Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Sustained Illumination of the Rumble Room

Nathan L. Williams

NSS 52960, Huntsville Grotto,

Published in May 2007 NSS News

The Rumble Room located in Rumbling Falls Cave is the second largest cave chamber in North America.

Last year I wrote an article on lighting the Topless Dome of Tumbling Rock Cave using high powered spotlight allowing it to be photographed. For this years article I hoped to scale back on a huge scale. This will become more clear as you read on. It seems like every now and then something comes along that offers to make a challenge much easier and less arduous and at the same time seems so absurd that it borders on the edge of reality. It is these opportunities that I live for.

A recent trip to Rumbling Falls Cave offered one such adventure in photography. On this trip with our group of four, there would not be sufficient manpower to sherpa the conventional flash equipment need to light the Rumble Room - a massive five-plus acre room with a dome of two hundred feet. It was the restrictions in the amount of equipment that carry in that led me to develop a new grand scale lighting system. At the center of this system was the LED.

Last year I had shot several helectites using nothing more than a single unfocused LED. I felt the results were very unique and attractive. The colors we right on and I could see the scene in real time unlike with a strobe or bulb. Later we did some experimenting in larger areas, again with positive results. At the time I figured this could be handy for small to medium passage shots but honestly didn't give it much thought. It would be a visit to Rockcastle County, Kentucky that would spark my interest in using the technique again. We visited the Great Saltpetre Preserve in late October for the annual Halloween party. I decided to pack a custom LED module in my gear and try some things while I was there. A module consists of a single 3 watt LED with associated electronics, heatsinks, and battery pack. While at Pine Hill Cave we tested the LED technique in conjunction with the strobes, again with positive results. This was in medium passage and added a nice light to the scene. Later in the day we did a minute and a half exposure test in the Echo Auditorium chamber of Great Saltpetre Cave. I locked the shutter open and moved around the room which is roughly the size of a football field. The picture was exposed pretty well aside from the nasty light streaks from me moving , overall not a bad image. It was this simple test that got me thinking. I didn't have a trip lined up then to push the technique any further but that would soon change and I would find myself in a situation of opportunity as well as overwhelming emotion.

Around the middle of January a few from the local grotto decided to plan a trip to Rumbling Falls. The trip date was February 3rd, giving me just over two weeks to develop the necessary equipment that would allow me to photograph the Rumble Room using this technique. At first I didn't tell the others in the group of my plans to try and illuminate the chamber in the event I couldn't pull it together. My first order of business was to get a rough calculation of how much exposure time I would need for the amount of light modules I could afford to build. I narrowed it down to ten minutes exposure with 15 LED modules.

Now I needed to order some of the brightest, most efficient LED's I knew of. Last year I built a custom helmet light using Lumileds Luxeon Star LEDs. These worked very well and I had also used one for the photo tests mentioned before. With that data in hand, I ordered 15-3 Watt LEDs and prayed they would arrive by the following weekend. They did and I was able to rush build four prototypes for testing. We first tested them in a friends backyard with promising results. Backyards and caves are very different though and it was nine days until the trip to Rumbling Falls. I had only time for one much needed in-cave test trip. That test would be in Tumbling Rock cave located in Jackson County, Alabama. I knew of a sizable room in there that might offer a good scaled down test. The test room measured roughly one hundred feet across, sloping down at the middle. We placed the four prototypes on the camera side of the downslope of breakdown and faced them across to the other side. When the LEDs were turned on you could see the entire scene fairly well. I thought to myself "this looks very promising." The camera was set up and a test shot lasting two minutes was conducted. The results surprised me. The shot was actually over exposed. "Hmm light to spare" I said to myself. I think that's the first time I've been so excited to get an overexposed shot. It showed me that I had light to spare with a shot of this scale. All the time I kept telling myself that I would have eleven more modules than I have now. It was at that point that I really started believing that it could be possible to pull off the shot in Rumbling Falls. All that stood between my goal now was building the last eleven LED units and my physical ability to get through the cave itself.

