Favorite Photo Places: Carlsbad Caverns, NM

NPS/Peter Jones

By

Lon Shelton & Ron Wolfe—

Beneath the prickly pear and cholla cactus of the Chihuahuan desert in southeast New Mexico lies a spectacular treasure. Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a complex of 117 caves including the largest accessible cave chamber on our continent– dazzles visitors with its magnificence, its cathedral-like silence, and the sheer scope of its reach.

On a normal year, roughly half a million visitors come to see this unique park. Although 2020 was far from any normal year and national park access was restricted to comply with pandemic protocols, we were able to join the list of visitors to this amazing place. As first-timers, we did our homework to help prepare us photographically and logistically to come back with images we were proud of. Carlsbad Caverns was everything we expected and much more.

Gearing Up

It is easy to be awed by the grandeur at Carlsbad, but a slide show of 40 panoramic views of the place is going to wear you and your audience thin. It’s important to identify and focus on some of the details of the rooms you encounter, the colors and the many possibilities for abstract photos as well. For that reason, we both selected wide-angle to moderate telephoto zoom lenses for the visit. Tripods are allowed in the caverns and can be useful. We resolved the difficulty of managing a tripod on sometimes narrow walkways with other visitors passing by simply hanging back from our assigned group and letting them move ahead of us.

NPS/

We found our fellow visitors to be courteous and understanding of our efforts to capture this amazing place, but we always deferred to allow them to pass rather than obstructing their journeys. We also found them to be generally quiet. You can often hear water –the unsung architect of these caves– running or dripping. The sound carrying across the otherwise silent open spaces is clearly a part of the ambiance of the caverns.

We measured four miles of walking from the parking lot to the visitors’ center, down the winding, sometimes steep slope of the caverns’ Natural Entrance, through the underground pathways, up an elevator, and back to the car. We didn’t hurry, taking more than four hours to frame our photos and move along to more and more locations. It is a serious amount of walking and good footwear –with closed toes and good traction–should be on your list. The underground temperature hovers at 56 degrees F year-round, but high humidity makes it feel warmer. We were prepared with extra layers of clothes, but didn’t need them.

Image © Lon Shelton

A small flashlight proved useful for peering into less well-lit parts of the paved pathway as we progressed. We also carried flash equipment, although we decided against using it. Of course, plenty of memory cards and extra batteries are a good idea. You may want to consider using an electronic shutter release for shots you want to take on a tripod. We took no polarizers or special filters for this shoot. Snacks and a water bottle are smart additions to your kit.

There is a small eating area, formerly a restaurant, with vending machine items and a restroom at the base of the elevator back up to the visitors’ center above.

Shooting and Processing

In the gift shop, we found some glossy books with glorious photos of the major cavern features. They were rich in color and detail, complete with visitors shown gazing out over the major chambers, providing scale and colorful clothing to accent the shots. Perhaps if you make arrangements with the National Park Service to come in after hours, with a Hollywood lighting crew, a team of assistants, and models, you too can get photos just like those. Our reality was somewhat different.

Image © Ron Wolfe

Various rooms, alcoves, and chambers along the darkened underground pathways have been lighted by experts for the enjoyment of visitors. These lights offer different color combinations to highlight the stalactites hanging from above, the stalagmites formed on the ground, and other cave features visible along the way. They also are a mixture of different light temperatures, so your best choices are to use auto White Balance settings during your visit and make corrections to suit your tastes during post processing.

Our recommended ISO range for shooting is 100-400. We both shot using Aperture Priority settings and found that our exposures were running less than 30 seconds. Although a wide aperture can be useful in some situations, we found ourselves shooting mostly in the f/8 to f/16 range. We used evaluative metering. It’s a good idea to stop and check your histograms during the shooting of each scene to help you avoid blown-out highlights or loss of detail in dark areas that are virtually impossible to fix in post-processing.

Image © Ron Wolfe

Because the available lighting often casts some dramatic shadows, you may want to lighten some of those areas to reveal details during post processing. Depending on your software, you can usually bring highlights and whites down and then try raising your exposure and contrast settings to suit. Adjustments for texture, clarity, or dehaze can be useful. Unlike other images you work on, you may want to wait and do your cropping at the end of the workflow, after you determine what details and colors you are able to bring out in the photo.

