Photographing The Texas State Capitol

Austin is the capital of Texas and we are fortunate to have a beautiful capitol building that is open to the public. It is also set in a scenic downtown area and is close to the University of Texas campus. Several times I have gone on photo-shoots to try to capture the State Capitol from different vantage points inside and outside. Downtown Austin can be very busy with frustrating traffic and difficult parking, so it is best to do this on a weekend, though there is free parking near the capitol. In the photo below is the Austin skyline, just left of center, you may be able to see the capitol rotunda just peaking over a building.


The above photo was taken from Mt. Bonnell park West of downtown. If you stand on a certain picnic table at this park, you can get a great view of downtown. I happened to have good light and interesting clouds that day with the late afternoon sun behind me.


The building is situated such that it is in your direct line of site as you drive North on Congress Ave. See the photo below.


I went down to Austin on a Sunday morning after I had just purchased the Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR lens and I was eager to shoot some photos with it. Traffic was almost non-existent so I could go out into the middle of the crosswalk between lights and have plenty of time to take pictures. It was a bit cloudy, but you can see the morning sun on the East side of the rotunda.

Walking around the other side of the capitol we have a garden of flowers. The photo below is taken a few weeks later with the sun higher in the sky and there isn’t the cloud cover I had before. This shot is 16mm and f/2.8, so wide open. In hindsight, this would have turned out better with the flowers in full sun.


Moving further North, I took this wide angle photo in front of the Bullock Museum with the giant star in the foreground. This was actually taken a bit earlier in the morning than the photo above. Another shot at 16mm and wide open aperture at f/2.8.


I have been wanting to shoot the capitol building with a long lens and get some of the buildings from downtown in the background. Unfortunately, much further North of this point and I run into the University of Texas and don’t have a good vantage point. But I did get this from across the street with my Sigma 70-200mm lens just before sunrise on a Saturday morning. I think I was the only person downtown not jogging.


Some of the taller buildings show up well in the background.

Atop the rotunda is a statue of a goddess, perhaps. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on this. This is the statue from behind in the morning sun.



The interior shots were taken as part of an HDR workshop as the capitol building, with its dimly lit interior and bright windows, is a good place to practice this technique.

Inside the building, one of the main attractions is looking up at the rotunda. As beautiful as this is, this is a challenging shot for a camera as there is bright sunlight in the upper windows and dimmer incandescent lighting in the chamber below. So you will generally get the lower portion of the dome underexposed with the upper day-lit portion of the rotunda properly exposed. See the image below.


The way to compensate for this, you may remember from an earlier blog, is to use HDR techniques. This involves taking multiple exposures of the same subject at various shutter speeds so that you capture all portions of the scene properly exposed. You then merge the photos to get an image that is more like what your eyes see. See the images below:

But, in this situation you are faced with an additional problem. Do you adjust the white balance of the final image to the top of the rotunda or the lower rotunda.  Adjusting for the upper rotunda, which is lit by sunlight, makes the lower rotunda appear yellow as it is lit by incandescent lights. Adjusting white balance for the lower rotunda makes the upper rotunda blue. This does not present a problem for human eyes as our brains just make the adjustments for white balance. But, for an image, there is only one white balance. My solution was to take the images into Photoshop as layers and take the proper white balance from each image to make one final image that has the upper and lower rotunda white balanced. This was not a perfect solution as some of the parts still have a blue tinge, but it is better I think. See the image below.


Another HDR view of the rotunda from one of the decks off to the side is shown below:


I like this image better as it shows more depth. I did not have the white balance issue on this image as this portion of the dome is all in daylight. This is a merge of four exposures shot at f/8 from 1/20s to 0.4s shutter speed.

Ascending to the upper levels, you see the ornate stairs and banisters. See the image below:


This shot was challenging because of the bright window overwhelming the rest of the scene with bright daylight. So, this HDR merge is created with eleven images. This was necessary to capture all of the detail in the banisters and woodwork. One problem with this image is lens flare from the bright window. Another is a bleed of blue across the image due to conflicting white balance. But, even with these minor problems, it is one of my favorite images from the photoshoot.

Upstairs you will find the Texas House of Representatives chambers and the Texas Senate chambers. See the House of Representative chambers in the image below:


These rooms are lit by dim incandescent lights above with bright windows on either side. Using multiple exposures that have been HDR merged, the deep brown of the chairs and desks is captured along with the colors in the ceiling, and the windows do not overload the scene with light. Another challenging image for white balance, but I chose the parts of the image lit mostly by outside light for my white balance even if the walls look a bit yellow.

Some of my other shots of the capitol building taken in the early morning light from various vantage points.

These are the best of my images from multiple trips to the capitol building. This is a continuing interest for me as a subject, so I will add more images to this blog as I take them. Thanks for reading and leave a comment if you like.

5 thoughts on “Photographing The Texas State Capitol

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