With the equipment finished, tested, and packed it was now time to depart on the adventure. There could be no more second guessing at this point. It would either work or it wouldn't. We were on the road and there was no turning back now. The trip leader was Andrew Linsenmeier, a veteran to the cave who had helped me on photo trips in the past. He would guide us to some interesting sites within the cave. As we entered Rumbling Falls I kept remembering of how I would dream of this place. In many of those dreams the cave seemed like a huge nemesis, tamable only by a select few. Personal phobias tried to control me like a puppet on strings. I tried to tell myself it was ok to be uneasy. After all, this was not an easy cave. As we negotiated the drops, climbs, and crawls, I gained an immense respect for the cave photographers who had traveled there before to shoot the cave. Guys like Chris Anderson and Willie Hunt to name a few had shot some amazing images in this place. It had not come easy for them. The cave seems to have a personality and it will make you work hard for anything you get. After a couple hours we reached to top of Stupendous Pit, a 200 foot drop into the ink-black void. I recall the sensation as I left the wall into the free rappel of how different it felt not being able to see anything pretty much the rest of the way down. you have so much space around you that your helmet light is of little use. You see yourself, a little bit of rope above and below and that's just about it. It's honestly indescribable. After landing on the huge pile of breakdown we took a break and had a bite to eat. We would not be shooting here at this point in the trip. Earlier in planning it was decided to attempt the Rumble Room shot on the way out. For now it would have to wait. Rumbling Falls is an amazing place. It seems as though three separate cave systems merged together to create the roughly sixteen miles of passage, rooms, squeezes, and drops. At the bottom of the system is a large river that gives the cave most of its distance. We traveled down a section of this for several hours to visit and photograph some of the various areas of the cave. The water was very cold and it was slowly working on us. On the way back to the Rumble Room I got to the point where I doubted we would take the opportunity to attempt the shot. I was cold, exhausted, and could sense the same from the rest of the group. It was late and we had been on a long trip. Reaching the top of the breakdown pile in the Rumble Room we rested and ate one last meal.

It was then that I got a shock and a boost all at the same time. Sitting on a rock, cold and damp, was Sabrina Simon. She is a short slender caver and thus had to deal with getting more of her body wet than the rest of us. I knew she was cold and tired. Slowly she looked up at me with her usual grin and said "well I guess you better get that picture". Now Sabrina was not new to my photo projects. She knew all too well that it would take a while to set up and execute. The wait for here would most likely be miserable so when she showed signs that she thought it was still going to happen, it was like a kick in my rear! I was my biggest doubter. The team still believed in me, so why couldn't I? It's amazing how fast you warm back up when you get really motivated. Helping me was Jimmy Romines. He had been there when we did the first tests back in Fern in 2006. Now he was placing the modules out around in a perimeter shape about 75 feet off the wall. After we got about seven modules placed, I heard Sabrina say "Oh Wow! Look up!" Worrying about where I was stepping, I hadn't bothered checking things out overhead. As I looked up you could already see that the place was lighting up. Seven modules were placed and you could already make out the entire room. My eyes began to tear up as I paused for a minute to try and understand what I was seeing. It's not too often a caver has to try to understand what he or she is seeing. This place is so huge that it was difficult to believe it was real. All I could do was stand there in awe.

