who am i?

I notice myself being drawn to that question – particularly in lyrics and music. The question raises serious naval-staring moments. I’m really nobody; nothing important; dust or vapor in the wind; a shadow before sunrise.

What makes me so important to others? I’m not special or particularly good looking. If there was anti-charisma, you’d certainly attribute that to my character. I’m not being humble here, just honest. So why would anyone find me special?

I think Antoine de Saint-Exupery stated it well in “The Little Prince”

“Anything essential is invisible to the eyes…. It’s the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…. People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said, “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose….”

I suppose I’m a little wild, like the fox or the rose and people who have personally spent time chipping away at that to tame me has also acquired a special sense of responsibility and uniqueness for me.

There’s a proverb that states “Where your treasure is, your heart is also.” The more we work at something, the more of our personal selves are put into it and the more it’s treasured. It’s what we choose to treasure that alters the world around us and changes other people – and not necessarily because they’ve changed, but more because of a change in our perception.

Thoreau Was Wrong

One of the famous signature quotes from Thoreau is “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” However, he was mistaken. It’s when men don’t lead that they end up in these moments of desperation and if they become complacent in it they ultimately live their lives in quiet – maybe a grunt here or there at the water cooler, but they ultimately die out quietly and unnoticed.

So it’s not that most men lead lives of quiet desperation; it’s that what they follow leads to it.

In Proverbs 7, King Solomon talks about what happens when we follow our heart rather than lead it. Emotions change; sometimes emotions change as quickly as weather in the mountains. Since our hearts are so indecisive, they can’t really be trusted.

I’m not saying our hearts shouldn’t be heard. The poetry and beauty that mankind has added to this world depends on the heart, soul and mind down to its core. However, directing life on a series of decisions based on what feels good has a proven track record of causing destruction.

It’s like that scene in The Incredibles with the cape discussion. Bob (Mr. Incredible) wants a cape because it appeals to his feeling of a superhero. Edna has to go on a lengthy monologue that explains how capes spelled the demise of one superhero after another. After all that, Bob decides he doesn’t really want a new suit.

I’m not entirely certain, but I think the cape on Superman was little more than his baby blanket bound around his neck. You could even say that Superman was the first security-blanket-loving-Linus character.

Back to the point – bright men come up with ideas but often seek bad counsel. They give up and feel hopelessness choke out their creativity. In their shame and reluctance they remain quiet when new ideas come to mind which makes them feel their desperation even more. They followed the wrong counsel – the wrong advice – the insecure heart. So shed that cape, turn off the TV, pick up a good book and change the way you think. Let wisdom and understanding guide you and you won’t end up quiet or in desperation.

Cave Photography

Cave photography is tricky for several reasons. This is especially true if you’re trying to use the “natural” lighting that cave tours provide.

I tend to like the orange red glow of incandescent lighting, and taking pictures without a flash emphasizes my personal memory of the experience. While using a flash yields better sharpness, it also changes the lighting to something other than what you remembered seeing. However, it does show the true nature of the rock which tends to be browns and tans. Flash is nice if you’re wanting to study the geological formations, but not as nice if you’re wanting the feel of that memory.

1. Come Prepared

Make sure you have a crisp-just-recharged battery or even two. These batteries take a beating in darkly lit areas – whether it’s to power a flash or to power the sensor that’s being exposed for hundreds of times longer than usual. Also put the largest, fastest card you’ve got in your camera. In those dark caverns, fumbling around with your cards is a quick way to get them lost! You don’t want to open up your camera unless you really have to. What lens you use is up to you. I used a moderately slow zoom lens which took me from 3.4 to around 5. The 50mm f/1.8 might have been better, but many of those formations are so far out of reach that to close in on them you must zoom. Switching lenses during the tour increases your risk of dropping one.

