Ten years in the dark

Chapter 9 of 13

Capturing the stillness

Adam Whitehead in Hearts Of Olden Glory, Galeria Garimpeiros, Ogof Draenen. Flash by Tarquin, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin.

Caves are beautiful places. Not in a sheltered river with trees and birds tweeting sort of beautiful. More a stark, yet graceful beauty. From the curved arches of a low crawl to the towering halls, magnificent stal formations and thundering waterfalls, each a creation of nature, and a priceless work of art.

For years, I had admired photographs of caves. In many ways, they seemed to give a view that I could never see, almost making the caves seem more alive and more beautiful. Photographers almost seemed to have the power to direct the cave to look how they wanted, making even the tightest and most uncomfortable passages seem like a treasure, and the smallest stalactites seem like the greatest ever found.

We began to try taking some photographs underground, beginning with a trip to Llanelly Quarry Pot. The tight entrance and short pitch had been followed through a dig into a streamway. We followed this upstream to where the passage became decorated with many different beautiful stals. We took photographs of all that we could see, even at one point daring to take a photograph of the passage.

At the time, we flicked through the photographs and, even though we were disappointed by the number of prints that were out of focus, we were quite pleased with the results. I now keep these photographs tucked away in a book that I almost never look at. We had misunderstood what made cave photography such an art form.

Almost all of the photographs were taken with the electronic flashgun mounted on the camera, with the shutter pressed and then released. This is similar to what a reporter would do, taking a photograph of a celebrity. Often the photos would not have enough light or would lack any definition. On the surface, life appears in a multitude of colours and shades and we are so used to these that when we look at a two dimensional image, it almost seems to jump out of the page, making it look three dimensional. In caves, there is usually a smaller range of colours, and everything seems to be of a shade in between dark brown and light brown. The occasional white or red is provided by the stal, but often this is stained slightly brown also.

With so many similar colours, our photos all appeared to be flat, two dimensional and lifeless. Cave photography requires strategic positioning of the flash gun in order to create shadows, often the only factor giving the impression of a third dimension. We experimented with this on a trip into Agen Allwedd with disastrous results. Five of us trudged into the cave. My dad led my brother my sister, her boyfriend and me into Turkey Streamway, to photograph the formations around The Beehive. This was my sister's boyfriend's first caving trip and he took to it like a duck to a mud puddle. He was training to be in the SAS and exercised regularly, so he had no trouble with the work involved and instead, he sweated profusely in his many layers of boiler suits. Well, if anyone needed a drink ...

The photo that really sticks in my mind was of the four of us youngsters standing in a row along the top of a large amount of flowstone. Wherever the flash was placed, it created unusual shadows and the eventual picture had the flashgun placed lower than the camera. The effect this produced on the photo was not at all what we had intended. The shadows on our faces made us all look like we were telling ghost stories on Halloween and behind us, great shadows like death in his cloak projected against the walls. To top it off, there was one very odd looking face, sweat dripping off it, with an inane grin caught in a frozen laugh. '... And for this portfolio, not even a grade F is low enough!'

The fact that this photo was also out of focus was just another way in which we had failed. To this day, we have never managed to solve that problem. Several photographs from each film will always be out of focus. The reason for that is the lack of light. There is never enough light to see properly through the viewfinder, making the camera difficult to focus. Also, there is a light to focus relationship with all SLR cameras; with more light, you can make the aperture smaller. When the aperture is smaller, the picture will be focussed for a greater distance around the actual focal length. This is all based in the laws of physics somewhere but that was something I forgot after A-levels and do not intend to revise it here.

Steve King almost never has this problem. He always has, and I believe always will use an automatic camera with a built in flash. This makes life easier for him and he does often end up with good pictures, but it does mean that he is restricted to taking close-up pictures with lots of variation in colour.

Our lack of light also caused other problems, the photos were often very dark, and if brightened during development, they invariably became 'washed out' and looked almost like they were in a slight fog. Simply through lack of practice, and through trial and improvement, we still make many mistakes like this today and in most cases, we are lucky to get one good photograph for every three we take.

We tried taking some pictures of White Arch Series in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. A remarkable selection of stalagmites there are known as the Minicolumns, after some larger ones known as the Columns, elsewhere in the cave. The Minicolumns are not huge or tremendously impressive but I have just remarked on them so they are remarkable! It was near here that my dad was descending a pitch and had swung into a short length of virgin passage, unentered because no-one had noticed the open hole. I have no memory of what happened to these pictures. We obviously were not that impressed. I was later to take some photographs there with my wife, producing one of the best pictures I think I have ever taken, in that case of a passage, not the Minicolumns.

