"I’m drawn to the darkness," says National Geographic photographer Robbie Shone, who has been documenting caves around the world for 17 years. Caving was once a hobby Shone did on weekends but he ultimately fell in love with the rush of descending into these alien, underground worlds.
The experience of caving is not all that fuels him. The challenge of illuminating dark spaces also allows him to hone his technical skills. "Photography where you just put the camera on aperture priority and use daylight doesn’t really float my boat," he says.
Below, Shone shares his approach to making magical photographs in this subterranean environment.
Caving comes first, photography second.
Being a cave photographer comes with many hazards. Navigating the terrain is physically strenuous and the cold, damp environment is unforgiving.
"It’s important to have a really good knowledge of traversing through a cave before you consider taking up photography, otherwise you are going to damage a lot of gear and possibly yourself,” Shone says.
Descending into a cave is a bit like mountain climbing in reverse. Shone credits his experience working as a rope access technician—doing things like repelling down the side of a skyscraper to wash the windows—with teaching him how to be comfortable with heights and using tools attached attached to lanyards.
Shone works with his camera and tripod hooked to his harness. “Having that experience means that I can take the camera out of the bag while hanging on a rope suspended 600 feet from the ceiling and 600 feet from the cave floor and not worry about dropping it.”
There is room to play with lenses.
Some caves are really small, others are the size of several football fields. If you limit yourself to a fixed focal length lens, the cave is going to tell you where you are going to shoot, Shone says. “But if you use a wide-angle lens, you can move around the cave and pick your spot.”
“I have found over the years the wider you go—without using a fisheye lens or getting too distorted—the better, But if the cave is limited in size, you want a zoom lens that gives you a good range. Then you can incorporate a really wide angle at the base level but zoom right through to something you can work with.”
Know how to work in the dark.
When Shone arrives at a location, the first thing he does is work his way through the cave, which can take anywhere from an hour to several days depending on the location.
Once there, he removes his helmet so the headlamp isn’t shining directly above his eyes. It also doubles as a side light source. “I want to see the cave and all the shadows I can create.” As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he visualizes the chamber and the best ways to photograph it.
Learn the technical side of lighting.
“You need to know what you are doing with flash and strobes and placements,” Shone says.
Before leaving for a shoot, he lays everything out to be sure it is all in working order. Once everything is set up on location and he has a good sense of what he’s going for, he begins making pictures.
“There are several ways we can go about doing this,” he explains. Sometimes he uses radio slaves—remote controlled off-camera flash units— setting everything off at once. “Thanks to digital technology, we can see the imperfections on the back of the camera,” he says. “Then we move the flashes to make a more interesting photograph.”
Other times he releases one light source at a time and then builds a final photograph from several different frames.
Treat your assistants well.
“When you go into a cave, you work as one to overcome all the challenges you are faced with—be it photography, surveying, or exploring,” Shone says. And having a team to help is key, whether it be just one person or 15.
“Assistants give up a lot of their time to help you make pictures. You often ask them to stand for a long time—maybe even an hour or two—in the cold. They hold the flashes and lights in exactly the right place,” Shone says.
“One of the things I like to do at the end of the trip is go to the pub and buy everyone a drink. And if they want a print afterward, that's absolutely fine. It means they are pretty psyched to come back and help you, because they know they are going to get something out of it. And because they know you are getting something out of it.