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Photographing the DC World War I Memorial

July 27, 2012

I’ve written seven location-based posts for PhotoTourism DC, and have concentrated on the must-see attractions of Washington, DC; the Capitol, the White House, and the memorials along the National Mall.  After all, those are probably the reason you’re coming to DC in the first place.  I figured it was about time I shared a “hidden gem” with you; a beautiful location that’s not necessarily out of the way, but something that you might overlook as you hurriedly collect up your camera gear and scramble between locations.

I walked by The District of Columbia World War I Memorial dozens of times before I finally stopped.  It wasn’t until I saw news reports about it in late 2011, that I even recognized its existence.  You’ll notice I refer to it as the DC WWI Memorial.  That’s because it is, in fact, dedicated the citizens of the District who died during the Great War; there is no national WWI Memorial. And that was the reason for all of the news stories.  The Memorial underwent restoration in 2010-2011 and had been closed off.  As it reopened, Congress must have noticed some of the stories too and floated the idea of dedicating it as a national memorial.  DC citizens, already wary of the federal government imposing its will on the District, made an uproar about it and the idea was shelved as Congress moved onto debt limit and budget battles.

That’s a roundabout way of telling you that this Memorial, in addition to being picturesque, has an interesting story behind it that you can tell through your photos.

When to Go

-Time of Day-

The beauty of the DC WWI Memorial, and of hidden gems in general, is that they’re hidden.  Crowds are not a concern.  In fact, over the several times I’ve visited this Memorial, I have only seen small groups of 2-7 people there, and when they leave there is usually a gap before the next group wonders what this marble gazebo is all about.  I’ve watched people walk by it, see  me with my tripod and camera setting up photos, and then double back thinking that it must be worth checking out if someone is photographing it.

The Memorial is surrounded on 3 sides (North, East, and West) by trees, so it doesn’t get direct sunrise and sunset light, but the white marble does still pick up some color during the golden hours.  The white marble can also be a drawback when trying to take photos of the Memorial in direct, intense lighting.  I’ve had some success with night photos as well.  There are no exterior lights but there are bright lights on the interior of the dome which makes dynamic range an issue.  I take a lot of HDR photos and they are especially helpful in these situations.  HDR is also especially helpful in bringing out the detail (i.e., marbling) in the Memorial.

Since you don’t have to worry about crowds and lighting conditions, you should fit the WWI Memorial into your schedule after you have planned out your other stops.  The Memorial is located amongst the Lincoln, Martin Luther King, WWII, and Korean War Memorials.  Once you’ve set your itinerary for sunrise, sunset, etc. at these other locations, work the WWI Memorial somewhere in between.

-Time of Year-

Including trees in your photos of the Memorial is unavoidable, so months where there are leaves on the trees (late March – mid-November) are your best bet for quality photos.  The National Mall is a great place to see Fall color and the WWI Memorial should definitely be one of your stops.

Photographic Possibilities

Given its small size and tight location, there are limited angles from which to photograph the Memorial.  What you see in the map below is what you get.  The Google Earth imagery was a bit out of date and showed a lot more trees then are currently there.  I covered them up with the green squares as best I could.

Click on the Image to See A Larger Version

– The Exterior – 

You have access to the full 360 degress of the exterior.  The problem is that on the East and West sides, the trees will prevent you from backing up far enough to use some focal lengths.  On the sides you will need much wider angles.  The North (1) and South (2) sides are the most interesting anyways.  On these sides there are stairs that provide points of visual interest and make the Memorial more inviting.  If you are on the North side, facing South, you may get vehicles Driving along Independence Ave. in your pictures.  For me, tour busses detract from what I’m trying to capture so I wait for breaks in the traffic.

Also on the exterior, just beneath the dome, there is an inscription dedicating the Memorial to the citizens of the District of Columbia (as in the photo at the top of this post; seen from point (1) on the map) who died The World War (as in the photo below and on the left; seen from point (3) on the map)  Since these are the words that tell the story of the Memorial, I try to include one or the other of these phrases in my photos of the exterior. These phrases are on opposite sides of the Memorial so you can’t include both.

Finally, the Memorial is a great place to take portraits or do some self-photography.  I, sometimes, get self-conscious if I set up my tripod to get photos of myself, but since there are so few people around this Memorial, it is a great place for that.  Columns are the signature design element of Washington, DC.  The beautiful columns on the WWI Memorial give you a chance to take your time, line up some photos, and get some pictures of yourself (or friends and family) that are quintessentially DC.  It’s also nice to add a human element to your photos of the Memorial to give it a sense of scale.

          

– The Interior –

Some of the best photos in DC can be found by looking up.  If colums are the signature design element in DC architecture, the dome is a close runner-up.  The interior of a dome always makes for a nice photo, if you can handle the often difficult lighting conditions.  The WWI Memorial is no different.  The difficult part here is that the Memorial is not particularly tall and getting the whole dome in a single photo is a challenge.  Both of the photos below were taken with a wide-angle lens at 11 mm.  If you don’t have a lens with a focal length that wide, you can also do some panoramic stitching.

          

What to Bring

Lens: A standard zoom lens (DX: 18-135mm, FX: 27-200mm) is sufficient for capturing most photos around the DC WWI Memorial, however some of my favorite photos have been taken with a wide-angle lens (< 18mm; < 27mm). If you have them, I’d recommend you bring both to make the most of the time you’re here.

Tripod: Bring a tripod.  The Memorial is a great place for night and HDR photos.  For these types of photography, I recommend using a tripod.  There are no restrictions on tripods, but if you want to set your tripod on the marble, please be sure it has rubber feet (not metal spikes) and that you don’t slide it from one position to another.

Flash:  You might find it helpful to bring an external flash. As I said earlier, the Memorial is a great, out-of-the-way place for taking portraits.  A hot-shoe flash can help with fill lighting if you are taking pictures of friends or family.  The Memorial is also small enough that a strong flash can help illuminate the exterior to balance the exposure with the interior lights.

Filters: You may find a circular polarizing filter helpful, especially during the day. With the trees you won’t get much sky in your photo, but there will be a lot of green in the grass and other landscaping that can be made richer using the filter.

Bag: There are no bag restrictions for the National Mall.  Given what I’ve recommended as far as equipment to bring, you may want to use a medium or large bag.

Additional Resources

  • PhotoTourism DC Resources – Tools for making the most of out this site.
    • Construction Update – Check the most recent Construction Update (updated quarterly) to see if there are any construction projects that may cause interference with your photo adventure.
    • Event Calendar – Check to see if there are any events going on around this location that may lead to unique photo opportunities, or just get in your way.
    • Map – See all of the photogenic locations in DC plotted on a map to help you plan your next photo adventure.
  • Tutorials at Brandonkopp.com – In my time taking photos around DC, I’ve picked up some skills and techniques you might find helpful.  For the WWI Memorial in particular, check out the lessons on panoramic stitchinglens correction, and HDR.
  • Historical Resources – I intentionally go light on the historical background of the sights I feature on PhotoTourism DC.  History is not my strong suit, or my passion.  I’ll leave that to the professionals.  Here are some great resources for local history.

