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Into The Caves Of Patagonia

New camera technology comes to the rescue when one of the world’s pristine wonders is photographed
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Working from a small boat in open water, George Lepp captures the entrance façade of the marble caves of Lago General Carrera in a three-image panorama. The gracefully carved stone reflects the clear blue light of the sky and the intense color of the pristine glacial-fed lake, one of South America’s largest and loveliest. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS at 105mm, ISO 800.

The lake is bluer than the sky, and the sky is very blue indeed. Today the water is banded in saturated shades of azul: turquoise, cyan, teal, sapphire, aquamarine. Only yesterday morning its surface was a mosaic of bright tiles, frothed by wind into wavelets tipped with blinding white sequins. By afternoon, its turmoil had ebbed to an intriguing greenish waffle of opposing currents. But today, the lake is glassy and crisp, mirroring central Chilean Patagonia’s iconic mountains, their ragged black peaks capped with snow and caped with ice fields. We’ve entered a different time and place, where landscapes are drawn large and bold, and where mountains and water are all that separate people from the endless sky.

The Road To Patagonia
It’s summer here. A few days before, we had left our home in Colorado in the midst of a winter storm, our visions of sunshine, wildflowers and this lake calling us 7,000 miles south. Months previously, our friends, the landscape photographer Linde Waidhofer and her poet/graphic designer husband Lito Tejada-Flores, had shown us Linde’s haunting photographs of a group of marble caves accessible only from Lago General Carrera. We were intrigued by the unique and mysterious beauty of the place, but most of all, driven to photograph the collection of watery arches and grottos known as the Capilla de Mármol (the Marble Chapel). Linde and Lito, who live six months each year on the shore of the lake near the small town of Puerto Guadal, generously invited us to visit, and the plan was hatched.

More than 30 travel hours finally has brought us to the shore of a lake where we find a small house, two aluminum boats tied to a sturdy dock and an informal campground that harbors several two-man tents. And best of all, we’re enthusiastically greeted—¡Hola! ¡Bienvenidos!—by the owner, Pedro Contreras, who has agreed in advance to guide us to the marble caves this morning and for each of the next several days. Months of planning and days of packing gear and traveling are done. Now the photographic journey begins.

The Marble Caves

A whale’s breakfast. The intricate, jagged structures within the caverns evoke the ribs of a giant whale, while an extreme wide-angle lens opens the perspective. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s expanded ISO capability made the image possible while shooting from a rocking boat in low light. Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye, 1⁄90 sec. at ƒ/11, ISO 800.

Not many photographers have worked on the marble caves. It’s not just that it’s difficult to reach them. A body of water as large as Lago General Carrera can develop ocean-worthy swells and waves. Because the caves can be entered only by small craft, conditions often make the trip impossible. But on this gentle day, Pedro helps us and our gear into the boat, takes his place at the outboard motor, and we scoot out of the protected little marina and along the shoreline toward two large mushroom-shaped islands. The spray from our boat blows back on us, and we move the gear out of the puddles forming around our feet. A moment later, Pedro cuts the engine, and we drift into the first cave.

A host of photographic opportunities and challenges hits us all at once. The caverns are made of gleaming white stone laced with veins and edged with delicate fins of brown and black. Light enters the passages through shadowy doorways and unexpected bright windows to the outside. All in one space, the sun hits the walls and the water at blinding angles while the blue light and the cyan water color the marble with an eerie glow.

Everywhere there are arches and grottoes, graceful curves, stilettos and jagged teeth, revealed as clearly below the water as above. A slender, fragile column rises from the depths to support the massive weight of the marble ledge above us. The only sound is of the wavelets that tap at our boat and lick the rocks around us. With quiet pride, Pedro watches us take in the place. His outstretched arm braces the boat against a smooth, cold wall of ancient marble.

We can see that successfully photographing the marble caves will require all the digital tools we’ve brought with us, and then some. We’re equipped with Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and a variety of lenses. After viewing Linde Waidhofer’s work on the caves, we’ve anticipated the problems of high contrast, low light and unstable platforms. Still, the complexity of the structures and the constricted space present obstacles we had not anticipated.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Testament to the fairly constant level of the lake over time, a column of marble stands between wider slabs above and below the water’s surface. Fins of different minerals ring the column. Canon EOS 10D.

