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Couple standing in the blue cave on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu

As we travelled to the island of Tanna (Vanuatu) with K and M, our shooting plans revolved mainly around Mount Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcano. After an incredible day spent making memories through lush rainforest, moon-like ash plains and awe inspiring volcanic fireworks we thought our thirst for adventure was quenched. The next day however, we were taken on a boat ride to this cave, and without much thinking I grabbed my gear + weather/underwater Outex cover to protect it during the ride. I didn’t expect to have a full session at the cave, this was just to be able to snap a few shots to add to K and M’s album, but boy was I glad I had it all with me once we got there!

To get in the cave you need to swim off the boat and through a hole in the cliff wall. Once in, it was just magical. I remember turning to K and M, and having no doubt we were thinking the same: this was the cherry on top of our volcano adventures and we absolutely needed to take photos of them in this insane place. I guess the lesson here was an all time classic: always be prepared, even when you have little to no expectations!

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How did you direct your subject(s)?

Because they were standing on a rock in somewhat rough waters, I needed to pose them in a way that would allow them to keep their balance and still be able to enjoy the moment, so that the image would have some emotional strength. Standing and hugging was a pretty obvious choice. That being said, at the beginning K had her head resting on M’s chest, looking my way. That didn’t work at all as she disappeared in his shadow. To fix that I simply asked her to pull away just a little, and look up to him so some light would hit her face. And there was my shot.

What did you say?

“Alright guys, let’s see if we can find a rock somewhere in the light, where you could both stand comfortably for a moment”.

“Now, take your time, find your balance, help each other out and simply hug.”

“Okay, K, you’re looking awesome, but your face is in the shadow, so what I’d love for you to do is to please pull your upper body away from M a little bit, just enough to be able to look up to him. Yep, that’s great, that’s enough, thanks. Now enjoy this moment guys.”

(all of it literally shouting like a mad person to cover the noise of the rushing waves and make myself heard!)

How did you compose your image?

Composing this image required compromising between vision and practicalities. I really wanted K and M to stand in the light rays, as centered as possible. The only rock we found that allowed them to stand on did not give me that symmetry, but again, sometimes you just have to compromise.

I wanted to create a cocoon wrapping them up, I wanted that light to embrace them, and I wanted to show a little of the outside to add emotive contrast (suggesting they left the world outside), create a stronger image, and tell a better story. At the same time I wanted to include water in the frame, to give context, add to the story, and add a splash of movement and vibrant color to the image.

So, bearing in mind all of this, I positioned myself so as to center K and M in the light triangle the best I could, I held the camera right at the surface of the water to include some of it in the frame, tilted it up a little so one could see the hole in the cave’s ceiling and a little bit of the trees outside, for compositional strength, context and readability of the image, and voila.

How and what did you focus on?

Because I was in the water and was getting hit by the waves rolling in, I knew focusing could be tricky, so to be on the safe side I chose to shoot continuous, keep a wide focus area, and aimed at K and M’s faces.


How did you use the light in your image?

The hole in the ceiling of the cave, at noon, allowed the sun light to be “directed” through the cave, the mist and the water, in a way which inspired this image altogether: for a photographer, the way it came to life, piercing through the darkness, bouncing on wet rocks and playfully flickering in the water spray was simply irresistible.

Every decision I made about this image stemmed from the desire to capture K and M in this light: how I set my camera, where I wanted to place my couple, how I fixed their pose, all the way to how I edited. Light like this is so exciting! It’s an invitation to play, to test and try, to learn, to explore, and reveal.

Couple standing in the blue cave on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu

What was the gear & settings you used?

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Sony A9


Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM





Shutter Speed






White Balance


Couple standing in the blue cave on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu

How did you edit your image & what did you use?

I started off by applying my custom preset to this image, to give it the warmth and richness of color and tones that I like, and which in my view fits the feel of the tropical environment I shoot in. Then I worked my way to the result I had in mind.

When taking the shot in the cave, I knew right away the challenge here would be dealing with the high contrast in the scene, between the ultra bright highlights and the deep shadows in the cave. Knowing it would be quite easy to recover details in the shadows in post (working with a raw file), I decided to heavily under-expose in camera to preserve the highlights as much as possible. I think I went down as much as 3 stops. As a result, one can see that the image straight out of camera is pretty much pitch black in most parts except for where the light fell directly. Hence, my main work in post was dodging around to recover details of the cave walls and in the water around the couple, using a radial filter first, for a smooth transition, and then a brush to finish off nicely. I had to use another brush to deal with the bit of noise that was bothering me here and there. Finally, I went back to the dodging brush to bring the light rays to life and lift up some shadows on the couple.

Cleaning up an image from distractions can really take it to the next level. I could have left it as it was and it would have been fine, but one thing in the original image which bothered me was the flare on the left hand side: I found it weirdly shaped, too big and distracting, so I used a healing brush to smooth it out. Then my image felt “finished”.

Software Used



own custom preset

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What challenges did you face?

Two things that inherently come with the magic of the place can be quite tricky to manage.

First, as the cave is half immersed, photos from this shooting were taken either swimming at the same time as shooting, or standing waist-high in the water with waves pushing me around. In both cases, finding my balance, and maintaining it long enough to shoot, was a little tricky. Not to mention, finding and keeping balance was also a challenge for the couple.

The other challenging factor to bear in mind in such environment is the extreme contrast of the scene, which needs to be handled both in camera settings during the shoot and in post production.

How did you solve them?

As we most times in photography, I found that solutions to the challenges posed by this image where found in simply accepting and embracing them all the way: underexpose to create a highly contrasted and dynamic image, going with the flow, literally, and allowing myself to be surprised with how the water and splashes would make or break the series of images captured when shooting continuous.

Couple standing in the blue cave on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu

Can you share any last thoughts or advice?

My advice would be: photograph the way you feel! This place, this light, this adventure we were all sharing made me feel like a kid, it made me feel excited and in awe all at once, wanting to jump around with pure joy and fun, and shoot, shoot and shoot some more. So I simply opened myself up to this wonderful feeling, and created something that I, and my couple, could only cherish, because it forever holds within that moment of joy, and freedom, and love.

Valerie Fernandez Photography

Shooting since


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Heya, I’m Val and I’m looking forward to meeting you! I’m kid at heart, a wonderer, a dreamer! Trough incredible blessings and heartbreaking loss, I have learned kindness and courage, and became a believer in people: in you, in me, in our uniqueness, our story, our potential, strength, and vulnerability; in how we laugh, love, grow, break, endure and keep going. Photography is my bridge between what’s inside and what’s outside; it’s my tribute to everyday poetry, every day courage, every day joy, everyday love, everyday life. It’s how I see and feel, fit and connect, share and learn, give and receive.

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