1.1 What and Why
2.2 Confined Spaces
2.4 The Authorities
3.0 Assumed Prior Knowledge
4.4 The Humble Tripod
5.3 Colour Correction/Gels
5.4 Moving Lightsources
5.5 Static Lightsources
5.6 Front Lighting
5.7 Back Lighting
6.0 Light Sources
6.1 Electronic Flash
6.4 Firewors and Flares
7.0 The End
1.1 What and why
As this thing called urban exploration gains momentum, more often have the questions been asked about how to document and record our travels underground. However underground and low light photography is not new; cave photographers have been doing it for decades. Whether it is someone with a point and shoot camera or a more serious photographer carrying flashes, tripods and lighting gear, both have the same aim: to bring back evidence of their adventures. Sometimes it's for personal use, other times to show friends so they might understand the attraction to the deep, dirty places we venture. This document is not a definitive guide and never will be. As time passes techniques will evolve and the overall benchmark will improve. Consider this a basic introduction to photographing the dark corners of our cities.
This document and the small low-res images are not copyrighted. Feel free to distribute this document as you see fit. I wish I had something like this when I started. The only thing I ask is that you leave this site's url with it.
Not content to take photos of flowers, kitens and people we've gone underground seeking new subjects, compositions and challenges. Your friends likely think you're mad, your colleages don't even know but you're bored of taking photos in dry, spacious and well lit conditions and seeking the self-inflicted hardships that make underground photography fun.
Water and your camera gear do not get along. Whether you've an oldschool rangefinder or a bell-and-whistles electronic wonder made of magnesium with 1028 rubber seals neither will be happy if the camera and water get well acquainted. Storing your camera, film and lighting gear in something waterproof is advised. Pelican manufacture excellent bomb proof cases which make convenient adhoc seats and steps. They're a pain to carry and hinder climbing and evading those not so tolerant for your trespass. Waterproof backpacks are comfortable and ergonomic, but have a high initial cost. Ultimately how valuable is your camera gear and would it survive a bit of moisture? Personally I've survived by wrapping mine in a t-shirt and stuff it into a regular backpack. Just don't fall in.
Still, a dunking could happen when you least expect it, as Siologen found out in Thunder Road drain located in Edmonton, Canada. He stepped into a 6ft+ pit concealed by the wash of a waterfall. His camera was lost under the water as he struggled to escape the turbulence. He was lucky to save his life.
2.2 Confined Spaces
If you're lucky enough to live in a city with 10ft redbrick drains then crawling and shooting in cramped conditions may be entirely foreign to you. However for most of us it took a while to adapt to working underground. Climbing over tripods, around flashes and all the time keeping the water (and shite) away from your precious gear is standard operating practice. The confinement will also likely affect your lens selection, this is covered below. The claustrophobic need not apply. If you're seasoned drain explorer this is all old news to you.
A common problem when shooting underground is lenses and viewfinders fogging with removal of the lens cap. This is caused by a temperature difference between the lens and the surrounding air. This is often avioded by leaving your camera bag open a little to allow the ambient air temperature time to equalise. Just watch for pits.
2.4 The Authorities
Your local authorities may take any number of positions regarding exploring drains and tunnels. If you're lucky they may not know (or care) that underground exploration has left the realm of 10 year olds on bmx bikes and skateboards. If you live somewhere like Melbourne (Australia) then you're probably accustomed to seeing spraypainted coated signs faintly explaining the physical and monetary dangers of entering drains. In larger more paranoid cities like London where paranoid citizens, fueled by a paranoid government on a trajectory for 1984, take delight in shitting on the fun of someone else it's advised to take other precautions.
All the general underground exploration cautions apply, see Predator's famous Approach To Draining. It contains information regarding finding drains, entrances, exits, features, cautions, gases, critters and lighting.
3.0 Assumed Prior Knowledge
This document is not a general photography guide and doesn't cover topics such as shutterspeeds, appetures and basic film choices. Such topics have been covered before in greater depth and with more accuracy in other places. Become acquainted with your favourite search engine and get educated. Nothing covered in this document is overly technical, but does require a basic knowledge of photographic methods, processes and equipment.
Shooting underground uses much the same equipment as any other type of location (non-studio) photography with a few exceptions and specifics.
