Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopić Shares His Best Tips to Improve Your Cave Photography

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic
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My name is Dinko Stopić, I was born and currently living in Karlovac, Croatia. Lived in Croatia’s capital Zagreb for over 10 years, but decided to come back when my first kid was born. I’m a bridge designer, for the last year self-employed in my own company specialised for the bridge design. I’ve been in speleology for over 20 years, doing some more serious speleo-photography for the last 10. Recreational, I play basketball, drive MTB and road bike, used to play guitar and act in local amateur theatre. I love alpine skiing and ski touring.

How and why did you get into cave exploration?

Actually, that was a coincidence. I was sitting in a pub with a couple of my friends who were already into speleology, back in ’96. I was a 2nd year student at the Faculty of Civil engineering at the University of Zagreb. Didn’t have a clue what to do that summer. They were making plans for an expedition on Croatian biggest mountain Velebit. They asked me if I would like to join them and it seemed like a good idea. Later that week, they have shown me rope technique and I was ready to go. I spent a week in the mountains, did a couple of pits and fell in love with speleology.

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

Why is cave exploration important for you?

Well, I can say that adventuring had great impact on my perception of life. When deep underground, outside problems seem so small and irrelevant. In the dark, climbing up, I have time to think it over and get a better perspective. I can say that weekend in a cave completely recharge my batteries. And discharge my muscles. 🙂

What have been the best parts of your cave explorations?

The best part of cave exploration is definitely exploring new caves. When you find yourself on a place where no one has been before, it’s thrilling. Back in 1998, we have found the pit, which we named Olimp, it has a 30m entrance shaft and after that small slope and narrow passage at the end of it. When we threw a rock from the entrance to evaluate depth, we couldn’t hit that narrow passage, so we thought it was just another shallow pit. It was pretty far from our camp so we get back to it the very last day of the expedition. We descended down and saw the passage, threw a rock in it and it fell about 200m under us. We were happy like a small child with a new toy. Unfortunately, we have to wait whole winter to get back to it and continue exploration. Later we got to 537 m of depth.

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

What have been the most difficult parts?

Karlovac is situated on the edge of the carst area in Croatia so we have plenty of caves and pits on a one-hour-drive distance. But planing some serious expedition, especially abroad, is very difficult and expensive. You have to arrange all the licenses and permits, and transfer lots of gear to the location. Usually you have to have some local speleologist to help you with all of that. It needs good planning and lots of patience. The biggest danger in cave exploration is always the human factor. You have to be experienced caver to do serious explorations. If you do things in a hurry or with inadequate gear, lots of things can go wrong. One shouldn’t overestimate his abilities. Luckily, so far I have never been in life threatened position. Sometimes it’s hard and seems impossible, but in speleology you have to be a team player and give your best to accomplish a common goal.

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

What is your best advice for new cave explorers?

My opinion is that newbies should follow experienced speleologist in their first year of spelunking. Making records is an unhealthy ambition, especially for inexperienced speleologist. I have seen some people overestimate their own physical possibilities because they tried to do something faster just to show off. You have to be aware of your own limitations. Also, the leader of the team should be aware of limitations of every particular member. With that in mind, the risk is reduced to a minimum.

I don’t see much reason why one shouldn’t try caving. People are usually saying that they are claustrophobic, but in 99% that is just imaginary claustrophobia. For start, everyone can try to visit some touristic cave. They are definitely neither dark nor narrow. If you like the atmosphere, why shouldn’t try to go a little bit further? 🙂

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

How do you prepare for your cave explorations?

Best preparations for caving is caving itself. 🙂 Bigger experience you have, it’s easier for you to bear the effort underground. Of course, good physical condition is welcome, but you don’t really have to run marathons to prepare for expedition.

Bible of speleo-technique is book named, Alpine Caving Techniques by Georges Marbach and Bernard Tourte. All you need to know about spelunking is in there. If you want to improve your speleo-photography skills then you have to read Images Below by Chris Howes.

There are lots of manufacturers of speleo equipment today, but I’m still faithful to Petzl. They invented the devices that other are trying to copy or more or less successfully improve. I somehow got used to imperfections and know how to overcome it if it’s needed.

