Venturing into the dark world of cave photography

When Melissa Horn’s husband took her caving on their second date, it was the first time she ever entered the dark, damp underground world of caves.

“I was absolutely terrified, I felt claustrophobic,” she said. “But I couldn’t help but be interested by it.”

These days, it’s a different story – Horn is trying to find and explore caves as much as possible.

Horn, who lives in Lock Haven, enjoys not only visiting caves, but also sharing their unique beauty with others through her photography.

For the past five years, Horn has been taking photos of cave interiors while exploring caves with her husband. The two have traveled to Texas, New Mexico and Canada, among other locations, as part of their exploration.

Horn said that she always has enjoyed the outdoors. “I would find solace in being outside and being immersed in nature,” she said.

She used to photograph other subjects along the way, preferring to shoot photos of insects.

Now, however, she is “completely obsessed with caves.”

A self-taught photographer, Horn started playing with her camera’s settings to take photos in the cave’s dim light.

She has found, however, that she prefers the images created when using a tripod and a long shutter speed to capture the cave’s features, although she occasionally uses flashes to highlight sections of the cave or freeze motion.

Horn shoots mostly macro photos – images that focus on the small details of the caves, such as crystal formations or drops of water – but she is trying to practice photographing large-scale rooms in caves as well.

She also recently has been delving into a more specialized form of cave photography, called impact photography, which seeks to show the effect that humans have on caves.

“There is no such thing as zero-impact caving. Even just breathing inside of a cave is doing minute amounts of damage,” she explained.

Horn’s impact photos, which show things like individual human hairs stuck in rocks, are visual statements about how cavers need to be respectful and aware while exploring caves to minimize damage.

No longer afraid or claustrophobic while in caves, Horn finds the most difficult part of cave photography to be finding creative ways to maneuver her equipment with her through narrower passages in the caves.

“It’s really just taking very expensive, delicate gear underground, and trying to keep it dry, and trying to keep it from getting scratched or banged up,” she said.

She draws a lot of inspiration from more renowned cave photographers like David Bunnell and Peter Jones, both of whom she learned about through her membership in the National Speleological Society, a small but dedicated community of others who enjoy caving.

Currently, Horn is studying geology at Lock Haven University. She hopes that through her future work as a geologist, she will be able to enter more caves to research them.

She would especially love to visit Lechugilla Cave in New Mexico, she said, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in the world. The cave is not open for recreational caving, and is typically only accessible to researchers or large media operations like National Geographic.

Whether or not Horn gains access to her dream cave, she still plans to photograph caves along with her scientific studies. “I’m hoping to always be able to incorporate photography into my research,” she said.

For now, Horn’s cave photography is a hobby that she gets to practice occasionally between studying.

She enjoys exploring in Centre County, and says that there are a lot of farmers who have caves on their property that will gladly let her and her husband enter. The pair try to continue caving as often as possible.

“Once you get bitten by the cave bug, you can’t get enough,” she said.

To see more of Horn’s photos and learn about her Kickstarter campaign to raise money for new equipment, visit her website at