I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and in that time I’ve done some awesome diving. This weekend I’ve been going through and editing and sorting my shots, in particular the ones from The Pit.

Quick Turnaround

So kit has simply been removed from dive bag chucked in the wash and dried ready to pack on Thursday night. And as the washing machine spins into a final frenzy, I’m getting my first look at my Cenotes pictures from the Yucatan jungle, half a world and a few time zones away.

Scuba Travel, Mexico, Cenotes, sunbeams
looking straight down the brightness of the shafts of light almost hurt your eyes, so are they. Although the contrast of the darkness is what makes this type of shoot, so technically tricky.

Cave In

I am looking at my pictures of The Pit our last Cenote, where we did our final two dives of our Mexican photo adventure. Our trip followed the format of the trip from two years previous, we had nearly a week at Isla de Mujeres diving with statues and whale sharks honing our skills, and the second week was at the Catalonia Royal Tulum making daily excursions to visit Cenotes, big freshwater filled caverns, rendering the Yucatan peninsula a swiss cheese-like geology which has become a mecca for divers, keen to experience something new. They are also pretty spectacular to look at with crystal clear waters pierced by sunbeams from above the jungle floor. So as a group of underwater photographers we were keen to get some great shots.

Fit for The Pit

I will be posting a guest trip report soon from both locations, and also some technique posts I have planned, both from the shooting and editing perspective, but right now i’d like to share a few of my pictures from The Pit, and also a cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t really dive with a cold, even though the pay off was worth it!!!

Scuba Travel, Mexico, The Pit, Cenotes, sunbeams
A group of divers awaiting their turn to descend into the depths, below you can see another group, hovering above the sulphide layer.

The Location

Our fantastic dive guide Tavo (short for Gustavo) an experienced cavern and cave guide had come good with all his recommendations from a previous couple of days and understands the needs of photographers, and as on my previous trip to Mexico and using ProDive where he works, he had offered dive sites that were not necessarily convenient to him but would give us the sun position to highlight and illuminate caverns at the times of day we would be visiting.

This time for our final dives he was very keen to show us The Pit, I had suggested Angelita which he had endorsed, but reckoned we would find The Pit even more productive.

I had based my decision on a number of shots from Angelita i’d seen showing its eerie sulphur cloud pierced by dead trees, which is an in vogue shot at the moment.

He said that we had a similar cloud at The Pit, but that overall we would find the Pit more productive from top to bottom. He’s come good on every one of his recommendations, so I decided to go with it.

I was only able to capture the whole of The Pit by tilting my camera rig slightly diagonally, as I am right against the back wall here.
The sheer scale and size of The Pit makes it quite difficult even with a fish eye lens to get the whole of the Pit from the entrance hole above to the sulphide layer spotlit below.

Cold Comfort

I had been feeling sorry for myself nursing a cold from the previous few days, but had just dosed myself up with decongestants and paracetamol, and lots of water, and made slow easy descents, to be kind to my ears. Yes I know you shouldn’t ever dive with a cold, but I wasn’t going to miss out on some awesome cavern dives.

My cold had developed into a tickly cough, fairly minor but annoying, and didn’t give me any pause for thought as Tavo briefed us for our last dive.
The Pit isn’t like a lot of the previous cavern dives we had done where we had gone from chamber to chamber, via lined tunnels, nothing too challenging or extreme and all of our party had all become accustomed to the darkness punctuated by wondrous veils of light beams.

Dynamic range is working against you so you need to make sure what your priorities are. A shutter speed fast enough to keep you and the subject steady, and an exposure to render your highlights within range.
Photographically the Pit is a real challenge with a huge dynamic range to contend with, I have learnt to approach it as a two way affair, one in camera and the other on the computer when post processing.

A weighty issue

He’d advised us to add a couple of pounds of lead to our belts, as we would be encountering a Halocline, a layer of thick disorientating heavy salty water, that would make us more buoyant. As I had been diving all week in the Cenotes with no lead at all this was no major hardship.
As we made our descent, into what can only be described as one of the most otherworldly dive experiences I have encountered, all was well.
The Pit is a huge aircraft hanger sized vertical cavern, going down to over 30m where the sulphur layer is, with dead vegetation and trees sticking eerily out of the gloomy layer.
I reached the Halocline with no issues at all, and gave a big breath out to descend through the salty strata, unfortunately, this started a cough which got out of hand, and I quickly started to feel disorientated, as a case of mild vertigo was triggered.
This, in normal conditions, isn’t very nice, but when in a cave underground, without the regular frame of references, really threw me.

I’m a very experienced diver with many thousands of dives under my belt, however, this was something new, and I realised that I had to get things, and my breathing, under control before things took a turn for the worse.

Tavo could see something was amiss, and realising that I was a bit discombobulated gently guided me to the cavern wall where I could steady myself, and concentrate on breathing slowly and steadily until I felt better.

Nice and slowly does it…

A few slow breaths later and I was back to feeling better, and orientated with my environment, but this was definitely a lesson learnt, and proof that every day a school day, even if today’s lesson plan had been on a steep learning curve, and a note to self to not put myself under pressure to dive if I’m not feeling well, regardless of the self-imposed pressure to do so.
Once sorted I enjoyed the dive and really got a lot out of the dive photographically, but resolved to do the next dive at a max depth of 15m, and not push myself into over-breathing which I’m sure had brought on the coughing fit, and dizzy do.

Scuba Travel, Mexico, Cenotes, sunbeams
Stalagtites like stony witches talons poke down from the roof, providing a foreground interest for your shots.

Epic Scale

To be honest the scale of the place, in my opinion, was best captured at the 15m mark enabling the photographer to use some foreground stalagtites to enhance the scale of the amazing environment we were in.  Which was where all these shots in the blog have been captured from.

Photographically speaking you need to be brave and be prepared to use slower shutter speeds than you may be comfortable with, along with higher ISO’s

Exposing on the right side of things

This time though I decided to experiment with picking the slowest shutter speed I thought I could handhold (1/15 sec) and an aperture not completely wide open to keep edge sharpness at the optimum, and I didn’t stray too high with the ISO’s mostly keeping in the range of 400 to 1600, this meant that a lot of the files were very dark in-camera, this is called exposing to the left (eTTL) the idea being that you then process the files and boost exposure in software, in theory, this should reduce the noise overhead, by not artificially increasing noise in-camera. To be honest, I’ve had mixed results and it needs further experimentation to get the best from it, but if circumstances are favourable it appears to work quite well.
You will have to get used to having an almost black screen when you try and review your shots on the back of the camera, and this has the side effect of making your post-processing workflow really slow until you’ve boosted exposure of all the shots in Lightroom or Photoshop as you can’t see what you’ve got until you do this.
It’s a lot like push processing film, which is a technique I used to use years ago to shoot in low light before digital.
You will get grain but it shouldn’t be too bad, and I have a camera with a quite small sensor a Micro 4/3 so if you have a camera with a bigger sensor you should get much better results with less noise and grain from this technique.

Flash Harry

As a postscript don’t forget to also take some shots using your strobes, the roofs and sides of these caves are beautiful examples of geology in action, so occasionally turn your camera inwards and make a record of your more immediate surroundings, the guides are also very well used to being photographed and very willing to model for your camera. You just need to direct them to where you want them, and they won’t flap around like newbies either, such is their mastery of buoyancy and trim!!

Scuba Travel, Mexico, Cenotes
Nick one of our guides, his skill and experience in this environment a confidence boost to all that dive with him.

I just hope I’ve captured the scale and magnificence of the place and done it justice.
Another blog soon, with a strong Mexican flavor.