Statues, patterns and gorgeous light in Washington, D.C.

April 15, 2022

A tiger roaming his area at a zoo

Washington, D.C., has something any aspiring photographer can love.

Same with an experienced one who is a little out of practice.

And if you’re a Dad with kids interested in learning photography, well, the nation’s capital is a wonderful place for all the same reasons.

It’s a learning laboratory.

It’s a place of beautiful light any time of day (if you find the right spot and are patient).

Many of the subjects are stationary but larger than life. It gives you a chance to practice what wedding photographer Cliff Mautner calls three dimensional thinking.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as seen through a nearby cherry blossom tree.

Basically, you’re not only thinking about your subject (be it a person or statue), you’re not only thinking about your background, but you’re also seeking opportunities to shoot through your foreground to give a viewer a sense of place.

Shrubs, columns, other people – there’s so much to use as foreground. Use it. Provide a sense of place, environment, scale.

Our family spent several days in March wandering around the city for the first time since the COVID pandemic stole away opportunities like this.

Typical for March in D.C., the weather would shift from gorgeously Springlike to one more blast of slicing, cold wind before winter finally retires.

But whether you reached for gloves to warm chilled hands or tossed off the jacket to enjoy sun bathing your face and arms, photo ops abound. Here are the field notes from Washington, D.C.:

Monuments are everywhere

You’re all but guaranteed to photograph a lot of monuments, statues, and memorials when you come to the nation’s capital.

It’s incredibly tempting to put up your camera or cellphone and just fire away. Take a moment to look around. It’s what 99 percent of all tourists are doing.

But not you. Why? Because you read this blog post.

Go for a different angle than everyone else. And try to get a sense of scale because these icons of D.C. are enormous.

So get right up to them. Try to find a way to get creative angles. Shoot through the cherry blossom trees. Try a silhouette.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Getting up to the base of the statue can help you show how tall it is (MLK’s statue is 30 feet high).

Also watch how light shifts throughout the day. D.C. statues provide a tremendous opportunity to learn how light falls across someone’s face such as Rembrandt lighting.

One note. Just be careful because if you spend a lot of time craning your neck and pointing your camera upward, you’re not only going to pinch a spinal nerve, you’re going to get a lot of photos looking up someone’s nose.

Tourists gaze across the Tidal Basin at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.

Panorama of the Washington Monument and Thomas Jefferson Memorial from the Tidal Basin.

Silhouette of Thomas Jefferson at his namesake memorial in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian museums in low, low light

I love the Smithsonian museums. All of them. They’re great for a variety of reasons, not the least of which because they are — ahem — free.

And their displays are magnificent. The dinosaur and early mammal bones. I dare you not to get goosebumps. Mummies and missiles, famous gems and Lincoln’s top hat. It’s magnificent.

However, your camera’s going to struggle. Not only are you in very low light requiring super high ISOs but the crowds. Lots and lots of crowds.

I didn’t spend much time shooting in the museums we visited. I was trying to help my wife manage three young kids who were rushing from display to display in between asking for a snack or wanting to go No. 1.

I will share two shots here, though. The lobby of the Natural History Museum with its 13-foot-high African bush elephant is a sight and worth trying to capture for its height and scale.

The lobby of the Natural History Museum.

And, as stunning as this is, the museum allows you to press your camera lens up against the glass of the displays like the Hope Diamond or this jaw dropping beryl crystal.

The Dom Pedro Aquamarine, on display at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, is one of largest gems in the world.

Or at least, I did and not a single security guard wrestled me to the ground or said a word.

Patterns and mass transportation

With apologies to the magnificent monuments to American democracy, I won’t call Washington, D.C. architecture among the most beautiful in the world.

Much of the designs you see are from an era when concrete replaced more beautiful (but crumbling) 19th and early 20th century buildings.

I mean, c’mon. Put the Smithsonian Castle up against L’Enfant Plaza and you tell me which is more eye pleasing.

But now and then you’ll spot a cool pattern or reflection.

Colorful row homes on Sixth Street NW.

The windows of the L’Enfant Plaza.

Morning skies reflected in the Federal Aviation Administration building.

You also can’t move through D.C. without taking a ride on its excellent Metro train system. It doesn’t always conveniently land you where you want to be, but more times than not it gets you close enough for a decent walk.

The stations with their enormous cylinder ceilings and frequent trains provide you an opportunity to capture patterns and movement.

I handheld my camera to get this shot at 1/15 of a second.

A Metro passenger train leaving the Shaw-Howard University station.

Ever changing light and color on the Capitol

It was hard not to stand in the awesome presence of the U.S. Capitol dome and not feel a sense of mourning after what happened on Jan. 6, 2020.

I realize the people who have worked in this building over its 220-year history have not always behaved in the nation’s best interests (let alone humanity’s).

But it is a symbol of democracy, of our right to choose our government, of history and choices that have changed the world, made lives better, advanced civilization.

The east side of the U.S. Capitol building, captured at sunset with an iPhone12 Max Pro.

The dome is among the top wonders in our world you should see up close. I believe that.

Go in the evening, especially if you are there before or after summer when tourists are fewer.

There are still plenty of people walking around, but there’s so much space that you’ll certainly have time for quite contemplation, and for photographers, sunset provides a truly magnificent light show.

The last hour of daylight means the color is constantly shifting, and parts of the building will show a variety of blues, purples, greens, oranges.

Don’t take your eyes off it. Move around to get new angles. And simply enjoy this masterpiece.

Zoo’ing right

Our last day in Washington before heading home saw us walking the hillside on which the Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomes visitors free of charge (parking costs $30 if you drive there).

The sunny morning and early afternoon provided me a chance to test drive Canon’s EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, my newest.

I bought it for sports coverage, but it’s one you should consider having in your camera bag whenever you visit a zoo.

It’s an imperfect lens. The high aperture means higher ISOs and noise, even in daylight, and it’s not as sharp as I want, but post-processing can take care of those issues.

It can bring you up close to the animals better than just about anything else you might bring to a zoo. Any other lens is probably gonna run you north of $10K.

I not only used it to capture the zoo’s lions and tigers, but I also used it in the reptile house. Sure, the ISOs were as high as a Canon 6D will go, but all in all, after some work in Lightroom and Topaz Labs DeNoise, it’s not so bad at all.

Asian water dragon.

Grand Cayman Blue Iguana.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He’s worked in wedding, family, and high school senior portraiture and today owns Creative Sports Photography, which provides portrait services for youth athletesHe also helps writers on his blog and social channels improve their photography skills. You can reach him by email at

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