy continues with courageous photographers who long to set foot into unknown territory. Below, we’ve interviewed seven cave photographers, though we were liberal with our definition of “cave.” These photographers have ventured into all kinds of caves: limestone caves, ice caves, underwater caves, man-made caves, and more. Though their experiences might be profoundly different, they all share a desire to explore and record the mysterious depths of our planet. Read on to learn their secrets.
1. “It can be difficult for the camera to focus in darkness, so use manual focus to get the shot.”
Image by Abhijeet Khedgikar. Gear: EOS 550d camera, Canon 10-20mm F4 lens. Settings: Exposure 13 sec; f4.5; ISO 400.
What’s the story behind this photo?
I took this photo in a cave near Cherapunji in Meghalaya, northeast India. We were exploring this cave for hours, and we were desperate for natural light and fresh air. It was pitch dark, and we saw a weak bit of light in the distance. As we approached the light, we witnessed a spectacular view. There was a small opening on the roof of the cave and a strong beam of sunlight was coming from that hole, creating this surreal effect.
Image by Abhijeet Khedgikar
The first thing to take into account is safety! I mean the safety of both yourself and your camera. In caves, you’ll encounter rocks, water, darkness, and slippery surfaces, so to ensure your own safety, you should always wear appropriate attire and carry the correct gear. For example, carry a good quality headlamp with a longer battery life. A quality hiking helmet is also necessary to avoid head injuries.
It’s also important to protect your camera, so carry a good watertight bag and a good padded backpack. Don’t forget to bring extra camera batteries so that your camera doesn’t run out of juice when you need it the most.
Additionally, bring a steady tripod, and to make sure your pictures are sharp, consider carrying a remote shutter release switch. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, simply use the self-timer feature on your camera and let the camera release the shutter with minimal shake. Try to keep your ISO settings low when shooting in caves. There may be a lot of dark areas in the frame, and you don’t want noise.
The most important part of shooting a great picture is focus. It can be difficult for the camera to focus in darkness, so use manual focus to get the shot. I cast some light from my headlamp onto the walls and roof of the cave and try to focus on it manually.
2. “In many cases, the best time to explore the sub-glacial world is in winter, when things are good and frozen.”
Image by DCrane. Gear: 5D Mark III camera, 24-105 f/4 lens, tripod. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 15 sec; f10; ISO 500.
What’s the story behind this photo?
Some of the most photographed ice caves are those that are simple to walk right into; however, I fancy a bit more of a challenge. I’ve been inside numerous moulins (think vertical mine shafts carved by water into the ice) and caves requiring roped rappels. I’ve even gotten into a few with some more unconventional methods like with a canoe or kayak.
Back in 2017, some friends and I took the Alaska Railroad to a whistle stop, jumped into some kayaks, and paddled two miles across an iceberg-filled lake to the Spencer Glacier to go ice climbing. After two days of paddling among icebergs and climbing some world-class lines, another friend, who guides on the Spencer, came out to meet us and brought us to see what he thought might be a massive cave, spotted a week before. The trouble was that it was full of water when it was discovered. When he brought us there, though, it had emptied out, and we got inside to explore.
The entrance was a 60-foot drop through a 20-foot wide vertical shaft. Once inside, we crawled through every passage we could find, set up a rope swing (inside the cave) and spent hours taking photos and playing with natural light and headlamps. We returned after a trip to our tent for food and more lighting so I could make this photograph happen. With one speedlight, one solar lantern, four headlamps, and a lot of trial and error, I lit up these five blocks of ice. I was fascinated with these the first time I saw them because of their size and perfect clarity but also for their strange placement. It appeared that they had been underwater, perhaps a part of the cave walls when it was full of water, and they must have broken off and jammed in the narrowing passageway as the water drained out below.
We’ve all heard of the potential dangers of exploring mines and caves, but when you’re standing below or inside of an active glacier, the game completely changes. For one, glaciers are always moving—and melting. You need to constantly evaluate the ice around you for stability and watch for features that may break off or collapse.
Spending time on or in a glacier, you’ll quickly discover there is no such thing as waterproof. If the constant drip from the ceiling or splashes from the waterfall or river that carved the cave don’t get through your rain gear, the melting of everything you touch will. Body heat has a tendency to melt whatever you come into contact with, even with insulating layers. When you start squeezing through narrow passages or leaning against things, you’re going to get wet.
A bit of pre-planning goes a long way. Keep your gear dry for as long as possible. I have dry bags, lens cloths in every pocket under my waterproof layers, and a small towel to wipe down gear (and hands) periodically. When (not if) your gear does get wet, the old trick of storing electronics in rice for a day or two really works. Rice dust isn’t great for cameras either, but moisture deep inside buttons or lens elements will take forever to dry, possibly damaging electronics.
Stay warm (or get used to being cold). Layering is key. A good outer shell will help, but plan to get wet anyway. No cotton. Bring extra clothes to change into later (in a dry bag, preferably). Gloves aren’t going to work. Yeah, I know you spent $200 on the best waterproof gloves. Your hands still not going to stay dry down there. When working with camera gear, your bare hands will dry a lot faster than gloves will, so shake them off and shove them in your shirt or down your pants. Hopefully, you brought those extra clothes.
In many cases, the best time to explore the sub-glacial world is in winter, when things are good and frozen. The rivers are frozen, granting easier access, and the ice isn’t typically melting like it does during the warmer months, making things a bit safer as well. Each cave is unique, and the ice is rapidly changing. Some features last only a few weeks, others mere days. When you see something cool, you’d better get all the photos you want because there may be no coming back to it!
Think outside the box. One of my favorite things about working on a glacier is that you can anchor into almost any part of it. See a line you want a climber on or an angle you want to get to? If you can get above (or below, with a good lead climber), you can get a rope on it. With crampons and tools, you can get to places on ice that you would have no chance of reaching with any other medium. Recently, inside a narrow slot canyon on the Matanuska Glacier, I found myself pressing against the walls with arms, legs, butt, head, shoulders, and all to squirm through tight spaces and ascend to the angle I wanted. An ice tool or crampon point can chip shelves for tripod legs into nearly any surface.
Image by DCrane
Finally, start somewhere easy, and start with a guide. If you’re going bigger, spend the time and money to learn the skills and get the gear to do it right. A solid foundation in ice climbing will really help you move around inside an ice cave, and rope skills are helpful in any underground situation, especially if things go south. Evacuation isn’t really an option in remote alpine environments. If you can get on top, you might have a chance at calling a helicopter, but pilots and paramedics aren’t trained on glacier travel, so you’ll have to go to them!
3. “A good, experienced guide is a must when it comes to photographing caves.”
Image by blue-sea.cz. Gear: Canon G16 camera placed in Fantasea Line FG16 underwater housing and equipped with Sola video lights. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/60 sec; f2.2; ISO 800.
What’s the story behind this photo?
As a married couple, we share a passion for scuba diving and underwater photography. This picture is from our trip to Mexico. We visited some of the best cenotes in Tulum, Riviera Maya. At Cenote Tajma Ha, there was this beautiful dark space with incredible sun rays coming from above. In this picture, you can see the limestone stalactites and the silhouette of our guide George floating calmly in the sunlight.