We attempted to solve the problems caused by 'washing out' by taking black and white photographs. We all had experience with developing these ourselves so if the shop did a bad job of them, we could redo them. We visited Another World. Jupiter I believe. No, no. We visited Another World, a well decorated area of Galeria Garimpeiros in Ogof Draenen, and took two films worth of photographs. When we looked at the final prints, we could immediately see that they were all perfect in terms of contrast. The shop had done a good job. Unfortunately, we had not. Black rings showed up where a mixture of a bad camera and bad flash had interfered with each other.

Using better equipment, and colour film, we headed into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu to photograph the columns. We experimented with a new technique of leaving the shutter open, and firing the flashgun by hand before closing the shutter. This was much better than before as it allowed us to fire it again if there had not been enough light the first time. We produced two films worth of good photographs. Well, not that good, because we had still not worked out what angles the camera and flash should be at.

We also experimented with the same technique in Gilwern Passage, Draenen, attempting to photograph a long, straight section. The shutter was left open and my dad walked off down the passage, firing the flashgun as he went. Quickly we hit on the problem with this; he had lit up rocks with one flash behind where he had been when he fired the flash a different time. What was left was a half see-through body with rocks showing through it. Yes, it was funny to have ghosts on the picture, but it was not very good photography. This picture had been inspired by one that Clive Westlake, an expert with black and white cave photography, had taken. He had done the same but had left bigger gaps between flash shots. Clive also had more people to help and more flashguns, so each person could have their own.

We had once managed to take a good set of pictures in one of the major South Wales caves. Large passages and close-ups of some intricate formations. Our only problem had been the lack of a wide angle lens; we had had to photograph the large passage in two sections.

One very important factor in cave photography is the absolute lack of light underground. On the surface, no matter how dark it may seem, there is always some light. If a camera shutter is left open enough, it will eventually let in enough light to fog the film. Underground, this would not happen. Underground, cavers create the light, they have absolute control. The problem is learning how to control. Some very effective techniques involve the use of silhouettes, shining a light on the far side of the caver, lighting up what is behind them.

This technique was used with spectacular results in a picture taken by Jerry Wooldridge of Sarawak Chamber. Two photographs were taken, each with four ultra-powerful flashguns. The models holding the flashguns stood facing away from the camera, lighting up the boulders in front of them and the roof far above. Each appeared as a silhouette, black against the brightly lit boulders. Because of the size of the chamber, the models were positioned from up to half a kilometre away with radio control. In the final picture, the two photographs were superimposed on top of each other to give the appearance of eight models standing around the inside of the chamber.

One further way to create a silhouette is to have a third person, who will aim the flashgun directly at the model, towards the camera. With this technique, the walls are beautifully outlined, and the steam emanating from the caver is lit up as an aura. This can be a stunning effect, especially for rounded passages.

We decided to test this out in Dan-Yr-Ogof, one of the best decorated caves in Britain. We were trying to get serious. For the most part, we succeeded, although several of the pictures left a lot to be desired. We were learning, and in many cases, we were learning well. We took some pictures of the Monk, a bright red stalagmite, about half a metre high. I fired the flashgun directly into the Monk, with the flashgun just a few millimetres away. Immediately afterwards, with our lights off, we noticed one of the more unusual features of stal. Tiny amounts of radioactivity causes the stal to glow bright green for several seconds after a bright light has been shone on it.

We took pictures from Straw Chamber through to Cloud Chamber. The Cloud Chamber pictures were taken using several backlighting techniques, but most seemed to be missing something. The photography took several hours, with some of the pictures taking ten or twenty minutes to set up. Standing around in wet clothes with the air around us at eight degrees centigrade made us get very cold. One of the problems encountered in cave photography is finding willing victims who will wait for the half an hour that some of the photographs require to set up and take.

It was at about this time that we found Hexamine Highways and we set off to photograph this. We acquired a smaller flashgun and we used these together, allowing us to light up longer sections of passage. A few of these pictures were good, but most were still missing that little spark. In order to allow both flashguns to fire without the model moving in between, both flashguns had to be fired at the same time. This was achieved by attaching a 'firefly' to the remote flashgun. This would cause the flashgun to fire when it saw the other flashgun fire. These were surprisingly effective and would not trigger if a caving light was shone directly on it and the light flicked on and off. Some people have even used them outside in the daylight! We had originally used these in Llanelly Quarry Pot but had stopped using them for a while in between.

With the next set of extensions in the same series, we were back, still using the same technique. We did many pictures with the first silhouetting technique I described, as this was quick and easy to set up. Several of these photos required better focusing than we were managing. Being almost unable to focus without a lot of cavers all shining their lights together on key rocks, we were resorting to estimating the distance and turning the focus dial until it read that distance. Our estimates were frequently not quite right.

