Spelunking is not for the faint of heart. Putting aside all the kit you have to haul and the repelling you have to do, there’s the enveloping darkness broken only by your headlamp. Or, in Dinko Stopic’s case, his strobes.

Stopic’s stunning photos reveal the beauty of a hidden world and the wonders of cave exploration, which is no easy feat given the challenges of illuminating a vast cavern armed only with the lights on your back.

He made his first adventure in 1996 when a couple of buddies invited him on an expedition to Velebit, Croatia’s largest mountain. Though Stopic had zero experience caving, he tagged along. “I spent a week in the mountains, did a couple of pits and fell in love with speleology,” he says. He’s explored more than two dozen caves and can’t get enough.

It took some time before Stopic mastered cave photography, in no small part because caves tend to be devoid of natural light. Making good photos in such conditions requires teamwork—and plenty of strobes. Stopic works with at least two assistants; three are better and four are ideal. Each carries a remote-control flash around his neck like a St. Bernard wearing a keg of brandy. Stopic favors Yongnuo YN560 III flashes because they are cheap, powerful and feature built-in receivers for a manual flash controller that let him control the power and scope of each flash without going hoarse shouting instructions to assistants. You’d think he dreads working in darkness, but he finds it is an advantage. “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,” he says.

Spelunking is by nature a risky endeavor, and the shoots are intense. Stopic and his crew spend five to 10 hours underground, so they travel light and put safety first. The dust and humidity common in caves can play hell with gear, so Stopic keeps it simple. Beyond the strobes, his rig consists solely of a Canon 5D Mark II with a 17-35 f2.8L. Dropping his gear into an abyss would be a nightmare, so he keeps the bag hooked to his belt and his camera strapped to his hand. That makes getting a shot a bit cumbersome, as he must remove his gloves, take out his camera, mount the transmitter, adjust his settings, fire a few frames, and then reverse the process.

It’s slow going, coupled with the exhausting work of actually exploring a cave. But there’s something about exploring a place few people will ever visit, and that’s what keeps Stopic coming back. “I love that pure, intense smell of mud…” he says. “Some psychologists compare exiting from a cave with rebirth. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is some special feeling when you get back on daylight after hours in complete dark.”

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The Perilous and Gorgeous World of Cave Photography