Summary

What:          The District of Columbia World War I Memorial

Where:        Along Independence Blvd. between the WWII and Korean War Memorials

When:          Anytime

    ____________________________

Lens:            Telephoto (DX: 18-135mm; FX: 27-200mm) & Wide-Angle (< 18mm; < 27mm)

Tripod:       Bring it

Flash:           Bring it

Filter:           Circular Polarizer

Bag:               Any Size

Construction Report: July – September 2012

July 9, 2012

THIS IS NOT THE MOST UP-TO-DATE VERSION. FOR CURRENT INFORMATION LOOK HERE.

A Phototourism DC reader wrote to me a while back and asked whether the amount of construction at popular sites around town would make a trip to DC disappointing.  I thought that idea would make a great addition to this blog.  After three iterations of the Construction Report, it is now one of my most popular articles; with 1553 total pageviews across the three articles (or about 9% of all pageviews).  The most common search engine terms that bring visitors to the site are construction related and specifically related to when the Reflecting Pool project will be finished (see below for details).

This is the fourth installment of this series and there are finally some changes starting to happen.  Several projects are finishing up; others are getting underway.

Please comment below if anything you see here is inaccurate or if there is anything I should add.  I try to stay up-to-date on things but occasionally fall behind. I try to update the information and photos in the Construction Report posts throughout the quarter.

CURRENT PROJECTS

1. The Washington Monument – No change here.  The Monument suffered damage in the August 2011 earthquake.  It took awhile to diagnose exactly what happened, but the damage was quite extensive. Since that day the observation platform at the top has been closed and the area around the base has been fenced off.

  • Impact: MEDIUM – There are still plenty of angles to get pictures of the exterior of the Monument, though the fence surrounding the base may show up in some of your closer ones.  Also, the observation deck is a unique place, offering views that you can’t get anywhere else (like the one on the right).  The Old Post Office Clock Tower offers the closest approximation but it’s just not the same. Once renovations start, cranes, scaffolding, and other equipment will litter the view. Though if it looks like these photos from the last renovation in 1999, there may be some cool, unique photo opportunities.
  • Expected Completion: 2014– In an article published July 9th, The Washington Post reported  that the Monument  was more damaged than previously thought  and will likely be closed through all of 2013.  The renovations are expected to start this Fall.
    ______________________________________________________________

2. Washington National Cathedral – No change here either.  The Cathedral also took a hit in the earthquake, losing some of the spires on the roof.  The interior is now open to the public and there is scaffolding around the exterior.

  • Impact: HIGH – While the exterior of the Cathedral ordinarily makes for great photographs, the equipment, scaffolding, and fencing makes this a poor time to go.  You can still get unobstructed views of the front of the Cathedral but the side is not picturesque (see photo below).  The interior of the Cathedral is the real attraction but netting spans the ceiling of the sanctuary to protect visitors from falling debris (see photo below). As masons check the ceiling there will be scaffolding set up on the interior as well. There are other places in the Cathedral to take photos, and if there weren’t a better alternative I’d be tempted to give it a MEDIUM rating, but if you only have a short time you should check out the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception instead.
  • Expected Completion: Phototourism DC reader, talented photographer, and Cathedral docent Chris Budny filled me in (see his comments) on the timeline for these repairs awhile back.  I haven’t seen an update since.  The exterior of the Cathedral will be in various states of disrepair for the next 10 YEARS!  The interior work will also likely take years.  The Cathedral is still open but unobstructed wide-angle shots will be tough to come by.

          

Photos taken April 1st, 2012
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Photo taken July 22nd, 2012

3. The Reflecting Pool – This is close to completion.  One of the most well-known features in DC, the Reflecting Pool, is currently undergoing renovation to add filtration systems.  The work has been moving along for a year and is nearly complete.

  • Impact: HIGH – Some of the most iconic views of DC incorporate the Reflecting Pool in some way.  Whether that be photos of the Lincoln Memorial or of the Washington Monument.
  • Expected Completion: UPDATE (28 August 2012): I just read an interview with the National Park Director on NPR, saying that the Reflecting Pool should be fully opened (i.e., the fence will be removed) by August 31st.  That is great news!  My understanding is that there will still be a ceremony for the grand reopening, but that will come later.  I am going to head down to the Pool this weekend and post some updated photos.  For photogs visiting DC, this is a huge deal.
    ______________________________________________________________

Photo taken June 11, 2012

4. The Supreme Court – The Supreme Court building has been undergoing restoration work for years now, but until recently that work has stayed to the less visually interesting North and South sides.  Within the last couple months scaffolding has popped up along the entire West (front) side of the building.

  • Impact: HIGH– This is a somewhat dated picture.  The scaffolding now also covers the area at the top of the stairs and there is some additional netting set up which obscures the view. According to this article, a “scrim” with a photograph of the facade is supposed to be hung up along the scaffolding to decrease it’s impact on the look of the building, but that has not happened yet.
  • Expected Completion: TBD – Articles I’ve read about this restoration effort don’t mention the timeline.  These things generally take longer than you think they should take.  My guess is that this will take at least a year, putting the estimated completion time somewhere in mid-2013.  I’ll keep you updated.

 ______________________________________________________________

Photo taken June 5, 2012

5. The National Mall – No change, it still looks terrible.  In addition to the normal turf restoration that goes on during the winter months there is also a more extensive project laying of sewer and draining pipes. There are fences blocking off the Mall from 3rd St. near the Capitol down to the Smithsonian Castle (basically the area shown in the Washington Monument picture above).

  • Impact: HIGH– The construction zone looks just like that, a construction zone; piles of dirt, construction equipment, and fencing. I’m sure things will look great when they’re done but 1/3 of the National Mall looks absolutely horrible right now. Photos down the National Mall either of, or from, the Capitol include this eyesore.
  • Expected Completion: December, 2012 – Signs posted on the fences surrounding the construction zone say the project will continue through December 2012.

 ______________________________________________________________

6. The U.S. Capitol – This has improved drastically over the last month.  The base of the Capitol dome has been undergoing restoration for the last 9 months or so.  There is some scaffolding set up and a large construction yard set up on the Northwest side of the building.

  • Impact: LOW–  The construction workers removed the plastic sheeting that used to cover the scaffolding (probably because of the heat) and have started to remove the top of the scaffolding.  It is hardly visible now and will likely have little impact on the quality of your photos (see photo on left below).  The construction yard is still there though and that really detracts from photos from the Northwest side (see photo on right below), but there are plenty of other angles.
  • Expected Completion: 1-3 months – According to an article in the Washington Post, the work around the base of the dome is expected to be complete around October, 2012, though it appears things may be wrapping up early.  There has been talk about restoring the rest of the dome, a project that would take several YEARS to complete, but that is now in doubt because of funding problems. UPDATE (10 JULY 2012): How quickly things change. I was walking by the Capitol today and saw workers taking down the fence in the picture at the lower right.  It will probably take a while before this area gets back to normal but things are winding down.  This likely answers the question about whether the rest of the dome will be renovated.

         

    Photo taken July 6, 2012                                               Photo taken August 2, 2012

______________________________________________________________

Photo taken July 6, 2012

7. Union Station – The city of Washington, DC has embarked on a long-term restoration of the area immediately in front of Union Station. The interior is also undergoing repair for damage suffered during the earthquake.

