Cave photographer, Robbie Shone, has travelled across the world capturing some of the most beautiful subterranean systems from Derbyshire to Mexico. 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 around the globe who have unique, compelling, aspirational human stories
We spoke to Robbie about what attracts him to the caves and the challenge of capturing them on camera.
How did you first get into photography, and in particular capturing caves?
I studied Art and Design at University in Sheffield where a friend and colleague on the course persuaded me to join the Universities caving club and descend into a cave in the Yorkshire Dales.
The different and unique environment I was presented 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 3rd year degree show to 3D stereo photography from caves using a mixture of light sources from LED, warm candles, electric flash, and 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.
Why caves? Why do they captivate you?
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 it total darkness.
They are like a time capsule to another world hundreds of thousands of years ago then 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 experienced so many beautiful caves all around the world
What has been your favourite? Or a cave that has intrigued you the most?
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 so 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.
Take us through the process of photographing a cave?
Unpack; unpack all the equipment at a place underground where it’s safe and dry. Here is our base. This is where we brief the people involved in the shoot before we all separate and go off to the places we need to be at.
Using PMR walkie-talkie radios we communicate and I get everyone in the best position I think for lighting up the walls and space in the frame. Once we are all ready we begin the shoot. 3..2…1 fire! On my command and immediately after I’ve opened the shutter everyone fires their flash unless it’s wired remotely to a radio slave like a Pocket Wizard or such like.
From the resulting image on the back of the camera, we can gauge what the next moves are likely to be. We could have got the shot first time round, but that is unlikely. There are usually three or four attempts to perfect the picture and move people around a little. Get the shot, pack up and move on.
Can you tell us about a challenging location you have photographed?
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 reached of 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 who were dotted around the cave below me waiting to fire their magnesium wire wool flashbulbs for the photograph.
This picture took 3 years to perfect, 6 visits into the cave and up into Titan’s roof dome to eventually reach a point that I was happy with.
Any near misses/ dangerous situations?
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 70 mph through a small village where there are school children playing and the speed limit is 30mph. Then it becomes dangerous.
Is there a cave or cave system you are keen to add to your portfolio?
Let’s find it first!
Have you got any trips in the pipeline?
We hope to explore a giant cave chamber in the Dolomites with some Italian cave explorers
What does it mean to you to be included on the ‘life-rich list’?
Honoured. What a privilege! I never thought my chosen pastime would ever be included in a rich list. But it’s good to recognise such amazing worlds that exist hidden away. After all there’s more to this planet than just the surface.
To find out more about the campaign, and discover other life-rich individuals, visit sanmiguel.co.uk/richlist