By Brandi Mueller
Diving in the of caves Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a spectacular and challenging experience. I caught the cave bug after falling in love with cavern diving because I wanted to see what was further into the caves. After completing rigorous training, my next focus involved trying to take photos of this unique environment…which happens to be as dark as dark can be.
f/9 • 1/40 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
The Deep History of Underwater Caves
The Yucatán Peninsula has an extraordinary underground geology. Composed mostly of limestone, water filters through the porous rock, and after millions of years that water has eroded miles and miles of caves. Occasionally something causes part of the surface to collapse and open the area. Sometimes this is just a big hole that fills with freshwater and other times it exposes openings to some of these winding, tunneling caves. As water levels have fallen and rose again, parts of the caves were dry and then wet. During the dry periods geological formations called speleothems were created from mineral deposits and now they are underwater.
f/11 • 1/150 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
Not only are these rooms of stalactites and stalagmites unique and fascinating; they are also historically and scientifically significant. Bones of ancient animals have been found including sloths, sabretooths and other animals remain from drier times. It is known that the cenotes were used by the ancient Maya as a source of fresh water and possibly for practical and religious means. Occasionally human remains and artifacts are found, confirming human use.
f/5 • 1/30 • ISO 3200 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
Gearing Up for Low Light
Diving caves requires additional training and equipment, and so does trying to capture these amazing underground and underwater spaces. Two important lessons I’ve learned in photography over the years include the importance of having the right gear and learning as much as possible from the experts in the area about what I want to photograph.
f/6.3 • 1/30 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
Having the right tools are always a good place to start. While I’ve been habitually shooting a Nikon D850, I quickly found I needed to move over to the mirrorless side of things to be able to push the ISO as far as possible in such low light. The Nikon Z7 II stood up to the test and I found it to be exceptional at focusing in low light, even on a very tiny, dimly lit diver in a large wide-angle scene. I was able to push the ISO, although I found that 2500 was as high as preferred before I found noise that I didn’t like. But the sensor seemed to absorb much more light at 2500 than other cameras I’ve used previously. I also had some success with ISO 3200 which were salvageable in post-production using Lightroom’s noise reduction tool.
As far as learning from the best, I was lucky that my cave instructor, Mauro Bordignon, was not only an excellent trainer, but he also happens to be one of the best cave lighting designers there is. With years of experience staging lights inside caves for photography and videography, I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to start creating images inside caves. His extensive knowledge of the area helped me get to some incredibly photogenic spots within the scope of my current levels of training and experience.
f/5.6 • 1/30 • ISO 3200 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
My experience with off-camera lighting underwater was minor prior to this and mostly in wrecks. Watching a pro was such a great introduction to setting a cave scene. On other dives I was experimenting without the pro and it’s not easy, but the challenge is really fun. As a bonus, Mauro and my cave dive buddies were also willing to model for the shots. Having a diver in the image helped show the scale of the caves.
All of these shots seen here involved carrying large video lights into the cave and setting them up around an area (on some dives upwards of 12 lights producing over 200,000 lumens). Positioning lights facing the camera but blocked by a formation would back light cave structure which I found to really work well in the images. This isn’t the only way to do cave photography, but I like how off-camera lighting helped to show depth in the cave. When I used strobes on the camera the shots were sometimes flat-looking and washed out. On other dives I tried positioning a single strobe pointing straight up from the camera and got some interesting results, in smaller areas the light would bounce off the walls and structures. Creativity with cave photography is endless and I encourage any and all sorts of different things to see what you like in the end.
f/5.6 • 1/30 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
I can’t express the importance of diver safety in cave diving enough. Never dive beyond training and comfort levels. For me, still being quite new at the cave diving, the best plan of action was to do a dive without my camera (yes, it was painful to not have it, but the right decision). Back on land we would pick a few spots and then go back on the same dive to set up lighting. It is also highly recommended during a cave photo shoot to have a safety diver who may have no other job than to make sure everyone is alert to the dive and not lost in photography (it happens).
f/10 • 1/40 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
Second to diver safety is conservation of the cave. Just like when shooting animals, no shot is worth damaging anything in any way. This means the divers have to be absolutely perfect in buoyancy and trim and always aware of where they are and what they are doing. Lighting placement needs to be thoughtful so as not to damage what took millions of years to create.
f/10 • 1/50 • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
I had so much fun trying to photograph caves. The challenging environment both in regards to diving and creating images made getting “the shot” that much more exciting. A few times I was just happy I got something that wasn’t a pitch-black image. The whole process really forced me to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. There are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula hundreds of miles of caves. I can’t wait to go back!
f/4.5 • 1/30s • ISO 2500 © 2022 Brandi Mueller
Ambassador Brandi Mueller has been nursing an addiction to WWII wrecks for years now. She fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a Marine Biologist, then set off to travel the world exploring and teaching underwater photography. She published The Airplane Graveyard in 2018 documenting the history of wrecks photographed during her years in Kwajalein Atoll. She moved on to captain the MV Truk Odyssey in 2019 and we're never quite sure where she'll turn up next. Read more...
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