Illuminating The Underworld In A Deep, Dark French Cave

Sep 28, 2012
Originally published on October 1, 2012 10:11 am

Photographer Robbie Shone used a lot of flashbulbs while photographing the famous French cave Gouffre Berger. A lot of flashbulbs — more than 600 in four trips.

To get an idea of the challenge of photographing inside a pitch black space, imagine firing your flash at a subject in a dark room. The result might look something like this. The foreground is harshly lit, while the background stays dark.

To get the glowing, painterly look of his underground photos, Shone needed a team of assistants, as well as a variety of LED headlamps, electric flashguns, and old press flashbulbs. He set them up in an array, then used a trigger to fire the lights remotely — illuminating the cavernous space from multiple angles.

"Big rooms underground require a lot of light, and placing [them] is the most important and skilled part of the photograph, as this depicts how the walls and space comes alive," Shone told me, via email.

In addition to the lighting challenge, the team worked at a near constant temperature of 39 F, while carrying full camping and caving gear. On his recent trip, two nights were spent underground in the Salle des Treize (Hall of the Thirteen), which included a 17-hour trip to the bottom of the cave. The purpose of that exhausting sojourn was to make six photographs.

Shone is a travel and adventure photographer who has worked all over the world. Over the past few years he made multiple trips into the Gouffre Berger to create photos for a coffee-table/rigging guidebook that will also include a history of its exploration and a complete topographic guide. All the proceeds will go toward caving grant foundations.

I asked him if he ever got scared in the cave.

"Very rarely scared, always excited, he said. "From the moment you enter a cave and leave the daylight and the comforts of the surface behind, all senses are alerted and magnified. You spend the entire time concentrating on where you are stepping. You rarely switch off."

The cave was named for Joseph Berger, who discovered it in 1953. It was originally thought to be the deepest in the world but has since been demoted to 28th. Still, it is regarded as a "must-do" for cavers around the globe.

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