When glowworms go global

Adrian Hatwell talks to photographer Shaun Jeffers about the success of his Waitomo Cave glowworm photography expeditions, as well as his venture into commercial tourism photography


The need to search for light in dark times is an instinct familiar to all, but for photographer Shaun Jeffers, that drive has taken him deeper than most. Dedicating hours on end to underground exploration, the photographer has made it his mission to bring the ethereal subterranean cosmos of New Zealand’s glowworms to the surface — and the whole word has been drawn to his light.

Initially contracted for a commercial shoot at Waitomo’s Glowworm Caves, the British expat become transfixed by the challenge and splendour of the luminous insects and their otherworldly environment. With the blessing of the cave operators, Jeffers returned to the pitch dark of the region’s grottos to build a personal portfolio of surreal, larvae-lit cavescapes. When these images hit the internet, it was clear there was a global audience just as enamoured with the little cave-dwelling stars as the photographer was.

“It was quite amazing,” Jeffers recalls with a laugh. “I woke up one day and I had emails from The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and all the press agencies. It just went wild.”

He had uploaded some of the Waitomo-shot images to the popular user-driven art website, Bored Panda, and the site’s curators moved his post to the front page and shared it with millions on Facebook. From there the project hit that new media sweet spot, and quickly went viral.

“I still get emails about once a week from somebody wanting to do something with the glowworms. I got one recently about a Korean magazine that wanted to use them. It’s just constant glowworm madness.”

While the twinkling denizens of the Waitomo Caves have definitely netted Jeffers the most press, they are not the only major tourism attraction he has added to his resume in the three years he’s been working in this country. His first local job was shooting Matamata’s Hobbiton village movie set — fitting, as it was the lure of Lord of the Rings that originally brought the photographer to these shores.

“It was the landscape,” Jeffers recalls. “I’d always thought about New Zealand, I think I’d seen a documentary as a kid, and then Lord of the Rings came out and I knew I had to go, long before I was ever a photographer. Not because it’s a film location, but because of the scenery.”

Six years ago, before the pull of Middle Earth became too much to resist, Jeffers was attending film and television classes at university in his native Liverpool, though it was to be a short-lived study period.

“I found that studying it put me off a little bit. I didn’t like sitting through lectures about f-stops and shutter speeds. I didn’t feel that was the right way to learn. So I ended up picking up a camera and, funnily enough, f-stops and shutter speeds are what I do for a living now.”

He started doing public relations and event shoots in the area, and found a mentor in Ant Clausen, one of the biggest photographers in Liverpool who, as fate would have it, originally hails from Takapuna.

“He gave me my break and pushed me to my limits,” Jeffers says. “If I did something wrong he would say, ‘Look, that’s terrible’. Which is good, to have that sort of criticism.”

Eventually the photographer felt ready to strike out on his own, and his Tolkienian passion carried him to New Zealand. Before setting out, he sent a cold email to the Hobbiton set asking if it might be in need of a photographer’s services, to which the attraction responded positively.

“My goal was to go for the big boys, the commercial tours and stuff. Hobbiton and Sky City were my first two clients, so I can’t really complain. I went right for the top and just thought, ‘Well, if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen’. But I got in with both of them.”

The first Hobbiton shoot, however, did not go terribly well due to unfortunate weather on the day. But the people in charge obviously liked what they saw, as Jeffers was called back a few months later for another shoot, and eventually became a regular feature at the village, earning the title of official Hobbiton movie set photographer.

“On my first shoot they said thanks, and gave me ‘the one ring’,” Jeffers explains with notable glee. “I was thinking, ‘This is kind of surreal, I’m getting the one ring at Hobbiton’. It takes pride of place on my desk.”

His success in the tourism field eventually lead him to the fortuitous commercial shoot at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and a taste for the beguiling belowground landscapes and their dazzling inhabitants. The shoots themselves generally require Jeffers to be down in the dark for a handful of hours — just two or so if things really align, but usually four or more. His longest stint beneath the earth lasted eight hours.

“It was intense, time just seems to go: you look at your watch and three hours have passed and you didn’t even realize,” he says. “It’s like a different world. I describe it as being like the film Avatar, something out of CGI. But it’s real, right in front of you. Once your eyes adjust to it, it’s magnificent.”

The photographer always enters the cave system with a guide, Logan, who helps out on the shoots and assists Jeffers in maintaining his sanity while spending so much time in the oppressive gloom. The guide also makes sure none of the glowworms, formations, or cave features are harmed in any way.

“The best stuff is hidden away, and the public aren’t allowed. I have to go through with my gear, so obviously the staff keep a massive eye on me. It’s a huge fine if you break one of the formations, so I’m glad to have a second set of eyes on me, so I know where my bag is.”

To enter the limestone cave system, the photographer takes either a 40-minute walk through the main entrance, or abseils down a 35m hole. Once inside, he must wade or swim through the water running along the underground passages, so both a wetsuit and warm under layer are usually the required dress code. Jeffers often uses inflatable tubes in preference to swimming, as this makes it easier to keep his gear bag high and dry.

“That’s my priority when I’m down there, just trying to keep it dry. My gear is all packed into dry bags, but you never know what might happen down there, there could be the tiniest hole.”

As he traverses the damp tunnels, Jeffers is on the lookout for a suitable location to set up and shoot — an area where the glowworms are abundant enough to take on the appearance of a magical, starry skyscape. Then there’s the matter of hoping the luminescent larvae behave, as they have a tendency to switch their lights off at will.

“I was there the other weekend and had found this great patch of lights — and half of them decided to go out. It’s very rare, but they went out and it just killed the composition of the shot, just ruined it. I had to give up and go somewhere else.”

And admitting defeat like that is not easy, as setting up and shooting can be an arduous process. His tripod needs to be planted in the water, embedded firmly into the riverbed, rising to a few centimetres above the water level. Focus is also a challenge, as the glowworms can’t be seen through the eyepiece, the camera needs to be switched to video mode with all settings dialled up fully.

“It’s just like shooting stars and the Milky Way, but a little bit harder, because there’s no autofocus at all, it’s all manual work.”

To make sure the pinpricks of light are crisply in focus, Jeffers generally takes a few test shots to figure out the correct settings and to make sure moisture from the cave hasn’t obscured the lens. This can be a time-consuming process, with exposures ranging between three to nine minutes. Add the in-camera noise reduction on top, which takes as long as the exposure, and a single frame can require up to 18 minutes.

For Jeffers, the toil is more than worth it, and the staggering popularity of his glowworm pieces shows he is far from alone in thinking so. As well as becoming a viral phenomenon around the world, the work won the Landscape category of the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 award programme, and went on public display in a pop-up exhibition at Waitomo late last year.

And the photographer’s adventures underground are far from finished. He’s recently expanded his activities to lesser-documented caves further afield, and is looking into getting his caving certificate in the hopes of eventually exploring all the glowworm caves throughout New Zealand. He has a notion to turn the project into a book, but says he hasn’t given it too much thought just yet. For the time being, Jeffers is happy to continue discovering the earth’s subterranean splendours, and bringing them to light for the rest of the world to enjoy.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 76 February-March 2017