Friday, 30 May 2014

Status Update on all things cave photography related

LED Lighting for Cave Photography

I have rather neglected this blog in the last 3 years. Not that I have been idle. I have spent most of the last 3 years (when not being kept busy by my young family) specialising in panoramic underground photography. I have developed my own high power LED photography lights for this. A detailed series of 3 articles on my light design and build process can be found in the BCRA CREG Journal (British Cave Research Association, Cave Radio and Electronics Group). This excellent journal is available in electronic download (PDF format) for a bargain £4 (GBP) per year. My articles are in editions 80, 8182.

Upgrading my cave photography flashes

I am in the process of upgrading my caving flashes to something which will hopefully be more reliable vs all the cable connected 2nd hand conversion jobs I have been lugging around for years. Typically the cables are the point of failure. This is what I am trying out YONGNUO OEM YN-560 III. I bought one trial unit plus their RF-603 radio triggers. Smaller, lighter flash and hopefully more reliable radio triggers (and powered by AAA cells rather than Alkaline 12V battery, so it will be much easier to change them underground if they run down). I will report further once testing has occurred underground.


I have been developing my skills and techniques for taking panoramic underground photographs. I have quite a bit of work to post on this blog, but for now here is the photo which really kick started me down this path.
Hall of the 30, Otter Hole, Forest of Dean, UK

More of my panoramic work can be found in my Flicker Album

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Example of Photo taken with LED lights

I realise this photography blog is somewhat lacking in actual photos! So here is an attempt to rectify this. This photo was lit entirely with SSC P7 LEDs using lights I made myself.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Radio Triggers for Flashes

After all the preceding discussion on what it the best flash to mount on your camera to trigger other flashes using optical slaves (e.g. Firefly slaves), I have found a superior alternative; the radio trigger. It always seemed a waste of space in my bag, and of a good flash to have to mask one of my flashes on the camera so that it did not contribute to the exposure of a photo, just so that the other flashes would trigger. The radio trigger replaces the flash on the camera hot shoe. It is much smaller than a flash, and there are none of the high voltage problems associated with camera mounted flashes. A small receiver unit is attached to one of the flashes used to light the photo, and this flash in turn triggers all the others using the Firefly slaves.

Originally I tried a cheap and cheerful radio slave found on eBay (from China). This works great at home, but for some reason it fails to trigger reliably underground. Then I came across a recommendation on the US cavechat photography forum for a radio slave called Cactus v4 which looked well presented and was not too much more expensive. So I ordered one of these and have found it to be very reliable. I was so impressed that I later purchased a second receiver. So now the radio trigger on my camera hot shoe can trigger two flashes directly. These can still trigger additional flashes using the optical slaves, so the range is not a big problem as I only need one flash relatively close to the camera to be triggered by radio, and this will trigger more distant flashes using Firefly slaves. These radio triggers claim a range of 30 metres but I have not tested this in practice. I nearly always have a flash much closer to the camera than this, and I use the radio trigger on this nearest flash.

The radio trigger gives me two further advantages (on top of being smaller and not using up one of my flashes). Firstly, it will not be triggered by other flashes. This is most useful when other photographers are working nearby in the same cave. Now my radio linked flashes will not be triggered by their flashes. Their optical slaved flashes will still be triggered by mine, but that does not cause me problems! Secondly, I have found that my Firefly slaves sometimes misbehave on my hammerhead flashes, causing them to trigger as soon as they reach full charge. When this happens the flash keeps triggering in an endless cycle each time it recharges. It gets difficult to determine which flash is causing the trouble as all the other flashes trigger at the same time because they are all on Firefly slaves. Plus the chances of this happening increases the more optical slaved flashes I am using at the same time. So by putting a couple of flashes on radio triggers, I reduce the occurrence of this problem, and if it does happen then I know it has to be one of just one or two optical slaved flashes in the set up, and can quickly sort it out (turning off the offending flash for a few seconds and then turning it back on often stops the endless cycle of charge, trigger, charge, trigger).

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

How to choose the right flashgun / strobe

In the previous post, I discussed the features required for a flash to be suitable for mounting on an EOS digital SLR camera to trigger caving slave units attached to other flashes. A quick summary is that we are looking for a flash with a trigger contact voltage of no more than 6V, and which does not fire a pre-flash before the main burst of light used to take the photograph. The pre-flash is a feature of the E-TTL mode of many dedicated Canon compatible flashes for digital camera models. We are also looking for something cheap to do the job, rather than spending £150+ (550EX prices on Ebay) on a high end Canon EX speedlight which allows you to turn off the E-TTL mode. Of course if you already own a 550EX or 580EX Canon speedlight then this should work for you as long as you turn off the E-TTL mode.

