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Before I get into this tutorial, we first have to make a distinction between wild caves and commercial caves. Wild caves are what the name suggests – wild. There are no guides, lights and paths. They are a good deal more difficult to photograph and can even be dangerous to navigate. I will focus this tutorial on commercial caves, as they are probably the most likely cave you as travellers will visit. They are usually well lit already and you won’t have to worry about banging your head in the dark or bringing along a whole array of flashes.

The Reed Flute Cave is such a commercial cave, located about 5km outside of downtown Guilin. It gets its poetic name from the reeds growing outside the cave, which apparently can be used for making flutes. Over 180 million years old, Reed Flute Cave – according to numerous poems scribbled on the walls – seems to have been popular around the year 800 during the Tang Dynasty, but was only rediscovered in the 1940s when a group of refugees stumbled upon it in a search for shelter. The cave is a fascinating world of limestone formations and like many other caves in Asia, this one is lit up beautifully in different colours. Add in water which reflects the stalagmites and stalactites and you won’t even know where to look first. There was also hardly anyone there and they had no problem with people bringing tripods. It’s a great place to visit if you are in the area, make sure to check it out if you travel to Guangxi Province.

What equipment I brought along:
I’m no fan of carrying around everything but the kitchen sink, so I always try to plan ahead for the location I’m about to shoot. For the Reed Flute Cave, I knew I was going to deal with big, open caverns and only brought along my Canon 700D with the Sigma 10-20 super-wide lens on, as well as a tripod and a remote shutter release. I had my regular 18-55mm lens as well, but didn’t end up using it.

Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, China

Canon 700D, Sigma 10-20 super-wide @ 10mm, ISO 100, f/11, 25 seconds.

Shoot in RAW Format

This is a photography tip in general – you should be shooting your photos in RAW format at all times anyway. If you shoot RAWs, as opposed to JPGs, you get more data to work with in post-processing. With RAWs you can record greater levels of brightness, which means there are a lot more tones from black to white. All this additional detail in turn makes it a lot easier to, for example, correct under or over exposed images and white balance in post processing. And because a lot more data from the sensor gets recorded, later editing won’t cause a drastic reduction of quality.ย Since caves are, even if lit up properly, still pretty dark, shooting in RAW makes it a lot easier to make the adjustments needed later on.

Bring a Tripod & Remote Shutter Release

To get a sharp image during longer exposures, you obviously need a tripod. Make sure to check ahead with the cave of your choosing whether or not you can bring a tripod inside. Some places won’t allow it al all, require you to get special permission or only let you show up with one before opening or after closing time. It’s always best to get informed ahead of time to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

If your cave doesn’t allow tripods, bring along a big backback and set your camera on it for a stable and more elevated shot. Fact is, that caves are too dark to shoot handheld without amping up the ISO too much.

Well, a tripod is a must, but did you know that even the tiny vibrations from you pressing the shutter button cause your image to become less sharp? To avoid that, bring along a remote shutter release, or if you don’t have one, set your camera to the 2 second (good) or 10 second (even better) timer. If you want to go the extra mile, lock up your mirror as well. This setting flips up the mirror way before the shutter opens, which allows the vibrations to die down before exposing.

Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, China

Canon 700D, Sigma 10-20 super-wide @ 10mm, ISO 100, f/11, 25 seconds.

Lower your ISO

This one depends a bit on the cave you are visiting. If you are in a incredibly well lit cave like the Reed Flute Cave and are allowed to use a tripod, you are in luck and can keep the ISO at 100. In darker caves, you might have to up the ISO to 400 to 800 to gather enough light. Keep in mind though, that the lower the ISO the better. Do a couple test shots to see how low you can go.

Bring a Wide-Angle or Super-Wide Lens

Some caves have many narrow tunnels, but mostly they consist of big, open caverns. To capture it all and show the whole impressive scale of it, bring at least a wide-angle lens, if not a super-wide if you can. I brought along my Sigma 10-20 super-wide and was glad to have had that width. There are of course some shots you could do with a zoom lens, but if you had to settle for one, I’d say bring a wide or super-wide. It is probably best if you choose the lens you want to use ahead of time and stick with it, as switching lenses in damp, dusty caves obviously isn’t ideal.

Focus Manually

When your scene is too dark, your autofocus will be confused and either refuse to focus at all, or it might focus on the wrong thing resulting in a blurry image. Even in a fairly well lit cave, don’t take the risk and just manual focus instead. Go to your liveview and use the zoom button to zoom in as far as you can on the spot you want to focus on and then play with the focus until the image on the monitor is sharp. This spot should be somewhat lit, and if the cave doesn’t provide this already, bring along a little flashlight and use that to help you focus. If everything in your shot is far enough away and you have a very dark scene, you can also just focus on infinity.

Use Shapes, Shadows and Reflections to Your Advantage

Photographing caves is all about composition and finding interesting patterns and formations in the rock. Often there is water and you can incorporate the reflections into the image like I did with the image below. If there is colourful lighting, play with it. You can see this shot below is very similar to the first photo I showed, but here I used the lights at the edge of the path to create a shot that looks like a scene straight out of a science fiction movie.

Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, China

Canon 700D, Sigma 10-20 super-wide @ 14mm, ISO 100, f/11, 25 seconds.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

8 Responses

  1. Calli

    Great article Tiffany, with lots of great tips! Last summer I finally upgraded my DSLR camera body and got one with live mode, it didn’t seem like a big deal at first but the ability to manually focus by zooming in on live mode has become one of my favorite photography “tricks”. It’s made shooting in low light so much easier. Unfortunately we don’t have a full sized tripod that we travel with so that will definitely be our next purchase ๐Ÿ™‚

    I really love your photos, with the reflections it took me a few seconds to try and figure out what was ceiling and what was cave floor ๐Ÿ™‚ The blue lighting is very cool too, adds a great mood to the photos.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks for your lovely comment Calli ๐Ÿ™‚ a good, sturdy tripod is a good investment, although it will add some significant weight to your luggage. If you have the money, definitely splurge on one of the carbon fibre ones, they are very solid and a lot lighter too. But till then, as long as it holds the camera steady, one of the small tripods will definitely do the job too. Happy travels and happy shooting!

      Reply
  2. Dariel

    Again, thank you for the very informative post! I am using the Canon 700D as well and I’m glad to know even this camera is capable of capturing great images.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      In the end it all comes down to a good eye, learning and some talent. Good photographers can take good photos with cheap point and shoot cameras. Sure, the super fancy equipment helps a bit, but it is definitely not necessary.

      Reply
  3. Maria Falvey

    Great tips Tiffany – the tripod of course but I don’t think I’d have considered a remote shutter release… brilliant!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks Maria, they are really cheap too and have such a great use. I’d definitely pick one up ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply

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