Some new finds in Upstream Passage had finally broken from Waterfall Series into the blank side of Gilwern Passage. We headed into these, amazed by the beauty of the passage shape. A smooth floor was a welcome relief and the passage was wide enough to walk several cavers side by side. We restrained, not wanting to unnecessarily damage the sediment deposits. We attempted to take some photographs with the main flash aiming towards a model, and the second flash aiming away from them, further down the passage. The remote flash trigger failed repeatedly and we gave up. I set up a picture where I would aim the flash towards the camera from behind a rock projection. This worked very well, lighting up large ripple marks worn into the rock in the roof of the passage.

We headed into Sixth Heaven Chamber, where the roof glistened with anthodites and aragonite needles. We made a mess of photographing them. The bright crystals reflected so much light that every photograph ended up blinded. We tried to take some photos of the chamber itself. These were good but I noticed a problem. We had failed to remove a tackle bag from some of the floor that was shown in the photo. I later edited that out with a computer. No, I did not stick a computer in the photo!

We headed into Padlock Passage. We set up our first shot on a tripod, propped up with thin slithers of rock to stop it tumbling down the rocky slope. My dad had prepared the cable release so that he could hold the shutter open without shaking the camera. The problem was that my wife - or girlfriend as she was then - and I had used it so that she could try some cave photography for her media studies Btec, taking photographs in White Arch, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. We had accidentally left the cable release behind. Not to be outdone, we set about trying to manufacture one. We used a key from a sardine can. I have no idea why we would have that with us but we did. We also found another piece of metal from somewhere and, using an elastic band between them, we made hooks with the pieces of metal. These sprung together. One end was tucked under the camera and then, with lights off, the other end was clipped onto the shutter button, pressing the shutter down.

'Open'. My dad stumbled in the dark to where we had decided he would stand. Together we counted; 'three, two, one, fire'. Back he stumbled. 'Close'. Lights back on, we continued down the passage. Our second set-up was much nicer. A large section of passage with a pit in the floor funneling down to end nine metres below. We started in a similar way except that my dad stood behind the camera so only I was in the picture. I directed the shot. 'Open now ... three, two, one.' We fired the flashguns together. 'Covered?'. My dad placed a lens cap in the way of the lens without touching it in the dark. I turned my light onto a dull beam and covering most of it with my hand, I headed around the corner. Now out of sight, I switched my light off. 'Open again'. I fired the flashgun towards the roof in the direction of the camera, lighting up the sculpted rock shape. To this day, that photo still impresses me.

Even now, our technique remains very similar to what we did in that photograph. We use a proper cable release, but we frequently sneak around in the dark so that we can have flashguns in more places than should be possible. We desperately try not to produce ghosts though.

I was learning some very important lessons about photography. I was nothing like as good as Clive Westlake, but I knew how to direct a picture. I learned what would be the best positions for the flashguns and models, where the camera would stand and just what should appear in the picture.

We went on a lightweight trip to North Wales, to visit some of the very few big caves that are found there. Access to the longest and largest, Ogof Llyn Parc, was not available so we headed for a smaller cave called Ogof Hesp Alyn. Drilling of a complex mine system nearby had resulted in the draining of this naturally flooded cave. I had seen many pictures of this cave and it looked fairly large, with a beautifully round pitch and a few difficult traverses. These pictures did not give any idea of what the cave was like. The first part of the cave was small and very muddy, smelling of rotting vegetation. Lots of irritating slippery crawls followed accompanied by occasional large sections with annoying, slippery boulders. The pitch was not very impressive. It just looked awkward and not very rounded at all. The photographs I had seen were an artwork, clearly not representing the cave, but more what the photographer wanted to see.

On the same trip to North Wales, we decided to look at the mine that had drained Ogof Hesp Alyn; Sea Level Tunnel and the Halkyn Mine complex. Large shafts dropped up to two hundred metres to the bottom level, the Sea Level Tunnel. We descended a one hundred metre deep one on ladders and scaffold that had been set up down the entire depth of the shaft. Part way down, we took a side passage and looked at the old ammunition stores and now dangerous shoring that was no longer supporting the roof. We climbed down into solid rock where small passages ended at balconies overlooking immense mined caverns. Some of these easily matched the size of the largest natural passages and chambers in the country. We had only brought one large flash gun with us, and this was pitiful in the size of passage available, so we resorted to taking pictures of the mining implements left behind. Many of these had been lovingly restored.