  • Impact: HIGH– The exterior construction is starting to wind down but still occupies most of Columbus Circle.  Exterior pictures without construction barriers are still difficult.  The interior is highly cluttered with scaffolding.  There are also nets hanging across the entire main hall to protect people from falling bits of plaster.  All of this makes for less than desirable photography.
  • Expected Completion: Exterior: 2013– References to this construction in newspapers have referred to this as a 2-year construction process and it began in August of 2011. Interior: several months at least – It’s hard to say but judging by the amount of scaffolding it looks like there’s still a lot of work to be done.  Once the restoration work is complete there are several additional construction projects scheduled for the Main Hall, meaning it may be several years before the interior is ready to photograph.

______________________________________________________________

8. The National Museum of African American History and Culture – The newest Smithsonian Museum, set to open in 2015, is now just an open construction lot.

  • Impact: LOW – The reason I bring this up here is because I’ve gotten several great pictures of the Washington Monument during twilight (see picture on the right) from the place that is now fenced off for construction. There are plenty of other great places to take picture of the Washington Monument though.
  • Expected Completion: The museum is expected to be completed in 2015. I can’t tell from the drawings of the building whether there will still be a nice, unobstructed view of the Washington Monument from it’s grounds. But there will be plenty of new sights to photograph.

UPCOMING PROJECTS

1. Constitution Gardens and the Washington MonumentThe Trust for the National Mall recently solicited design proposals for several areas along the National Mall, namely the area to the North of the Reflecting Pool known as Constitution Gardens and a theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument.  Winning designs have been selected but it is unclear how soon construction will begin, what it’s impact will be, and how long it will take.

2. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial –  This Memorial is supposed to go up relatively soon in an area to the South of the National Botanic Gardens.  It is out of the way and won’t likely get in the way of your photos but it’s worth keeping in mind as a photo location in a year or two when it’s complete.

Photographing The White House

May 1, 2012

Click on the Photo to Download Wallpaper

When I visited Washington, DC for the first time two years ago, I dropped my bags off at the hotel and immediately started walking toward the White House.  After years of watching The West Wing and following Presidential politics, it is the place I felt the gravity of the city pulling me.  I didn’t come for photography that time, I was in DC for an interview, but I returned with my camera in hand a few months later once I moved to town.

That first time I came to take photos of The White House, I was a little disappointed. The White House is one of the most restrictive photo locales in DC and your photo opportunities are limited by fencing and landscaping.  At the U.S. Capitol Building, you have 360 degrees to walk around the building and find angles you like.  At the White House, you have 100 degrees, at best.  Over subsequent trips, I’ve managed to get photos I’m happy with.  I’ll share some of what I’ve learned below.

This article is about photographing the exterior of the White House.  Tours of the inside are available, and they only Michelle Obama’s Instagram Announcement so I haven’t gotten pictures of the inside yet.  If you’re interested in scheduling a tour you can do that through your Senator or Representative’s office.  You can also take a virtual tour of the interior through the Google Art Project.

When to Go

The area around the White House, outside of the fencing, is open every day of the year. There are occasionally restrictions when special events are happening (e.g., state dinners, Marine 1 landings and takeoffs, etc.) but those are rare and usually don’t last long so you don’t have to worry about missing an opportunity for a few pictures.   You can check the White House schedule for events that may restrict your access. Photographic opportunities at the White House do not vary much over the course of the year. For the most part, the picture you get in the Spring will look similar to the one you take in the Fall. The flowers and the leaves change with the seasons but given the restrictions on angles for photos, there aren’t great opportunities to take advantage of those color differences.

During the Christmas season, wreaths are hung from the balconies and some of the National Christmas Tree related decorations can be included in your photos.  For certain occasions, the White House will be splashed in colored lighting.  In October, for example, the White House is lit up with pink light to raise awareness for breast cancer.

I’ve gotten some decent pictures of the White House at sunrise and sunset; however restrictions on tripods can make it difficult to get sharp photos in low light conditions (I usually try to brace the camera against the fence at these times). Crowds, which can be considerable around the White House, are not really a factor in deciding when to go.  Once you get up to the fence, there won’t be a problem with people getting in between you and the White House. The area around the White House is a gathering place for some of the more eccentric and interesting people in Washington, DC, but they often don’t appear until later in the day.  With these considerations in mind, I recommend visiting the White House during the daytime; preferably when it is cloudy to help even out the light.

Photographic Possibilities

Click on the map to see it in a larger size.

-North Side-

The North side of the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue is the view you’re probably most used to seeing on TV or on the news.  I’ve gotten my favorite pictures of the White House from this side.  There are a couple different options for photos here.

First are those taken through the fence.  I prefer this approach, as opposed to photos from further back, because I like to maintain the illusion of there not being a fence or that I am important enough to be inside of it.  The bars of the wrought iron fence are not evenly spaced. The trick for SLR users is finding bars that are far enough apart to fit your camera lens through.  I have found gaps wide enough for my 18-200mm Nikkor lens and my 11-16mm Tokina (which is much wider) but have had to remove the lens hood once or twice.  You just have to look around a bit. My favorite angle is straight on (as in the picture below).  At that point in the fence (1) there is a design fashioned in the iron. That design opens up enough space to easily fit a lens through.

Tips

  • When taking a photo straight on with a wide-angle lens you’ll notice the vertical lines of the White House are no parallel; the building appears to lean backward. You can use the lens correction tool in Photoshop to fix this.
  • Press the camera body against the bars to help stabilize the camera.

You can also take a photo at an angle, though this makes finding a sufficient gap in the bars even more important. I like the 45-degree angle of the photo below (2), which includes the fountain and some of the North Lawn.  The complement of this photo (i.e., one taken from 45 degrees the other direction) will put you behind trees.

Taken at 18mm focal length

Photos taken from further back, either on the closed off section of Pennsylvania Ave. or from Lafayette Park (3) can also be interesting.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a gathering place for an interesting cast of characters and occasionally medium-size protests. Lafayette Park is a great location for seasonal flowers, particularly for tulips in the springtime.  Protestors and flowers both make for interesting foreground elements in photos of the White House.

        

-South Side-

On the South side of the White House the trees that line the South lawn form a funnel that narrows the angle of view, so your choices here are limited.  There are two walkways that line E Street (4) and there is very little room to maneuver on either of them.  At busy times it can be a bit claustrophobic.  But the view is worth it.  From this angle you are several hundred feet away from the White House so having a zoom lens will help you find the composition you want.  From the walkway on the North side of the road, you can again take photos through the fence.  On the South side of the road, you can include people to give the photo a sense of scale.

When it is not undergoing turf restoration and is open to the public, the Ellipse (5) offers a less claustrophobic position to take photos from.  It is further away so you’ll need a more substantial zoom lens to frame your photo.  The Ellipse is also the best place to photograph Marine 1.

A less common photo location for the White House is across Constitution Ave. near the base of the Washington Monument (6).  From there you have a slightly elevated position so you don’t have to include the fence.  Also, you can use a tripod here, so it’s possible to use a much longer focal length and to take photos at night.

