CUCC Expedition Handbook


Seeing all these excellent (and otherwise) photos on the website may have inspired you to say "How can I take photos like that?" or maybe "What a load of crap, I bet I can do better than that". Either way, it is a sad fact that CUCC's photography today is about as good as its surveying 10 years ago. Writing "how to do it" guides and ranting at people seems to have caused a lot of progress on the surveying front, so we clearly need such a guide for expo photography.

However, as yet, no one has volunteered to write one, probably because no-one is really qualified to do so... So this document is just an outline of (a) what has been done up to now and (b) what needs doing in the future without much (c) how to do it.

What has been done up to now ?

Many people take cameras to expedition, a few make it up to Top Camp, and a very few get underground, where the equipment may or may not work, people may or may not cooperate or get too cold and photographers may persist or give up. Hence there are plenty of photos of Base Camp, festering, dead cars etc., quite a lot of the walk in, Top Camp, the plateau, a fair number of entrances, and a very few good underground shots.

Getting a collection of photos together to make an "expedition slide set" has taken years, and is still not really satisfactory. There must be some more good pictures out there ? August 1996 saw the first 99 slides (they missed one) put onto Photo-CD, and a start made in getting these onto the website. This is proving quite hard work, because digitisation is not very tolerant of poor exposure, especially different exposure across the photo. Correcting this is pretty time-consuming, though it can reveal unexpected detail that was never really visible in slide shows.

Quite a bit of "notebook" photography has been done with a video camera and digitiser card. This is a handy way of getting quick pictures of entrances and approach routes (and much cheaper than Photo-CD, if you have the equipment), but the quality leaves a certain amount to be desired (it would be improved by a slightly less cheapo video digitiser). Some pictures are also here courtesy of video of postcard-sized prints.

For 1997, a 2700 dpi transparency scanner should ensure that your photos will make it to the web site quickly, without having to wait to make up a set of 100 for a Photo-CD :-) Experience has also shown that the final results are somewhat better as we have more control at the scanning stage. See the Lost World virtual tour.

Since the above paragraphs were written, there has been a vast increase in the prevalence of digital cameras. Unfortunately as these are even more expensive than their film counterparts people are exceedingly unwilling to take them underground. Hence underground photography has been rather thin on the ground of late; we desperately need more photos of the further reaches of Steinbrückenhöhle, for example.

What needs doing in the future ?

A number of photographs specifically illustrating topics in the Expedition Handbook would be useful. We would prefer that this involved a practice rescue in Yorkshire rather than a real one in Austria. Likewise, a bit of photography during a practice survey trip would be good. Another topic, on which we have neither words nor pictures, would be expedition rigging.

Almost every entrance needs documenting photographically, to make it easier to find and identify. Some aerial photos would really help here. As a temporary measure, there are various photos taken from the Bräuning Wall. With a bit of surface-survey visualisation software, these may even get a few entrances marked...

The major need is for quality underground photographs. Of the couple of score or so representing the 21.5km of Kaninchenhöhle, almost all had to have quite a lot of hacking about to make them look acceptable on the medium of the computer screen, though this has become rather easier now we have access to a transparency scanner. In particular we are short of pictures of the following:

and we could do with rather more of

Photos showing approach routes would be useful, as would photos taken (and carefully documented) during surface surveys.

How to do it ?

Scenario: Photographer gathers together all the equipment needed for a trip. Three photographers and several helpers have volunteered. Photographer comes back late and knackered from one trip - postpones the photographic trip. Weather is crap - no one goes up to Top Camp, another postponement. One of the photographers has to go home - hands all gear to another. Expo dinner - no one doing anything. Finally the trip is on. Photographer at Top Camp religiously tests all the equipment - it works perfectly.

Dodging showers, the team heads up to and into the cave. Through Triassic Park and to the scene of the first photo. All flash equipment fails to go off. Change connectors. Fails. Use slaves. Fails repeatedly until second photographer fires an electronic flash at the roof to see how high it is - slaves fire bulb flashes in dazzling coruscation of light - no cameras with shutters open. Try again, bulbs fail to fire. After about an hour and a half, everyone freezing and irate, give up and move to another site. Similar performance, but with a stronger, colder draught. Cave now floods as mega-thunderstorm occurs on surface. Party retreat along Triassic Park, pausing for one or two more attempts. Exit, apparently after total failure.

In fact, the second photographer, who hasn't had his gear out of its ammo can since his previous expedition photographic trip three years earlier, does turn out to have a few usable shots.

This is probably how not to do it, though it does illustrate the problems. Can anybody write something more positive?

More hints'n'tips, mainly on what not to do.

Choice of gear

Just a few brief notes:

Camera: preferably use a robust camera with minimal electronics (the most sophisticated of metering is useless in the dark :-) For black and white work, many prefer 2¼" square format (120) film, often using an old folding camera. For colour, 35mm is almost universal. If you want an SLR, the old Zenith ones can stand being dropped a considerable distance in an ammo can. They also fulfil the final criterion on cost: don't take a camera underground unless you can afford to write it off.

Some cavers in recent years have had some success with pocket-size digital cameras. These are much more delicate than a film camera, but vastly smaller and lighter and easier to carry around. It seems unlikely that these will supplant film cameras for 'artistic' photography with fifteen different flashguns in enormous chambers, but they have the vast advantage of allowing you to see on the spot if you've taken a completely blank exposure. They are probably ideally suited to 'notebook' style photography, just photographing anything you find without worrying overmuch about quality: any photos are better than no photos.

Flash: You can get more light from a bulb flash than electronic, and they are less sensitive to damp, though still far from wholly reliable. Bulbs cost a lot more per flash than an electronic gun, and are less reliable as the master flash for setting off slave units. Some slave units also fail to fire bulb flashes, or can even be damaged by them. And finally, it is getting hard to obtain flashbulbs as they are widely regarded as obsolete.

Film: If possible, use more light, rather than faster film. In big passage or chambers, this may not be feasible. 400 ASA film is fine for postcard sized prints, but dreadfully grainy for enlargements, for projection, or to be scanned for the website. The best results for scanning seem to come from 100 ASA negative film - go for amateur films, which have more exposure latitude, cope with a greater contrast range in the subject, and are invariably cheaper than professional emulsions. 64 or 100 ASA seems to be about right for slides.

Protection: the classic is the ex-military ammunition tin or "ammo-can". There are two sizes useful for photography, 3½" and 6". The latter are really heavy and clumsy to carry, whilst the former are a very tight or impossible fit for most SLRs with the lens on (and carrying a camera with the lens off is asking for shit inside). Whichever is used, the inside should be padded with old karrimat or something similar. Don't rely on the little metal handle - these have been known to pop their spot welds - use some chunky nylon tape, especially in vertical cave.

One alternative is the Peli or Otter polycarbonate case (the Peli ones are famously guaranteed against all damage except shark attacks, bear attacks and children under 5). These appear to be genuinely indestructible and much lighter than ammo cans, but they are expensive. Sponsorship from Peli in 2004 might bring a few more into circulation.

Another option is the plastic "BDH" or "Daren" drum. These are lighter, have less awkward corners to catch in crawls, but are more difficult to fit rectangular objects into. They are also slightly more prone to fall over, and the lids are more easily mislaid. "Rocket" tubes are similar.