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Tips and techniquesTravel and destinations

Hidden Beauties Underground: Part I

By March 25, 2022April 19th, 2022No Comments

The entrance to the cavern is illuminated well and there is a railing to use if needed. Nikon D800, 28mm, 1/60 second, f/3.5, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

Lost Caverns

By Sastry Karra with Frank Gallagher

I recently learned that there are approximately 1,100 mapped caves in Pennsylvania. Unlike Luray Caverns in Virginia or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, most of them are not famous. Neither are they relatively pristine, like Karchner Caverns in Arizona. Still, there are at least five (some say seven) Pennsylvania sites that are considered “show  caves,” and said to be worth a visit.  While most are only open from spring through fall, Lost River Caverns is open year round. Since it’s reasonably close to my home in New Jersey, my cameras and I started there, with a visit in February. So, what did I learn about Lost River Caverns and taking photos in a cave?

The caverns

Lost River Caverns is a natural limestone cavern located on the east side of Hellertown, in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, near the steel cities of Bethlehem and Allentown. Like most caves in the state, it is a “solution cave,” meaning that the limestone has been dissolved in and transported out of the cave by water, in this case the crystal clear “Lost River,” which flows through the caverns. The 45-minute guided tour takes you through five rooms. A sixth was only discovered during a drought in 1963, when the river dried up and exposed the entrance. It was closed off again when the river’s flow returned.

The caverns were discovered accidentally, in 1883, by miners excavating limestone from where the parking lot now stands. As there was no other entrance or exit to the cave, there were no bats, snakes, or fish living there and it had not been used by prehistoric humans.  The site was sold in 1929 and developed into tourist destination. It opened to the public in 1930 and, other than lights, railings and paths, remains in its natural state.

Flowstone is formed by mineral deposits from flowing water and resembles a stone waterfall. Nikon D800, 28mm, 1/13 second, f/3.5 © Sastry Karra

Challenges in cave photography

The temperature inside the caverns is a constant 52 degrees, and a sweater or jacket is advisable, even in summer. The pathways are well lit and have railings, but can be wet, so good shoes are a must. Bring a towel or a few lens clothes in case just in case any water drips on your camera.

This is a young cave, relatively speaking, estimated at just 250,000 years old. The “rooms” or chambers aren’t huge, though one was used as a ballroom in the 1880s, and it’s dark and wet. Ceilings can be low and formations protrude from the walls , so you always have to watch where you’re going. It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic and presents several difficult challenges for a photographer.

Surface water seeps down into the cave, slowly dissolving the limestone and forming interesting and unique structures. You’re probably familiar with stalagmites, which form from the ground up, and stalactites, which form from the ceiling down. You’ll see them here, but you’ll also see soda straws, which are thin, hollow formations that look like drinking straws; helictites, odd-shaped formations that grow in all directions; flowstone that looks like a waterfall and is formed from flowing water; anthodites, flower-like structures; and cave bacon, formations that resemble thin, almost translucent drapery, colored by streaks of iron oxide that make it look like bacon. When a cave is old enough, and the a stalactite and stalagmite have grown enough, they often join together forming a column. Lost River Caverns is young enough that there may not be any columns for another 100,000 years.

These are fascinating and often colorful formations but difficult to photograph.  The light may be really bad. You might be too close to compose a pleasing shot, you don’t have a lot of time in any spot, and there are other people around. Still, if you like interesting rock formations like I do (see my article on Vedauwoo), it’s a challenge worth taking.

I’d never photographed a cave before and couldn’t find any guidance on the internet, so the first time I visited Lost River Caverns, I planned a test run with my Nikon D800 camera, which handles low light and high ISOs pretty well, and my 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, to cover a wide range of focal lengths. There are lights along the path through the cave, and lights illuminating some of the formations, but also areas that are pretty dark. During the tour, I chose my shutter speed, opened up my aperture as much as I could and still got settings with ISO as high as 25,600 in the darkest parts of the cave. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought a flashlight and didn’t use on-camera flash. I tried a variety of shots and, when I saw them later on my computer, I could see what worked and what didn’t.

When I went back to photograph the caverns again, I took my D800 with the 28-200mm lens and my D7100 camera with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. This combination would give me maximum flexibility of focal length, the ability to go with a wide open aperture on the D7100, or higher ISO on the D800. This time there were only three people on the tour. The guide was friendly and accommodating and, when asked, would shine her flashlight on formations to provide a little extra light.

You can see the Lost River before it’s lost. The water is so clear and pure and the drops fall so slowly that the ripples can easily be seen. NIKON D800, 28 mm, 1/13th second, f/3.5, ISO 100 © Sastry Karra

Logistics

While cameras are allowed inside, tripods, backpacks & strollers are prohibited. Visitors who are around 6 feet or above must be extremely careful as the rocks above are very sharp (luckily, I am just 5 ft tall).

It is extremely unsafe to look up or take photos while walking, as the path can be wet and slippery. Most of the time, the guide will give enough time at stops for people to experience nature’s beauty and also take photos.

There are caves with bigger chambers, and more colorful formations, and there are caves that are less touristy, but Lost River Caverns was a good introduction to photographing in caves. It’s open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day and tours cost $14.50 per adult. If you go, plan your trip for a weekday during the off season when there are fewer visitors. There are plenty of lodging choices in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, including a Holiday Inn Express five minutes from the cave. You’ll also be fairly close to Crystal Cave, another of the top show caverns in the state, near Kutztown. Now that it’s open for the season (March 1 – November 30), that might be next on my list.

The limestone deposits form some unique shapes that activate your imagination while touring the caves. NIKON D7100, 50mm, 1/250 second, f/2.4, ISO 6400, (left; NIKON D800, 100mm, 1/5 second, f/5.3, ISO 100, (right) © Sastry Karra

Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional and has been living in New Jersey since 2004. During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.