Taken with a 300mm lens and tripod

-Special Events-

For those who can make travel plans at the drop of a hat (I am not one of them) or those who live in a reasonable driving distance of DC, the White House offers some other interesting photographic opportunities. I write in more detail about these events elsewhere on the blog but I wanted to make you aware of them here. First, the White House offers Spring and Fall Garden Tours, during which you can view (up close) the well-maintained landscaping on the South Side of the White House.  These events usually take place on weekends in April and September, but the exact weekend isn’t announced until about a week ahead of time.  Second, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree doesn’t get you any closer to the White House but it is an interesting event. The only problem here is that you have to win (free) tickets through a lottery.  One of my favorite events is seeing Marine 1 land and take off. Knowing when to be there to capture this is tough but not impossible. Finally, the White House has been reaching out to the public via social media. I have had the good fortune to attend events at the White House via drawings announced on Twitter and Google+. These have offered opportunities to photograph the White House that I likely wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

     

What to Bring

Lens: A standard zoom lens (DX: 18-135mm, FX: 27-200mm) is sufficient for capturing most photos around the White House.  On the North side, where you are closer, 18mm (for DX cameras) is wide enough to capture the façade of the building as well as the sky behind it.  On the South side, you will want the ability to zoom in a bit.

Tripod: If you’re going out just to photograph the White House, I recommend leaving the tripod behind. Tripod use is restricted in most of the area around the White House. They are not allowed along Pennsylvania Ave., in Lafayette Park, on the South side pedestrian walkways, and on the Ellipse.  Tripods are allowed, however, on the South side of Constitution Ave. near the Washington Monument.  If you have a long telephoto lens (200-300mm) you can get some good, tripod assisted photos from there.

Flash:  If you aren’t planning on taking a lot of portrait-type shots, I recommend saving the space and weight and leaving the flash at home (or in your hotel room). A hot-shoe flash may help with fill lighting if you are taking pictures of friends or family, but will do you little good otherwise. The fences keep you back far enough and the White House is large enough, that the flash won’t be helpful for light. You’re better off dealing with natural light.

Filters: You may find a circular polarizing filter helpful, especially during the day, for capturing deeper blues in the sky, darker greens in the grass and other landscaping, as well as limiting reflections from the White House (it is white after all).

Bag: There are no bag restrictions for the area around the White House.  Given what I’ve recommended as far as equipment to bring, a small-shoulder bag should be sufficient.

Additional Resources

Summary

What:          The White House

Where:        1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

When:          Anytime

    ____________________________

Lens:            Telephoto (DX: 18-135mm; FX: 27-200mm) & Super-Telephoto (>135mm; >200mm)

Tripod:       Leave it

Flash:           Leave it

Filter:           Circular Polarizer

Bag:               Any Size

Construction Report: April – June 2012

April 2, 2012

THIS IS NOT THE MOST UP-TO-DATE VERSION. FOR CURRENT INFORMATION LOOK HERE.

A few months ago, a Phototourism DC reader wrote to me and asked whether the amount of construction at popular sites around town would make a trip to DC disappointing.  I laid out where the major construction is and how it may impact photography so she could decide for herself.  After I wrote that e-mail I thought that that would make a great recurring column on the blog.  This is the third installment of this series. Not much has changed since the last installment but some projects are near completion and others are about to get started.

Feel free to comment below and let me (and the readers) know if I missed the mark about how this construction might impact their photography. Also, if there is a picturesque area in DC that’s under construction that I should add, let me know. I update this post throughout the quarter.

CURRENT PROJECTS

1. The Washington Monument – The Monument suffered damage in the August 2011 earthquake.  It took awhile to diagnose exactly what happened but the damage was quite extensive. Since that day the observation platform at the top has been closed and the area around the base has been fenced off.

  • Impact: MEDIUM – There are still plenty of angles to get pictures of the exterior of the Monument though the fence surrounding the base may show up in some of your closer ones.  Also, the observation deck is a unique place, offering views that you can’t get anywhere else (like the one on the right).  The Old Post Office Clock Tower offers the closest approximation but it’s just not the same. Once renovations start, cranes, scaffolding, and other equipment is going to litter the view.
  • Expected Completion: Summer 2013 – The Washington Post reported a couple months ago  that the Monument will be closed through all of 2012 and likely longer.  The construction is not expected to start until this summer and the repairs will take about a year. It is unclear at this point whether the Monument would open back up before all of the construction is complete. Stay tuned.
    ______________________________________________________________

2. Washington National Cathedral – The Cathedral also took a hit in the earthquake, losing some of the spires on the roof.  The interior is now open to the public and there is scaffolding around the exterior.

  • Impact: HIGH – While the exterior of the Cathedral ordinarily makes for great photographs, the equipment, scaffolding, and fencing makes this a poor time to go.  You can still get unobstructed views of the front of the Cathedral but the side is not picturesque (see photo below).  The interior of the Cathedral is the real attraction but netting spans the ceiling of the sanctuary to protect visitors from falling debris (see photo below). As masons check the ceiling there will be scaffolding set up on the interior as well. There are other places in the Cathedral to take photos, and if there weren’t a better alternative I’d be tempted to give it a MEDIUM rating, but if you only have a short time you should check out the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception instead.
  • Expected Completion: Phototourism DC reader, talented photographer, and Cathedral docent Chris Budny filled me in (see his comments) on the timeline for these repairs.  The exterior of the Cathedral will be in various states of disrepair for the next 10 YEARS!  The interior work will also likely take years.  The Cathedral is still open but unobstructed wide-angle shots will be tough to come by.

          

Photos taken April 1st, 2012 ______________________________________________________________

Photo taken April 1st, 2012

3. The Reflecting Pool – One of the most well-known features in DC, the Reflecting Pool, is currently undergoing renovation to add filtration systems.  The work has been moving along for a year and is nearly complete.

  • Impact: HIGH – Some of the most iconic views of DC incorporate the Reflecting Pool in some way.  Whether that be photos of the Lincoln Memorial or of the Washington Monument.
  • Expected Completion: According to a regional director of the National Park Service who testified before a Congressional Subcommittee, the Reflecting Pool is expected to reopen around the 1st week of August.  Not quite the Spring 2012 date they were predicting but not bad.
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Photo taken March 29, 2012

4. The National Mall – In addition to the normal turf restoration that goes on during the winter months there is also a more extensive project laying of sewer and draining pipes. There are fences blocking off the Mall from 3rd St. near the Capitol down to the Smithsonian Castle (basically the area shown in the Washington Monument picture above).

  • Impact: HIGH– The construction zone looks just like that, a construction zone; piles of dirt, construction equipment, and fencing. I’m sure things will look great when they’re done but 1/3 of the National Mall looks absolutely horrible right now. Photos down the National Mall either of, or from, the Capitol include this eyesore.
  • Expected Completion: December, 2012 – Signs posted on the fences surrounding the construction zone say the project will continue through December.

 ______________________________________________________________

Photo taken March 29, 2012

5. The U.S. Capitol – One of the most iconic sites in DC, the Capitol and it’s dome, are going through a bit of a restoration.  A tour guide told me that, right now, the plan is to restore the area around the base of the dome but if plans and funding are approved to eventually restore the whole thing.  Construction staging areas have been set up on the Northwest and Southeast sides of the Capitol. Scaffolding, tubes, conveyer belts, and plastic sheeting now rings the base of the dome.

  • Impact: MEDIUM–  I’ve seen people’s comments on pictures of the Capitol and they don’t seem to notice what I call the neckbrace around the base of the dome, so I am lowering this to an impact of medium.  It still bothers the hell out of me.
  • Expected Completion: 6 months-5 years – According to an article in the Washington Post, the work around the base of the dome is expected to be complete around October, 2012, and the additional restoration, if approved, would take an another 3-4 years (possibly into 2016).

