I’m very excited to announce that my photo of the Lilly Pad Room at Onondaga Cave in Missouri was selected as the Editor’s Pick for the Earth Sea Sky gallery on Nature Photographer’s Network for last week!  This is my first “EP” and I feel very honored to receive this pick.  The ESS gallery is the highest-traffic gallery on NPN and consistently contains hundreds of awe-inspiring images from both amateurs and pros.

Onondaga 2 NPN 

A little background about the cave and the photo:  Onondaga Cave is located near Leasburg, Missouri and is just a few miles south of Interstate 44.  Guided tours are available March through October.  We had around 30 people in our group when we toured.  The cave is very open with only a few spots where the ceiling gets a bit low, so I did not feel claustrophobic at all as I did in a small cave I toured in Arkansas a few years ago.  The walkways and ramps are wide and steep in places, but there are plenty of handrails.  The Onondaga Cave was a private show cave for quite some time.  After a long, difficult history involving property disputes and almost being lost forever due to a planned dam in the area, the cave finally became part of the Missouri state park system in 1981. 

I had to plan ahead for shooting photos at this location since I couldn’t lug all my gear with me.   Because I knew the quarters would be tight, I took my 10-22 mm lens, which is also my fastest lens at F3.5/4.0.  (I also brought my 35-80 mm but never took it out of my jacket pocket.)  I knew I’d have to crank up the ISO and shoot wide open if I hoped to get anything acceptable.  There were lighting fixtures in place around the formations, and the walkways were lit, but after all – it was a cave and very dark!  As soon as the tour started, I turned the ISO to 800 and fired off a couple test shots, and discovered I needed yet more light so cranked it as high as it would go – 1600.  Unfortunately, I don’t have an off-camera flash so had to use the built-in one.  In some of the shots I took, this resulted in a half-circular pattern appearing at the bottom of the frame.  I found it very difficult to focus in the low-light conditions even though I was using auto focus. In some spots, the camera just couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be doing. 

Compositions in the cave were very limited due to the placement of walkways, handrails and light/electrical fixtures.  Because there was another tour group coming through in about an hour, there was no time to waste.  This also didn’t help with trying to compose a nice shot.  Additionally, tripods were not allowed so I was forced to use the handrails for support.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t because people in the group kept bumping into the rails, causing vibrations. 

We saw several awesome formations (the Twins, King’s Canopy, Queen’s Canopy, etc.),  and the Lost River which runs through the cave was a clear, greenish-blue ribbon that contrasted nicely with the orange-hued formations.  One stretch of the river was named “The Grand Canyon” because the reflection of the cave walls on the river resemble that of a view from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. 

The highlight for me though was the Lilly Pad Room, which was the very last formation we visited.  It is so named because the formations at the water surface look like lilly pads. The tour guide said it was only about 20 feet below the surface and the most active formation in the cave, which I believe after seeing all the dripping going on in there. There were also formations underwater, one of which I thought looked like an intestine!  I was fortunate enough to capture several concentric drip patterns while exposing this shot. It certainly adds to what could have otherwise been a pretty static image.

After converting the shot from RAW format, I used the noise reduction sliders in Lightroom to reduce much of the noise in this image. I exported it to PS and finished up with some curves adjustments and a little work on the color balance due to the artificial lighting. The final result is what I remember seeing while standing in this amazing little room.

Tech specs:  Canon Rebel XTI, Canon 10-22 mm lens, handheld, built-in flash, ISO 1600, F4 @ 1/50

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