Caverns and Tripods

One of my favorite shots of formations in the cave

One of my favorite shots of formations in the cave

Caves are dark.  Really dark.  In fact, the darkest places on earth.  They are one of the few places you can go where no light penetrates.  Of course, most cave tours don’t let you experience total darkness.  This would be a problem trying to make your way through the narrow, rocky path with slippery spots, tripping hazards, and so many places to hit your head that the guide has special names for the worst of them.

Sabre Tooth Tiger--definitely could have used a tripod

Sabre Tooth Tiger–definitely could have used a tripod

But, some cave tours do turn off the lights for a moment so you can experience what total darkness is really like.  The expression “can’t see your hand in front of your face” came from cavers.  It is absolutely true when you are in total darkness–you have to imagine  your hand is where you think it is because there is no visual confirmation.

The Iguana formation

The Iguana formation

Obviously, just about anything that contains the root “photo” in it doesn’t work in total darkness–photosynthesis, a photodiode, photoreactions, and certainly not photography.

After all, “photo” means light and when we’re talking about total darkness, we’re talking about rendering anything based on light useless.  Our own eyes as well as our cameras are unable to see anything in total darkness.

Mini-stalagtites growing from the ceiling

Mini-stalagtites growing from the ceiling

That said, I wasn’t trying to shoot in total darkness.  I was trying to shoot in the dim lights provided on the tour.  This isn’t much light.  There are a few choices to make in these conditions:

  1. Crank up the ISO setting as high as is tolerable.
  2. Sacrifice depth of field for a larger aperture opening to allow more light in.
  3. Use a flash.
  4. Use long exposures and set the camera on a tripod for sharpness.
Waterfall formation

Waterfall formation

I decided against choice 4.  While I could have asked to see if bringing along a tripod would be a problem, I felt there was too much risk of damaging formations and/or tripping over them if I were trying to carry my big, bulky tripod through the cave.

I brought a flash unit, but decided against using it because, in part, of the un-predictability of flash bouncing off strange shapes and formations.  Plus, I only had one flash and it was going to have to be on my camera.  I was confident I would not get the kind of lighting I needed from that.

Big room view

Big room view

I did open up the aperture a bit (from f/22 to f/16) to get a slightly faster shutter speed even if meant slightly less depth of field.  I definitely cranked up the ISO setting.  However, I drew the line at 8000 ISO.  Higher ISO settings get too noisy for my tastes, especially when the scene is quite dark.

This meant shutter speeds as slow as ⅖ of a second.  That may sound like barely an instant, but it’s actually quite challenging to hold a camera perfectly still that long.  In the end, I was mostly pleased with the images I got, but all would have benefitted from a tripod.

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Missing the Moon

I am out walking late again.  It’s 11PM and the moon is full.  As I cross the street with Tisen, I realize I forgot to check the lunar calendar.  I’d been experimenting with shooting the full moon on the horizon.  It’s a more interesting subject that way.

Last August, I discovered the moon was rising behind the Walnut St bridge and attempted to capture people walking in front of it on the bridge.  This was a great concept, but the lack of a tripod led to poor execution.  Since then, I’ve only managed to catch the full moon in November.

Tonight, I look up and see thin, high clouds blowing across the sky, making me feel like I’m watching time lapse photography of a moon rise.  As the clouds pass over the moon, the moon forms a brilliant ring.  As the clouds and light continue to shift, the ring turns a glowing red.  Inspired by a much better photographer, I pull out my iPhone and attempt to capture a shot.  The first picture in the gallery is the best I could do.

A couple of lessons learned on iPhone photography:  1)  even the iPhone 4S with it’s new improved camera doesn’t handle night landscape photography well, and 2) if you’re going to try to get a decent shot of the moon with an iPhone, it’s best not to be holding the leach of a feisty dog while you’re shooting.  No matter how adorable Tisen is, he only assists my photography when he is the model.

About the time I realize I cannot possibly get a decent shot, the ring around the moon shifts from a glowing red to a circular rainbow.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Unfortunately, the colors do not show up in the iPhone shot and the clouds move on, the rainbow disappearing as quickly as it appeared.

As much as I want to return home to get out my DSLR and tripod, I know Tisen needs more time.  We complete our lap of the park until Tisen is satisfied.  Then, I rush us home as quickly as possible.  There is a huge bank of clouds blowing in and I’m sure I can get set up while it’s still passing over the moon.

I rush to grab my tripod bag.  I knock over a glass, drop the bag, and fall across the couch, waking my dozing husband.  After assuring him all is well, I get out my camera bag, pull out the camera, find the CF card and stick it back in the camera, attach the 1.4x extender and the 100-400mm lens, slide on the wireless remote, locate the remote, and snap the whole thing into the tripod.  I carry it all outside, locate the moon, position the tripod, and finally find the moon through my viewfinder just as the last wisp of cloud blows away.

All that’s left is the naked moon, overly bright and relatively uninteresting.  I’m fairly certain I can see the man in the moon laughing at me.

Tripod Experiments

This morning, I am like a kid at Christmas–although I opened my “gifts” the night before.  I have finally invested in a good tripod and the pieces are now all here that will allow me to use it.  I am up before the sun (although that’s not saying a whole lot these days).  I have read all the directions (yes, I do that) and now I just need to screw the bullhead mount into the legs and attach the quick-release plate to the camera.  I’m too impatient to wait for the sunrise, so I contemplate which lens to use for long exposure experiments.  I decide on the 17-55mm lens, which will work equally well if I’m still shooting when the sun catches up with me.  I put the lens on the camera along with my other recent purchase, a wireless remote.

I put my head through the strap on the camera (a habit I’ve developed to prevent camera drops given my clumsiness) and pick up the tripod.  I walk out to the balcony and start setting up the tripod.  This is a challenge.  The balcony is not large and there are 2 chairs and a side table sitting on it.  Plus, it is set in an alcove of the building so that the opening is surrounded by brick and a large, wide “post” at the corner divides the view to the East from the view to the South, reducing the angles available.

I think about going up to the roof to shoot, but then I look at my watch.  It’s just now 6AM.  I imagine dragging all my gear down the hall and up the stairs and then walking across the roof to set up.  Now, this might not seem like a potential act of inconsideration to ones neighbors, but we happen to live under the corner of the roof where they installed a large deck with patio furniture and a grill.  Our next door neighbor lives under the deck as well.  Every night when neighbors who don’t live under the deck go up there to hang out, grill, or have a party, what we hear is a herd of elephants trumpeting and thumping across the roof.  We finally figured out that the trumpeting part is caused by dragging furniture across the deck (for some reason, no one seems to ever pick the furniture up).  The thumping is just walking.  I think about Pat still sound asleep in the bedroom and our next door neighbor (who may or may not be home) and decide that I will just stay on the balcony for this morning.

I find that with the two legs in front in a single plane, pressed against the railing, and the leg in back fully extended to brace the tripod in place, I achieve two things:  first, I reduce the floor space needed and, second, I get the camera lens out from behind the brick frame of the balcony opening.

Excited to start shooting and noticing there is plenty of traffic this morning, I decide to play with getting streaks of light from the traffic below.  I pick a composition and find that while getting the camera where I want it and getting it to stay there is far easier with my new equipment, I still feel restricted compared to not using a tripod.  But, I wouldn’t be able to get the shot I’m about to take at all without a tripod, so I figure I will learn to appreciate the increased flexibility in shutter speeds over the loss of speed in composition.

I’m all set and ready to shoot except for one thing–I forgot the radio control for my wireless remote.  Now I have a dilemma.  With the tripod set up the way it is, it’s possible that a strong wind could topple it over the balcony railing.  Plus, I have blocked myself in and will either have to climb over the one fully extended leg and a chair or move the tripod, which I just got set up.  I gently rock the tripod slightly to see how secure it is.  I stand still for a moment and just feel the wind to see how strong it is and if it’s steady or gusting.  You would think I was about to take flight vs run inside to get something.  I decide to shorten the fully extended leg without moving anything else.  This sets the tripod more firmly on the ground and gets the camera back away from certain disaster.  However, it still requires climbing over obstacles for me to get back inside to get the remote.  I manage this without bumping the tripod and without tripping–anyone who knows me would be proud.

Now, with remote in hand and tripod back in place, I discover a new challenge.  My camera won’t shoot if it’s not in focus.  And, because I’ve chosen a single-point focusing method (which I always use because I like to pick the one thing I really want to be in focus), it cannot focus with the current composition.  The single-point is off in the dark.  When I am not using a tripod, I just point at what I want to be in focus, press the button halfway down, and then compose my shot.  But I can’t easily use this process with the tripod.  I decide to set a different focusing mode.  However, it’s dark and the top of the camera is above eye-level, so I am standing on my tippy-toes trying to change controls I can’t see.  I decide to recompose so that the focus point has something it can focus on instead.  Now, finally, I start shooting.

Playing with the car lights is fun.  But, eventually, the sun does rise.  I try shooting clouds with just a hint of light catching their edges, but the wind is blowing them around too fast for my slow shutter speeds.  Then, as the sun makes it’s way above the horizon, the light turns gray.  As it turns out, the sky is so heavily overcast that not even the sun can make an impression.  There is no drama this morning–it’s just like someone turned up a dimmer switch.  Realizing that it’s time for me to move on with my day, I move my gear inside.  This is achieved far more easily than setting it up was–I just shorten the legs and bit and pull them together, walk through the door and stand the tripod back up on the floor.  There’s more space inside and I can leave the camera set up all the time if I like–it’s just one more thing for me to trip over.

While I can’t say that any of my photos turned out quite the way they looked in my head, I did get some good, long light trails.  It’s a fun effect to play with more in the future.  But for now, I must get to work.