The HDR Experiment
The first day, George tries a new idea, multiple-image composites for high dynamic range (HDR). The HDR technique requires three exposures in sequence, one exposed for the middle-range light, one two-stops overexposed for the dark areas and one two-stops underexposed for the bright areas. Ideally, when the three exposures are composited in Photomatix Pro software, the full tonal range will be revealed. It’s a process best managed from a tripod to assure sharp captures and identical frames that will match perfectly when composited. The question: Would it work without a tripod, shooting at the slow shutter speeds dictated by the deep shadows, with the photographer standing in a small boat?

From the desperately steep road that winds down to Bahía Mansa, a first sighting of stony cliffs and the mushroom-cap islands that cover the marble caves. Lago General Carrera’s brilliant blue color is due to the glacial melt from the Andes Mountains, seen in the background. Canon EOS 50D.

A wide-angle lens is needed to capture the scene in the confined areas, so George chooses a 17-40mm Canon zoom. To minimize movement in the handheld rig, George sets the EOS 5D Mark II to capture the three exposures automatically in quick succession with only one press of the shutter button. But in this situation, the overexposed captures yield a shutter speed as slow as 1⁄15 sec., vulnerable to the effects of camera movement in the rocking boat. Our orientation to the subject demands the widest angle of view, but the 17-40mm doesn’t have image stabilization. That night, as George reviews the day’s work, he struggles to composite the images. They’re matched and sharp in the center, but out of register at the edges because even the slightest movement of the boat exaggerates the peripheral distortion common to a wide-angle lens. At last, he concedes: The experiment is a failure or, as we prefer to call it, a learning experience.

Fortunately, the day’s work isn’t lost because the exposure for the midtones can be used when optimized in Lightroom and Photoshop. Nonetheless, HDR is abandoned for the rest of the shoot, much to George’s disappointment, as he had envisioned a number of creative interpretations of the caves that could only be achieved with that process.

Expanded ISO To The Rescue
In the following days, George concentrates on using the EOS 5D Mark II’s expanded ISO capability as a way to sharply capture the intricate forms and details in the dark grottoes and caverns. This works well in areas where the tonal range is dim to dark, but not when exceptionally bright areas are part of the scene. In his previous tests of the EOS 5D Mark II [see “Sharp Is King,” OP, Jan./Feb. 2009], he had determined that ISO 800 would yield excellent quality while allowing the necessary slow shutter speed of 1⁄30 to 1⁄90 sec. at ƒ/11, the aperture necessary to generate sufficient depth of field to render the entire composition sharp from foreground to background. In tighter quarters, this setup enables George to use the Canon 15mm fisheye with extraordinary results.

One of the greatest challenges of photographing in the confinement of the caves is recording in full detail the complex length of a dramatic wall of marble, with all its undulations and patterns, its arches, windows, crevices and shadows, and its sharp, protruding edges. Here, George applies one of his favorite techniques, the close-range panorama. Capturing multiple closely overlapping vertical images generates a series that, when composited in Panorama Maker 4 Pro (5 is now available), yields high-resolution panoramas that allow the viewer to see all the detail of the caves that we could see from our boats. Even though the panoramas are taken with the 17mm lens, overlapping the images by 50 percent gives the software sufficient information to be able to resolve and match the distorted upper and lower edges of the extremely wide-angle vertical captures.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The bright white marble formations, reflections, clear deep pools and weird blue light give a “through-the-looking-glass” effect at the edge of the caves. Canon EOS 50D.

So how do you capture a long panorama from a bobbing boat in contrasty conditions? ISO expanded to 800 is, again, a great help. A manual exposure should be preset to the brighter area of the total composition; if left on automatic exposure, the camera will compensate for changes in the brightness of the scene and yield a set of unmatched captures that can’t be properly composited. It’s important to work quickly. A visual reference must be maintained from one shot to the next, keeping the upper edge of the image as straight as possible. George says these views of the marble caves are the most complicated and difficult panoramas he has ever taken, requiring balance, speed and the ability to maintain a constant reference point in highly unstable conditions.