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6. Union Station – The city of Washington, DC has embarked on a long term restoration of the area immediately in front of Union Station. The interior is also undergoing repair for damage suffered during the earthquake.

  • Impact: HIGH– The exterior construction has expanded to take over most of the area in front of Union Station.  Exterior pictures without construction barriers are very difficult now.  The interior is highly cluttered with scaffolding.  There are also nets hanging across the entire main hall to protect people from falling bits of plaster.  All of this makes for less than desirable photography.
  • Expected Completion: Exterior: 2013- References to this construction in newspapers have referred to this as a 2-year construction process and it began in August of 2011. Interior: several months at least – It’s hard to say but judging by the amount of scaffolding it looks like there’s a lot of work to be done.

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7. The Ellipse – The entire Ellipse is currently blocked off for turf restoration.  Also, the area in front of the White House will soon undergo a massive restoration to help hide some of the functional but unfashionable security features and make the park more useful and beautiful.

  • Impact: Medium– The Ellipse itself is not very picturesque.  It is a great place, however, to view the White House and to catch a glimpse of Marine 1. The walkways on the south side of the White House Grounds are still open but the large Ellipse area is closed off.
  • Expected Completion: Fences will likely block off the Ellipse for the remainder of the Spring and possibly into the Summer.  They may start the restoration project soon as well, meaning it could be more than a year until this area is open to the public.
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8. The National Museum of African American History and Culture – The newest Smithsonian Museum, set to open in 2015, is now just an open construction lot.

  • Impact: Low – The reason I bring this up here is because I’ve gotten several great pictures of the Washington Monument during twilight (see picture on the right) from the place that is now fenced off for construction. There are plenty of other great places to take picture of the Washington Monument though.
  • Expected Completion: The museum is expected to be completed in 2015. I can’t tell from the drawings of the building whether there will still be a nice, unobstructed view of the Washington Monument from it’s grounds. But there will be plenty of new sights to photograph.

UPCOMING PROJECTS

1. Constitution Gardens – A contractor was recently selected to revitalize the area just to the North of the Reflecting Pool.  This area isn’t necessarily a draw for people but it does offer great views of the Washington Monument and is beautiful in the Fall.

2. Union Station Interior – In addition to cleaning up the damage from the August 2011 earthquake, a number of construction projects are planned for the interior of the station, including removing the elevated restaurant in the middle of the Grand Hall and adding stairwells to the lower level.

3. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial –  This Memorial is supposed to go up relatively soon in an area to the South of the National Botanic Gardens.  It is out of the way and won’t likely get in the way of your photos but it’s worth keeping in mind as a photo location in a year or two when it’s complete.

Photographing Arlington National Cemetery

March 26, 2012

[youtube:http://youtu.be/aAIRu-deaRQ%5D

Click on the image and download the full-size image for a desktop wallpaper.

While many of the sites in Washington, DC convey a sense of awe, none bring forth the range of emotions that a trip to Arlington Cemetery does.  I oscillate between sadness and pride, between wonder and loneliness. The challenge of capturing these emotions in a photo is what makes Arlington Cemetery a must-see place for photographers.

When I first went to Arlington, I felt conflicted about taking photographs there.  Like I said, it can spur some pretty strong emotions and you don’t want to feel like you’re exploiting someone’s loss for the sake of a great photograph. I quickly got over this as I realized that it is more than just a cemetery. For better or worse it’s a tourist attraction; it’s there for people to see and remember the sacrifices of our military. And so long as it’s treated with respect, there should be no conflict with trying to remember this sacrifice through photography.

When to Go

Arlington Cemetery is open 365 days a year and is a great place to go year round. Like many cemeteries, the landscaping is diverse and immaculate.  In the Spring, when more than a million people flock to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, you can find cherry blossoms sitting serenely, all but ignored, at Arlington. In the Fall, the cemetery is one of the best places to go to find Fall color. There is something poetic about the life and death cycles of these plants paired with the fields of headstones.  In December, thousands of wreaths are placed on the graves, leading to even more opportunities for great, unique photos.  At any time of year, you can find some place to photograph that’s all your own. The majority of people who visit come for two reasons, the eternal flame at JFK’s grave and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Anywhere outside of these two areas the number of visitors drops off dramatically.

           

In almost every post, I recommend that you visit places around sunrise or sunset, when the light is ideal, so it is great to finally be able to give you some advice about what to do with the daylight hours.  Arlington is, for the most part, only open during daylight hours. The cemetery is open from 8 – 7 between April and September and from 8 – 5 between October and March. There are times of the year when these hours will overlap with sunrise or sunset but just barely.  You’re better off saving this as a daytime activity.  One recommendation I would make is to check out the cemetery late in the day and then exit through the North gate near the Netherlands Carillon to capture the most amazing view of Washington, DC as the sun sets (see View of the Big 3 on the map below).

Photographic Possibilities

Click on the image to see a larger size.

There is no shortage of great photographic opportunities at Arlington Cemetery.  The place is huge and diverse. There are older sections and newer sections. There is flat land and steep hills.  I’ve been to Arlington Cemetery several times now and find something new every time.

-Women in Military Service Memorial-

The first thing you’ll see as you approach the entrance to Arlington is the Women in Military Service Memorial (1); a giant stone semi-circle with a central reflecting pool. That Memorial is actually a museum that contains photos and other artifacts that memorialize the sacrifices of women in our military.  What attracted me to it was the fact that the central area of the wall looks remarkably similar to a portion of Buckeye Stadium at Ohio State (my alma mater).  Plus, I am a sucker for reflections and the pool is so still that you can get perfect reflections.

Tips:

  • You’ll have to convert to black and white since the water in the pool is filthy and most of the time looks like lime Gatorade.
  • When photographing here, work on creating symmetry.

-Arlington House/L’Enfant Grave-

          

From most of the Western side of Washington, DC you can look to the East and see a house on a hill.  This is Arlington House (2). It used to be Robert E. Lee’s house and it has an amazing view of the city.  The house itself is difficult to photograph since it’s large and sits right on the edge of a hill. You can’t back up far enough to get it all in, unless you have a wide-angle lens.  It is still well worth the walk up the steep hill because of the view and because of the unique gravesite of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of DC.

Tip:

  • The haze makes it difficult to get quality photographs from the top of the hill, try using a circular polarizing filter to cut through.

-Tomb of the Unknowns-

                    

The Tomb of the Unknowns (4) (AKA Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) is the central attraction of cemetery.  Many people who visit head straight to the Tomb and then straight back out.  The main event here is the changing of the guard ceremony.  It happens every hour, on the hour (when the weather is nice) and every half hour during the heat of Summer and the cold of Winter.  One thing you’ll notice here, is how eerily silent the large crowds are.  Occasionally, they’ll be chastised by the guard but for the most part it’s silent. You’ll be hyper-aware of the sound your SLR makes as the mirror flips up and occasionally you’ll get dirty looks.  I wanted to make a timelapse video of the change ceremony but after a few clicks of the mirror I became self-conscious and stopped.

As you stand on the steps and look at the tomb, the change over ceremony (i.e., the inspection of the incoming and outgoing guards by the sergeant of the guard) takes place to the right-hand side.  You’ll even be able to see the well-worn areas where the ceremony is performed over and over again.  This is where you’ll want to stand to get the best photos.

