Exploring Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave is a the longest known cave system in the world, with more than 400 surveyed miles of passageways.  It’s a mysterious place that I have been wanting to take a trip to for years, and my recent visit proved why it is considered an incredible national park.

Caves aside, the park is located among the beautiful rolling mountains of central Kentucky.  The park land contains thousands of acres of scenic trails, and water activities along the Green River.  The Green River has a strong emerald green hue when viewing from a distance, and the water was cool and refreshing to swim in.  Due to the underground water and unique elevation changes, the vibrant and lush plant growth along the trails reminds me more of a jungle-like climate.  The air was also surprisingly humid given the clear weather day.

For this trip I decided to grab a spot for the ‘Domes and Dripstones’ cave tour.  Anyone interested in a tour should plan ahead of time, because supposedly the tours tend to sell out. There are no tripods allowed on the tour, so as a photographer I had to plan accordingly.  I decided to use a Canon 5d Mark IV with a Rokinon 24mm lens (F/1.4 aperture).  I normally only use this lens for capturing the Milky Way, but I anticipated that the low light of the cave tour would require the higher ISO capabilities of the Mark IV plus the wide aperture (F/1.4).  I also attached an Ultrapod (mini tripod and rail mount) to the bottom of my camera in case the tour had any pauses.  Any equipment that I mentioned can be rented, and the Ultrapod is inexpensive to buy.

Before the cave tour began, I tested out different focus positions with the lens wide open at F/1.4 (very thin sliver of focus but most light intake).  Assuming that the light would be minimal in the cave and that the tour would move quickly, I wanted to prepare by setting the focal distance on my lens to about 10 feet away from me. While in the cave, I could then stay 10 feet away from the objects that I photographed and have tack sharp images.

The ‘Domes and Dripstones’ tour moved quickly, but paused a couple of times allowing me to set the camera down and take a long exposure (this allowed me to lower the ISO to improve image quality).  The tour lasted over an hour and passed by some incredible cave structures, large dens and passageways.  The lighting in the cave was harshly lit for photography, and large flood lights of random intermixing color temperatures were the primary light sources (as most cave tours are setup).  I prefer soft light whenever possible I tried to look for reflected light (away from the light source).  The majority of the images in this gallery were shot at or close to F/1.4, ISO 20,000, 1/40 of a second (elbows in and slow exhale while shooting).

I had a blast on the tour and finished my day with a couple of hikes.  Out of all of the trails that I was able to hike, I highly recommend the Echo River Spring Trail and the Cedar Sink Trail.  There truly is so much to see… I hope to return as soon as I can!


2 thoughts on “Exploring Mammoth Cave National Park

  1. My son and I visited Mammoth in April and your photos are amazing. I didn’t have a lens that would open up enough to get great photos so it was nice seeing yours.

    1. Many thanks! I was hoping that my images would be great for those who didn’t have the equipment or experience…..and the tour moved pretty quick so it was good for my person documentation as well!

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