We have found that as a general rule, any Canon EOS compatible TTL flash should be OK. I cannot promise all models will work of course, but here are some which I have actually used so can be certain they will work:

Vivitar 736AFC - Can be got very cheaply on Ebay when they do appear
Metz 40MZ series flashes with Canon hotshoe SCA adapters
Metz 45 series hammer head flashes with Canon SCA modules

These last two Metz models are not so cheap, but are excellent off camera flashes too, being powerful but taking AA batteries, so easy to carry spare sets.

In theory any manual cheap flash with no fancy dedicated features should also work, as long as the trigger voltage does not exceed what your camera can handle. On Canon EOS digital cameras, that is just 6V. The older TTL models of Canon speedlights (the EZ series) should be a safe bet, but again I have not been able to test any of these myself. You could also use a device to protect the camera from the flash trigger voltage (e.g. a Wein Safe Sync). The following link gives some useful information on trigger voltages for Canon cameras and the possible dangers to your camera. It also talks about flash isolators:

There is a very useful list of flash trigger voltages online which may help you find something that works for you:

Other options include disabling the E-TTL feature on E-TTL flashes which I have not tried, but I found these details here:

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Problems with Flashes for Cave Photography on EOS Cameras

The Canon EOS range of digital SLR cameras give superb results underground, but we had real problems getting them to work with off camera flashes. What we were looking for was an affordable way to trigger multiple flashes in sync with the camera shutter, and without a flash mounted directly on the camera from providing any light for the scene (see the bit about fogging in the previous post for why).

Canon's own flashes feature remote triggering with master and slave modes, but there are two major problems with these. Firstly they are expensive (GBP 200 or more per flash, and we need several for many of our pictures). Secondly in practise this system does not work well underground. The cave environment is dark, damp and muddy. These conditions simply eat up light, and the master/slave flash triggering system built into the Canon flashes is just not sensitive enough. It only works with direct line of sight between flashes, and in most cave work we want to hide the flashes. In a studio setting which this system was designed for, there is plenty of reflected light to trigger the remote flashes, and often the master (on camera) flash is simply bounced off a wall, ceiling or reflector to avoid directly illumination of the scene. But underground there is simply not enough reflected light to work except over fairly close distances.

So we need a much more sensitive slave flash trigger. The answer to this is the Firefly slave unit. These were designed for cavers by cavers and work very well underground. Line of sight triggering distances can be as much as 1000m! They work very well round corners too, so flashes can be hidden out of sight and will still fire.

This just leaves the question of which model of flashgun to use. The firefly comes with a hot shoe connector, so any flash with a hot shoe will fit. There is no automatic exposure control, so we need flashes which have a manual mode. Auto sensing flashes will be fooled by reflections from nearby objects (often not visible in the actual photograph) and under expose thinking that they have brightly lit up the scene (instead of having just brightly lit up a bit of nearby rock off camera).

Caves are dark, light eating places, so we need powerful flashes too. This brings us back to the cost problem. We need several powerful flashes which we will use in manual mode. So we will not be taking advantage of any fancy features. So there is no point in spending a lot of money on Canon flashes. I buy the cheapest brightest second hand flashes I can find. Ebay is a great source of these.

That leaves one last problem, how do we get the camera to trigger the remote flashes? Again there is no point in putting an expensive dedicated flash on the camera, as all we need it to do is fire in manual mode to trigger the other flashes. There are two other issues here as well. We do not want the flash on the camera to provide any direct light to the scene due the to fogging problem (see previous post), and we do not want to damage our camera (many cheap flashes have very high voltages on the trigger contacts which can damage modern electronic cameras).

So how do we get the flash to trigger the firefly slaves without directly lighting the scene? There are several tricks you can use. The simplest is to mask the flash with black electrical tape. This allows through the infra-red radiation which the Firefly slaves are sensitive to, but which the camera is not. Other materials can be used the same way. Unexposed, developed slide film is one, but in this digital age is not so easy to come by. We'll look at some alternatives another time.

The voltage problem is solved by using a flash with low voltage trigger contacts (Canon rate their cameras as safe with a maximum hot shoe trigger voltage of 6V). The trick is finding a model which is safe, but which will work with the Firefly slave units. The obvious thing to do is buy a cheaper brand of flash which is compatible with Canon digital SLRs, but this has one big pitfall.
The latest Canon cameras (including all their digital SLR models) feature the E-TTL flash exposure control system, and this does not work with the slave units.

The problem with E-TTL is that it actually fires the flash twice. The two flashes are very close together, so it is not obvious to the eye. The first burst from the flash is used to gauge the exposure settings to use for taking the actual picture. The picture itself is then taken on the second flash. So what happens is that the first burst triggers all the remote flashes attached to the slave units, and these are then all discharged when the second burst is fired from the on camera flash. As the on camera flash is masked to prevent it lighting up the scene, we end up with a black picture! And we do not want the automatic exposure system in the first place because we are not using the on camera flash to light up the scene in the first place.

So the trick is to find a flash which has a low voltage hot shoe trigger, but which does not feature the E-TTL system. Ironically these are the flashes which are often described as not compatible with Canon digital SLRs! So we need to find flashes which are compatible with the later Canon EOS film SLRs cameras, as these only had TTL flash metering, but still only support up to 6V trigger voltage on the hot shoe contacts. These are the flashes which do everything we need, and thankfully they are not so expensive and are often available second hand.

You can alternatively turn off the E-TTL feature on some of the higher end Canon EX flash guns, or you can use the Firefly3 slave unit which can be programmed to ignore the pre flash. However both these options are significantly more expensive, so only make sense if you already own this equipment and want to make it work for you.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Equipment Overview

The environment and techniques of cave photography require the following capabilities of a camera to get the best pictures under demanding conditions:
  • Manual exposure (all exposure settings in multiple flash work are controlled manually).
  • Manual focus (in the dark wet non-reflective environment underground most autofocus mechanisms do not work reliably if at all).
  • Ability to synchronise the shutter with external flashes (i.e. not built into the camera).
This does not mean you cannot use a camera which lacks any of these features, but a camera which features all of them is much preferred. Otherwise you will face situations where your camera limits the pictures you can take. So if you are serious about taking high quality pictures then I recommend you invest in a camera which supports these features.

The reason for this last one is that you need to get the flash off the camera. Even for single flash pictures. If the flash is built into the camera, or attached directly to the hot shoe on the camera then any water droplets in the air (mist and fog) will reflect the flash directly back to the camera, and your pictures will all come out foggy. Even if there is no fog, your pictures will look very flat as any shadow cast by the light from the flash will be hidden by the object casting the shadow. Get the flash even a little way to one side (or above or below the camera) and the fog should become invisible to the camera. Objects will cast shadows in the scene and the whole pictures springs to life.

This is the kit I currently use:

Canon EOS 5D digital SLR.
I also cave with friends who have the 20D, 300D and 350D models and all the advice here applies equally to any of these models. It most likely applies to all the other models of Canon cameras which have a hot shoe for using an external flash, including their compact cameras.

Most large, cheap and manual flashes are perfectly suitable. The main issue is how you trigger them from the camera so that they fire at the same time as the camera is recording the scene without damaging the camera. More on this later.

Slave Units
These are remote triggers for the flashes. I have used radio remotes with limited success. Most reliable and commonly used are Firefly slave units developed by cavers for cavers. Another alternative is to use real live slaves (i.e. people!). These people manually fire the flashes on your command, but this requires a tripod and long exposure to ensure the flash is fired while the camera is recording the scene.

All this equipment needs protecting and operating (so you can't escape the need for real live slaves (or willing volunteers as we prefer to call them).

Friday, 19 September 2008


I have been a keen cave photographer since 1988 and up until 2005 I used a 35mm film SLR camera. But since that time I have gone digital, first with a large compact camera but in 2007 with a Canon digital SLR. I know a number of other cave photographers using Canon digital EOS cameras of various models, and they all posed the same technical problems which we are over coming with time and experience.

My friends often ask me for advice on camera equipment because I have a good technical grasp of how things work. But until recently I have struggled to answer many of the questions regarding EOS digital cameras. Now that we are starting to find some answers I have started this blog in order to capture and share the knowledge, so that other photographers using Canon digital EOS cameras underground can benefit from it too.