Tips:

  • Bring a telephoto lens (>135mm). You’ll want to cut out the distractions to ensure the focus is on the soldiers.
  • Stick around for a couple of these ceremonies.  Once you get a feel for how one goes, you can take that knowledge into the next one.

-Headstones/Section 60-

While the Tomb of the Unknowns may be what people think of when they think about the cemetery, they often forget that it is, in fact, a cemetery.  There is a sea of gravestones. I haven’t seen anything like it, aside from other military cemeteries I’ve visited.  The cemetery is arranged into sections mainly demarcated by roads.  Of all of the sections in the cemetery, I prefer to photograph in Section 60 (5). The older sections of the cemetery are a lot like you would see in any other cemetery, with a diverse arrangement of headstones. I don’t like that. Soldiers with wealthy families, or of higher rank, have huge obelisks or mid-size memorials built in their honor, while less well-to-do soldiers have the standard headstones. Section 60 is one of the newer sections.  It is where most of the casualties of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that are in the cemetery, are buried.  In Section 60, a colonel’s grave looks the same as a private’s.  Also, in the newer sections the graves are arranged in straight rows that form geometric patterns when viewed from different angles.  That uniformity, simplicity, and orderliness says military to me.

Tips:

  • Over several trips, I have reinforced my peace with photographing at Arlington by establishing one primary rule; never photograph people in the grave areas.
  • When possible, I try to avoid focusing on any single gravestone.  Especially when taking photos that I will be sharing with others.  If you watched the timelapse video that leads off this post you’ll see that I violated that.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable. I also try, when possible, to focus on element such as leaves or flowers and blur the headstones so that they are still recognizable, but people are not attracted to look at the names.
  • Areas of the cemetery like Section 60 are perfect for panoramic stitching.  What’s amazing about Arlington Cemetery is the vast fields of gravestones and that’s hard to evoke in a single image.  The way the stones are arranged can help you ensure your panoramic photos properly overlap. Line your center up along a column of headstones. You’ll notice that when you turn 45 degrees in either direction the headstones will once again align. You can use these alignments as reference points when taking your pano photos.
  • In addition to panoramas, two other tricks can help accentuate the vastness of the area.  First, you can zoom in rather than taking a wide-angle photo.  This might seem antithetical to what I just said about single photos not being wide enough but this conveys a different feeling…density.  Zooming in will compress the scene giving the appearance of less space in between the headstones.  Another trick you can do is angle your camera downward so that the whole scene, from top to bottom, left to right is filled with headstones.
  • The last thing I will suggest is look for patterns.  Section 60 is very flat and open.  If you go toward the Tomb of the Unknowns where the terrain gets more hilly you can find hillsides covered with gravestones.  Photos here have a different feel.

-Other Locations-

There are other locations you will likely want to visit in Arlington Cemetery, but I don’t consider them photogenic.  I want to make you aware of them because you might disagree.  To find out where they are at you can consult a map of Arlington Cemetery.

  • John F. Kennedy Gravesite – Located just behind the Women in Military Service Memorial, a short walk from the entrance, you’ll a memorial to the late President, complete with the eternal flame and his gravesite.  All are not terribly interesting photographically, though they are historically.
  • Memorial Amphitheater (3) – A beautiful structure with stone columns and interesting architecture, but it doesn’t convey the emotions the rest of the cemetery does. If you’re in the DC area on Memorial day, you can usually see the President give a speech here.
  • Audie Murphy, Joe Louis, and other “celebrity” gravesites –  Again, these are interesting historically but not visually.
  • Shuttle Memorial – Located just behind the Memorial Amphitheater is a Memorial to astronauts that died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

What to Bring

Lens: Bring a lens (or several lenses) that handles a wide range of focal lengths (18-135mm for DX cameras; 27-200mm for FX).  You won’t have any trouble switching lenses so you can bring whatever you feel comfortable carrying.  With the exception of Arlington House I can’t think of any reason why you’d need/want a wide-angle lens. You may, however, want to bring a super-telephoto lens (>200mm) to capture detail in photos at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Tripod: You won’t need your tripod here.  Since the cemetery is open only during the daylight hours there will should be enough light to not have to worry about sharpness.  That said, there isn’t a rule against carrying one, and I’ve been told they are allowed at the Tomb of the Unknowns (if you need help stabilizing your telephoto lens) so long as you don’t create a tripping hazard or cause yourself to become a focal point.  The only time I’ve ever used a tripod at Arlington is when making the timelapse video.  I used a Gorillapod and took special care to make sure I was not setting it directly on a grave.

Flash: I’ve used an external, hot-shoe flash at Arlington before; mainly as a fill flash for lighting up Fall leaves and cherry blossoms. I would avoid using it at the Tomb of the Unknowns so you don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

Filters: You might find a circular polarizer helpful for cutting through haze when taking photos over long distances.  Also, there is a lot of green in grass and trees that would benefit from the saturating effect of a polarizer.

Bag: Any size bag is fine.  You don’t go through any security when entering the cemetery and none of the guards or other workers will give you a hard time.  Bring a big enough bag to pack what you’ll need for your day of photography. I usually wear my large photo backpack because I’m on my way from  or to somewhere that I’ll be using my tripod and other equipment.

Additional Resources

  • Arlington Official Site –  The best place to go for up-to-date information about what is going on at the cemetery.  There are days (like Memorial Day) when there are restrictions on what you can do and where you can go. This is where you’ll find that sort of information out.
  • Construction Update – If there is ever construction that might interfere with your photos, I’ll talk about it in the most recent version of the construction update. As of the writing of this post there is some road construction going on but nothing that obstructs the locations I’ve written about.
  • Event Calendar – When I find out about events happening at Arlington Cemetery, I will post them on the event calendar. Look for Wreath Layings in December and Memorial Day events in May.
  • My Arlington Cemetery Set on Flickr – I didn’t include all of the photos I’ve taken at Arlington in this post. You can see more photos on Flickr.
  • Monumental Thoughts – Rick is a licensed local tour guide and blogger and has a lot of great information about the history of Arlington. This link will lead you to a collection of articles on the cemetery. Rick and a great local photographer have combined photography/history tours if you want to squeeze it all in in a single trip.
  • DC Like a Local – A great site for information to plan the logistics of your trip to the cemetery. As well as greater detail on the historic (though not necessarily photogenic) sites to see.
  • Rexographer on Flickr – This guy focuses (pun intended) on the Tomb of the Unknowns and has some of the most amazing photographs I’ve seen of the tomb.
  • PhotoGuideDC – There is a gentleman that has a blog similar to mine with advice about photographing locations in DC. This link will take you to his article on Arlington Cemetery so you don’t just have to take my word for things.

Summary

What:          Arlington National Cemetery

Where:        Arlington, VA

When:          April – September: 8 – 7; October – March: 8 – 5

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Lens:            Telephoto (DX: 18-135mm; FX: 27-200mm) & Super-Telephoto (>135mm; >200mm)

Tripod:       Leave it

Flash:           Bring it

Filter:           Circular Polarizer

Bag:               Any Size

Photographic Inspiration – Events at National Geographic

March 20, 2012

If you’re visiting DC and taking photos, you may want to step away from the camera but not away from photography altogether. Here is an idea to recharge your creative batteries.

