Front Door of the Vandalia State Capitol

I grew up in a small Illinois agricultural town named Vandalia. In its earlier days Vandalia was the political hotbed for the State and Abraham Lincoln played a key role in those activities. Vandalia was the capital of Illinois from 1819 until 1839 and a wonderful Statehouse was constructed in 1836 which remains in the center of town.

While visiting Vandalia a few months ago, I drove past the Statehouse and was struck by how strong the building looked. Sunlight from the bright, clear sky streamed onto the white Statehouse and created a wonderful contrast with its dark, rich windows. I thought the scene was particularly well suited for black & white photography.

I had my camera and made four exposures in an effort to capture the building’s visual strength. One of the four photographs will be discussed today.

After finishing the exposures, I realized that I had probably driven past the State Capitol a thousand times but never photographed it. In most instances, I didn’t even look at the building. I grew up in Vandalia and returned numerous times through the years but was too busy to take a serious look at this marvelous building. It is funny how people sometimes see things or don’t see things.

The Scene

The Capitol building is dominated by well-defined geometric shapes. I wanted to photograph the building accurately so careful attention to geometric lines and angles during image acquisition was required.

My 4inch x 5inch view camera allows the film plane at the camera back to be tilted freely. Two bubble levels are attached to the camera back to aid its alignment to the horizontal level and vertical plumb. Since the building was level and plumb, positioning the film plane precisely level and plumb was necessary to capture the geometric shapes of the building accurately.

If the film plane was not accurately level and plumb during exposure, numerous distracting geometric errors would be introduced to the image. For example, window panes would not be square, columns would not be rectangular and the front steps would not be identical size. I thought these errors would weaken the building’s sense of strength. This is a case where I was happy to have a view camera and sturdy tripod.

The white door was bathed with bright sunlight and appeared brighter than the white brick since the door’s smooth wood reflected more light than the more roughly textured brick. The visual attention offered by the door’s brightness helped me compose a photograph that emphasized the entryway of the historic Statehouse.


I set up my camera and quickly adjusted the camera back to be level and plumb. The bubble levels on the camera back are indispensable for achieving accurate level and plumb quickly.

Plenty of light was reflected from the building’s exterior but the interior was relatively dark so little light passed through the windows to the camera. Consequently, the windows were considerably darker than the building exterior and the building’s overall contrast was substantial.

A few light meter readings were acquired to quantify the brightness of key areas. Shadowed windows were placed on Zones I-II (nearly black – very dark with little detail). This caused sunlit windows to fall on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray). Shadowed white brick fell on Zones V-VI (middle gray – slightly brighter than middle gray). Sunlit white brick fell on Zone VIII (very bright with little detail).

These tonal values were consistent with my visualization of the photograph which included windows in dark, rich tones and sunlit brick & wood in glaring bright tones. However, sunlit brick & wood filled an enormous area of the image so a slight overexposure would be catastrophic for the photograph. To play it safe, I specified Normal-1 (N-1) film development to reduce the film’s brightest tones by one f-stop to preserve plenty of detail in the sunlit brick & wood.

The light meter offered numerous f-stop and shutter speed combinations and I selected a shutter speed of 1/30 sec and an f-stop of f/32. I exposed one film and was confident that a strong image of excellent quality was obtained.


The 4inch x 5inch film was scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to obtain a black & white digital image of nearly one GB in size. The scanned image is shown below without any editing.

The gray-level histogram for the scanned image showed that the darkest pixels had a gray level of 18 and the brightest pixels had a gray level of 254. Although these tones are more-or-less consistent with my original visualization of the image, it was not strong and editing was clearly needed to improve it.

Editing was begun by strengthening both the darkest tones and brightest tones of the image. A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and named “Global Levels.” Since the darkest pixels had a gray level of only 18, the black histogram slider was moved from 0 to 20. This produced pure black in two window panes adjacent to the door and nearly black tones in several other window panes. Similarly, the white histogram slider was moved from 255 to 246 to produce pure white in small areas of the door.

Overall, the levels adjustment nudged the image slightly closer to my original visualization of dark, rich windows and glaringly bright brick and wood. The image below shows the result of the Levels adjustment.

Next, a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened, named “Global Curve” and placed above the Levels Adjustment Layer. Three areas of the curve were modified in the layer.

First, dark window panes were strengthened. The section of the curve that corresponded to pixels with gray levels of 40 or less was bent moderately downward to darken the window panes. This adjustment made the windows feel considerably stronger. Second, sunlit brick & wood was brightened. The section of the curve that corresponded to these areas was bent upward so they became considerably brighter but not pure white. This adjustment produced the blazing white sunlit brick & wood that I originally visualized. Third, the luminosity of shadows was increased. The section of the curve that corresponded to shadowed brick & wood was bent upward to brighten these areas. This adjustment increased the presence of sunlight considerably. The result of the three curve adjustments is shown below.

Local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Burn, Dodge and Healing tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer. Numerous edits were performed in the Retouch Layer to darken, lighten or repair areas of the image.

Two film defects needed repair. A tiny dark defect at the image edge within the large vertical shadow to the right of image center is not very visible in this small web image but is very noticeable in larger images. The image below was cut from the original image to show the defect easier. The defect was removed with the Healing tool.

Another defect was introduced during film scanning. The “gold standard” of film scanning involves drum scanning films that are immersed in a clear fluid. Air bubbles are occasionally trapped in the fluid and their edges produce brighter image tones during scanning because light is scattered by the edges rather than being transmitted to the light detector. These defects are not very apparent in small web images shown here but are quite visible in larger images.

The image below was cut from the lower left corner of the original image. The bright line that travels up the stairs and onto the bricks is the edge of an air bubble. This line was darkened with PhotoShop’s Burn tool.

Next, attention was directed to the most important feature of the photograph – the door. The door is the brightest element of the photograph but was contaminated with dark hand prints to the left of its handle. Removing the prints with PhotoShop’s Dodge tool increased the door’s brightness as well as its psychological appeal.

To increase the door’s attraction even more, the door handle & lock were darkened with PhotoShop’s Burn tool. The combination of a brighter door and darker handle & lock helped the door feel considerably more inviting.

A few areas of sunlit brick were brightened or darkened slightly to increase its tonal uniformity. The area that can be seen most easily in the tiny web image shown here is located at the left edge of the image between the two windows. These edits made the building feel more solid.

A 20inch x 16inch test print was made and time was spent evaluating the print. During the evaluation I noticed that my eye had a tendency to drop to the bottom of the print. Since I wanted to emphasize the door, the bottom of the print detracted from the intent of my photograph.

I decided that the biggest distraction at the bottom of the photograph was the foreground steps. The Dodge tool was used to lighten the darkest tones of the steps to reduce their visual attention slightly. This edit seemed to reduce the downward pull of viewer’s eyes so greater emphasis on the door was achieved.

The final edited image is shown below.

For me, the photograph does a good job of showing a marvelous historic building appropriately. The building feels strong and its door looks inviting. Prints of this photo look good at nearly any size (11inch x 14inch or larger).


I believe this photograph does justice to an important historic building. The Vandalia Statehouse is shown in bright sunlight with considerable strength. I am quite happy with this image.

Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this photograph, visit here. To see other photographs of the historic Illinois Statehouse, visit the gallery “Other Photos” at my website.

Randall R Bresee