If we plan some exploration, we usually share responsibilities. Everyone is in charge for something: Gear, food, transportation, equipment of a cave, surveying, photographing.. Lately, I stick to surveying and photographing because it’s impossible to do all.

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

How do you finance your cave explorations?

Mostly we finance our explorations by our self. We all have daytime jobs, so weekends are the only option over the year. Speleo equipment is divided in personal and common equipment. Everyone takes care (and finance) his personal equipment. Common gear (ropes, carabiners, etc.) is something that we buy over our Speleological Society Karlovac, which we also fund through a membership fee. 🙂 We also get some financial help from Karlovac mayor office and sports community in Karlovac.

How do you balance normal life with cave exploring?

There was a time when I spent most of my weekends from early spring to late fall on Croatians biggest mountain Velebit. Well, that was life before I got kids. 🙂 Now I have two of them and it is difficult to do that many trips to the mountains. You can’t take kids with you if you want to do serious job. My colleagues have kids too, so we carefully choose and organize our explorations to do as much as we can in a less time. We often need whole weekend and sometimes a day or two more to do the exploration, so frequency of explorations has fallen to about 5-6 time a year. Every year, we also have summer camps on Velebit for a week or two and that is good opportunity for our new members that just finished speleo course to get some experience. I can say that I miss more caving. 🙂

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

What has been your best cave exploration-related purchase below $100?

Definitely, my best purchase in that price range was Petzl Pantin Foot Ascender. Years of encouragement from my friends were needed before I tried it, and now I can’t imagine getting out of a pit without it. Ascending a rope with it gave a whole new dimension to the caving. 🙂 Another thing that I can’t live without is plastic 6l watertight keg. I keep all of my photo equipment (except camera) in it. There is no any particular brand, just a plastic keg.

What other favorite gear do you have?

I really love my ElSpeleo Rescue Headlamp. It’s 1200 lumen LED on flood and 1000 lumen LED on the spot gives me a great opportunity to to examine a space around me and to compose my frame before I take a picture. It also gives me enough light to add some ambient light to the foreground. It is robust, waterproof and reliable. Love it.

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

What do you consider the hardest parts of cave photography?

I usually study the plan of the cave, if it exists. When I go to photograph cave, I generally know what I can expect. Either I’ve been there before, or somebody described me something like, “Dude, it’s fabulous, you gotta go photograph that…” If I’ve been there before, I have some sketches in my head and I start from there. If I’m going for the first time, then it’s all an improvisation… I see something that attracts me, and then try to put it in a photograph. Absence of any type of light gives you the full control over composition. One can choose what will be highlighted, and what will stay in the dark. In most cases, you can choose the direction and intensity of light. There are so many options and only few gives pleasant results. The experience is very helpful in that case. Also, assistants are very important. If I haven’t been there, I try to choose someone who has, simply because we will find our way much easier. Not everyone looks good on a photograph, even if it’s only a silhouette. By the body position you can tell is the guy on the photograph relaxed and familiar with the surroundings or is he too stiff and feels uncomfortable.

Any advice for new cave photographers?

Most of the beginners are using flash on the camera. That is not something that gives the pleasant result, even in classic photography. In that case, I would recommend pushing ISO on camera and using only ambient light from the headlamps. The very first addition to photography gear should be wireless radio transmitter and flashes that can be triggered by it. Yongnuo is a relatively cheap system that I still use, and it have not disappointed me yet. I also rarely use a tripod. It is time cumbrous, and time consuming and assistants usually don’t have that much patience. 🙂

Caver and Photographer Dinko Stopic

What will the future bring?

There are lots of caves in Croatia that I would like to go photograph. There are also some that I would like to photograph again, to try different angles and/or compositions of light. There is one pit named Munizaba on Crnopac, Croatia with great entrance hall with dimensions nearly 200×100 m in the ground plan. I was planning to photograph it for the last couple of years, but somehow I/we always have something more important to explore. I would also like to realize expedition to Indonesia one day, there are so many fantastic caves in that area, and lots of them is still waiting to be explored. But that is something that requires great funds and lots of time for preparation and exploration itself. Maybe one day. 🙂

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