Caves are dark. Cave walls, generally limestone in the case of Carlsbad Caverns, tend to be brown. Let areas of your images go to black and allow the walls to show brown. By hiking nearly 800 feet underground, you have already transported your viewer to a special place. Getting hung up on evening out lighting through various techniques may be a disservice. We have found viewers enjoy applying their own imaginations to our photos, looking at the shadows and shapes as key elements in a puzzle.

That said, there can be subtle colors visible within the caves, especially greens and magentas that can be brought out with editing tools. Split-toning tools, Adobe Photoshop’s new Color Grading tools, or various other photo editing software programs can help with these areas.

Image © Lon Shelton

Output

When it comes time to print your cavern images, different Red River Paper selections are options. Some of the things you might want to consider are the kind of mood you would like your images to convey. Caves are naturally cool, dark places, but in the case of Carlsbad, the park service has gone to extraordinary ends to light their displays with dazzling whites and warmer incandescent yellows and oranges. There are some electric greens in the mix as well.

To capture deep blacks and some of these more saturated colors, glossy papers are an obvious choice. But a semigloss paper with some texture can also add an artistic flair to your final product. We recommend choices like the Palo Duro series including Smooth Rag 310, Baryta Fiber 300, and Etching 315. These papers offer a medium texture for capturing some details in the rocks and render good, saturated colors in the final print.

Other options include Red River metallic inkjet papers to add sparkle and a near 3-D effect to your images. Consider Polar Gloss Metallic 255 or for a more satin-like texture, Polar Luster Metallic 255 to bump up the vibrancy in the cavern colors. (See RESOURCES below for links to papers.)

Going and Coming

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The city of Carlsbad is well equipped to handle the flow of visitors to the park and other nearby tourism venues. It offers a variety of restaurants and hotels, motel, and campground alternatives. White City, which is nearer the park entrance, also offers food and lodging. Air service into Carlsbad is provided by a company called Boutique Air, offering daily flights from Dallas/Fort Worth and from Albuquerque (daily except Saturday). The nearest major airport to serve the area is at El Paso, about a two and a half hour drive from the park. American Airlines serves nearby Roswell, New Mexico, about an hour and a half north of Carlsbad.

Although the environment in the caves does not change throughout the seasons, prime visitor times are Spring and Fall. Summer weather can be intolerably hot (if you intend to visit other attractions in the area) with intermittent heavy rains but the caverns  are weatherproof and photographers may wish to visit during off-season times when there are fewer visitors.

NPS/Nick Kristov

An interesting aspect of the caves are evening flights of several bat species who reside in the caves (thought not where you are likely to go). Unfortunately, the bats are affected by electronic instruments and to protect these animals, cameras are not allowed at some of the best vantage points . If you are at the caverns from April through October, the bats are worth seeing, even without your camera, and you can  can adopt one for $10.

This is a venue like no other in the U.S. and well worth seeing. You’ll be awed by a world of underground fantasy that captures your imagination and allows you to capture unusual images. A visit would be well worthwhile for photographers and artists seeking a unique visual experience.

Note:                                   

At this writing, access to the caverns is being carefully controlled according to Covid-19 protocols to keep visitors and park personnel safe. This translates to an 800-person-per-day limit on visitors, who are sent off in groups, fifteen minutes apart to permit safe spacing along the trail through the Natural Entrance. (The elevator is currently only used for visitors departing the caves, again in small groups.)

Face masks are required in areas of close contact and all organized tours of special features have been cancelled. Some days during our visit, tours sold out by mid-morning, so plan to arrive early to ensure ticket availability. The park website (above) is a good source to update information about any changes in these procedures.

RESOURCES:

This website is a great place to start: https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/index.htm It includes information on fees ($15), hours, and accessibility of various trails. We found a useful map there that was not available in the gift shop. Information on other area activities, lodging and dining can be found at: https://carlsbadnewmexico.com/

Recommended Red River Papers

Palo Duro papers:

Smooth Rag 310

Baryta Fiber 300

Etching 315

Metallic papers:

Polar Gloss Metallic 255

Polar Luster Metallic 255

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Author: editor

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