At one point, we passed a side passage over ten metres high and wide. It was square cut and I could not resist the temptation. I told my dad to prepare the camera while everyone carried on past us. I ran into the passage holding the flash. 'Ready? Open, fire, close. Let's go!'. No planning and no time gave us one of the best pictures I feel that we have ever taken, although the camera could have been aimed better.

Further through the mine, a railway line passes over a two metre deep stretch of brown water. The sleepers between the rails had rotted and the way along was to balance along the submerged rails, feeling where they were with your feet. Well, my dad failed, missing his footing and plunging into the water between the rails. He did this again on the way out, almost completely covering his head. On both occasions, he got his priorities straight and sacrificed his warmth and dryness to save the camera, holding it above his head. Who said caving is fun, eh?

Further through the mine, we headed up a side passage where the crystal clear stream flowing beside the path was tinted blue with copper derivatives. Long streamers of an unusual stringy mould grew from the wood at the edge of the stream channel, some over fifty metres in length. At one point, fronds of this mould swirled into the stream, with giant black laceworks tipped with white. The opportunity was too good to miss so I crouched beside the stream to give scale to the picture and with a camera mounted flash, my dad took the picture. I had chosen, on this trip, to wear a bright green oversuit and I believe it was that that made this picture one of the best we have ever taken. Rusty rails run along the edge of a turquoise stream, with black and white mould fronds, and a caver in green with a dark blue helmet. The variations in colour produced a very good effect. Normally, when taking a caving picture, models in South Wales wear blue, black and red oversuits, but the material picks up mud so they inevitably appear brown, just like the rock.

All this talk about models may induce images of half naked women in swimming costumes but caving models are more often not so striking. Modeling in itself is an art, and one I think I am learning quite well, despite my early attempts in Llanelly Quarry Pot and several other caves. I had tried some modeling techniques in Ogof Tarddiad Rhymney, trying to work out how to stand or pose in pictures. We had taken what I considered to be a good set of photographs, but I will never know. None of those pictures came out well at all, although the pictures we had taken of the stal were all good enough. We had had problems with the camera.

Further trips to The Land Down Under in Ogof Draenen improved my directing techniques as I told my dad the set-up for a photo - without a camera on hand - and when he took the photo later, it won the British Cave Research Association's annual competition for best colour print. I am unsure if he remembered what I had said, or decided on his own to do the same thing, but either way I feel I had contributed, probably just because I want some of the glory.

The finds in Dollimore Series, Draenen, had presented us with an opportunity. Tim Guilford had discovered a small chamber in Dogleg Complex containing about as many helictites as in all the other caves in the area put together. Small stalactites lined the many fractures in the roof but were almost invisible as they had sprouted a mass of intricate branches. Dominating the chamber were a series of stalagmite columns that had grown underneath some of these, stopping as they made contact with them, making columns one and a half metres tall. We were later to rediscover this chamber from the other side.

Three of us headed for the chamber, lugging heavy bags of camera equipment. My dad had always been the person who held the camera, so was usually the one who got the credit, something which I still feel should be changed. In a film, the director is given the credit, not the cameraman. I was the person who held the flash and modeled, as well as setting up many, but by no means all, of the photographs. Also with us was Mick, a Brynmawr Caving Club member. On reaching the chamber over four hours later, we looked at the delicate floor. We agreed that our boots would cause too much damage so we took them off. Under normal conditions, cavers do not enter the chamber, and instead stop at the point of entry and look from there.

The purpose of taking these pictures was mainly for conservation. Cavers already knew the chamber existed, and if we made pictures of the stal freely available, they would not be tempted to enter to see the stal from a different angle, as they could do that by using the pictures. The pictures can be viewed on the internet at no charge.

One of the pictures here was easily the best that I have ever set up. Facing the columns, the main flashgun was placed to the right of the camera, pointing at them. This would create shadows helping to give depth to the picture. The problem with shadows is that they can be so black as to be overpowering. To counteract this, I placed a weaker flashgun to the left of the camera, which would shine on the shadows, and help to brighten them just a little, softening their harsh edges and putting the viewers' concentration back on the stal. It was absolutely perfect, and really showed the beauty of the chamber. This double flash technique had been used to great effect in many of the close-up photos and nearly all three films worth of pictures came out immaculately. It was difficult deciding which ones should not be included as they all looked so good.

Three hours later, we finally put our boots back on our cold, sore feet, and headed to another chamber in the same area. Here, different types of stal prevailed. Hundreds of helictites grew directly out of the wall, each like tiny arms nearly 30 cm long. At the ends of each, they branched into tiny fingers, or sometimes hundreds of anthodites. This chamber required similar caution to the last one but the helictites were not so vulnerable. These pictures would serve to allow cavers to see the helictites, even if they were not up to the long caving trips required to reach them.