It’s not how I envisioned spending my holiday, but somehow I found myself sitting in a cave on a lump of clay counting the shutter releases of my camera every 35 seconds…”213, 214, 215″… listening to the sound of dripping water from the ceiling and the splashing of an occasional eel swimming by my feet in the stream. But when I looked up, it all seemed like the perfect adventure because I was surrounded by one of the most magical natural wonders in New Zealand – a glowworm galaxy!
Nearly 8 months later and after ~60 hours in a cave I am excited to share with you one of New Zealand’s most captivating sights and a project that tested both my skills and sanity – Glowworms in Motion!
New Zealand’s famous glowworms are one of the many wonders this beautiful country has to offer. What makes these creatures so unique is their bioluminescent glow that illuminates many caves across New Zealand. Technically, these glowworms aren’t actually worms. They are the larvae of a special kind of fly known as a fungus gnat whose tail glows with a blue-green light provided by an organ equivalent to a human kidney. This light is used to attract its prey into a snare of sticky threads, but when scattered across the ceiling of a cave resemble a star filled sky.
While they are quite mesmerizing to watch, taking pictures of glowworms is extremely time-consuming. Exposures take 30 seconds to 30 minutes, there is a constant risk of water contaminating the lens, and the only option to avoid the crowds is to film during the night for hours on end in complete darkness. A single time-lapse sequence of 300 images with a minimum of 30 second exposure means a 10 second clip can take over 2.5 hours film – plus about an hour of setup. Despite the challenges faced throughout this process, that first night in the cave ignited a desire to create something few people have ever seen before and over the next few months would become my biggest filming challenge yet.
Attempt 1 – The Epic Failure
The journey to create this video began while on vacation in the North Island of New Zealand over Christmas. After visiting several free caves on the tourist trail and taking a number of photos I decided to experiment with some long exposure motion controlled time-lapses.
It failed miserably.
After exploring the cave earlier in the day, I returned just after 10pm (to avoid the holiday crowds). I knew right away it was going to be a long night as it took hours to set up and complete a series of successful test shots. After sitting in the cave for two hours in total darkness, the remote control battery died mid time-lapse, taking away my ability to pause and clean the lens. My second attempt ended with yet another battery failure – this time the external battery for my motion controller – but I was hopeful I had captured something good regardless.
After returning home I processed the footage and ended up throwing it all away. I thought I had covered all the LED lights on the equipment, but a renegade red light from the gear must have shone through completely contaminating the images. I could have given up after that but the fact that I had screwed up made me even more determined to try it again.
Attempt 2 – Glimmers of Light
It was a few months before I had a chance to make another attempt. We ended up in Auckland with a spare night one weekend after some plans fell through so we decided to head up to the caves for another try.
This time we were more prepared. Equipped with extra battery power, an air mattress and lots of duct tape to cover up lights – we were ready for Round 2. The cave had other plans though and wasn’t going to make it easy on us. It was unexpectedly busy this time with tourists, even late at night, creating quite a challenge to work around all the people.
I was able to capture a few sequences, but learned quickly I couldn’t leave the camera unattended. While Jenna tried her best to keep me company in the cave, I think she began to go a little crazy, and with no blankets to keep warm, the cave was not an easy place to sleep. So when she returned to the car I was tempted to follow once I got my second shot setup. That proved to be a mistake though when at some point several drops of water seeped into the lens and managed to penetrate the filter (which isn’t supposed to even be possible).
This time back at home I looked at the time-lapses and realized we had something special – something that was significantly different from any other video of glowworms I’d seen. The problem was we only had about 25 seconds of footage!
The Finishing Touches
Determined to finish the project, I went on a 40 hour marathon in May during a free weekend. I slept for brief 30 minute intervals on an air mattress on the cave floor with my alarm continually going off to check the camera as it moved a couple of millimeters at a time.
By now I was well-practiced at capturing the glowworms and mitigating environmental hazards so I felt comfortable lying down from time to time. That didn’t mean I got much sleep though as I was still paranoid about things going wrong. The one time I did fall asleep for any length of time (1 hour) I woke up almost submerged in the river as the water level in the cave had risen while I was out.
This time around, in order to show off more features of the cave I brought along perhaps the cheapest lighting setup of all time ($5) using several bike lights from ebay stuffed in socks as a diffusers. The small lights helped pull out details in the cave walls without taking focus away from the glowworms themselves. Even with some lights I still suffered from serious cave fever and on many occasions experienced hallucinations. The dripping, splashing and gurgling of water echoing through caves can cause you to imagine all kinds of weird things. If I had spent any longer in cave there was a real risk I would have turned into Gollum, catching and eating eels with my hands and calling the camera ‘my precious’ as it clicked away. Thankfully, I did eventually emerge from the cave, slightly delirious and in a zombie like state. Crashing in the back of the campervan I took a brief nap which although short, was the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not sure if it was because I was completely exhausted or because I knew the potential of what was on my memory card. Either way it was both exciting and a relief.
A Special Someone
To my knowledge this is the first time-lapse video solely focused on glowworms and would have never come to pass without Jenna. She is my biggest supporter when I come up with crazy ideas and ambitions. Since moving to New Zealand I’ve invested quite a lot in camera equipment covering motion controllers, ultralight sliders, drones and a whole lot of other gadgets and Jenna always supports the dream and helps capture the epicness of our adventures. Having her along for every moment of the glowworm project was special and it simply wouldn’t have been possible without her.
UPDATE: Our glowworm time-lapse WON the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year Award in the timelapse category!