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Fingal's Cave—Exposure for Black Cats in Coal Mines

How do you get a great picture when you're shooting black on black? Photographer Jim Richardson shares his experience inside Fingal's Cave in Scotland.

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Fingal's Cave is my nemesis. But this time I was ready for it.

Riding on a gentle swell aboard our Zodiac, we drifted toward the cavernous maw in the towering basalt columns of the Isle of Staffa off the Scottish coast. I knew that once we left the brightness of the sun, the interior of Fingal's Cave would be dark. Its hexagonal stones would progressively suck away daylight as we floated back into the very heart of the island.

It's just the situation to give a photographer fits: black on black—and getting blacker all the time.

The last time I was here I solved the problem by adding light to the cave's nether reaches by a simple expedient: I corralled a couple of energetic lads from a neighboring island to carry one-million-candle-power flashlights (or torches, as they say in this part of the world) to the back of the cave during low tide. The resulting image ran in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine (see photo gallery).

Now I had no time to camp on the island overnight, rise at 4 a.m., and trudge into the cave in the predawn light. Right now I was in a bobbing Zodiac moving just under the cave's upper lip. Looking up into the towering roof, I had just moments to get an image.

I'm certainly not the first to have to deal with this problem. Ever since naturalist Joseph Banks "discovered" the cave in 1772, visitors have been awestruck—and then dumbfounded—as they tried to convey to others what they had seen. Composer Felix Mendelssohn had a crack at it with music and did a bang-up job. His Hebrides Overture of 1829 was a hit and brought tourists flocking here with its haunting, rhythmic melody washing and echoing like the waves. Then the race was on. The Victorian era's best got into the act, including Queen Victoria herself, as well as painter J. M. W. Turner, fantasy writer Jules Verne, and poet John Keats.

Their recurring theme was the cave as a natural cathedral, and I had never quite understood the comparison until now. They had been seeing the cave from a boat, just as I was at that moment. In looking up, you clearly see that the cave soars overhead like some buttressed Gothic edifice in the raw.

This vision was a good part of my photographic salvation as I raised my camera to the task. I didn't have to show the whole cave (and thus contend with the unconquerable exposure range). I could allow part of the cave to stand for the greater whole, and the resulting photograph could reveal the mythical symbolism that the cave came to represent for all those generations of supplicants yearning to be humbled by its sheer beauty. I could pick just a piece of the cave that was relatively evenly lit and let the rising columns suggest the cavernous volume.

Already I had done the needful photographic tasks in preparation for this moment. I had bumped my ISO up before we got into the cave to produce enough shutter speed for sharpness. I was using my Nikon D3 with a brand new 16-35mm f/4 lens that has VR (vibration reduction) to steady my shaky perch on the Zodiac's bow. Nevertheless, I shot a lot of frames with the motor drive as insurance to get a sharp one.

Most important of all, I monitored the camera histogram to ensure the pictures were dark enough. Camera meters have the necessary but frustrating habit of thinking the world is evenly, normally lit. When they encounter the proverbial black cat in a coal mine, the meter has little choice but to assume it is seeing some normal scene in dim light. It then brightens things up—normally the correct thing to do—but not now. Not in the middle of all this rich blackness that could easily turn into bland, gray mush if made too light.

My answer? Put the camera on manual exposure and monitor the images quickly as I go. That's what I did as we went back into the cave—constantly updating my exposures to keep the basalt columns nice and dark, but not so dark that they lost detail. Mostly I had to make the images much darker than the camera meter was indicating. It's a delicate balancing act but worth the effort.

Back on the computer, just a tweak of shadow adjustment revived the very darkest areas. The majestic columns showed more color than I had imagined. I had spotted the radiant green in the roof but hadn't really noticed the deep purple in the lower levels—a beautiful bonus.

I know I'll be back to Fingal's Cave again on another National Geographic Expeditions cruise of the British and Irish Isles, and when I am, I'll face yet another of its challenges. In the interim, I'll just play Mendelssohn's music on my iPod and let the music conjure up more dreams.

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