Washington, DC is a playland for a photographer. Regardless of the time of day or weather, this city provides unlimited potential. According to the Washington Post, the city set an all-time record in 2014 with over 20 million tourists visiting the city. With this many people visiting, the city is filled with camera-packing tourist families intent on seeing all the monuments. It’s easy to simply “go with the flow” in DC, walking the beaten path and seeing the sites from the same viewpoint as everyone else. For me, capturing the same old photos as every other tourist is too boring. Therefore, after numerous visits to our nation’s capitol city, I have come up with two rules for great Washington DC photos.

Two Rules for Great Washington DC Photos

1) Look for Reflections

Walking around Washington, DC it’s hard to miss all of the water. The Potomac River, the Washington Channel, the Anacostia River, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the Tidal Basin, Constitution Gardens Pond, the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and Rock Creek are just a few. Water, especially still water, makes for the perfect photo composition tool. Combined with the commanding architecture of our nation’s monuments and memorials, if you can find a clean reflection in water or another clear shiny surface, your photos will begin to pop.

washington monument at night reflected in the water

Washington Monument Reflection © John Wulfert

In this photo the Washington Monument is reflected in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. I was so excited to see the reflecting pool was filled with water, after numerous attempts only to find out it was under construction and drained for cleaning. Night photos or immediately before the sunrise seem to provide the best results for this type of shot. You will definitely need a sturdy tripod, remote shutter release, and good weather. Use the reflecting pool to get dramatic shots of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, or the trees that line either side of the pool. Only 30 inches deep in the center of the pool, it was designed by Henry Bacon and constructed in 1923.

jefferson monument in washington dc reflected in the tidal basin

Jefferson Monument Reflection © John Wulfert

This photo of the Jefferson Monument is from the edge of the Tidal Basin, and produces great results but nearly as crisp as the reflecting pool. The Tidal Basin is connected to the Potomoc River and the Washington Channel, so there is more movement in the water than a fully-contained reflecting pool. Regardless, the light reflected on the water provides a natural balance and added depth to this photo to make the monument seem powerful in the hero position. The Tidal Basin is the focal point of the National Cherry Blossom Festival each spring, providing for stunning photography when the cherry blossoms are in full view. It was created in the late 19th century to provide public space. You can also rent paddle boats on the Tidal Basin, which could provide for some very unique views of the monuments and reflections, but your photography would most likely be contained to daytime shots with harsh light.

Surface reflections can also be powerful

sunrise at the vietnam memorial wall with washington monument reflected

Vietnam Wall Reflection © John Wulfert

Spending time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a sobering experience. The Vietnam Wall displays the names of over 58,000 Americans who gave their life in the Vietnam War, serving our great country.  It’s a powerful reminder that our freedom isn’t free.  Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s often hard to find a time when the wall is void of people paying their respects.  However, if you are willing to wake up before dawn you will find the memorial mostly empty, and with the right angle you’ll catch some amazing reflections. Look for how the Washington Monument is reflected from the background, and play with the angles of also capture the walkway leading your eye right through the photo. The wall is black with engraved names, but in the right light you can capture the blue sky with the yellow sun rising. If you have a loved one on this wall, capturing their name with a reflection can be a very powerful image. Growing up hearing stories from my Dad, a Vietnam War veteran, I can almost hear the sounds of helicopter blades above and Creedence Clearwater Revival playing in the background.

2) Hunt for a Unique Angle

I believe photos should tell a story and invoke emotion, and with landmarks in DC sometimes the only way to do this is to find a unique angle.  Look for the perspective that nobody else appears to be seeing. Walk to the sides and back of memorials, get low and find a high ground. If you want photos that look different from everything else out there, you have to be willing to do something nobody else is doing.

photo of Lincoln Memorial

Right Hand of Lincoln © John Wulfert

The Lincoln Memorial is commonly photographed straight on, with Lincoln in the center of the frame, and hundreds of tourists clustering at the base of the memorial. The memorial is so much more than that, with rooms on either side, separated by columns. Use the columns to your advantage to show scale, or look for a side image of Lincoln like the photo above. You will need a long zoom lens, with a wide aperture, and if the guards will allow it, try to use your tripod. They usually don’t have an issue with tripods unless you are getting in the way of everyone else, and could cause a tripping hazard. But on this kind of shoot, you will be standing where not many other people are gathered!

I was looking for a view at the Lincoln Memorial that would reflect the serious and thoughtful nature of President Lincoln. I was imagining sitting at the Right Hand of Lincoln would be a good thing, and I wonder what his “right hand man” must have experienced working alongside such an amazing President.

photo looking down the mall from lincoln memorial

Down the Mall from Lincoln © John Wulfert

And sometimes simply walking to the back side of the memorials/monuments can produce inspiring results. This shot was taken from the back side of the Lincoln Memorial, looking down the National Mall to the US Capitol. It’s a contemplative scene, the memorial of such an impactful president looking past the monument of the first president to the ever-battling Congress and Senate on Capitol Hill.

martin luther king jr memorial from the side looking imposing

Observing America © John Wulfert

And finally, one of the most powerful images from my time spent in Washington, DC. Watching as tourists snapped photos from all the normal angles, I was left looking for something unique at the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial. The side of this stone monument is intimidating, and I felt like any image of this statue needed to tell a strong story. To me this image feels like he is observing our country, and whether we are continuing to protect the civil rights he fought so diligently for every day.  Are we?

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr.