Oxford University Cave Club

Proceedings 10 : "Pozu del Xitu"

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Expedition Photography - some comments

by Simon Fowler


"He (John Singleton) described Oxford University's... major photographic/pushing trip... which reached the final sump" (Caves and Caving No. 14, 1981)

Well, we did manage a bit of pushing between the photographic trips! But seriously, in 1981, after 2 years of rapid pushing and hectic surveying, a better photographic record of Xitu was needed: we had hardly any black and white shots and a very, very patchy coverage with slides. Sod's law prevailing as always, it appeared that the cave got more and more photogenic as it got deeper and harder! So to be of most use, photographers had to get a long way down the cave - most unfortunate for lazy so-and-sos like me who would have loved to potter around the Teresa Series ad infinitum.

In the end, at least 1˝ underground camping trips were devoted to photography, and a reasonable coverage has been achieved. But this is a lot of man-hours of photography. Unless expeditions are prepared to put this in, I don't think they will get a good photo coverage of the deep bits of their caves: modern SRT and rapid back-surveying on pushing trips may be the 'in-thing' but it won't result in a very wonderful photographic record of the system. Some people may argue that we had a lot of man-trips in Xitu, putting excessive strain on the cave, but much of this time was spent in photography and in producing a grade 5B survey, something few expeditions into deep, hard caves seem to do.

Equipment Used

Cameras: ranged from Olympus SLRs to little Rolleis. The former are much more versatile, but a lot heavier! Both were taken to the bottom. Only 35mm format cameras were used.

Flashes: varied from small bulb guns to enormous electronic flashes. The former are very lightweight and don't mind rough treatment, such as being swept away at Chunder Pot, to be recovered by the next camping party! Big electronics are the only way of getting bulb-type power without bulbs. I recommend that you take George along to carry them - the weight will probably knacker his legs but he'll still get out as fast as anyone else, just using his arms! Other comments: slave units would probably have been useful, enabling tripods to be dispensed with more often.

Films: Ektachrome 200 seems the best cave slide film. Others simply need more light which can be difficult to provide except in white places such as Snowcastle, but they will produce slightly crisper slides. I don't like Ektachrome 400. For black and white, FP4 (125ASA) was used again, as a standard. It produces nice results, but is a little slow. Most 400ASA films, in my experience are too grainy. The new Ilford XP1 (400ASA) was also tried and found to be a great success. Developing was done by Clive Westlake (see Caves and Caving No. 13 pp. 2-6). It really does seem to produce good prints from badly under- or over-exposed negatives. The quality was as good as with FP4.

Exposures: exposing correctly in new caves is tricky. In Xitu, most of the rock is light, but it's difficult to know this until the results come back over-exposed! Consequently 'bridging' the exposures is a good idea - i. e. take 2 shots per picture, one either side of what you think is the correct 'f' stop. This way you should guarantee to get one right! Using XP1, you can 'get away with murder' on exposure, so this may not be necessary. Despite all this, we had problems: nearly all the shots of Snowcastle suffer from over-exposure in places.

Carrying gear: All our gear was carried down in ammo cans, or, in the case of George, an enormous fibreglass monstrosity. Contrary to what has been said in the past about ammo cans, I think it's quite feasible to take them on deep trips.

I hope that these notes are helpful to people planning deep expedition photography. Just to prove that even in the simplest of circumstances lots of things can go wrong I have produced a real-life episode from the expedition log.

Photography of Ming Piece Passage

I wanted a two flash shot, nothing very fancy, of John coming around a nicely scalloped corner, with backlight to bring out thescallops - easy really. I'm using Kev's camera and one of his bulb flashes. Says Kev, "I'd better operate my flash, as its got this funny two position switch, and if you don't know which position's which, bulbs can fire as soon as you put them in." "Fine," I says. "Just pop round the corner, and fire it when I count to 3." Off he goes. I position John, and we're ready to roll. I shout "Ready, Kev?" and the only response I get is a bright flash well nigh simultaneous to a cry of "sh..!" Another try; this time Kev assures me it'll be OK as he now knows which way the switch is switched, if you see what I mean. "Ready, Kev?" - another equally brilliant flash and expletive, before I've even said "one"! Kev's now sure he's got it right, but meanwhile has to clamber over John for a fresh supply of bulbs. "Do you want a whole box?" I foolishly jest. "Ready, Kev?" - no premature flash; things look good. "One, two, three," I shout, holding my breath. Everything is fine, except that I press the shutter fractionally after my "three". I am tempted to say nothing, but it could be a nice shot, so I tell Kev, who calls me a few well-deserved names. Try again. "Ready, Kev?" - a blinding flash. This is getting expensive! "Right," says Kev, "I've really got it fixed now; if it goes off early this time you can come and kick me in the balls." "Ready, Kev?" - a blinding flash. Fortunately for Kev, we collapse in a hysterically giggling heap and can't take him up on his offer; fortunately for us the floor is soft and sandy! "Just one last time," I say, in desperation, while Kev is clambering over John to get some more bulbs. It all works a treat; success we, think; well, you can judge for yourself - the photo is to the right! My mistake was to ask John to pose naturally - "naturally, so you look like other people, John, not like you!" After this, Kev spent ten minutes fishing his lens cap out of a deep crack, but that's another story... 

 We were a bit sick of photography by this time, so we went upstream in Xitu, and discovered ˝km of very fine, sometimes very pretty, passage - fate, perhaps?