2. Expect Grain

Push your ISO to the highest setting your camera allows and disable the flash unit if you have one built in. Even if you wanted to use a lower ISO, the long exposure time will create artificial grain and distortion on digital sensors so you’re going to get grain one way or another. Also expect a shallow depth of field. Push your lens to as fast as it can go by opening up to as wide an aperture as your lens allows. (Make that little f-number as low as it can get.)

3. Set To Burst

Set your camera to take a flow of shots instead of just one while you press the shutter button. In this setting, when you take a picture (remember to be perfectly still) hold down the shutter instead of just pressing it to take two or three shots of the exact same thing. This gives you a greater chance of capturing shots like the one you see here (this was the middle shot from a stream of three).

Camera shake isn’t as severely noticed in long exposures, but hand-holding a camera means it’s shots will be based on your overall stability on those slippery floors. The general rule is anything longer than 1/60 of a second should be on a tripod. Of the four different caves I’ve gone to, you couldn’t bring those in unless you have special permission. Somehow the flow of shots or burst shooting helps improve these odds.

4. Be Polite And Trail Behind

Our guide was rather miffed at anyone who wanted to stick around to admire the view. I think she was paid by the inverse of the hour by the comments she made and the way she wanted to cattle the fifty of us through so quickly. That’s another thing. These are usually large tour groups. Most people want to pay their $20 to walk through a cave quickly, learn a couple of things then spend another $20 on a T-Shirt that says they did it. They’re not interested in sticking around for an hour to fully appreciate the actual geological formations. What does this mean to you as the photographer? Stay at the end of the group.

In fact, I was so far back that the tour group behind us was just a few feet away – these tours were in 15 minute intervals. I wouldn’t suggest this if you were in the last tour of the day. Zoiks! Getting locked in one of these caves with all the lights out would be terrifying!

5. Seek Sensible Stability

If there’s a handrail nearby, lean on it with as much of your body as you can, and I mean squat down to the point that your arms, side and back are resting firmly on it. However, don’t lean on the walls. Let me say that again … DO NOT lean on the walls. You can be terribly fined for destroying the cave “life” by doing so.

We emit oils and acids that create a water barrier on these stones. That means the water won’t settle on these spots anymore to deposit the minerals that keep these formations “alive”. I think the fine here was around $15,000!

6. Protect Your Assets

Did I mention slippery floors? That camera strap better be around your neck. I usually have a small padded camera bag that fits around my shoulder at just the right height for the camera to rest in between shots while it’s still strapped to my neck. That way if I fall on my camera, it’s protected. I forgot that case on this visit, but it’s still good advice.

7. Remember Variety

Take pictures of formations up close and far back. The popcorn photo shows so much detail because I was zoomed into it and only 18 inches from it. Those things are small. Formations often look different looking back. Look up. Look down. Look behind you. Each of these are often missed photo opportunities and in most caves you’ll notice differentiations in the lighting that could make wonderfully appealing shots that would otherwise be missed.

8. Be Liberal With Your Photography

Be patient and take lots of pictures and at the highest resolution your camera allows. Out of about 200 pictures, only 20 of them came out with a decent level of sharpness. That’s only a 10% success rate. Some great formations could be discerned from the multiple identical shots of them, but not appreciated because of their blurriness.

9. Last words of wisdom? Hmmm…

Deep in the cave where the wind doesn’t blow, it’s hot. Dress cool. Wear good tennis shoes.

If I were to do this again, it would be by myself instead of with a family of kids and relatives. It’s an inconvenience to them. I’d warn the tour guide that I’m a shutterbug so I lag behind, then offer a small tip – like $5 or $10 in advance. In American Indian tours, they usually take a $20 – but a good Indian guide is easily worth that … some of the great shots in my Antelope Canyon trip were a direct result of advice from the guide! I would also ask the manager what types of accommodations could be made or if there were any special photography tours.

10. Final Words and Thanks

My mother in law was very gracious in buying our tickets. It was an expense she didn’t need to take, but it also created some great memories with the kids that they’ll talk about for years to come. I wanted to take some good pictures for the challenge and so that years down the road they could see them and recall that first whiff of cool cave air when they were still young.