The Ethical Questions
With the relative ease of long-distance travel and the abundance of travel workshops to exotic photographic locations, there aren’t many places left for photographers to “discover.” But outdoor and nature photographers who do have the opportunity to explore and document lesser-known locations also must accept responsibility for an uncomfortable ethical dilemma when they consider publication of their stories and their images. While the marble caves of Lago General Carrera certainly aren’t unknown (they’re referenced quite accurately, for example, in Moon Handbooks’ excellent Patagonia by Wayne Bernhardson), they, and the surrounding region, are so remote that they’re relatively untouched by the pace and pollution that even moderate tourism would bring to the area. It’s not hard to imagine Lago General Carrera’s clear waters churned by power boats, slick with fuel and littered with beer cans and plastic water bottles, and the shoreline dotted with motels and marinas. In a horrible vision, I see the marble caves painted with graffiti, the veins discolored by smoke from campfires, the fragile columns broken and the delicate arches collapsed to rubble. Is that “progress” inevitable, and are we fueling it with this article?

On the other hand, how can we protect what’s unknown? Geologists tell us that the elevation of the marble caves, which were etched by pebbles carried by the lake’s surge against the marble cliffs that rise above them, suggests that the water level of Lago General Carrera has been stable for centuries. How will climate change affect the glacial fields that feed this lake? But the lake is challenged by an even more immediate threat. Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the caves, the majestic Baker River, which flows indirectly from Lago General Carrera, is targeted by a major hydroelectric project that would place five huge dams in the region and transfer electricity between the Aysén region and central Chile via a 2,300-kilometer-long, 70-meter-wide transmission “highway.” The plans have drawn the attention of Chilean and international environmental organizations, and have sharply divided the people of the region over the universal question of economic progress versus environmental protection. How would the unspoiled beauty of Lago General Carrera be affected by such a massive development?

We don’t know what the future holds for the marble caves, but with so many competing demands, change in the region seems inevitable. So we’re sharing our visions of the caves and the lakeside landscape with you now, while their perfect, pristine, ancient beauty still survives.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Guided by Pedro Contreras, Linde Waidhofer and George Lepp photograph from a small boat within the marble caves. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L at 35mm, 1⁄30 sec. at ƒ/4

See For Yourself

Do you want to explore unknown Patagonia and discover the marble caves of Lago G. Carrera and other treasures for yourself? Linde Waidhofer and Lito Tejada-Flores offer an annual spring photographic workshop that you can join. For details of the 2010 program, see their website at

Linde and Lito also dedicate their time and talents to the environmental campaign “Patagonia sin Represas” (Patagonia without Dams). To view Linde’s images of the landscape threatened by the project and to learn more about the campaign to protect Patagonia’s pristine wilderness areas, visit and

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

High-Definition Video

Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s HD video adds a whole new dimension to our photographic repertoire. For this project, both of us are carrying cameras with this capability, so we can capture the beauty and mystery of the caves and the movement of the water, while documenting the photographic activities as well. In video mode, the EOS 5D Mark IIs we’re using have automatic exposure control. When moving from a bright sunlit entrance into the darker depths of the caves, the camera adjusts the exposure automatically, using a combination of expanded ISO and aperture settings to maintain the best possible video capture under varying conditions. This effect is fascinating because you can watch it happen on the LCD on the back of the camera while you record; as you move from light to dark, the camera resolves an under- or overexposed area before your eyes. The most difficult part of video capture in these conditions is to maintain the stable platform necessary for smooth results. Using an image-stabilized lens like the Canon EF 24-105mm helps.

Because the EOS 5D Mark II’s video is full high-definition, it looks great as part of large-screen presentations. We like to think that the slight, inevitable movement resulting from photographing on the lake helps viewers to experience the mystery, beauty and constantly changing light and water of the caves as if they were right beside us in Pedro’s little boat!