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Some of the mines in the Black Hills were worked long enough to become very large caverns in the earth. This one west of Custer is no longer accessible to the public.
Some of the mines in the Black Hills were worked long enough to become very large caverns in the earth. This one west of Custer is no longer accessible to the public.
Chad Coppess experiments with light at Black Hills Caverns.
Chad Coppess experiments with light at Black Hills Caverns.
Self portraits with a long exposure, off-camera flash and streaking flashlight trails show photographer Chad Coppess visiting Black Hills Caverns near Rapid City.
Self portraits with a long exposure, off-camera flash and streaking flashlight trails show photographer Chad Coppess visiting Black Hills Caverns near Rapid City.
A huge silica mine near Deerfield Lake and creative placement of a silhouetted figure creates a classic “Indiana Jones”-like image.
A huge silica mine near Deerfield Lake and creative placement of a silhouetted figure creates a classic “Indiana Jones”-like image.
Illustrating the mining history of the Black Hills with this photo of a prospector checking out some ore is accomplished by carefully placing a silhouette against the bright opening of a mine. Photoshop artistry later added a beard to the “prospector” figure.
Illustrating the mining history of the Black Hills with this photo of a prospector checking out some ore is accomplished by carefully placing a silhouette against the bright opening of a mine. Photoshop artistry later added a beard to the “prospector” figure.

Shooting in the Dark

Sep 13, 2011

Photographing in caves is literally shooting in the dark. Any and all light found in the depths of a cave is man-made and artificial. Why nature forms spectacular crystals and intriguing passageways in places that normally couldn’t be seen is a mystery to me.

Taking photos that show the underground beauty can be a challenge. One of the photos accompanying my last column sparked a reader question about how I took it.

I was shooting inside Black Hills Caverns near Rapid City, but it happened to be a slow day without many visitors. With no people in the shot, the cave looked a little stale. So I positioned my camera on a tripod, attached a flash with a cord on a second tripod off to the left of the camera.

Exposure time was set for around 30 seconds and the self-timer for the same, which gave me time to move down the passageway to a starting point for the photo. Carrying a small flashlight, as soon as I heard the shutter open I walked toward the camera wiggling my hand enough to make an interesting light trail. The tricky part was timing my walk so that I reached the spot just in front of the camera at the end of the exposure when the flash would go off and illuminate me.

I tried this around 25 times and was successful on two of them, but I got the shot. It’s been used in several publications promoting cave tours in the Black Hills.

Most of the natural caves in South Dakota have a gate, doorway or building built over the entrance so a photo from inside the cave looking out isn’t possible. Abandoned mines however quite often have openings that let some sunlight in and allow for fun silhouettes of people. Adding a person to many shots gives some idea of the scale of the landscape, whether it’s a vast prairie or a huge hole in the earth.

All three of the people in the mine photos accompanying this column are me. With a self timer and a little sprinting, you can add an explorer for scale to just about anything. That grizzled old prospector’s beard was added in later.

When looking for old mines and/or caves to photograph, make sure you aren’t trespassing and be very careful. Wandering into a dark tunnel can lead to falling down an unseen hole, twisting an ankle on uneven floors or waking up some critter that may not be happy about your intrusion.

Chad Coppess is the senior photographer at the South Dakota Department of Tourism. He lives in Pierre with his wife, Lisa. To view more of his work, visit www.dakotagraph.com.

 

Comments

10:51 am - Tue, September 13 2011
Andrea said:
Thanks for sharing that trick. I will have to explore with a self timer. I always new about it but never used it very much.

07:14 am - Thu, September 15 2011
Rebecca Johnson said:
Cool! Thanks for the tip.
03:10 pm - Thu, September 15 2011
Russ Aman said:
Very Cool shots Chad. Another little trick in large cave areas is to open the shutter(bulb), set the aperture the same as the output of a portable flash and pop it in 2-3 different directions(kind of like shooting lightening or fireworks) and then close the shutter. Don't have examples but have seen it give some dramatic results.

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