Hamilton Pool Preserve


Hamilton Pool Preserve is one of my favorite hiking/photography spots in central Texas. Southwest of Austin, between TX 71 and US 290, it’s about 50 miles from Georgetown. (So around 20 miles from Austin.) This is a Travis County Park, with Park Rangers and even a (primitive) restroom. As I recall, the restroom near the parking lot has hand disinfectant, but it would be better not to count on it. There is no running water, and no drinking water. There is a Porta-Potty along the trail.

The primary attraction at Hamilton Pool Preserve is a half-collapsed limestone dome, about 100 yards across, with Hamilton Creek dripping down across the opening into the pool to run on to the Pedernales River about another half-mile downstream. The creek is lined with cypress trees and flanked by limestone bluffs. The trail from the parking lot descends about 100 feet (that’s on the way down; on the way back up it’s at least a mile, but there are benches to rest on), with the pool only about a quarter mile hike from the car. At the foot of that descent the trail forks, with the left fork going to the confluence of Hamilton Creek and the Pedernales River, scenic all the way. But the right fork goes only another 300 yards to the pool, and wait until you see it!

The pool is open for swimming (at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards) in warm weather, except following heavy rains that have brought in dirt and debris, so is very popular with the younger crowd. My wife and I prefer to visit on weekdays, when there are fewer folks at the pool.

Even with a considerable amount of bench-sitting and breath-catching, hiking down to the pool, taking some photographs, and returning to the car will take about three hours. Add at least two hours for taking the trail to the Pedernales River.

Photography at Hamilton Pool Preserve

The scenery at the pool is beautiful, close to spectacular, but it does present some special problems for photographers. The contrast of the dark area under the remaining half-dome and the outside area is extreme during Park hours, so photos tend to have areas that are either too dark, or too light. And if you split the difference, you will have both too dark and too light.

The high-tech solution to excessive contrast is High Dynamic Resolution photography, HDR for short, and if you browse through photos of Hamilton Pool posted on the Internet (especially on Flickr) you’ll see many HDR images. Many of today’s cameras will take HDR photos directly, but if your camera does not, you still have some options. (iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones can take HDR photos directly, as can many of the newer dslrs.)

Hamilton Pool, under the half-dome (click on photo to zoom)

Hamilton Pool, under the half-dome
(click on photo to zoom)

On the left is a shot with some dynamic range optimization (DRO on Sony cameras), but this situation really calls for HDR, on the right. Note that not only is more detail visible in the dark areas under the overhang, but there is also more detail outside where it is bright. (It’s just too bad that there was a lot of crud on the water surface that day, following a good rain that washed the crud in.) (And further, more “extreme” settings for HDR might have improved the right photo even more.)

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