As Jimmy finished placing the last of the lights, I set up the camera. I got an idea to do a two minute test shot. It would serve as a benchmark like the other ones I had shot during testing, which were also based around a two minute exposure. Surprisingly the first image was fairly well exposed. You could see the whole room and some of the lights. The calculations we way off. I knew then that it wouldn't take ten minutes to expose the image. I did another test for three minutes while Jimmy finished tweaking the lights to reduce flare. After looking at the tests I decided on a five minute exposure. I asked Jimmy to model in the scene for scale. It seemed appropriate. He had been there all along with Sabrina in Fern Cave when I got all excited about shooting a tiny helectite and now this seemed like some sort of grand finale - the culmination of conception, development, and testing. It all came down to fifteen tiny LEDs lighting the Rumble Room. We got Jimmy placed and an announcement was made to turn off all non-scene lights. There we were - just standing in awe. The Rumble Room was rich in color as I had never seen. At that point it it didn't really matter to me if we got a shot out of it. Just being there with the whole thing lit in real time was reward enough. A beauty and a sight that could bring many to tears aren't easily obtainable. At that moment I thought about how nice it would have been to have the photographers and sherpas from the various photo trips there to see the place all lit. After all, it was those folks in my mind who really deserved to see what I was seeing. As the shutter opened one last time I told myself it was worth it. Dealing with all the phobias, the freezing cold water, the exhaustion, this sight made it all worthwhile. The shutter closed for the final time in Rumbling Falls and we started collecting the LED modules. One by one the lights we shut down and slowly the massive chamber went back to sleep, waiting for the day when someone would return to re-awaken her yet again. It would be a few more hours before we reached the mouth of the cave. We had just shot her stomach and I was a very happy caver. Total illumination time was one hour and twenty eight minutes. Before this experiment the room had only been lit for about 2-3 seconds when Chris Anderson's crew set off the mighty Meggaflash bulbs. I now know how he and his team felt as they could see the place lit for a few fleeting moments. We left Rumbling Falls with more than just a shot of the Rumble Room. We left we left with an experience that can't be described. We felt a sense of teamwork, friendship, and accomplishment. Rumbling Falls felt like a friendlier place. Even though the LEDs only emitted eighty lumens each, several used together made another dream a reality. This is only the beginning for what we have dubbed the Sustained Illumination Technique or SIT Lighting.I hope the small lightweight device will allow the deep explorers around the world to return to the surface with amazing images of the most remote places they have visited. It is lightweight, portable, and very robust. The fifteen LED's used to light the Rumble Room fit in the palm of ones hand and fifteen complete modules fit into one 1400 series Pelican case. Fewer modules can be used and now more powerful LEDs with similar power consumption are available. We are working on other uses for the lighting such as illumination of pools, rivers, and waterfalls within caves. When working with long exposures, there are also a few limitations. Motion in a shot can also ruin it. Due to this I decided not to go with the model on the rope. The model is in the very back of the room directly across from the camera. On the upside, motion in the shot is now possible. This is sometimes a desirable effect usually associated with cascading water and waterfalls. Also to be able to see your scene in real time is priceless. It feel almost like the jump from film to digital in that there is instant feedback. As with any photography, try new things. Don't feel confined to rules and restrictions. Experiment with things. What you end up with may be far more than a print on your wall. It may lead you to an adventure that will last a lifetime.

I would like to thank some special people for their help with this project. Steve Pitts and Brandy Hulsey donated the heatsinks needed to cool the LED's and electronics. Davey Johnson aided with module fabrication and surface testing. Ronnie Gregg, Mark Ostrander, Roger Graham, and Jimmy Reyer helped conduct in-cave test during the trip to Tumbling Rock. Thanks to Chris Anderson and Willie Hunt who through their creative ingenuity inspired me to come up with that of my own. Finally Thanks to Andrew Linsenmeier, Sabrina Simon and Jimmy Romines for their in-cave support and contributions during our trip to Rumbling Falls. Only as a team was this possible. I will remember and cherish it for the rest of my life.

