In the summer of 2006 I took another trip to the American southwest and had the opportunity to revisit one of the most spectacular subterranean landscapes on planet Earth, the incredible and other-worldly Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico. I had first visited these caverns in 1972 as a teenager on a trip with my parents, armed with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera, and while the photographic results from that trip were very disappointing, the experience and impressions remained with me for many years thereafter. I always wanted to go back and try to photograph it more properly, and now that I have considerably better photographic equipment, I made the suggestion to revisit during an annual trip to the region.

This photo shows the amphitheater at the natural entrance to the caverns where visitors can sit each evening at sundown and watch the hundreds of thousands of bats, which inhabit an area of the cave not open to visitors, make their daily flight for a nighttime of gorging themselves on insects. No photography of any kind is permitted for the bat flights, mainly because flash units have a tendency to disorient the bats.

From an unattributed online history: "The vast caverns began as an organic reef complex in the inland sea which covered southern New Mexico during the Permian period about 240 million years ago. This reef was covered by the sediment of subsequent seas for millennia and then about sixty million years ago, earth movements caused an uplift that fractured the reef, which was now buried beneath the surface of the earth. This fracture allowed water to filter down through the reef and dissolve parts of the limestone. Over millions and millions of years, the water created crevices, then pockets, and finally the huge rooms one can see today. Then, about three million years ago, the uplift that created the Guadalupe Mountains (also a reef), lowered the water table and the water drained out of the caverns and was replaced by air."

As you get closer to the natural entrance, you begin to get an idea of the scale of what you are about to enter. The little blurry things visible in the photo above are birds which are constantly flying around at the cavern's entrance. The natural entrance is one of two ways to get into the caverns, and involves walking down a paved and very well-maintained trail that winds its way into the caverns and descends about 800 feet from the surface. The alternative way in, if you don't have the time to devote to the full self-guided tour, is via elevator from the visitor center, which takes you directly down 800 feet to the Big Room. Once you have paid your six dollar entrance fee at the visitor center and made your way to the natural entrance, a park ranger stops you and asks whether you are physically fit enough to make the descent it's really not all that strenuous for a healthy person and gives you some last minute instructions. Stay on the trails, don't touch the formations, be quiet, and so on.

That's a big hole in the ground, and you can see the trail descending through a series of switchbacks that keep the grade to about 2%, but since you will be walking that grade for over a mile, you will begin to feel it in your legs after a while. Once you get into the caverns you will notice that it's a lot cooler than the surrounding desert, in fact, the temperature inside remains at about 56 degrees (F) year-round, so you might want to wear a light sweater. It's also quite humid inside, after all, since water is what formed the caverns and its formations in the first place, and continues to form them now. So the trail can be wet in many places, and good walking shoes with grippy rubber soles are a good idea.

Once inside, turn around and take a look at that big hole in the ground from the other side. Remember what daylight looks like, because you won't see it again for a while. This photo, as well as all the remaining photos in this series, was taken using a tripod and a cable shutter release. This is really the only way to take a successful photograph within the caverns. Flash photography, while allowed, will not work because of the vast spaces you will find yourself in. Even the most powerful flash units will simply not have the power to illuminate more than 15-20 feet in front of your camera. Attempting to photograph with a hand-held compact digital camera will simply not produce anything even remotely close to what your eyes are seeing. You will, nonetheless, encounter many visitors who are attempting to do just that, and I suppose it's hard to blame them for trying, but the constant flashes are somewhat annoying to a serious photographer. Tripods are allowed, so long as you remember to be courteous to other visitors and not block the trails.

This is as close as you can get to the bat cave portion of the caverns, which is probably just as well since the bats cling to the ceilings and their droppings, well, drop. In fact, in the early modern history of the caverns, the mining of bat guano for use as fertilizer was a major commercial operation. It would be useful for you to know, also, that although this and most of the remaining photographs appear to be very well-lighted, this is not what you will see with your eyes. Carlsbad Caverns are in fact very dimly lit, mainly because brighter lighting would encourage the growth of algae which can damage the formations, and although they utilize a combination of incandescent and fluorescent lighting, it is all very neutral in color to the eye not the camera, as you will see. They don't go for the bright, artificially colored lighting that some other caverns do, and the result is much more tranquil and natural, although granted that the most natural lighting would be absolutely none at all, a blackness so black that you could not see your hand in front of your face.