The first question most people ask is "What camera should I get". This is far less important than people belive. Get a camera with some manual control and start shooting, experimenting and learning. You'll improve substantially faster by actually shooting; not comparing which camera x-syncs faster, which has a faster motordrive or what name/logo is branded onto the exterior. Most camera features become redundant underground as you'll have no use for wack creative modes, 10fps, or 1/500s xsync. They might be critical if you're shooting sequences for a skating magazine but the only features that make a noticeable difference when shooting underground are:
- Bulb mode, or long pre-programmed shutter speeds (15-30+ seconds). Leaving your shutter open for a couple of minutes while you add light to a scene is very common, you will need this exposure control if you're planning on doing much light painting.
- Capabilities for a cable release. Long exposures are very common, and you don't want to stand there with your finger on the shutter release the entire time. Get something that takes a cable release. Alternatively you should use a ziptie and a button... it has been done before.
- IR/remote shutter release. Light trails, caused by walking with a torch, can be avoided by the use of a remote shutter release. These godly devices allow you to open and close the shutter without having to walk through the scene.
- A hotshoe/accessory shoe. I only list this because many point & shoot and prosumer digital cameras do not have a hotshoe. If you're planning to use slave flashes or an external flash you may need this feature.
The first two above are the most important.
While the process trumps the gear, if you've got the cash and can Get It Right the first time then why not. Here is briefly my thoughts on the different camera types for shooting underground:
- Medium Format: If you've the money, and you're happy to carry/crawl/climb with a medium format camera then go for it. They're slow and heavy but the resolution and the quality will easily surpass anything possible with a 35mm film camera. Bigger glass is best.
- DigitalSLR: Awesome. Interchangeable lenses, instant feedback, cheaper in the long run if you shoot lots. Full control over settings. Relatively cheap, the most common choice.
- AF film SLR: DSLR minus the feedback. Challenging and rewarding.
- MF film SLR / rangefinder: well built, sturdy, interchangeable lenses, available cheap for second hand, no batteries used to keep shutter open. full control over settings. Less painful than losing your MF or DSLR if you fall in a bit, unless of course it's a Leica...
- Digital Point & Shoot: - good choice if you are planning on take lots of photos of all types of subjects. Limited control over camera settings.
Your camera body is simply a light box for holding and transporting film or holding a digital sensor. In truth your lens and lighting technique do all the work. Colour, clarity and contrast are all largely controlled by the optics in that big chunk of glass you probably sold a kidney for. Basically, you get what you pay for. If you spend big for MF glass or Canon L series lenses then (all other things being equal) you can create nicer photos than using the piece of shit lens you got from the pawn shop. Nothing surprising there.
Basically you have three categories of lenses: wide, normal, and telephoto. They have been covered in detail elsewhere, so here are the three in brief.
Wide and ultrawide Lenses ( <50mm on 35mm format camera)
These are the most used lenses when shooting underground, primarily because of the tight conditions and confined spaces. Often you cannot zoom the oldschool way (with your feet), so you need a larger field of view to capture the scene. This results in the typical wide angle perspective distortion as seen below. Unfortunately they are also prone to flare and barrel distorion, particularly the wide/ultrawide zoom lenses. They also give a larger apparent depth of field than a telephoto at the same appeture. Most people shooting underground will have 1-2 of these tucked in their nerd-photographer-vest.
The widest of the wide lenses is the fisheye. This document does not cover circular fisheyes, mainly because a) I dont have one, and b) they produce horrid looking images. As the name suggets, a full frame fisheye covers the entire area of the photo and will herein be known simply as a fisheye. They're most commonly used by extreme sports photographers (pick up any skating or bmx magazine and have a look), but are becoming more common in underground photography. A 15/16mm fisheye will typically have a diagonal FOV (Field Of View) of 180 degrees. They deliberately barrel distort a lot, giving a distinct effect. Unfortunately they are becoming overused and in terms we all get, played the fuck out. Most fisheye shooters have an epiphany 6 months after purchase and regret ruining so many good photos.
Normal Lenses (~50mm on a 35mm format camera)
Your standard lens if you shoot street photography, flowers, people etc. Undergrounders tend to lean a little wide when they consider 'normal'. 50mm lenses have a perspective that closely matches the human eye. Honesty I own a 50mm lens and use it ocassionally underground. They are light, cheap and sharp.
