Freezing temperatures and deep caves make for an unforgiving environment
Cave diving is one of the most extreme forms of diving and it is fraught with a myriad challenges. If you have the experience, training, and proper gear, it can also provide otherworldly experiences and jaw-dropping photo opportunities. But what exactly does cave diving entail and what goes into a successful shoot? Join us and discover the answer beneath Russia’s Ural Mountains as we plunge into the darkness of the Orda Cave—the largest underwater gypsum cave in the world…
It sounds trite, but the main challenge of shooting in caves is darkness. Usually, photographers take pictures in conditions where they have the main lighting, and they just need to add a fill light or accent. In caves, the darkness is absolute, so it’s impossible to make good pictures with on-camera lights alone. If you try, the pictures will be flat and unexpressive.
To get depth in your images, think like a studio photographer. Lights placed at various depths in the frame and in key locations will allow the viewer to be drawn into the picture. Without this depth, your images will lack the sense of scale that creates such a feeling of awe in viewers. To achieve this, you need at least two sources of light placed at different distances from the camera. Then you need to decide how, where, and who will hold these lights, as well as how to synchronize your flashes. In short, underwater cave photographers have a lot of to think about before they go under the water. Planning is crucial, as you don’t have time or energy to waste once in the water.
It may look like studio photography, but this is the first stage of cave shooting
Cave shooting means teamwork. You should plan the dive with your team well in advance. If possible, you should also do a mock setup at the surface and, if possible, test dives. These planning sessions will help identify what you will need to bring on your dive. Often this gear is not only important, it could end up saving your life. Imagine that you and half a dozen people involved in the shoot are swimming for two hours to get to the cavern where it will take place. Halfway through, you can’t stop and say, “Dudes, something isn’t working. We have to cancel the shoot.” In this case, expect to take a beating from your buddies! If you want to avoid getting beat up after your dive, you should have reliable equipment.
Detailed planning is not exciting, but it may save your life
Early on, before I bought my first real strobes, I did a test in a pool. I was looking for flashes that gave sufficiently even lighting. All strobes are not manufactured the same and the differences in construction are reflected in the beauty of the light they produce. Many photographers use strobes with rectangular elements, because they are smaller and lighter. I found in my tests that I prefer ring flashes due to the quality and evenness of light they produce. They are a little bigger and heavier, but for me this was a small price to pay for the results I needed.
For our Orda Cave Awareness Project, I used Ikelite DS160 strobes, which the company graciously provided me. They stood up to a very strenuous environment and I think that these are still some of the best strobes on the market today. Along with the Ikelite housing, my gear had to handle –40°F temperatures on the surface and 28°F underwater! I put that rig through over 300 dives in the White Sea and Orda Cave, and it stood up to the challenge. I value reliability very highly, and this gear handled the most severe conditions with ease.
Viktor’s Ikelite setup has withstood some incredibly harsh environments
My cave shooting requires some very specialized photographic accessories. I strive for evenly distributed lighting using a variety of schemes. I want to be able to create classical studio setups and then switch to something new and creative on the next dive. When operating in remote and hostile environments, I don’t have time to deal with different gear for different shoots. I want one set of accessories and I want it to perform in any situation.
For example, I have 16-foot cables, light synchronizers, T-connectors, specialized knobs to hold strobes, and so on. It is a lot of gear, but thankfully it is all standardized. I have kept everything streamlined by using Ikelite equipment, as they are the only company that makes the complete range of accessories I need. Shooting distributed lighting is difficult enough—I don’t need my accessories to add unnecessary complications. Okay, enough about the gear!
When you’ve got a lot of gear, it pays to keep everything standardized and as simple as possible
One of the most challenging shots involved the use of two back lights. The scene was very hard to create for a variety of reasons. We had to negotiate a long passage into the cave, and I went first. The idea was that I would get into position and then shoot the next two divers in line from the front. These two divers needed to stay near each other, while maintaining a constant distance from the floor. Directly behind these two subjects were two support divers with Ikelite strobes on remote triggers. These divers needed to stay on straight lines with their models and me—a very difficult task that required pinpoint buoyancy and accuracy.
Well, things didn’t go as expected. At the moment my team had to be in position, I turned around and found that the models were in the right place, but my support divers were out of position, not realizing that I had turned around to start shooting. By the time they had scrambled to get into position, the shot had fallen apart. The spot in this cave was not somewhere we could stay and sort things out because exhaled air was dislodging particles from the ceiling.
I was obviously frustrated as we had planned out this shot extensively. After the dive, I asked them what had happened. They told me that the strobes in their hands looked like blasters and they started to play Star Wars! Basically, they had been hiding behind rocks trying to shoot each other! You’ve got to love long hours of boredom and narcosis!
When your support divers aren’t playing Star Wars, the shots can be very impressive!
Eventually, Viktor got the shot of the models and the support divers with the lights correctly aligned
The Lady of Orda Cave
The story goes that there is a lady living in the Orda Cave. She is a beautiful spirit, as charming as her cave. I was so inspired by the legend that I decided to set up a shoot that would capture the image of the Lady. As my model I chose Natalia Avseenko, a two-time world champion and record holder in freediving. I had worked with her before on our Princess of Whales Project, so I knew she was the only one I could trust who could pose in the cold-water cave hundreds of meters from the entrance. However, trying to shoot photos in the home of the Lady turned out to be a very difficult proposition.
The project resulted in only one shot, but we worked in the cave for more than a week. Natalia freedived in the cave for a couple of days to familiarize herself with it. She studied the topography and the experiences of the cave divers, then she combined all that with her own freediving stress management and techniques. After extensive preparation, we started shooting.
It took a couple of days before we figured out the logistics of how we would get to the shooting location and back again. We also needed multiple backup plans to deal with the unexpected. Safety was our primary concern and we left no stone unturned in our planning process. To wrap up our planning, we did several repetitions on the surface. Only when we were sure we knew our roles perfectly did we go into the cave.
The shots involved a large team of very strong divers
Caves give you environments like nowhere else on Earth, but tread carefully
We started simple with easy scenes and light schemes, and by the end of the week, we felt we were ready to go for it. The shot involved nine people and we would be working in a narrow passage. Natalia would stay in the middle of the passage with her leg anchored to the bottom. The first assistant hid behind her with the back light, and to her left was her safety diver. I was in front of Natalie and two additional cameramen were over me. Finally, we had the supervisor and two buddies at the entrance to the passage with underwater scooters ready to transport Natalia to the surface.
The Lady of Orda—the only shot before Viktor’s team had to abort
The moment had finally arrived. Everything was going fine, but then the visibility began to deteriorate. I gave the signal to resurface, and we started to head out of the passage one by one. We stopped in the big hall in the clear water waiting for Natalia with her safety diver. The water in the passage turned to milk. My heart was racing as we waited for Natalia and her safety diver to emerge. I cannot describe what a relief we felt when she finally appeared!
The lesson here is do not expect shots to happen by chance. Cave diving is not open water and mistakes are punished severely. Plan thoroughly and practice with your assistants to figure out who is responsible for every detail. When everything does come together, the results are something that will stick with a viewer for a long time.
Viktor (right) with his trusty Ikelite rig
About Viktor Lyagushkin: Viktor is a National Geographic photographer, Nikon Ambassador, Ikelite Ambassador, and Subal Team Pro photographer. His work was won numerous international photo contests and his exhibitions have been held in various cities across Europe and America. Viktor has dreams of finding a dragon—a real one, alive, fiery, and rattling its scales with each step. He is no madman. He knows that times have changed, and dragons have disappeared forever. But a dragon might still possibly survive in some remote, lonely cave! www.phototeam.pro
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