The Challenges​ of Hamilton Pool.

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Hamilton Pool. If you’ve never heard of it, it is entirely possible that you have seen it online and said to yourself “I wanna go there”. Over the past several years there have been many travel blogs, articles, and images that have gone viral online showing the beauty of this hidden gem tucked away in the Texas Hill Country.

This isn’t one of those blogs though. Hamilton Pool Preserve is one of the most challenging places I have ever photographed and wanted to pass along why that is and what to expect if you plan a trip to this spectacular location.

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First, a little bit about Hamilton Pool. Located in Dripping Springs, Texas just Southwest of Austin, the preserve’s pool and grotto were formed when the dome of an underground river collapsed over a thousand years ago. After a short hike down a rocky and steep path, you will find a creek accented with some of the most beautiful trees in the area. Following the creek upstream will bring you to the pool, and you will know when you’re getting close when you hear the relaxing sound of the 50-foot waterfall that feeds into the once hidden oasis. It is really a breathtaking spot to see.

 

So, let’s go over a few things you need to know if you’re planning a visit. One of the most important things you need to do is make a reservation… Yes, you heard right. Over the years, the number of people that visit the pool has become overwhelming for the park. To solve this, you are now required to make a reservation, which costs about $10.00. You will still need to pay the entrance fee at the park. The details can be found HERE on their webpage.

Just because you have a reservation doesn’t mean that there won’t be anyone else at the park while you are there. Personally, I like to go as soon as the park opens and during the week in hopes that I will get 30 minutes all alone before people start showing up.

Next, if you are hoping to take a dip in the beautiful water while you are there, check the site above first. Due to high bacteria in the water at times, the park will often restrict swimming.

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Now, here are a few things you need to know and consider from a photography standpoint. The reason I mentioned that Hamilton Pool is so difficult to photograph has nothing to do with the reservations or getting there. It would seem that being such an Epic looking location, it would be hard to take a bad picture, but it is just the opposite.

The “grotto” of the pool is pretty much a cavern, which does let light in but is still very dark. Due to the park hours, the earliest you can get there and latest you can stay, the sun will be out, and even on cloudy days like in these images, there is a huge difference in the range between the shadows and the highlights. For those of you that don’t know, this is the Dynamic Range.

So, a normal person’s eye can see about 20 “stops” of light. Consider this to be like a volume slider, 1 being the darkness of the cave and 20 being the brightness of the sky. The image processing sensor on a high-end camera can only capture a range of about 15 stops of light though. So, roughly 25% of the scene you think you are getting is lost. Dynamic range

This means that what you are seeing with your naked eye when you look at the awe-inspiring dome of Hamilton Pool has a lot more detail and range than your camera can capture. So, there are a few options…you can pick between losing the detail in the shadows and properly exposing for the bright reflections of the sky in the water, you can keep the detail and texture of the huge fallen chunks of rock but blow out and lose all the detail in the sky… or, you can find another way of dealing with it and capturing both.

My choice for the location was to “bracket” the images and then merge them in Photoshop allowing both the beautiful highlights and the rich detailed shadows to show in the final image. Bracketing is when you take 2 or more images of the same scene but at different exposure levels. Normally I will shoot three, one properly exposed image, one underexposed, and one overexposed. This is also known as an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image on most mobile phones.

 

Once the images have been processed and merged together in Photoshop, you will get the HDR image that will hopefully have the full dynamic range of what your eyes saw.  Below is what I walked away with.

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You may have heard me say how important I think a tripod is when shooting landscape photography. Well, it is even more so in this situation. You will most likely be dealing with at least one longer exposure where camera shake can really become a problem but keep in mind that all three images have to line up if you want sharp focus in the final image.

In the end, Hamilton Pool is a very challenging place to photograph. On one trip I walked away with ZERO images that I liked. All that being said, and after all the work, I would highly recommend planning a trip. Even if you don’t take a camera, it is an incredible place that gives you the feeling of stepping through a portal straight into Middle Earth. Below is a “behind the scenes” video of my last trip.

Get Out There…

One of the most difficult aspects of landscape photography for me would seem to be a very simple part of the process for a lot of you, getting out there

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Typically, the best times to shoot landscape photography is in the early morning just before and during sunrise, and late in the day before and during sunset. At these times you can not only capture some of the most beautiful natural colors in the sky caused from the light breaking through the atmosphere, dust and water vapor along the horizon, but the side light shadows created by the sun being low in the sky can create depth and dimension in the scene. And if your lucky and get some thin and high altitude Cirrus clouds, the sky just seems to catch on fire with a pink and orange glow.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get fantastic images during the middle of the day though. Depending on the conditions it is very possible to capture something amazing. Personally, I like shooting black and white at these times, the dark shadows can create a lot of contrast. But as a general rule, during the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, everything can appear to be a bit flat due to the harsh light and the lack of dimension in the shadows.

Of the two prime shooting times, I normally prefer to shoot in the early morning hours. There are normally fewer people out which helps me have a scene to myself, take my time, and not worry about missing the perfect light due to distraction or an unintentional photobomb.

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Though I am a morning person and rarely sleep in, planning on a morning landscape shoot can be a big investment in time. Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you are just surrounded by amazing scenes, this means you have to wake up at 3:00’ish, drive 1-2 hours, walk in the dark to get to your location, set up and wait for that magic light to “Hopefully” happen.

There is a lot of planning, pre-scouting locations, watching the weather, and even then you can’t be sure what exactly you are going to get once the sun starts to break the horizon. Clouds, wind, humidity, rain, light… There are so many things constantly changing and can’t be predicted that all the planning and preparation can seem to have been wasted. It’s easy to get frustrated after driving for several hours, hiking for 3 miles while carrying 30-40 lbs of gear, just to have the clouds close in and shut down the excitement of getting that hero image you were chasing.

Just taking the step to get out there and put yourself in the places and situations needed to capture an epic image is something I struggle with on a regular basis. Photography is a huge part of my life and as much as I love being out in nature, life isn’t that one dimensional for me and there are things that conflict with getting out there. Family, friends, dinner, drinks, cookouts, movies… It isn’t always easy to cut your fun short on a Saturday night because 3:00 comes so very early, especially if you are fortunate enough to have someone like Mrs. Red 5 in your life that loves the nightlife.

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That being said, there are only 2 times I can think of that I actually regretted taking a step out the door so early in the morning. The process and journey are always rewarding not to mention the sense of accomplishment from setting and crossing a goal off your list. The real reward is given in the fresh air, being away from all the thoughts of bills, meetings, and normal day to day stresses.

So be sure to take that first step. Find a place and situation to put yourself in that will elevate what you do. Challenge yourself to go a little farther, try something new. And most importantly, Get Out There!