For the past nine years or so, my kids and I have made our annual pilgrimage to hang out with our friends who live in Loudoun County, Virginia. Besides the fact that they are wonderful friends who live in one of the most gorgeous spots in the country (miles of long, winding tree covered lanes bordered by 18th century era rock walls and horse fencing), we always take advantage of the fact that they live just 45 minutes outside of Washington DC. Having spent the last few Summers photographing the monuments and some of the memorials around DC, I thought I would share some tips with you in case you are planning a trip there this Summer or in the future.
1.Given the choice between Sunrise and Sunset, I would definitely opt for sunrise for a number of reasons. First and foremost would be the lack of people in your shot. While you will still see a surprising number of people who are up and about at 5:30 in the morning, it will be nothing compared to the hordes that will descend in tour busses during the day and into the evening hours. Secondly, there are a number of locations that lend themselves more to a sunrise, i.e. the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the WWII memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and Iwo Jima. While the Lincoln Memorial looks spectacular during a good sunset (facing West across the mall) you will still generally have a ton of people in your shot, and the potential for getting a less populated shot shooting out of the pillars is only available during the early morning. Even if you do end up with a great sky, the mall is generally mobbed during Summer sunset hours:
Keep in mind that if you are starting from an outlying area, this might mean getting up at 3:30 AM to make the drive in, but if you get a decent sunrise, it will be worth it!
2. Parking is almost always a nightmare around DC, and we have routinely been warned to take the metro in from the outskirts in order to avoid the hassle. But in the early morning hours, you can find open parking virtually everywhere. Most of the signs around the monuments state that there is no parking allowed until AFTER 6 AM, but I have never seen a cop giving out tickets over the years that I have been shooting down there, and I have come to the conclusion that they just don’t care if you park at 5 AM. (I hope I’m not wrong.) If you want to be careful, I did manage to find parking last year on the Rock Creek/Potomac Parkway which is just to the Northwest of the Lincoln Memorial. I don’t remember seeing the no parking before 6 AM signs there, so that might be an option for you.
3. If you are in town for the Fourth of July, keep in mind that the entire mall area will be a mess for at least a week, usually from July 1 – 8 and possibly longer. Starting a few days before the 4th, they will cordon off large areas of the mall with temporary fencing that will clutter up your shot. In front of the Capitol you might find bleachers. Sections of roads might also be shut down, and other structures might be scattered around the mall as they load in the fireworks. I learned that the hard way one year after waking up at 3:30 AM only to find everything blocked off when I arrived for a sunrise shoot. A good option if you find yourself shut out from the mall area is the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is located just across the Potomac across the Theadore Roosevelt Bridge.
4. If you park in the right place and hustle, it is possible to snag a couple of different compositions before losing all of the color in the sky. I think one year I was able to grab a shot from the Lincoln memorial steps before heading down to get a shot of the Jefferson memorial and finally up to Iwo Jima before I lost all of the color, but I may have bent a few traffic laws in order to make that happen. I think on that occasion, I parked just across the street from the Lincoln memorial on Ohio Drive, drove down to the bridge over the tidal basin and quickly back across the Theadore Roosevelt Bridge before losing all of the color for the morning.
5. Tripods are banned from several areas around DC. I’m still a little hazy on the tripod situation, but I want to say that they are banned from inside of the memorials. Shooting the sunrise from inside of the Lincoln Memorial was definitely a challenge as I didn’t use a tripod and I had to wait until people had moved to a spot where I felt I could clone them out without much difficulty. I also bracketed my shot due to the extreme dynamic range needed to get the pillars against that bright morning sunrise.
6. Check the weather to see if is really worth getting up early for. I think I was rained out for at least 3 days in a row one year before I really began to look at apps like Skyfire, Sunset WX, photocells, etc. Having no clouds around at all when you arrive is also a bummer, but generally there are plenty of clouds around Virginia and DC during Summer. (Another reason that I am jealous of my Virginia friends. It’s been a solid two months so far this Summer without a decent sunset or sunrise here in Orange County, CA.)
7. Bring a wide lens but don’t leave the telephoto at home. You will definitely want the wide lens to take advantage of the area around the WWII memorial, the reflection pool in front of the Capitol, etc, but the telephoto can come in handy when shooting down the length of the mall, especially if you want that compressed view of the Lincoln Memorial:
Washington DC is an amazing place to photograph if you plan ahead. Again, your best bet during the Summer is plan to shoot the sunrise in order to avoid crowds, heat and parking problems. If you have any questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments section below.