We sat down with caving extraordinaire Robbie Shone, a man who explores some of the world’s deepest and darkest spaces in an effort to capture the perfect photograph. Recently named by San Miguel as one of 20 ‘life-rich’ individuals from across the globe, here’s what he had to say.
What is it about caves that draws you in so much?
Caves are one of a couple of places remaining on our planet that are unexplored and we know nothing about. They are unbelievable environments and home to new species of life that exist in total darkness.
They are like a time capsule to another world hundreds of thousands of years ago when the outside world looked ‘very’ different to how it looks today. When you enter into a cave, you step back in time to that period. Nothing inside the cave has changed. Amazing!
Caves and the subterranean world is the ultimate location for low light photography, so I can practice what I love doing and my work of photographing these spaces has been enhanced over time and through experiencing so many beautiful caves all around the world.
How did you get into caving in particular?
I studied art and design at university in Sheffield, where a friend and colleague on the course persuaded me to join the university’s caving club and descend into a cave in the Yorkshire Dales.
The different and unique environment I was presented with immediately struck me. The roar of the nearby waterfall was so loud it was deafening and I remember I had difficulty communicating with my friend and the team. All my senses were instantly alert and wired to the relevant dangers of this frighteningly unfamiliar world.
However, at the same time, I loved it and the excitement was overwhelming. I wanted more! I joined the club and went caving every weekend and even sometimes during the week, missing lectures and classes at university.
I dedicated my third year degree show to 3D stereo photography from caves using a mixture of light sources from LED, warm candles, electric flash, magnesium flash powder… You name it I used it!
All these different light sources gave off a different light and one that burnt differently. Great results in an environment where there is no natural light.
Can you tell us about a couple of your best memories on the job?
Every cave is different, that is for sure. We spent a couple of weeks exploring and photographing a unique cave in Mexico called Cueva de Villa Luz near Teapa. It is born on several volcanic springs that bubble up hydrogen sulphide gas into the water.
We needed to wear gas masks to work down there for several hours at a time, but the cave is thriving with life, a unique eco-system living in total darkness alongside poisonous gas. It was a wonderful privilege to see this other world.
The very first time I photographed a deep vertical shaft or pit underground was extremely challenging. The cave is called Titan and it is in the far reaches of the Peak Cavern (The Devil’s Arse) in Castleton, Derbyshire. It was almost 15 years ago now and it was the first time I’d try to make a picture so far off the ground suspended like a bat in the roof of the cave.
Along with friends, we devised a technique of bolting the tripod to the wall almost upside down so that the camera could be fixed in place solid. I hung on a rope and sat on a small plank of wood with my legs dangling in mid-air with 145m of empty space below me (almost the height of Blackpool Tower).
We used PMR walkie-talkie radios to communicate with everyone dotted around the cave below me, waiting to fire their magnesium wire wool flashbulbs for the photograph.
This picture took three years to perfect, six visits into the cave and up into Titan’s roof dome to eventually reach a point that I was happy with.
Working in the environments that you often do must be rather hazardous. Have there been any times when things have got particularly hairy?
No, nothing too spectacular. Caving is relatively safe as it’s done at a sensible speed. Driving a car is safe, we all do it, but not if you drive at 70mph through a small village where there are school children playing and the speed limit is 30mph. Then it becomes dangerous.
What kit do you normally have with you when photographing in caves and is it tough to get your gear into these environments with you?
Nikon D810 DSLR camera with approx 5x batteries (D800 DSLR camera spare body for major shoots only)
Nikon 14-24mm F/2.8 lens – main choice lens!
Nikon 60mm F/2.8 macro lens
Lexar Professional CF memory cards
‘3 Legged Thing’ tripod and head
Petzl tackle bags designed for caving – made from very hard wearing material
Waterproof plastic barrels to protect all the equipment
Plus, I would also have to carry a helmet and head lamp, SRT kit (harness, ropes, slings, ascender and descender device made by Petzl), food, first aid kit, warm clothes, spare head torch.
It can be extremely tough and awkward to get all my photography gear down through the tight and narrow passageways underground to the location for shooting. Passing bags and bags of equipment through narrow slots can be time consuming and demanding.
Do you have any favourite places to photograph?
As long as I haven’t been there before it is a great location. I’m not one for going back to the same place over and over again. There’s still so much to explore and discover and therefore photograph, as it’s new.
How can other people get into caving?
More and more people are becoming qualified in taking groups of kids, students and scouts underground as a ‘beginner’s’ trip. For me, I joined my university caving club and began when I was 19 years old.
Any tips for how people can improve their mountain/cave photography?
Practice! I’ve just finished an assignment for Nat Geo where I was the ‘expert’ Nat Geo photographer on two trips for American students here in the Alps.
The things I told them were to practice, and focus on what excites you about photography. Make mistakes and learn. Get in contact with peers and your heroes in the field you’re most interested in.
Robbie Shone is the latest individual discovered by San Miguel as part of its search for the San Miguel Rich List, a list of 20 ‘life-rich’ individuals from across the globe who have unique, compelling, aspirational human stories. To find out more about the campaign, and discover other life-rich individuals, visit www.sanmiguel.co.uk/richlist.