Unconventional Lighting for Capturing Those Special Images

Unconventional Lighting for Capturing Those Special Images

Nathan L. Williams

NSS 52960, Huntsville Grotto,

Published in February 2006 NSS News
The 396' Topless Dome of Tumbling Rock Cave

Loren's Light - Tumbling Rock Cave

Cave photography has always fascinated me. When I first started exploring the underground realms fifteen years ago I felt a need to show others the beauty below. It was not until about three years ago that I started to take cave photography seriously. I bought a second hand Pentax K1000 SLR, a small electronic flash, and set out to shoot the most amazing pictures anyone had ever seen. The reality of cave photography quickly put me in my place and I began the grueling process of learning techniques that would yield acceptable and unique photos. In a way I am wired a little different than most folks. It was in a cave that I first learned to use a camera. Prior to that, I had very little knowledge on the subject. As I learned the tricks of the trade, I felt the need to get creative so that I could have my own unique and original shots. I started to think of new ways to light a scene and tried to steer clear of conventional techniques. One cave that I visited often offered me my first challenge of non conventional lighting. The Cave was Tumbling Rock and the subject was the Topless Dome – a 396 waterfall dome. I had visited the dome many times and was well acquainted with lighting it for groups of cavers to see. One day it hit me, why not try to capture this place on film?
I began pushing my limited knowledge about as far as it would go as I set out to capture the mighty dome. My trick lay in the massive spotlights I used to illuminate the dome on previous trips. These are rechargeable three and ten million candle power spotlights. I had tried using the spotlights in other photos, but always seemed to end in total failure as the print would have a nasty hotspot in it. The secret was in the moisture from the waterfall. If the moisture could diffract enough light them maybe the hotspot would not be as noticeable. Also since the hotspot of the light had to travel almost four hundred feet before striking anything then maybe it would be diffused enough to yield an acceptable image. For my first attempt I set up the camera and got the shot framed up. Two three million candlepower spotlights were placed on the ground in the waterfall pointing straight up. I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and told myself that I was going to do this as I signaled for the lights to be turned on. There before me lay an awe inspiring sight. A 396 foot shaft with all its detail was there for me to capture and keep forever. I started shooting an counting. I had absolutely no idea of how long to expose the film so I figured I would shoot several and see what worked. In my haste I had forgotten to bring a watch. So there I was kneeling beside my camera with the shutter release in my hand counting off the seconds the best I could. 33-34-35-36 CLICK! 36 seconds. I shot several more. Some with more exposure and some with less. Two weeks was the turn around time on slides. I called to see if they were read and raced to pick them up. The lady at the camera store looked at me funny as I held up the sheet of slides and began to grin. Even though the slides were small, I could make out the Topless Dome. I remember how excited I was as I drove home so anxious to put the slides in the slide projector to get a really good look. I had failed with the lights before, would this time be no different? I loaded the slides into the projector and turned it on. As I focused the projector you would have thought I was a kid in a candy store. I was so happy. There it was, The Topless Dome of Tumbling Rock. The lights had worked just the way I had hoped they would. There was virtually no nasty hotspot and you could see clearly all the way to the top. For me that shot was a turning point. I thought maybe I have something to offer the caving community with these photos. I started shooting the place more and more, trying to hone my skills a little more each time. Later I would return to shoot the same scene using two of the three million candlepower spots and a single ten million for a total of sixteen million candlepower.

