Classic Beauty

Looking east inside the Wisconsin Capitol. Two glass mosaics (pendentives) are seen: Liberty (left) and Justice (right) (Bill Ferris)

Looking east inside the Wisconsin Capitol. Two glass mosaics (pendentives) are seen: Liberty (left) and Justice (right) (Bill Ferris)

There is just something about classic, old world architecture. I love it and, best of all, so does my camera.

Built during the early 1900’s by George B. Post & Sons of New York, the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison is a fine example of Renaissance Revival architecture. It features the largest granite dome in the world, a rotunda constructed of marble from Greece and the classical lines and archways one would expect to find in a European capitol. At 284 feet, 5-inches tall, the Capitol is three feet shorter than the nation’s capitol in Washington, DC. In 1988, the state of Wisconsin began a major renovation project to modernize the infrastructure while restoring the original 1917 appearance of the building. Completed in 2002, the result of that work is shown in the photos accompanying this article.

Architectural photography and landscape photography have a lot in common. The most significant commonality is that a good wide angle lens and tripod are key to capturing dramatic images filled with rich color and detail. All the photos in this article were taken with a Nikon D600 and Nikon 16-35mm zoom lens. All were shot at 16mm. To capture as much detail as possible, I used small apertures (f/16 to f/22), which deliver great depth of field. To minimize noise and preserve the detail of the exposures, I selected an ISO of 200.

I visited the capitol building on a late November day, finding an interior illuminated by wonderfully soft natural sunlight. Because I was shooting with small apertures, my exposures needed to be quite long. The above photo, for example, is a 0.8-second exposure. As you look through the other images, you’ll see captures from 2- to 5-seconds in length.

Looking southeast from beneath an archway in the Wisconsin Capitol building, three pendentives are seen: Liberty (left), Justice (center), and Legislation (right) (Bill Ferris)

Looking southeast from beneath an archway in the Wisconsin Capitol building, three pendentives are seen: Liberty (left), Justice (center), and Legislation (right) (Bill Ferris)

This is a 2-second exposure shot at f/16. The dome interior was overexposed by a full stop but the arches and corridors were properly exposed. Shooting in RAW made it relatively easy to correct the overexposed dome in Photoshop. I opened the original RAW image, making subtle adjustments in exposure and color saturation to optimize for the arches, corridors and pendentives. (Pendentives are the colorful glass mosaics between the arches.) This file was then saved as a TIFF. I then re-opened the original file, this time bringing the exposure down by a full stop to optimize for the dome interior. I copied this into a new layer in the TIFF file and used a layer mask to reveal just the dome interior.

This is the beauty of working with RAW files. Because they are uncompressed and contain the widest dynamic range of any format, RAW files allow you the greatest latitude in adjusting exposure, brightness, contrast and color saturation without loss of detail. I can often decrease or boost exposure by two full stops without significant degradation of the image.

A view from the Wisconsin Capitol second floor balcony up toward the dome. Three pendentives are visible. The pendentives are glass mosaics representing the three branches of government: Justice (left), Legislation (center) and Executive Power (Government - right) (Bill Ferris)

A view from the Wisconsin Capitol second floor balcony up toward the dome. Three pendentives are visible. The pendentives are glass mosaics representing the three branches of government: Justice (left), Legislation (center) and Executive Power (Government – right) (Bill Ferris)

The graceful curves and lines make this building perfect for a photographic style that emphasizes balance and symmetry. While setting up, I noticed a small patch of sunlight illuminating the dome interior so, I framed the shot to include this detail, which anchors the upper boundary of the image. This, again, is where a tripod is essential gear. Shooting with a tripod allowed me to carefully compose each shot. I used the D600’s virtual horizon to get the camera level along the horizontal X-axis. Tilting in the vertical Y-axis would still preserve a symmetrical view.

After composing the shot, I used the camera’s AF-S (Auto Focus-Single Servo) mode to set focus on a distant detail. I had also assigned focus activation to the AE/AF lock button. With focus set, I could then pay attention to any final framing adjustments before taking the exposure. To minimize the chance that vibration would introduce shake during these long exposures, I used the camera’s self-timer to delay shutter actuation by 10-seconds from the moment I pushed the shutter release button. This delay allowed the camera body to settle and capture crisp, detailed photos.

The only drawback was that, on several occasions, people would walk into my frame during the 10 second delay. Oh well. When that happened, I would wait for them to leave the frame before starting another exposure count down. Patience, is a valuable asset to have as a photographer.

Looking up from the ground floor toward the center of the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol. With east at bottom, south at right, west at top and north at left, all four pendentives (glass mosaics) are visible: Liberty (bottom left), Justice (bottom right), Government (top left) and Legislation (top right) (Bill Ferris)

Looking up from the ground floor toward the center of the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol. With east at bottom, south at right, west at top and north at left, all four pendentives (glass mosaics) are visible: Liberty (bottom left), Justice (bottom right), Government (top left) and Legislation (top right) (Bill Ferris)

This image was taken at 16mm, f/16, ISO 200. It is a 5-second exposure. I intentionally overexposed the dome by two full stops to capture enough light to allow the arched ceilings to show good color and detail. As with the other images in this set, I used the exposure adjustment tool when opening the original RAW image to create multiple layers in the final Photoshop composite. The base layer was optimized for the architectural details in the corners; the next layer, for the arches; then third, for the glass mosaic pendentives; and the uppermost layer exposure was optimized for the dome interior. Exposure was decreased by nearly two stops, which shooting in RAW makes possible.

The real fun of photographing a structure such as this–with its graceful lines, European flourishes and classical beauty–is having the time to play with composition. After capturing a frame featuring one detail, you might move the camera just a few degrees to reveal another detail that serves as the focus point for the next exposure. There is almost no wrong way to work a subject like this. Of course, this assumes you’ve brought your camera along for the trip.

Now, get out an shoot.

Bill Ferris | December 2013

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