Telephoto ( >50mm on a 35mm format camera)
Long lenses are harder to use effectively underground as they capture such a narrow angle. They are good for shooting towards corners, but rarely have the FOV to capture details in the walls of tunnels. They emphasise the center of the tunnel into the vanishing point. I'd say that Super telephotos (200mm+) are of limited use underground, unless you are working in massive underground spaces like g-cans. Shorter telephotos are useful for capturing details and a bit of variety in techniques and styles is a good thing.
Contrary to what seems logical, slow film (low sensitivity) is my favourite choice for shooting underground. Slow film (ISO100-) has a better grain structure which allows you to make bigger prints. You get less range out of your flashes with slow film, but the results are much nicer to look at. The old negs v slides decision comes up as always, and I would recommend slides. You see exactly what you shot, without fiddling by the photolab or their machines. This helps to learn faster, because you can see the changes in bracketing as much as half a stop. Lots has been said about different film, and Photo.net has lots of information.
Fuji Sensia 100
It's cheap (AUS$7 a roll), does the job and I feel good bracketing shots with sensia. I find its of average saturation, producing acceptable results unless you want to make big prints. In that instance I think you're better off with with something like Provia with a finer grain structure.
Fuji Provia 100f
To me provia and sensia look pretty similar in terms of contrast, saturation and colour rendition. Provia has a lot less grain, you'd expect that from a pro film at 2.5x the price.
Fuji Velvia 100f
This film is truely godly. Fine grain and colours that pop for iller trannies that the red light district. Often referred to as disneychrome.
I've found Fuji 64t gives a darker blue than the Kodak 64t. Fun for experimenting.
4.4 THE HUMBLE TRIPOD
Get one, a decent one and thank me later. The obvious reasons are:
- you don't have to hold the camera, leaving you free to do other things. No touching yourself when you think noone is looking...
- despite what you may initially believe, you cannot hand hold that 10 second exposure. I don't care if you've 20 dexterity and the control of Jackie Chan, get a damn tripod.
- You'll hate having a heavy tripod while climbing/crawling but when you put it somewhere it STAYS there. A heavy tripod laughs at wind and water. Even in a fast flowing sewer full of jam rags you'll be able to take photos.
- A good one with independent leg adjustment, variable leg angles, horizontal center column mounting and a decent head will allow you set up and take shots that a cheap plastic tripod can't.
Manually lighting areas that naturally have no light can be a challenging task if you're unsure of the result you desire. Like studio photography you can create almost anything with the light, if you know how to do it and can visualise the result. The most common technique used underground is lightpainting. As the name suggests, it's literally painting with light. Following the analogy further, the drain/tunnel/subject is the canvas, the flash/torch is the brush, and the light is the paint. The camera simply records the entire process. It is an arkward concept to understand at first, but with a little experimentation the basics come fairly easily. Beret optional.
Many newcomers bemoan the difficulty of focusing underground. As you know there will be an area of acceptable focus either side of the point you focus upon. Select a point in the middle of your scene or the feature you wish as your subject. Now to focus:
- Place a light at the focal point and shine it back towards the camera. Focus on the light.
- Brightly illuminate the subject and focus as per normal.
- Attach a speedlight/flash and use the AF-assist beam.
- Use the distance scale on your lens and estimate.
The idea behind diffusion is to create a soft even light source that isn't concentrated on a particular spot. Concentrated light sources tend to leave hot trails across surfaces while you paint. In the picture below for example you can see the lines on the walls where the light has passed. A little like colouring in heavily with a pencil and missing sections.
When you diffuse your light source the light becomes softer and doesnt concentrate on any particular spot. You can blanket the entire scene with light and get very few, if any, hot spots.
Diffusion is easy to achieve. Either take some tracing or baking paper and cover your light source. Another method is to get a panel of fluro light diffuser and carefully make a piece to fit over your light source. It is very brittle and can be either cut, or snapped to shape. A large sheet (0.3m x 1m) sells for ~AU$10 or if you're a resourceful sort you can probably loot some from an industrial bin. Some people have been known to cut open a ping-pong ball and put it over their ilghtsource.
