Editor’s Note: The image “Big Cave Chamber” won Best of Show in the DPG/WetPixel Masters Imaging Competition 2022. In this article, Argentinean/American photographer Martin Broen explains how he captured his amazing black-and-white panoramic shot of a big flooded cave chamber of the Chiibal Xuux cave system in Mexico.
The winning image, captured with a Sony a7R Mark III using two Bigblue video lights (f/4.5, 1/13s, ISO 6400)
Most international travel was restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was one noticeable exception: US citizens were still able to travel to Mexico. It was this that led to me unexpectedly becoming a passionate full cave photographer of the cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. With the proper cave training, you can access hundreds of different dive sites all within driving distance of one another, each one with its own unique features and photographic possibilities. Over time, I became obsessed with trying to capture each location in a special way, and the pandemic provided the opportunity we sometimes lack as photographers to focus on one type of photography for a prolonged period of time, allowing for constant experimentation and evolution of different techniques.
On each trip, I would take two or three new ideas or gadgets to try. Some were more successful than others, but all of them improved my knowledge and understanding of what is required to capture great images in caves. Different types of light sources, diffusers, off-camera lights, light rails, tripods—I systemically tried dozens of different tools and techniques, and photographed over 200 different cenotes in the process.
One of my many experiments: underwater light trails (f/5, 30s, ISO 6400)
Big stalactites in the main tunnel of cenote Chiibal Xuux (f/4, 1/20s, ISO 6400)
People often ask me how many dives in the same location does it take to shoot images like this, and they are often surprised to learn that many of my best photos were captured in only one dive, often in caves I was exploring for the very first time. I have discovered a tried-and-tested technique that is very effective. I first look for a nice open space in the cenote in which to position my model. Then I place a light directly behind the model, with one or two more off-camera lights in different locations to illuminate the cave. I then shoot a sequence of images within a 15-minute time frame before removing all of the equipment and leaving safely back to the surface.
The secret to success is having an almost telepathic understanding with your model and dive buddy. After nearly 300 cave dives with the same person, we developed our own style of diving and set of light signals to communicate efficiently in the dark, growing together as both explorers and as a photography team. We gradually developed skills and pushed the limits together, partaking in longer and more-challenging dives as time went by, knowing that we would always be there to help each other if something ever went wrong. We need to celebrate our dive buddies, cave guides, models, and light assistants! In my case, all of them are the same person, Nicolas Casella from CenoteXperience in Playa del Carmen. Nico has become a key component in my success shooting in cenotes.
Nico making a jump at cenote Chiibal Xuux (f/6.3, 1/15s, ISO 6400)
The Winning Shot
The black-and-white image that won Best of Show in the DPG/WetPixel Masters Imaging Competition 2022 was captured in the Chiibal Xuux chamber (“Wasp Sting” in Maya), my buddies’ favorite cave system. Nico has been diving, guiding and training cave divers in Playa del Carmen for 18 years and has been responsible for the original exploration of dozens of new cenotes, but this one was the very first he managed to connect as a system in 2019.
The shot was taken in the biggest chamber in the Chiibal Xuux cave system, close to a line that leads to Cenote “Euforia”, a chamber big enough to require a three-shot panorama with a 15mm lens. A 33,000-lumen Bigblue light behind my buddy gives the sense of scale in the photo, and a secondary 15,000-lumen light shooting sideways from behind the formations on the left brings volume to the cave and highlights the texture of the thousands of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The dark environment forced me to shoot wide open at f/4.5 and ISO 6400, while holding my breath and gently squeezing the trigger to shoot a 1/13s handheld panorama while moving between sequences of photos due to the percolation in the cave. I was immediately happy with the end result, and I am thrilled to have won my second Best of Show award in the DPG/Wetpixel Masters contest with one of my absolute favorite cenote images.
Big speleothems at Chiibal Xuux (f/5, 1/20s, ISO 6400)
Martin Broen is an industrial design and innovation expert who loves nature and exploring the underwater world. To see more of his awesome images, visit his website, www.martinbroen.com, or his Instagram page.
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