If there were no artificial lighting, this would be one of the last opportunities to find your way out. Looking back from the bat cave towards the natural entrance, you can see how a shaft of daylight illuminates the floor of the cavern, strewn with boulders. The lines that zigzag across the bluish tinted area the big hole in the ground are the path that brings you to this point. While that hole in the ground may have looked big when you started down, you can clearly see from this photo just what a massive space lies just beyond, and this is small in comparison with what lies ahead, that is, below.

Here's another shot from the same vantage point, zoomed in on the last view of the entrance, in which you can see the path down a little more clearly and even make out the railings alongside the trail. That massive pillar on the right seems to be doing a good job at holding up the ceiling, despite its somewhat precarious angle. It hasn't moved in several million years, so its probably safe. By the way, on the technical aspects of this shoot, I chose to only bring one lens with me into the caverns, that being the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC Macro lens that I had recently acquired. I chose it in part because it was new to me at the time and I wanted to check it out in a challenging photographic environment, but also because it has the widest field of view of any of my zoom lenses since I knew that I would be photographing very large spaces and because of its relatively small physical size and light weight.

Winding your way down, the space narrows a bit from the huge room that you entered just past the natural entrance, and you pass many spectacular formations. There is now absolutely no more light from the entrance visible, in fact, you can't even see the entrance any more, and you begin to notice the sound of water dripping constantly and from every direction, echoing eerily in the vastness. It becomes quite dim at this point, and while there is no problem seeing where the path is, operating the camera can become somewhat problematic. My original intention had been to disconnect my camera from the tripod after I finished each shot and carry the tripod separately to the next shot, with the camera hanging around my neck. It soon became apparent, however, that it was easier just to leave the camera attached to the tripod and fold the legs closed while walking to the next shot, keeping the strap around my neck at all times. It sounds awkward, but we were taking our time and going very slowly, and in the low light it was too much of a hassle to even re-fit the tripod shoe into the quick-release socket on the tripod without difficulty. Even seeing the camera controls was a problem, and the light from a cell phone screen came in handy several times.

Do not take the neck strap off from around your neck if you go down here with any kind of good camera gear. There are just too many opportunities for you to drop it, and if you do you will probably never see it again. As an aside, I remember years ago exploring Enchanted Rock in central Texas with some friends of mine. Enchanted Rock is a enormous granite dome that rises from the Texas Hill Country, and it has a huge fissure on one side that runs from ground level to about midway to the summit. This fissure is filled with boulder rubble and can be negotiated like a cave, even though it's not. My friends decided they wanted to go down into this fissure, and I was the only on of the group who had brought a flashlight. I was little wary of this adventure, but went down a little way with them, squeezing through narrow passages that had to be negotiated by putting your arms through first and then pulling the rest of your body through.

We went down and reached a little room where we smoked a joint by the light of my flashlight. I became a little concerned for our safety and decided to return to the room above which was the last place where the light from outside and the way out could be seen, and waited for my friends, who still had my flashlight. I could hear their voices as they attempted to make their way back up, and then heard the unmistakable sound of the plastic housing of my flashlight hitting the rocks, bouncing off one and then the other, and getting fainter each time. This was followed by the voice of one of my friends who succinctly said, "Uh oh!" Fortunately they all emerged safely, but I never saw that flashlight again.

So I guess the main point of this story would be to leave your camera strapped around your neck, unless you want to hear it bouncing off the rocks into places where no one has gone before.