5.3 Colour correction and gels.
Flashes and LED lights usually give white light, while conventional torches (flashlights) give yellow light that becomes more yellow as the batteries dim. You can correct this yellow back towards white by placing a bluish gel over the torch. Gels are also useful with flashes, to warm, cool or just plain change the output colour. You can pick up gel sample booklets from pro video retailers and lighting suppliers. If you know someone who does film at university/tafe/college they may be able to score you some offcuts. In the photo below both purple and red gels have been over a flash to light a small underground shelter. Curly is a master at using gels underground, check his stuff. Of course if you're shooting digital one can simply set their white-balance.
5.4 Moving Light Sources
A light moving through a long expsoure will leave a trail if the light source itself is visible. Hiding the light source behind something prevents trails appearing but doesn't affect the light on the walls, ceilings or features of the underground space. Sometimes trails add to a photo, othertimes they do not. The first photo below shows the trails of poeple walking past with torches, the second shows how trails can be hidden by concealing the light while you walk around painting light.
5.5 Static Light Sources
Sometimes you have no choice but to include the light source in the frame. If your lens is prone to flare this can be a big problem. It may be that you've nothing to conceal it behind like in the photo below.
Concealing static light sources usually gives smoother photos, and adds to the illusion. When no light source is visible it becomes harder for the viewer to understand how the photos was created. In the photo below the light source was concealed behind the pillars.
A tried and true method is to put someone in the photo, between the camera and the lightsource. This is getting way too played out, but only because it works so well. The person gives a sense of scale which can sometimes be difficult to convey underground. In this situation painting away from the camera adds to the strength of the silhouette, while painting back towards your body (and the camera) will add light to the walls, ceiling and floor.
Frontlighting is to light a subject from a position behind the camera near the camera axis. Do not even consider using your on-board flash. Front lighting with a flash is evil, even with an external offaxis unit because of the Inverse Square Law of Light Falloff. Sounds complicated but isn't. Basically every time you double the distance from flash to subject you quarter the light intensity (2 stops). So while you might get a nicely exposed subject your tunnel faded into the distance *very quickly*. Flash lighting is quite difficult to do well, most find it easier with a nondiffused supertorch. You can more easily control the spread of light down the tunnel and on any foreground subjects. The photo below was painted with a nondiffused supertorch from behind the camera, hence the shadow cast above the twin tunnels by the arch of the wide foreground tunnel.
Backlighting is to light the subject from behind, towards the camera. This brings out much more texture and shadows on the tunnel surfaces. In the example below backlighting (from behind the central bricks) emphasises the brick texture and also the arched shape of the tunnels by the use of negative space.
6.0 Light Sources
The above techniques/styles can be applied with almost any lightsource, but any specific stuff I'll cover below with the relevant lightsource.
6.1 Electronic Flash.
A few little batteries charge up the capacitors and then BAM! For a split second you've enough light to freeze motion, light a scene or at a pinch distract small children while you throw them into your van.
To expose correctly using a flash (regardless of on/offaxis) you have a couple of options. Digital lends itself well to trial and error so chances are you can just skip to the next section. If you're shooting film and want more control then read on...
Automatic is the easiest, but can be fooled by small subjects with a lot of black background. Even systems like Canon's ETTL can be tricked. You'll still get okay results, but presumably you are reading this because you want better than okay. This leads me to manual flash, so get your thinking caps ready.
All flashes should have a Guide Number (GN) listed which tells you the power output of the unit. All further explanations will be in Metric, because it's a decent measurement system. If you've a more expensive flash unit it may have a zoom head and variable power output. For example, GN=45 at 1/2 output and zoomed to 70mm. This means at f1.0, with ISO100, you can correctly expose an object at 45metres from the flash. However the flash manufacturers seem to test their units in a narrow white corrider, so their GNs seem a bit optimistic.
