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.
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.
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.
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.
There are a few things to keep in mind when bracketing for an HRD image. Your camera may already have this feature that will automatically combine the images into one. I do have that option but prefer to take the images separately and merge them myself. This gives me more control over the final image. It is more work but I think the finished product is better.
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.