You have to be patient if you want to do good photography in Carlsbad Caverns. Plan to spend the day and be considerate of the other visitors who for the most part are in a much bigger hurry than you are. They will come briskly walking by, flashing their cheap little compact digital cameras with abandon. Do not mind them as they will pass, although depending on the time of year you visit, and even the time of day, you may have to be more patient than others. A tripod can easily block more than half the width of the pathway, so if there's a large group approaching you from behind, fold your tripod legs together and wait them out so you can get your shot in peace. This works both ways, too, because we found that most of the other visitors were equally considerate of us "serious" photographers, waiting for us if we were in the middle of a long exposure until we finished our shot. Oddly enough, though, my sister and I were the only ones we saw in the caverns on the day we visited who were doing serious photography.

It's difficult to tell from most of these photographs the scale of what it is that you're looking at. Suffice it to say that just about everything you see here is huge. That formation above is probably eight stories tall, for example the size of a building. That's why you need a good wide-angle lens. As far as exposure times go, the vast majority of these images were between 20 and 30 seconds long and most were shot at f/11 to provide for enough depth of field to keep everything in focus. I quickly found that it was not possible to depend upon auto-focus there simply is not enough light for auto-focus to grab onto anything, so you have to set your focus manually. I tried to use ISO 100 whenever possible to provide the greatest detail and minimal amount of digital noise, but my camera will only allow for a 30 second maximum exposure time, so if a shot required it, I would switch to ISO 200 or 400 as the scene and lighting conditions dictated. Again, I cannot stress enough that these photographs are not what you will see with your eyes if you visit the caverns they are what the camera saw, and the camera is a lot more sensitive than your eyes in conditions like these.

Scale is everything here, and the scale of Carlsbad Caverns is huge. Those stalagmites are 20-30 feet tall, and you can see how far they are away from the ceiling of this space. I liked the way they positioned a light in the cave below this formation, and you can also begin to see how the different light sources used in the caverns affects the way in which images resolve. Obviously the light coming from the cave below the stalagmites is an incandescent source, so its color is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. Conversely they chose to illuminate the majority of the space above with fluorescent lighting, which shifts the color there towards the green. Who is to say what natural lighting is in a case like this, since the natural state of affairs this far underground is absolute blackness. While you are making your way around, the differences in the lighting spectrums don't make themselves readily apparent as I said, it's all very dimly and neutrally lit as far as your eyes are concerned. It's only when you take a long exposure with your camera that the subtle differences are exaggerated.

Many of the formations that you can see along the walls tend to look like whale baleen, which is a curious way of nature imitating itself.

Certainly the most famous example of that would be the formation above, which is called The Whale's Mouth.

And speaking of nature imitating itself, well... Draw your own conclusion.

Keeping scale in perspective, this formation is probably about 40 feet tall.

It's a giant guacamole mixing machine, right? But wait, guacamole isn't supposed to be crunchy! The difference in color between the incandescent and fluorescent lighting is readily apparent in this photo.

And yet, I think there are three distinctly different color spectra used in the above two photos. The bright and almost purely white light appears to be something of a different color temperature entirely. That ceiling from which all those stalactites hang is about 80-100 feet above the vantage point from which this photo was taken.

One of the really cool things about Carlsbad Caverns is that they are still being explored after all this time, and in addition to the main areas open to the general public for self-guided tours, there are also several areas open to guided tours for the more adventurous explorer. You have to make reservations for these trips, and they get a little more involved than the nicely maintained walkways of the main portion of the caverns, such as squeezing yourself through tight spaces, descending ladders and such. There are many places on the main tour, though, that provide a glimpse into the possibilities, such as this photo which appears to be a portal into another portion of the caverns, perhaps explored, perhaps not yet.

Imagine what it must be like to take a trip down this passageway. Obviously park personnel have, at least to the extent that they placed and wired the lights illuminating it, but what lies beyond?

There are quite a number of little rooms like the one seen in this photo which are purely heavenly in their appearance, with such delicacy and fantasy to their structure. They appear so inviting by their sheer beauty, yet invariably they lead somewhere beyond and unseen. Human nature tells us to be wary of such places, but there is a sense of calm and tranquility here which transcends instinct. There is no fear of the unknown here, even though the unknown lies just beyond the light.

