salt deposits in a cave

Documenting the Subterranean

Massimo Siragusa

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘worth one's salt’ – an ancient expression that speaks to a person’s effort and expertise. For Massimo Siragusa, a high level of both was needed for his recent project documenting Sicily’s cavernous salt mines with his Sony Alpha 7R IV.

salt forming patterns in a cave

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 24mm f/2.8 G | 15s @ f/22, ISO 400

“These mines are located in three different towns, Racalmuto, Petralia and Agrigento,” he explains, “I was photographing them as part of a larger project on the island’s diverse landscape. The mines supply salt for both food and industrial uses, but what’s incredible about them is their size. They’re among the largest in Europe.”

looking through a wide tunnel in a salt mine

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 50mm f/2.5 G | 5s @ f/20, ISO 400

Documenting what he found was not without challenges. “In such a complex environment it was impossible to move independently,” he remembers, “so an employee of the mines accompanied me in my work. We travelled in a 4x4, driving about 30 kilometres a day, stopping anywhere I saw a good photo, and from ground level we dropped to depths of about 800 metres.”

Massimo praised the benefits of the Sony Alpha 7R IV’s design and build during this project. “It’s a robust, lightweight camera, that can adapt to many different situations – and you don’t get much more ‘different’ than an 800m deep salt mine,” he laughs. “The camera’s size and weight meant I didn’t need a large tripod, which meant I could work faster and lighter, and its autofocus worked admirably in the darkness, even when shooting portraits of the miners.”

crane operator in a salt mine

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 40mm f/2.5 G | 1/50s @ f/5.6, ISO 1600

“The mines are very difficult places to shoot, partly because they’re so active” he continues, “even though there are large ventilations systems, the air is full of salt dust. When the huge excavators dig into the walls, there’s so much dust you cannot breathe. By the end of an eight- or nine-hour session you emerge thankful to be at the surface again. It’s an amazing environment, but the relief is like a diver coming up for air.”

large digging machine in a salt mine

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 50mm f/2.5 G | 0.6s @ f/20, ISO 400

With all the salt in the air, the camera’s weather sealing also came into play. “I’ve always relied on the excellent dust protection systems of my Sony cameras and lenses,” he reveals. “In the end, I didn’t need to use any extra protection system for the equipment in the mines, just taking a common-sense approach and only changing lenses in the vehicle – but even then only when the dust had settled to the floor of the car. This took a while, but it was vital with an interchangeable lens system in that environment.”

“As well as the dust, visibility was very low because there is no natural light that far beneath the earth,” he continues. Despite this, Massimo preferred to use the available light, including safety lamps, the wash of vehicle headlights and his own pocket LEDs to give some illumination. “I don't really like using professional flash or big lights, as they can change the feeling of a place.”

large digging machine at the back of a cave

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 50mm f/2.5 G | 1s @ f/20, ISO 400

To cope with the lack of light, Massimo shot very long exposures from a small carbon tripod, sometimes up to two minutes using his Sony Alpha 7R IV cameras’ Bulb settings and a separate light metre. “With the camera locked off,” he explains, “you can use lamps to illuminate different areas, or move them during the exposure to create interesting effects.”

“I used two Sony Alpha 7R IVs in the salt mines,” he remembers, “their most important feature is the enormous quality of the files they can produce. A lot of people think that the Alpha 7R IV is all about resolution, but it was here that the sensor’s amazing dynamic range came to the fore. This let me illuminate the scene in very different ways in the same frame without worrying that parts of the scene would be lost in the highlights or shadows.”

circular salt pattern in a cave

© Massimo Siragusa | Sony α7R IV + FE 40mm f/2.5 G | 2s @ f/22, ISO 400

Along with his Alpha 7R IVs, Massimo chose to use a trio of Sony’s small, light, and fast G Series lenses. “I used the FE 24mm f/2.8 G, FE 40mm f/2.5 and FE 50mm f/2.5 G,” he says, “which gave me a great mix of light-gathering at low weight, which was perfect for that environment.”

Despite the challenging environment, the project’s success came from Massimo’s tried and tested investigative approach. “For me photography is storytelling, and that means spending time learning the story properly,” he finishes. “Making a beautiful image is never the end in itself. I want to document the emotions that a place transmits, so I must open myself to the location. Then I simply choose the best tools to capture those emotions.”

Featured products

Massimo Siragusa

Massimo Siragusa | Italy

"Photography is, for me, first and foremost a means of expression"

Related stories

Sign up to get your α Universe newsletter

Congratulations! You've successfully subscribed to the α Universe newsletter

Please enter a valid email address

Sorry! Something went wrong

Congratulations! You've successfully subscribed