Behind The Shot: Subterranean Terrarium

Lava Beds National Monument, California
This photograph was taken in Lava Beds National Monument, a volcanic playground on the Medicine Lake Volcano in California.

“Subterranean Terrarium” By Joshua Hydeman

This photograph was taken in Lava Beds National Monument, a volcanic playground on the Medicine Lake Volcano in California. Judging by the look of this terrarium-like cave, one might think that the environment on the surface is a jungle or a rainforest. In fact, this cave is located in a high elevation desert covered in sagebrush and lava fields.

This particular cave isn’t a tourist attraction like some of the other popular caves in the monument. This wild cave is a bit hard to find, and without a GPS you may be out of luck trying to reach it. I was lucky enough to have my good friend Jesse Barden, a Lava Beds park ranger, show me the cave. Sometimes finding a prime location like this one is all about who you know.

There’s only one way in and one way out of the cave, which is by rope. Although no one on my trip found accessing this cave a great challenge, a simple oversight on the rappel or rigging could get you hurt or stuck in the cave for a very long time. Shuttling camera equipment safely to the base of the cave was another challenge to consider. My camera gear was packed into a 30-liter caving pack with foam padding. I then tethered this pack to my harness and rappelled into the cave, careful not to bang the bag against any hard surfaces. The ferns at the base of the cave are very fragile, so we needed to be careful not to trample them. From the center of the cave where we descended, we formed a path to the rocks to minimize impact with the ferns.

What might improve this photograph would be to shoot the cave with better lighting. One would need to visit the cave closer to the solstice, when the sun is directly overhead. In February, when this photograph was taken, the beam of light entering the cave directly hit the side of a cave wall with bright light, making it very difficult to get an evenly-exposed photograph. I tried to make the most of my trip by shooting RAW format files, and by waiting for a cloud to come overhead to diffuse and soften the light beam.

This photograph is a single exposure—there’s no bracketing or HDR. It’s a long exposure, about 4 seconds long. The long exposure and smaller aperture (f/11) allowed me to obtain the “star” effect on the caver’s headlamp.

If you do visit Lava Beds National Monument, I recommend visiting Catacombs and Valentine Cave. Make a stop at the visitor’s center to acquire maps and other necessary information about subterranean travel. Most of all, tread lightly!

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, Gitzo tripod. Exposure: 4 seconds @ ƒ/11, ISO 50.

Josh Hydeman is a cave, adventure and landscape photographer based in Portland, Oregon. Check out more of his work on his website,, and on Instagram @josh_hydeman.