I had a lot of expensive hobbies as a kid; G.I. Joes, Legos, video games. One thing that didn’t cost much was my fascination with National Geographic magazine.  My mom would give me a couple dollars and I would come back from the second-hand store with a stack of them. My dad eventually purchased a subscription for me.  I had a collection that ranged from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s. I would leaf through them, mainly interested in the pictures.  It gave me an appreciation for photography, even before I knew what it was.

Fast-forward 20 years, I’m a dedicated amateur photographer, living a couple miles from National Geographic headquarters.  Like most photographers, I am still captivated by the contents of the magazine but more interested in taking a picture worthy of it’s pages.  So I toil way, taking photos at every opportunity.  I still had this nagging feeling though. I’m so close to what, more than any other place I can think of, is a Mecca of photography. When would I make my pilgrimage.  Two weeks ago, I finally did.

National Geographic holds events across the country (in LA, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Portland, etc.) and around the world.  And they, of course, hold events at their headquarters in downtown Washington, DC.  At the beginning of each the Spring and Fall they release a catalog of events. The events range from cultural art and music presentations, to scientific and conservationist discussions, to adventure and photography talks.  There are several events in each of these subject areas and they are arranged into series. Each series consists of  3 events and you can go to one or all of them; tickets are slightly cheaper if you buy for a whole series.  They are also cheaper if you’re a member of the National Geographic Society.

My Experience

 The event I went to was part of this season’s Masters of Photography Series.  It was entitled Traveling the World for National Geographic.  The ticket was $20. If I were a member of the society it would have been $18, and if I bought at ticket for the full series it would have been $19/show. I didn’t take advantage of either of those options.  I ordered my tickets online. It seemed odd to me that there was a fee to have the tickets e-mailed but regular mail deliver was free.  I opted for the latter. The tickets arrived within a couple days along with directions from the nearest Metro stations and information about parking. The day before the event I received a robo-call and e-mail warning me that the President would be at a nearby event and there would be driving/parking restrictions.

The talk started at 7:30. Out of a combination of poor estimation and obsessive-compulsiveness I arrived at 6:40.  I spent 20 minutes walking around the lobby of the Grosvernor Auditorium (in the NatGeo Headquarters complex) perusing the photography displays. As you can imagine, they were amazing. The lobby and cafe are open during the week as well if you want to stop by. The doors to the auditorium opened at 7 and I took my seat.  The auditorium seats probably 200-300 people. Being there early, I didn’t have much competition for seats; the auditorium didn’t start to fill up until about 10 minutes before showtime.  I spent the next half hour watching advertisements for upcoming NatGeo events on a projection screen and people-watching as the room filled up.  The crowd ranged in age from approximately 10-90 but the average was fairly high (upper 40’s – low 50’s).

Introductions for the speakers began at 7:30. The subject of the talk, the now deceased Tom Abercrombie, had worked for National Geographic for over 40 years so understandably there was a lot to say.  After about 15 minutes of introductions, Tom’s wife Lynn and daughter Mari took the stage.  The two had compiled a book of Tom’s best pictures and stories from his travels and their talk was an hour and a half teaser of it’s contents.  Lynn traveled with Tom during much of his career and recounted her personal stories.  Mari read from her dad’s writings about his travels.  The presentation covered how Tom was discovered by National Geographic, trips he had taken to the South Pole, Easter Island, and other exotic locations, and about his retirement, all the while projecting his amazing photography onto a large screen.

The bulk of the conversation, and the bulk of Tom’s career, focused on a Middle East much, much different than we know today.  Tom and Lynn would fly into Tehran, Iran and drive around the country.  They took a car trip from Oman, through Yemen and Saudi Arabia, to Jordan; a trip that would be incredibly dangerous, if not impossible, today. This is the part of the talk I found most interesting.  I was 11 when the first Gulf War happened, and I had my first introduction to the Middle East. Outside of mentions in history class, it was largely forgotten until I was 21, and 9/11 happened.  For the majority of my life, I’ve seen a consistent, largely negative portrayal of the Arab world.  It was great to hear Lynn’s stories of traveling the countryside, receiving help from bedouins paired with Tom’s pictures of smiling faces.

-My Impression-

I found the experience enlightening, educational, and, at times, humorous. One of Tom’s former bosses who did the introduction recounted how Tom had once purchased a rifle and expensed it to National Geographic, writing it up as “car insurance,” which indeed it was in the lawless deserts of the Middle East.  The presentation was also slow at times and seemed overly scripted.

The photography was great. I would have expected no less from a National Geographic event. It was, however, not my cup of tea.  Tom Abercrombie was largely a cultural, person photographer.  My tastes, especially as far as NatGeo is concerned, lean more toward landscapes and wildlife.  Tom’s career took place entirely in the film days. My experience with photography has been digital capture, digital editing.  Before I went, I hoped that somewhere, embedded in this experience, would be some hint of how to get published in the magazine or how to live the dream of being a National Geographic photographer. Instead, I learned that Tom’s experience is unique and is not likely to happen again (making his story worth telling) and that being a National Geographic photographer is not all it’s cracked up to be; Tom nearly died on several occasions.

I will certainly go to another Masters of Photography event, but I will take greater care to pick an event that more closely suits my interests. I want to try the Quest for Adventure Series and some special events.

For a first experience with National Geographic, this was a positive experience, well worth the time. It made me nostalgic for the days in which I would thumb through a magazine and experience the world outside of small town, North Dakota.

How I Plan Trips and What Goes Into PhotoTourismDC

March 13, 2012

I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life in college (i.e., I was broke). Two years ago, I started my first “real” job and started earning some money but have only used two vacation days.  Now that I have the combination of means (money) and opportunity (vacation days), I’ve started to think about travelling.  Through this process I realized that I don’t know how “normal” people plan vacations.  I thought it would be helpful for me to write out my planning process and get some feedback. This post may also offer advice (or at least some ideas) to people who are in the same, confused position.  Finally, this will, hopefully, give you some insight into how I go about writing articles for this blog.

Where to Go & What’s Worth Seeing

There’s a scene in the movie Moneyball where Jonah Hill’s character is explaining his philosophy of baseball to Brad Pitt.  He tells him that the goal of running a baseball team shouldn’t be to buy players; it should be to buy wins and to get wins you need to buy runs.  I have a similar philosophy when it comes to vacations; it’s not about purchasing plane tickets or hotel rooms, it’s about buying memories and photographic opportunities.  So when determining where to go, I want to know that there are enough places and times to photograph to make the trip worth the time and expense I’m putting into it.

First, I have to have a general idea of where I want to go.  Inspiration for that can come from pretty much anywhere.  I recently watched the documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and was inspired to visit some (and eventually all) of America’s 58 National Parks. In particular, I was fascinated by Glacier National Park.  Next, I start “gathering ideas.”  My first stop is usually Flickr but you can use whatever photo site you’d like.  I find Google Image search often gives too many irrelevant results.  On Flickr, I’ll type in search terms like “Glacier National Park” (using the quotes is helpful) and sort by “interestingness.” I go through the screens of pictures and add them to collections or pin them to Pinterest (Warning: there’s still some discussion of whether this constitutes copyright infringement).  You will occasionally see the same photographers with great, high-ranked pictures; these people often have their own websites that are also worth visiting.  For Glacier National Park you’ll see names such as QT Luong, Tom Lussier, Varina Patel, and Trey Ratcliff.  Once I have gathered a number of ideas, I use the title and caption or geolocation information on Flickr to plot them on a Google Map.  This is helpful for seeing how dispersed they are.  You don’t want to spend most of your vacation driving from place to place.  For pictures in remote areas, I often draw in the trails using trail maps or other sources of information.  I also try to find videos and embed them into my maps as well.  Videos can tell a story that you just can’t get with a photo.

