Anatomy of a photo #11: Lava tube I: Temperature

After walking a distance into the Valentine's Cave, I turned back and took this image

I took this picture for a micro travel piece that I knew I would be writing. This is one of several lava tubes that you can explore in Lava Beds National Monument near the border of Oregon and California (eastern side).

This photograph, while close to what I had envisioned, is not entirely what I intended. I knew that some parts of the photo would be lost to shadows, while others were lost to the brightness of the outside world. What I had not anticipated was the soft edge, almost haziness, to the edges of the bright areas.

Once I began taking pictures, the problem became obvious- the lens was fogging up, and rather quickly. To explain why, let me tell you a little about some of the lava tubes in what is now one of my favorite national parks…

Exciting for its exposed geological history, Lava Beds is riddle with lava tubes. Yes, these are really tunnels in the ground that lava once flowed through, but are no longer volcanically active. There are many, many different tubes throughout the park, some of them winding a quarter of a mile or more. With headlamps and hardhats, you can actually wander through these tubes, giving yourself your own tour. There are maps or you can join a guided tour.

Some of these lava tubes are shaped in such a way, that the air cycles through in a very slow fashion. In summer time, the tubes still have much of the winter’s air in them. This means that while it is 90 to 100 degrees outside it can be forty or fifty degrees inside, or in some of the caves below freezing (a few of the lava tubes have ice year round). In Valentine’s Cave, where this picture was taken, the air is on a six month exchange cycle. When I visited it was the end of December, and 20 to 30 degrees outside the cave. When I entered the cave, it was still summer inside… The air was probably 60 degrees, a very large jump upward in temperature. I was bundled up, and had to remove layers.

From a photographic standpoint this creates a very tricky situation. Imagine if you will a glass of ice water on a warm summers day. When first filled, the outside of the glass is dry, but very quickly droplets start to collect, until water runs down the outside of the glass, and it is sitting in a small pool of water. Well, my camera was that cold, cold glass from having been outside for several hours, and now it was finding itself in a warm summers day.

Disaster. Almost. I was able to get a few shots off, and I rather like the softness around the harsh outside light. It gives the image a fun feel. Not something I would purposely try to do, especially as it is very risky to the camera. Just as water was condensing on the lens, so to was it condensing on other cold parts inside the camera. When going through extreme temperature changes it is recommended to put your camera and gear into sealed bags with all the air sucked out and to allow them to adjust to the temperature change gradually, rather than all at once. (Bundle them in a jacket or a blanket, so that they are partially insulated.)

So when playing with your camera, be careful of sudden temperature changes. They can’t always be planned for (I had no idea about the air cycles of the caves), but try to make the most of them and to protect your equipment when you do find yourself in a situation like this.

For my post on the trouble of finding scale in a lava tube

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, How To, My favorite Parks, National Park, nature photography, photography, SLR and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #11: Lava tube I: Temperature

  1. Yep, photographing lava tubes is tricky, once you get out of the daylight the lava really sucks up your light too. I used several strobes and umbrellas to get enough light for this shot in golden dome
    I’ve not had any gear damaged by condensation though, maybe I’ve just been lucky though, knock on wood.

    • Lava tubes can be rather tricky. I have not spent much time trying to photograph them, but as you say Captain, they can really swallow up the light. The risk of condensation mostly comes when there are the extreme temperature changes and the weather is at or below freezing on one side of the entrance. It is the exception rather than the norm.

      I visited your site. It looks like you spend a lot of very good time exploring caves and lava tubes. Keep it up, and keep sharing your explorations.

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