The spotlights were great for the dome but now a new challenge loomed over me. I had the desire to create “what if” photos that depicted light with the tone of sunlight to be cast in places where the sun does not shine. On past trips to the local hardware store I remember seeing compact fluorescent lighting that was about the same color temp as sunlight. I had seen fluorescent lighting used in cave photography before but those were mostly small battery operated units and were the wrong color temperature for my application. The compact fluorescent lights I ended up using were Sylvania 42 watt that emitted 2600 lumens as a color temperature of 5100 Kelvin (close to the color of the sun at high noon). These lights would require a 110VAC power source. I laughed at the thought of pulling over a mile of extension cord to the shot location int the cave. I opted for a better solution and built a portable power supply using a batter form the spotlight, an inverter, and a charger. This I packaged nicely in a pelican case. This made the system very portable and durable. The box had a display showing who many watts were being used and the voltage of the battery. I would automatically shut down if the voltage dropped below the acceptable range to run the equipment. I finished the project on Friday night before the trip on Saturday (I have a habit of doing that). Testing time was here and the place would once again be Tumbling Rock. Here is an interesting side story, Friday night before the trip I dreamed that there was light shining down thought the entrance that leads up to the Topless Dome. In my dream there was someone there beneath it looking up and it looked amazing. When I woke up I knew exactly where I wanted to test the light system. It was time to see if I could make my dream from the night before become a real image. We carefully set up the equipment and placed the lighting I was down at the camera and gave the instructions to turn on the lights. The box chirped, the cooling fans sped up, and the light started doing the fluorescent flicker as it sprung to life. There it was. The image in real life, just as I had seen in my dream. It was so unique that I just sat there for a moment trying to take it all in. The power box was working, the light was working, the color was right, the scene looked good. It was time to grab something I could hold onto so I placed my model and started snapping away. After shooting 39 images we decided to power down, pack up, and head out.

When I got home I transferred the images to my computer and sorted through them. Picture 39 was the one. That picture became known as Loren's Light. It was neat to imagine the Topless Dome had collapsed allowing the sunlight to shine down. With this alternative lighting I was able to capture both my imagination and my dream. Some of my caving buddies who saw the picture requested that I shoot the same scene with them as the model and I have done so on a couple occasions.

My short time in photography has taught me some valuable lessons. There are rules that can be followed and there are rules that can be broken. New tricks can be learned and dreams can end up as a framed print on your wall. Lighting for your shots does not always come from a strobe, bulb, or the Sun. You might be able to capture your image with those sources but always feel free to step out of the norm. and try something different. You will capture a place where few have been and many will never see.

Special thanks to members of the Huntsville Grotto for their support with these photos, to Danielle Nuding who sherpas, models, and helps me test new lighting tricks, and to Loren Marino who was the model for Loren's Light.

The Illumination of the Rotunda Room of Camps Gulf Cave

Camps Gulf Cave Trip Report

Illumination of Rotunda
April 7, 2009

Nathan Williams
Huntsville Grotto
NSS 52960

The Rotunda Room of Camps Gulf Cave taken in 2009. Fully illuminated for over an hour.

There we were. Standing in the dark void which was the  Rotunda Room of Camps Gulf Cave. Flashguns were loaded with massive flashbulbs meant to illuminate the vast reaches of the room. A group of cavers watched as Avis Vanswearigin made her way to the center of the room. Avis was the model for this shot. On the flashguns were Michael Burke, Jack Fisher, Justin Mahaffee and Jack Fischer. I stood back near the rear of the room with five cameras ready to shoot. The lights went down, shutters were opened, and the call was given to fire the massive flashbulbs. In a second the room was lit with nearly one million lumens as the bulbs fired. Then as soon as it came it was gone. The room was dark and the shutters closed. We got our shot and now it was time to go back to camp. That was four years ago.

While the shot of the Rotunda Room was a success I couldn’t keep from wondering how it really was to really see it. The bulbs I had used only burned for about 1/30th of a second. How I wished it would have been possible to pause time during that 1/30th of a second when those bulbs went off. To look around…to really see. That’s what I was after. It was a desire that would call me back four years later. If I couldn’t stop time, I would find away to make the time of light last longer.

Tinkering around with different types of lights for photography I stumbled onto two sources that would allow me to keep a place lit. I decided to tackle the job of  illuminating the Rotunda Room once more. This time we would keep it lit, we would look around, we would enjoy it and for once we would…experience the shot.

