Thursday, November 10, 2011

Carlsbad Underground

The trip out west has been over for close to a month, but it has taken me this long to get used to "normal" again. For weeks the reintegration was punctuated by the simple muscle aches and pains of the trip and I was surprised at how difficult it was to shake off a few thousand miles of travel... I am definitely getting older.

First stop was Carlsbad, NM to visit the famed caverns. They did not disappoint. We took the simple walk-in tour and decided to take the natural entrance down to the caverns. It's a long downhill walk underground but it gives you some nice views of the natural entrance along the way. On the way down I started trying to get the hang of how I was gonna photograph the caverns with the new camera (Sony 5n). My idea was to take advantage of the in-camera HDR function, and I forgot that this meant that I would be limited to using JPEG. It took a good deal of fiddling but I finally remembered to change to JPEG and enabled the HDR. It didn't help that the camera had arrived barely a week before the trip!

Once I got things set right, I tried, in vain, to get a reasonable shot of the natural entrance. Couldn't do it. The DR of the scene was far more than the in-camera HDR function could handle... and I kept getting what I thought were some very odd colors? In any event, I got the hang of squatting down and forcing the camera into my tiny beanbag while it was perched on the hand railing to get the necessary support to use the HDR function without a tripod. This was not easy. And it didn't help that the railing was constantly vibrating due to so many others using as it was intended. I found it was better to use the railing support columns where this wasn't an issue. Still, it was very much hit and miss on whether or not I was able to hold the camera steady enough for the series of multi-second exposures this HDR trick required. But eventually I managed to get a few sharp frames.

It took a good hour to get down to the main level of the cave where we took a break before exploring the main trail. It's all self-guided, so there was no rush. We purchased some drinks and filled out some postcards before getting back on the trail.

On the way down my brother had commented that he did not think the cave was that pretty. Too dry, and lacking in color. I thought it was quite nice, but then I had prepared myself by reading about how the cave conditions in NM were dryer than those in more temperate states (like Arkansas) and I was actually surprised to see that it was as wet as it was. Being below a desert, I saw more water than expected.

The main part of the caverns, though, was much more to his liking. It is a very large and nicely decorated cave by any standard, and ultimately I managed to shot just over 100 HDR frames. The image posted is one of those from the main trail.

Upon sorting through the images I was only mildly surprised to find that the number of sharp frames was so low. I could tell from chimping on location that I was not getting sharp frames every time. So I had bracketed the scenes I really wanted when I found a nice one. Overall I was not disappointed except for one large problem... white balance.

Before leaving Arkansas I had set the camera to Tungsten for some reason. Forgot all about it. Not a problem, of course, if you are shooting RAW, but now every image from the cavern was Tungsten. Oh well. They didn't look that bad, except for the failed entrance attempts, and after reading that the cavern had every color of lighting imaginable down there... but mostly tungsten, I guess it was just plain luck. AWB probably would not have managed much better.

The biggest problem with shooting Carlsbad turned out to be my technique. But I only discovered this the next morning. Remember how I mentioned that I was squatting down (often on my toes) to brace the camera on the available supports for long exposures... and that I did this over a hundred times? Yep, my thighs were jello for the rest of the trip, and for many days afterward.

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