Manual Flash by GNs
The formula for correctly exposing with manual flash is:
GN = A x S
GN - guide number at iso 100
A - appeture on the camera
S - *flash* to subject distance
Here is a quick example, pretend you are lighting someone in a small cavity. Side lighting is more dramatic than the full frontal deer-in-headlights look so you place a flash to the right of the person. Pacing it out, the flash is 3 metres from the subject. Your camera is set to an appeture of f4. the GN's are usually given for ISO100 film, and will obviously be different with other ISOs. so,
GN = A x S
GN = 3 x 4
GN = 12
So you look up your flash and find a power output that has a GN of 12, in this example it is 1/4 power. So you open the shutter, pop the flash manually, close the shutter. One nicely exposed feature, maybe. As mentioned above, the GNs are probably a little overstated. So while the flash said GN 12 would be enough light, you might want to bracket a little with a more powerful flash burst. When experimenting like this it's useful to keep extensive notes of the settings you used. It will help you analyse your photos on the lightbox or computer screen.
Manual Flash with a Flashmeter
Light/Flashmeters are those wanky things you see hanging around photographers necks with the big white sticky-outtie dome. While wearing one makes you look and feel like a pro, you will actually need to know what to do with it. Under the dome is the silicone diode which reads the intensity of ambient light or a flash. A flashmeter is an incident meter. All that means is that it reads direct light, not the reflected light like the meter in your camera. Therefore don't make adjustments for reflectiveness (think 18% gray). So stand were the flash lit subject will be, pop the flash and look at the reading. Set your camera to what the meter says and shoot.
The process is the same if you're using multiple flashes, except you need to meter all the lights and adjust them accordingly until you get the right ratios/shadows/output. I don't want to go into slave systems too much, they are more than the average shooter will need. One tip though, if you've a dark coloured subject against a dark background add a kicker light and overexpose it a stop to highlight the rim of the subject and seperate the subject from the background.
Last Note on flashes
Painting large areas with a flash is often difficult because it's hard to overlap the flash pops to give consistent coverage. It's easier to have a powerful flash and pop once than it is to light an area with 4-5 smaller pops. Remember that accumulating pops is like ambient light, you need double the light for every stop.
Say one pop of the flash gets you to f2.8, but you're shooting at f5.6 . One pop gives you f2.8, another gives you f2.8, which accumulates to f4. To reach f5.6 you need twice as much as light as you've already got, so another 2 pops and you're done. It's not exact, so write it all down so you can check the results! Thats the tip of the iceberg for flashes, if there is demand for it I might do into more detail.
If you're shooting digital then all the above is probably worthless to you, simple trial and error will yeild equal results.
A relic of the US space program flashpainted from multiple angles with one flash at varied power outputs.
Torch painting is very different to painting with a flash. Torches are less predicatable and more a 'seat of the pants' affair than the measurement based flash setups. Torches come in all shapes and sizes so experimentation will lead you to what works best for you. LEDs give nice white light, but usually have a low light output. They're good over longer exposures and I use them topside while nightshooting to add highlights.
Shooting underground I've had the most success with the large rechargable spotlights that run off 4.5v sealed lead-acid batteries. They cost roughly AU$30 from boating or automotive shops. Out of the box they have focused beams that are poorly coloured for photography. So as mentioned way above diffuse the beam and colour correct them to a stage you find acceptable. You are now in possession of a dsankt approved SuperTorch™. Painting with smaller lights works fine, but the bigger they are the less time you can spend on each photo. This is a good things because you'll probably be shooting each scene a few times - this is doubley true for those shooting film.
Torch painting is very experimental so go crazy trying out different techniques. Frontlight, backlight, use laser pointers, leave trails, paint from tunnels, mix lightsources, use gels, take double exposures etc. The learning process will be orders of magnitude easier with digital - beg, borrow, buy or steal one.
candles are another lighting technique which is reasonably popular. They have a theatrical quality many find appealing. Candles are easy to use as the scene before you closely resembles how the finished photos shall appear. Tealight candles have a long burn time which allows for bracketing, digital trial and error and experimentation. If you're in a sewer this is probably not advised. Check your gas detector if you bothered.
6.4 Fireworks and Flares
Fireworks are wildly unpredictable but give off a lot of light very very quickly. Typically appetures around f8 are successful though as expected YMMV.
Flares (road or marine) dump as much light as fireworks over a sustained period (up to ~5m usually). They're exceptionally bright with intense saturated colours. Flares are excellent for lighting immense spaces, even more so when air flow is good.
7.0 The End
As I drew inspiration from Siologen's photographs and the things he taught me, I hope you can take something from this and that helps you document the amazing places that we as urban explorers are privliged to see. If you've suggestions, corrections, questions or film you wish to send me feel free.