Once I’ve plotted everything on the map, I start searching for hotels and nearby towns with airports.  The maps are helpful in this process because I can calculate distance and drive times.  At Glacier, most of the non-resort hotels are 45-60 minutes from the photos I want to take.  That makes for a lot of driving early in the morning and late at night.  So I opted for one of the hotels inside the park.  Once I’ve found travel and lodging accommodations I plot those on the map as well. Click on the pins or trails on the maps below to see photos and videos.

Now that I have the map built it is quite versatile.  I can embed it on a website, I can send friends and other travelers links to it, or I can export the information to a .kml file and people can upload it to their accounts or into Google Earth.  Having the information ported over to Google Earth is helpful because you can see your photos plotted in 3-D and get a better sense of what the conditions will be like.  This is especially dramatic in a highly three-dimensional place like Glacier National Park.  You can also allow others write-access to the map so it can be built collaboratively with your fellow travelers. It’s also helpful for built-up areas like Washington, DC where Google Earth displays buildings.

-Useful Tools-

There are tools available that can save you the trouble of constructing your own maps.  They aren’t quite as powerful as Google Maps; you can’t draw trails, calculate distances, add videos, or export to any other format, but they can save you hours of photo searching and tedious HTML coding. 

Flickr Map – I’ve already mentioned Flickr but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mapping feature. You can zoom into an area and look at photos. Any photos that are publically available and geotagged will appear on the map.  The tighter you zoom in the more specific photos you’re going to get.  There are a lot of photos on Flickr though; some great, some good, and a lot of bad.  For popular locations you are going to have to sort through a lot to find some inspiration.

Stuck on Earth – The Stuck on Earth app from Trey Ratcliff offers a slick interface to connect with geolocated pictures from Flickr. While there are some not so great photos on the site most are great.  One other great innovation of the app is the use of curated lists of amazing images.  So you can select your location and find great ideas without having to drop pins and type in HTML code.

        

Nature Valley Trail View – This site offers Google Streetview-like maps of hiking trails. Only three National Parks are represented so far (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky) but this has a lot of potential. I am excited to see what else they add.

Google Maps – Google Maps has a service called Panoramio where people can drop their pictures onto a map and they become publically available.  Like Flickr Maps, I have found it frustrating to find inspiring pictures, but sometimes that’s not what you’re looking for, you might just want ideas. For that purpose, Google Maps is sufficient.

When to Go

Regular readers of Phototourism DC know that I am not a person photographer.  With several exceptions (e.g., giving an object a sense of scale), I’d rather my landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes be person-free.  So I’m always interested in finding times of the day and times of the year when traffic is low.  Time of day is easy; earlier is almost always better. Time of year is dependent on a place and what draws people there.  People generally go at certain times because the weather is ideal or because there’s a specific, time-constrained attraction (e.g., the cherry blossoms in DC).  I try to balance these tradeoffs when deciding when to go.

The Internet makes it easy to find information about the best time to go.  For National Park Service Parks, in particular, there is a site that provides statistics about monthly visitor levels.  I have used this a lot to plan my trips to various National Parks.  The graph below shows average number of visits per month to Glacier National Park. From the graph you can see that there is a spike in traffic between June and August.  I originally planned on going in May because you can see the relatively small number of visitors, but found out in the planning process that many of the hiking trails and roads don’t open until late June because of lingering snow.  So that, and the fact that most businesses are only open during the summer, explains the uptick in traffic.  Rather than travel during the peak months of June-August, I’ve decided to plan my trip for September, at the very end of the tourism season, when trails are (hopefully) still open and many would-be travelers have packed it in for the season.

-Useful Tools-

Once I’ve decided on a set of days I want to go, I can start to see what exactly getting to a place “early” means by using The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and Google Earth Desktop.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris – TPE allows you to drop a pin on a Google map and see not only the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times but also the direction the sun and moon will rise and set.  This gives you some idea of what the lighting situation will be, especially when you have objects such as mountains that are likely to create long shadows and greater dynamic range you’ll have to think about when photographing.  TPE also, importantly, gives you the beginning and ending of twilight times; when the first hint of light will first appear on the Eastern horizon or when the last hint of light will disappear from the Western horizon.  This is important if you’re interested in capturing stars.  I spend so much time in the city, away from stars, that this is one of my primary goals.  Having these times allows you to backwards plan and figure out when you have to leave to arrive at your destination  before sunrise or sunset.

Google Earth – Google Earth is also extremely helpful because it saves you from having to use your spacial reasoning skills to guess at what the light will look like on a landscape.  You can choose a spot on the map and use the Sunlight tool to dial in a particular time of the day and year.  The program will show you, in a very basic way, what areas will be cast in shadow and what areas will be receiving light at a given time.  The picture below shows sunrise on September 10th, 2012 at a point along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

What to Bring

Now that I know when and where I’m going, where I’m going to stay, and how I’m going to get there, I have to figure out what photographic gear to pack.  I have a certain baseline level of equipment that I would bring anywhere (i.e., camera (obviously), an 18-200mm lens, and a camera strap).  Anything beyond that is going to add weight, hassle, and possibly expense, so knowing if it’s necessary is important.  For this, I once again go to Flickr.  I look back through those photos I pinned, collected, or otherwise saved and look through the EXIF (click link for an example) information:

  • If there are photos I like that require a focal length wider than 18mm, I pack my 11-16mm lens.
  • If there are wildlife photos that require a focal length greater than 200mm, I pack my 70-300mm lens.
  • If there are photos with shutter speeds less than 1/30 s, I pack my tripod and cable release.
  • If there are waterfalls I pack my neutral density filter.
  • I then pack a bag large enough to carry all of this.

The Connection to PhotoTourism DC

If you read my posts, this format probably looks familiar to you.  Rather than having you do each of these things, which admittedly is a little extreme and burdensome, I try to shoulder some of the load.  I create maps and (in order to save me the stress of worrying about copyright) I show you my own pictures.  I show you graphs of visitor levels and suggest ideal times to visit in order to avoid crowds but still get great photos. I offer advice about what equipment to bring to get the most out of your trip.

One of my original motivations for starting this site was to inspire people to write similar blog posts for where they live.  I would love it if information that suits the way I plan my vacations were readily available on the Internet.  If anyone wants to pick up the mantle of PhotoTourismNYC, or PhotoTourismLA, or PhotoTourismGNP please, please do.

Though they have nothing to do with this blog, Stuck on Earth and Shutterguides both came out after I started writing this.  If they had been around 8 months ago, this site may have never existed.

What Do You Think?

Tell me your thoughts using the comments below.  If you’d rather send a private comment you can use the Contact Form.  I would love to hear what strategies and tools you use to plan your vacations, whether you think I’m a nutcase or whether I’m on to something, and what other information I should add to my blog posts to make them especially useful.