Another view of the same scene, zoomed out a bit. By this point in our tour, my sister the other photographer on this expedition, although all these photographs are my own and I, had become separated by several hundreds of yards on the pathway, each doing our own thing in our own time. My brother-in-law was going back and forth between us keeping tabs on our locations and being remarkably patient as my sister and I were glued to our cameras. The crowds of midday had finally died down, so there were less interruptions from groups of people passing by, which made it easier to concentrate, and now we were in the Big Room.

It's been said that the aptly named Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns could hold 14 Astrodome-sized stadiums side-by-side under its 256 foot high ceiling. In a word it is huge beyond your wildest imagination, and thus it is impossible to capture its scale in a photograph. A 1-1/4 mile path leads you on a tour around and through it this being the shorter tour if you opted to enter via the elevators from the visitor center.

Can you spot the man-made structures in this photograph? Just to the right of the large stalagmite in the center of the photo, you can see a small segment of the walkway with its handrails on the far side of the room. To the left of the double stalagmite on the left side of the photo is another segment of the walkway with a small informational plaque. At various points in the big room, if you look really closely, you can also see various electrical cables which the park technical staff has, for the most part, done a very good job at concealing.

Another view of the Big Room in which you can also see a portion of the visitor walkway snaking its way among the formations, also showing a good view of the many thousands of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Stalactites are like icicles made of rock, as water seeps through the cavern ceiling and deposits mineral content. Often a stalagmite will form on the cavern floor directly below where a stalactite has formed above, and if they eventually meet they can form a column. If you think watching paint dry is a slow process, you would have to hang around for millions of years to actually see a column form.

Here is a good example of the difference between a stalagmite and a column.

So which one of these skyscraper-sized stalagmites in the Big Room's "Hall of Giants" is going to become a column first? My bet would be the one on the right. Just to the right of its pinnacle you can see it beginning to join with a stalactite. The fact that these behemoths have grown to such heights gives you some idea of the geological stability of the caverns. I would not worry about the roof caving in anytime soon, although having said that there is the famous Iceberg Rock in the natural entrance corridor that weighs an estimated 200,000 tons. They think it fell from the ceiling a mere "thousands of years" ago.

Here is another nice view of a small portion of the Big Room. You can see some of the wide-angle lens distortion in the angle of the large stalactite in the upper-right portion of the photo, which actually hangs perfectly vertically. The same effect can be seen in the Hall of Giants photo preceding.

And here is one final view of another portion of the Big Room in which, again, you can see some of the pathways that guide you around. This was a 25 second exposure, f/11, ISO 200, focal length 33mm (52.8mm equivalent) for anyone interested in that sort of thing. One of the things that I noticed when I got home and began editing these images was totally unexpected to me, but has to do with the digital image sensor in the camera heating up during the long exposures that were necessary to capture these images. All the while the camera shutter is open, current is obviously flowing through the image sensor, and because of the extremely small spaces between the individual pixels in the sensor, heat builds up and will eventually overheat some of those pixels.

How that manifests itself is apparent in darker portions of the image, in which random pixels will heat up to the point where they become overexposed and create tiny whitish dots usually surrounded by the eight adjacent pixels which are also affected and somewhat overexposed. You don't notice it until you zoom way in on your image, but since I was preparing many of my images for printing at 12x18 inches, it became quite a job to manually scan back and forth over each image and retouch every one of these little heat blooms that I could find before printing. I suspect that this situation would have even been worse if not for the relatively low ambient temperature of the caverns.

My sister, brother-in-law, and I spent more than six hours during this little expedition, from the time we started down the natural entrance until we exited via the elevators back to the visitor center, and we were among the last to leave. It didn't seem like we had spent nearly that much time, although as I said, my sister and I were focused on the photography, and there is no way to do a decent job of that if you're not patient. You will have to deal with the endless stream of other visitors, the vast majority of which are not planning to spend nearly that much time on their visit. But with a halfway decent digital SLR, a good lens, a tripod, patience, and the will to do it, this is one of the best photographic experiences you could possibly have. 


Copyright 2017 by Rich Lauver - Baltimore - Maryland - USA