Days before the trip I had ordered some very powerful compact fluorescent lights. Capable of emitting 6,700 lumens of light each, these lights would generate the illumination needed to light the room. No trip comes without its share of perils. The day before I was to leave for camp I noticed that all but one of the lights had been damaged in shipping. Falling back on a backup plan I obtained some similar lights headed to camp at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Once at camp it was crunch time. The last minute lights came at a price as they would require some heavy modification to allow them to work on portable power. Helping me at camp was Paul and Sabrina as well as a new caver Stephanie. We completed the work just after midnight and now it was time to get some rest. One only could know if our efforts would pay off. Through the night I dreamed over and over of crashing equipment and illumination failure. All played on my doubts. It was something I would have to block out if I were to remain focused on the task at hand.

We arose the next morning and prepped our gear for the trip. Due to limitations we had to enter the cave in small groups. Our group would enter first followed by the others a little later. With us was Tommy Royston, Steve Pitts, Jennifer Pinkley, Sabrina Simon, Michelle Vaughn, Angela Morgan, Stephanie Quintana, and Tony Amundson. We entered the cave with all the gear needed to accomplish the shot. After a few bouts with navigating through the large chambers and a rather humorous incident involving me sliding down a mud slope being pulled by all the heavy cases of photo/illumination gear into the river below, we finally arrived at our destination. The Rotunda Room.  During a quick break I took a quick tour around the room for a good vantage point. Once found I returned to the group to find everyone ready to get busy.

The Rotunda Room covers an area of about 3.5 acres with large breakdown over most of the room. To truly get a sense of scale models would need to be placed throughout the shot. To the left was Sabrina, in the middle up top was Michelle, To the right was Angela, and down in the foreground was Stephanie. Lights were placed and everything was checked and  double checked. There was a small group present and ready to see what I had hoped for. It was time. The call was given to turn off non essential lights.
There we all were. It was dark. The void lay before us. After a couple personal thoughts I pulled it together and gave a quick countdown 3...2...1...ALL LIGHTS ON!
The chirps of the power equipment could be heard as they struggled to provided the initial startup power for the massive lights. Then it happened. It was all there. I had my 1/30th of a second from four years ago back and now I was sharing it with old and new friends alike. It was like magic. The new lights and power systems allowed us to keep the lights going for just over an hour. The room was lit very well and you could really see all the details. We got busy and I shot several images. The best way to shoot this room was to break it up in the smaller sections and not to try to get it all into one shot. This way more detail could be captured. After capturing a high resolution series I swapped lenses and started on an ultra high resolution series. This series will be completed on future trips and once finished the final print will measure over twenty feet wide.
Slowly the lights powered off as the batteries dwindled down. The room finally went dark as the last light was shut off. It had been a great day. The lights worked and we got the picture we were after but more than that we got an experience we will never forget. We had a great team and a great trip. Everyone worked hard and it really paid off. I am very thankful to all who helped. Without them it would have not been possible. Hopefully we will travel to more places like Camps Gulf and create another experience. Only time will tell.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

ALP 3 Hardware Update

Today we swapped a battery in the ALP 3 flight computer. This will ensure that there is enough power to run the computer through the full duration of all planned flights for ALP 3. An updated thruster array is being developed that will shave weight and reduce power consumption without sacrificing control. More ALP3 developments will be posted as they become available.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hacked router aims to help ALP communications

A few days ago we received a router that had been modified to boost the signal strength. This will hopefully allow for a stronger link between the ALP flight and ground computers. A modified antenna booster was also acquired and will fly on the ALP itself. We will test both components to gain a better understanding of characteristics before flight. This will allow us to fine tune the system to our needs. Check back for more updates on ALP progress.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

More surprises await...

ALP development is proceeding well and it looks like we will be doing some actual range testing in about a week. On a side note another really cool capability may be added to the ALP architecture. For now we will leave it to your imagination as we have some software hurdles to overcome. When we get a little closer it will be announced.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More research leads to better design for ALP 3

ALP 3 Update:
Today we took some steps in design that will yield up to a 20db gain in communication between ground and flight computers. What this means is better streaming of data from the hazardous avoidance cameras and faster data transmission rates. Since all high resolution imagery is to be captured in Raw format, better data rates are very welcome.