“I am gradually becoming impressed with the Carlsbad Caverns; they are so strange and deep in the earth that I can never feel about them as I do with things in the sun -- rocks, trees ... surf and fog. The photographic problems are terrific; I start with a basic exposure of about 10 minutes ... I then boost up the image and "drama" with photoflash.” - Ansel Adams
NIKON D800E,f/8 @ 35 mm, 1/60, ISO 200, Flash
As an extension or our photography trek to White Sands National Monument, we spent a day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains of Southeastern New Mexico. Given our pressed schedule, I wondered if a caverns visit would be worth the extra driving time from White Sands. We pondered, "Is the cavern overrun with tourists, can we really get any good photos under artificial lighting and are the underground formations really that unique?"
In short, Carlsbad Caverns proved to be a photogenic natural wonder, albeit with some challenges and inherent limitations in the photography arena.
Located 18 miles south of Carlsbad on U.S. Highway 62/180, the vast cavern is situated in a bed of limestone, above the groundwater level. The history and geology of the cavern are absolutely fascinating, far beyond the scope of this posting. In short, the area surrounding the caverns was a coastline of an ancient inland sea, tectonic movements uplifted Capitan reef above ground and erosion of limestone created intricate calcium carbonate formations: stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies and popcorn, etc.
NIKON D800E,f/8 @ 82 mm, 5s, ISO 200, No Flash
To learn about the caverns and gain a sense of orientation, we participated in the ranger guided tour of the King’s Palace chambers in the morning. The tour was informative time well spend, but not conducive to serious photography because tripods are not allowed on guided tours.
We then spent the afternoon on a self guided photo shoot of the Big Room (Hall of Giants), a vast series of chambers with railed walkways some 800 feet below ground. Here, we were able set up our tripods for long time exposures (8 – 30 seconds at ISO 200, f 8). We had hoped to carry only our medium length "walk around" lenses (e.g., 24 – 70 mm) into the caverns, but ended up needing the Nikon "holy trinity," including the 17 – 35 mm wide angle and 70 -200 mm telephoto lenses, to capture the varying sense of scale in different cavern chambers.
NIKON D800E,f/2.8 @ 44 mm, 1/60, ISO 400, Flash
Although flash photography is allowed throughout the caverns, most of the photo blogs advise against flash as it washes out the foreground of lighted formations. Although this was the situation with many of the front-lit major formations, I found that my Nikon 910 Speedlight flash unit provided wonderful illumination on some of the formations having little or no artificial lighting, including intricate overhead stalactites and highly detailed draperies. Experimentation proved fruitful, as I ended shooting the most scenic cavern formations in both modes.
NIKON D800E,f/8 @ 70 mm, 1/60, ISO 200, Flash
Achieving accurate white balance proved to be our greatest challenge and, quite honestly, we encountered impossible lighting situations in large parts of the cavern. We learned that different lighting systems are used throughout the cavern - probably tungsten, halogen and fluorescent – with widely varying color temperatures. Matters are complicated by the use of mixed lighting systems on many of the larger and more interesting, iconic formations.
NIKON D800E,f/2.8 @ 40 mm, 1/125, ISO 6400, No Flash
Under these circumstances, we found ourselves spending too much time manually adjusting our cameras for proper white balance, only to produce otherwise strong photos with a garish green or deep orange-gold color cast. After several rounds, my practical minded brother, Brian Reinkensmeyer, finally declared, “I am shooting everything in Auto white balance mode. We can fix the color balance back at home ….” And I followed Brian’s excellent advice, for the most part, only to find the same irreconcilable color balance situation in many images back on my trusty home computer monitor.
Using the white balance temperature settings in Photoshop’s RAW converter, I have tried my best to present the mixed lighting cavern images as realistically as possible. To get around this problem all together, we’ve also presented some of of our favorite and most challenging color balance photos in black and white as well, using the Nik Silver Efex Pro plug in for B&W conversion.
VIDEO: Below Ground, Apple iPhone 5
Setting these frustrations aside, for me, the impact of our Carlsbad Caverns visit transcends the sensory experience and emotion of any two dimensional photograph we might present. It was, and remains, an unforgettable exposure (no pun intended) to a whole new underground world - a truly unique living ecosystem created over millions of years. Resting quietly 75 stories below the surface of the earth, in total darkness, the forces of nature converge in a most intriguing geology: a wonder best experienced by quiet time in a vast winding cavern.
Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer
Landscape photography techniques, photo expedition travel planning and hiking tips.