Sunday, September 13, 2009

Photographing the Timpanogos Caves

I belong to the Wasatch Camera Club and they provided a unique opportunity to go into the Timpanogos Caves and learn to do cave photography. Normally the cave tour is very tightly regulated, with almost no opportunity to stop and take pictures. We got to spend two hours in the caves after everyone else was gone. Very cool.

If you don't know where these caves are, you head over to the Sundance ski resort and then go 15 miles on the scenic Alpine Loop. It is scenic, but as the car driver, you don't get to see much. Something about nonstop hairpin turns on a road that's only one and a half lanes wide keeps your focus.

Now that you have arrived, you still have to get there. Somebody figured it was a good idea to put the parking lot 1,065 vertical feet down from the entrance to the cave. That makes for a pretty nice hike, especially for some of the larger, rounder people I saw heading up.

I can't imagine how much effort went into creating this path up the mountainside. It is very steep and very rocky. To get the basic path, they had to do a lot of blasting, including the creation of three small tunnels. Then somebody sitting in an office somewhere thought that the path needed to be paved. Can you imagine trying to pave 1.5 miles of trail, with 1000+ feet of vertical, basically one bucket at a time, each starting at the bottom?

The only vehicle that could go up the trail is a tiny diesel truck. The trail is narrow, steep and full of tight turns. The bad news is that "the guy" who could drive it up the hill died last year. One ranger can now drive half way up, but they haven't got a replacement yet. This isn't some OSHA rule. This is a job for someone with suicidal tendencies.

Even with the paving, there are still some challenges. The rock crumbles, especially after heavy rains or snow melts. It comes tumbling down the mountain, which can be quite deadly.

Still feeling pretty comfortable about the walk up? How about the rattlesnake warning?

Right near the top is the last restroom. Notice the red line on the pavement? Remember the sign we just read about falling rocks? No way in hell was I stopping to use that restroom.

Oh, did I mention that even though they thought to pave the trail, they forgot the railings? There were dozens of places where if you stumbled off the 4 foot wide path you would fall several hundred feet onto rocks. At the bottom of the picture is the edge of the pavement. In the middle of the picture are some people. I am amazed that they don't lose more children. (They do lose some)

Finally we venture into the cave for some pictures. Shooting pictures in a cave is the most awkward photography I have done.
  • It's dark, so you can't see the settings on your camera.
  • It's dark, so the autofocus doesn't work.
  • Focusing manually is hard. That whole dark thing again.
  • You have to wear your camera backpack on your belly. With it on your back, you are too likely to bump into fragile rock formations.
  • Having the flash on your camera doesn't work very well for lighting. The shadows are in the wrong place. Most of us don't know how control the flash (duration, brightness, ...) without it being part of the camera.
  • There just isn't much room
This was a test shot. Notice my arm in the bottom left, reaching around to try and backlight a stalactite.

The technique is to hold the camera in your right hand and your flash in your left. Decide what you want to shoot. Use a flashlight to figure out the best lighting. Set your camera manually (focus, ISO, and f-stop). Set your exposure to 1 or 2 seconds. Now guess how bright you want your flash and set it manually. Turn off the flashlight. Try to aim the camera correctly in the dark and snap a shot. Before your two seconds are up, use your left hand to manually fire the flash. Good luck!

Until you start getting better, your shots tend to be either completely black, out of focus, or all squiggly like this one. Actually I think this turned out kind of cool.

Try enough and you start getting better at it, even though it feels remarkably goofy.

These caves don't have the huge stalactites and stalagmites that you find in some eastern caves, but there is wonderful variety and beauty. These looked like giant white fangs.

Different minerals make different colors. This looked like someone had tossed all their extra octopi up on a shelf.

Someone left the chocolate soft-serve ice cream on.

This little cone was the closest thing I saw to a stalagmite.

An oozing brown river with some delicate crystalline structures hanging from above.

Attack of the worms!

One room in the last of the three caves was full of different small formations.

Here's a closeup. It almost looks like coral.

I think this was my favorite shot. It has almost everything in it. Double-click on it so you can see the detail.

I think I have a much better idea of how to shoot in a cave, but I don't know when I will get another chance. I asked one of the rangers who had worked there for years and she didn't have any good ideas for how to get back in again.
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