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Carlsbad Caverns: Photos in the Dark

December 28, 2011

The day before Christmas Eve we headed up to Carlsbad, NM and in the blinding snow and cold decided to head to the Caverns. I’d been when I was little before, Sam had never been. There are no bats this time of year but we thought just going would be neat.

Riding the 700 feet down in the elevator (the walk is too much for kids), I clutched my DSLR and hoped that I’d be able to figure out a way to take some shots that actually looked like the cavern. Not the cavern on flash steroids.

And then we discovered how very dark it was. I had no idea how to get a realistic looking picture, froze up, and used the flash to get extra light since my camera was making the angry noise when I tried it in the dark.

So I got some of this ultra lit mess:

Meh. :/


So right around this time my eyes started bleeding – from seeing the crappy pictures on my screen and how very much they did not resemble the caverns. It looked like I was in some kind of brightly lit museum instead of 700 feet underground with minimal light.

I had no idea what would happen if I flipped it to manual and tried to take shots with just the light provided in the cave (which is the dark yellow you’re seeing in the pics) but I decided the worst thing was I’d get a couple of black shots. And then I’d simply use automatic again. And no one would ever know we were in a cave.

I’ve only been at manual for 2 weeks, so bear with me. They are slightly blurry because it shutter had to stay open so long and my hands could not be totally still. I used a really low shutter setting along with a super high ISO (either 3200 or 6400 depending on the shot) just to get the minimal light provided. I also got as close to the light as I could get.

Well, that's better. At least it looks like we're in the dark. These pools are amazing but sadly there aren't a whole ton left.
I wanted to crawl in these. So did Bella. Only, she actually tried.
I'm not even going to pretend I know what's going on here, it's too scientific. That's why I took a picture. Someone else can tell me what it all is.
This was on the way out. We were exhausted and carrying the camera, Bella, the purse, and 3 coats. I actually had to hold the camera up above my head to take it since the cave was so far above us.
I love this shot. It was a place you had to duck through and I spotted it above us. I made everyone behind me wait while I took it. They got all antsy and I was like, "BACK OFF THIS IS AMAZING."

We had fun that day – despite having to lug all our stuff through the cavern and nearly being dead from exhaustion by the time we were done. Bella passed out while I was buckling her into the car seat.

I was pretty happy I got some shots of what the caverns almost looked like, blurry or not. I just wanted to have the light placed there be the illumination instead of my horrid flash.

What thrilled me was knowing you can take shots in crappy lighting. I love night and evening shots, and while daylight is optimal, I wanted to learn how to get a decent picture in all types of lighting. And I’m starting to.

I’ve also learned I despise my flash. I’m sure there are uses for it, but I’m not a fan.

So what do you think? Any tips or tricks for getting great shots in crappy or less light?


  • Zoo Photo Shoot

    January 3, 2012 at 6:31 am

    […] animals, and it was gorgeous out. Sunny, which was strangely harder to take pictures in than the dark cavern […]

  • TheNextMartha

    December 31, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Caves freak me out. That is all.

  • Teresa

    December 29, 2011 at 5:55 am

    These are beautiful! I hate flash on cameras too, it takes away the “realness” of the moment. We have caverns in NY that are similar, a few hours from me. Howe Caverns, if you want to google it. Caverns are magical!

  • Brittney Biddle

    December 28, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Great photos! We use to live in El Paso, TX and would make our way to the caverns about once a year. We LOVED walking through the caverns and spending the day in Carlsbad!

  • Branson

    December 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    I love that you are sharing your learning process! You are doing great! For real! My biggest pointer is to ALWAYS remember to lower that ISO as soon as you leave a situation like this. When I first started in manual I would forget to check the ISO and if you are out in natural light taking portraits the next day you will hate yourself for forgetting to lower it first lol. Also get a decent tripod… That will be your best friend in still life and nature photography because you can keep the ISO lower and lengthen your shutter speed instead. Like Jen said, in this situation it worked out awesome, but as a general rule raising ISO is a last resort. But honestly… I don’t think I could have gotten shots that awesome right away like you… Took me years to start really learning. Keep rocking it!

  • Jen Swedhin

    December 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Dude, I love these! I think they are fantastic! Low-light is the biggest struggle for all photographers, and you are right, built-in flash is horrid. All it does it make things look awful. But I think you did a great job! You remembered that upping the ISO brings in more light, and when doing photos of things like this when you just absolutely need the light, a high ISO is perfectly acceptable. When you are doing portraits, not so much. Small f/number and slow shutter are your other options. And these turned out great, it looks like you are in a wonderful cave. I LOVE the photo with the pool, it makes me feel so serene. I’m so proud of how quickly you are picking this all up, it’s certainly not as easy as people seem to think it is!

  • Leslie

    December 28, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    These are awesome! We’ve had a DSLR for a few years and I still have no clue what I’m doing. I’m thinking about signing up for a class, because most of the good shots I get are totally by accident and I would love to take amazing pictures of Anna.

  • R’s Mom

    December 28, 2011 at 10:55 am

    If you do have to use a flash, an external flash is so much better…you can diffuse it, move it so that the light bounces off of the walls instead of the subject, etc. We just got one (after having had our nice camera for two years), and I am definitely still trying to learn it, but our pictures look so much better than with the built-in flash.

  • Yoga Mama

    December 28, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Great shots! It really does look like you’re on a cave on the last ones. The flash is awful on anything, I use it as little as possible.

  • Alisha

    December 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Love love love that last one! Your effort totally paid off. Manual + crazy high ISO looks like a good idea :). I’ve been into taking pictures of the moon lately, and I’ve just been doing a shutter speed of 250 and ISO of 800. Seems to work pretty well.

    Nice job mama!

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