Don’t let the title fool you. There are few challenges greater for the amateur photographer than trying to capture the sights buried deep within Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico.
We left El Paso Wednesday for a road trip with our eldest (12-year-old) grandchild. That evening we arrived at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns in time for the bat flight at dusk. Unfortunately, between the drought, brush fires, and lack of insects, this year’s migration of the Mexican Free-tailed Bats was one of the worst in recent memory. And the bat flight on Wednesday evening was very poor. Instead of the usual hundreds of thousands, I estimate we probably saw only a few hundred come out to feast on the tasty local flying insect population.
But is was Thursday’s scheduled descent into the caves that really drew us here this trip. I’ve been going to Carlsbad Caverns since I was around nine years old, and over the years I’ve made this trek probably well over a dozen times. This was my first attempt at capturing the vistas using a digital camera. Past attempts were made with my old 35mm gear.
Flash photography simply won’t do in the caverns, although that doesn’t keep those who don’t know what they’re doing from trying it, much to my amusement. To do it right, you really have to balance the camera on something (a tripod would be far to cumbersome on this outing) and resign yourself to taking long exposures (up to a second in some of these examples).
As for the choice in cameras, the sensor on a point-and-shoot is probably going to be too small to avoid the dreaded digital noise problem common with these cameras when using high ISO settings in dark conditions. Thus, this time I went with my full-framed (35mm sized sensor) DSLR. And since the large sensor on a full-frame camera is very tolerant of high ISO settings, I pushed to the limit on this photographic endeavor and took my Canon EOS 5D up to ISO 1600. Don’t even think of trying that with most cameras, even most DSLRs.
So, no tripod and a park prohibition against even touching cave formations means you have to get really inventive. But we’ve covered this problem before, albeit with a much smaller point-and-shoot. On this shoot I was faced with balancing a very large camera and lens configuration that weighs upwards of three and a quarter pounds (nearly 1.5 kilos)! Fortunately, the walkways are frequently lined not only with stainless steel railings (tubular, and thus useless here), but also with rock and cement “curbs” ranging in height from a few inches to several feet. Finding reasonably level portions upon which I could place my camera proved to be remarkably easy. Other shots were made using signage for balancing and bracing.
As for white balance, forget it. I wasn’t even going to think of attempting beating the camera’s automatic white balance setting on this difficult lighting. Thus, the pictures you see below have not been retouched in any manner other than minor tweaks in contrast, curves, and the occasional crop. The colors, tint, and white balance are completely untouched.
For some fun, scroll you cursor over the pictures below for the titles. One of them is an inside joke (image versus my “personal favorite”). See if you can find it: