I honestly had some trouble arriving at a suitable category for this series. Although close, ‘landscape’ didn’t quite tell the whole story; then again, neither did ‘travel’. I settled on the latter, if only to make a point. Before Covid-19 hit, driving for 250 kms (without leaving the country), and going on a hike, was considered a mere excursion. That’s how self-evident and plain things were for us back then, the flipside of the world being your backyard (and us being spoiled) I guess.
One generation ago (I’m talking pre-eighties here) setting out to the Belgian Ardennes from a village in West-Flanders was considered something you do for a full-blown vacation, implying that you’d be staying for a week or two, and that recreationally, this was the major event of the year. In contrast, right before the Corona situation, stepping onto a plane for Budapest for a weekend was merely an appetizer for the summer holidays, to be repeated whenever possible.
We live in a different world now, full of social and other restrictions, and we definitely feel the sting. I, however, prefer to recognise the few benefits this brings, and hope that they are remembered when this is over (yes, I’m an eternal optimist as far as the ‘remembered’ and ‘over’ are concerned): perhaps now we can start realizing that no matter the fun of actually seeing the person you’re talking to on the phone, the digital life has its practical limitations and it’s merely an ersatz for ‘real’ life.
The second benefit I see, is about rekindling the sense of wonder and appreciation regarding our immediate surroundings and neighbourhood, something we’d all but lost. People are taking a walk again, and rediscover not only that it can be fun, but also rediscover their neighbourhood itself. A realist may stress that this is all people are left with these days, but I’m not sure I fully agree.
Anyway, it was with this sense of rekindled wonder that I booked a visit to the ‘Domaine des Grottes de Han’, consisting of a wild park and the eponymous cave system. I’d visited both before, a little shy of ten years ago, so I knew what I was in for. The wild park is different from its counterparts in Flanders (and the rest of Belgium as far as I know), in that, rather than being cooped up in cages with a limited outdoor space, there’s basically a valley for the animals (well, at least the herbivores) to roam free, so that at least some of their natural behaviour can be witnessed, and the stress of living in captivity is lowered.
While I took the safari, what I went for were the caves. Last (and first) time I was there, I took my thrusty Canon 7D, and a 15-85 IS zoom lens. The only option for me at the time, but unfortunately, the results were disappointing: lots of noise and a fairly low dynamic range restricted the extent to which shadows could be opened up; they also gnawed at the not spectacular resolution to begin with (MP + fairly heavy low pass filter). Add in the occasional motion blur by my overestimating the effectiveness of the image stabiliser and it’s easy to see that few images survived the initial culling process, and even less (read 'none') do so now.
This time around, things were different: camera sensors are little wonders these days (another thing we’d better start appreciating before reaching for the next marginal upgrade), and combined with a fast wide-angle manual focus prime and stabilisation, I was able to up my chances of getting some keepers, at the very least for digital use. As all images were shot during a guided tour, with a group of other people (with masks and social distancing), I was practically running and gunning so as not to get behind.
The depth of field I could get without resorting to high ISOs or getting motion blur was a lot smaller than I would have wanted. A tripod would have made an immense difference, and allowed for a more contemplative shooting style. Hmm, I wonder how many kidneys they’d want me to offer up in order to be able to go back in there and shoot the way the place deserves... in case anyone in the organisation is reading this, yes, I am fishing for an opportunity here !
I mentioned ‘wonder’ earlier, and the cave didn’t disappoint in any way. This was taking a walk in the neighbourhood, not 2.0, but to the nth degree. The amazement the first visitors must have felt during the nineteenth century, when the cave was opened for public and advertised as one of the greatest marvels Europe had to offer (and could be visited in small boats !), was not alien to me – the cave itself however, definitely felt like an unearthly place. In fact, it was easy to fall for the perhaps typical (but don’t mistake this for ‘plain’) stalagmites and -tites. The latter often came in the form of undulating drapes or multi-candled chandeliers, dropping from the ceiling and glistering with water.
There was more to the tour than being a visitor in a stately home, though. Soon, my attention turned towards the way the cave was lit by a series of diligently placed lights (the tungsten bulbs and early LEDs I remember from my previous visit now being completely replaced with higher quality daylight LEDs) that illuminate not only the ‘growing’ rock, but also the rock faces, shattered and eaten away.
The resulting play of light and shadow provided by the new lighting setup proved irresistible to my natural tendency to simplify and exclude, to the point of abstraction. It also enhanced the (subtle) colours of the rock rather than making them all but invisible, and displayed smoother colour gradients despite being in essence a chain of very hard light sources. The shadow recoverability of the RAW-files was used to the max to enhance the tonality and impression of that smoothness.
While there was no HDR or luminance blending involved, only tone mapping of single shots, I can only imagine how the resulting images could have looked when shot under ideal conditions and, while I’m not particularly a fan (HDR can quickly become garish and unnatural), a dash of luminance blending in post. Again, I'm fishing for an invitation here.
As you know, an important part of product photography, consists of set dressing. When shooting artefacts, I usually opt for a simple background, because that’s what I like, and that’s what makes the object (deformed and damaged as it usually is), shine - archaeological artefacts are nothing like current day perfume or liquor bottles. Landscape photography on the other hand not only removes the set dressing from the equation, but also the photographer’s ability to (directly) control the light. In case of a cave, the way we can control how the images look is even more limited, i.e. to a choice of focal length and camera position (and when using a tripod, aperture).
I must say that the team designing the lighting scheme did a wonderful job: their light felt … well, natural, I suppose. I'm fully aware this sounds weird as we talking about an artificially lit cave, which goes to show the quality of their work, I suppose. Subconsciously however, the feeling of wonder, the presence of subtly coloured rocks (vs. my previous visit when the cave still bathed in warm tungsten light), and the occasional well-placed accent light, pushed me towards a less natural interpretation of the scenes in front of me, that was to be fully realised in post.
Some areas presented themselves as very spacious film sets, without the edges spoiling the illusion of a constructed reality. One of the halls bore no small resemblance to the work of set designer Ken Adam, responsible for engraining our collective memory with the idea of how a pre-90’s villain’s lair should look like, i.e. grand, spacious, stylish, and perhaps somewhat contradictory, rather introverted, uncluttered, and reduced to its essence. The feeling of the place however, the damp, the vastness, the sound of water running and dripping, and the placement of the lights shouted ‘Batcave’, no question about it. And before you ask, I did check the corners and recesses, and couldn’t discover any fancy cars or equipment. Pity.
My imagination didn’t stop at the residences SPECTRE agents used to call home, nor did it linger in the Batcave looking for the whereabouts of the dark knight. The original Alien snuck in too (the movie, not the animal), in the form of the interior of the derelict spaceship. I could have sworn I heard flashes of the haunting, visceral score by Jerry Goldsmith in my skull. I went past Gollum’s cold and wet demesne deep under the Misty Mountains – was that sandy spot the setting for the riddle contest with Bilbo? No music this time, but the oddly modulating voice (‘Why does it cry, Smeagol’?) of the crooked creature cut short by the razor-sharp, threatening snarly expressions it more habitually utters (‘What has it got in its nasty little pocketses?‘). A lonely and foreboding place, as all of the above are, I suppose. Except, obviously, for the mine of the dwarves (the Snow White ‘heigh-ho, heigh-ho …’ dwarves).
My final leap of imagination happened while behind the computer, working on the files. The subtle colours and their gradients allowed for a surprising amount of manipulation with a contrast curve. Combined with a little tweak (well, for my taste, more than a little) to the white balance slider here and there, I uncharacteristically shed the bonds of natural presentation (true or constructed), and dove right in, until I arrived at, for my taste, too saturated images.
Why? Because a quick test to see how far I could bend the files brought me back to the end of the nineties. I’d just bought a new custom built PC, proud of the wickedly fast processor and data-shredding graphics card. A CDROM in a paper slip caught my eye, hidden in the box in which the Nvidia card had been delivered. ‘Unreal’ written on the front, clearly (the first levels of) a game of sorts. After installation, I was swept away and horrified at the same time: the imagery, and the (ambient) light effects in particular, were simply gorgeous (at the time), but way too saturated than I would now prefer (it was called ‘Unreal’ for a reason).
On the other hand, while I fully assumed that my super-duper computer would crunch the numbers and spit them back out, my overconfidence immediately turned to sheer horror (not to mention a serious case of buyer’s guild) when it choked on the code and froze in its tracks, even with only the basic settings enabled. I never fully recovered from the experience, not even when I found out later that the messy code was to blame rather than my hardware. I've thought about it, and while it would have be nice to offer you, the reader, an opportunity to experience the same rare combination of unnatural/unreal beauty and what I regard now as colour horror (you know, being Halloween and all), I decided against going (completely) overboard with saturation slider.