Q: I'm going to visit Washington, and plan to take pictures. Would you have any tips on what to shoot there and how?
A: Your question came at just the right time, because I've just returned from a photo trip to Washington.
The basic photographic attractions are the many impressive monuments clustered around the big green Mall right in the center of the city.
The easiest and fastest way to get around this area is by Tourmobile bus -- $5 for adults and $3 each child. These buses tour from 9 to 6:30 during the summer, and you can just hop off one and then get on another without paying again. This way you don't continually have to look for a parking place or wear your feet down to a nub hiking the long distances between the sights.
Some of the stops on the tour: the White House, Washington Monument, Smithsonian, the Capital, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.
You can also take a Gray Line conducted bus tour with guide and commentary that also goes inside the buildings. These tours are in two parts, morning and afternoon, and cost $12.10 for adults and $6.05 for children. Or you can combine both for an all-day $20.25 adult and $10.15 child bargain fare.
The actual photography of these sites around the Mall can be divided into morning for the Lincoln Memorial and afternoon for the rest. This way you can take advantage of the best light.
All the monuments around the mall have two things in common: They're big and they're white. This means you have to look for vantage views from a distance, and a good front or cross light so you preserve the white look and the marble doesn't turn tattletale gray. (A good way to get dramatic glistening white against a dark blue sky is to use a polarizing filter; I certainly recommend you get one for this trip.)
Here are some tips and techniques for the various monuments:
The classic White House view can be shot right through the fence from the Ellipse. In fact, there are even holes cut in the fence so you can stick your lens right through. Since this view faces south, the light is good all day long. Include the fountain and plantings for foreground interests.
The capital dome has many possibilities. The most obvious view is from dead center, shooting across the Reflecting Pool from the Mall. Move in close to the water so the dome reflections shows as a double image. In fact, on a very calm day you can create a perfect duplicate by moving your lens very close to the surface of the pool.
Other capitol views are possible through the follage from the drive that circles the building. Try for through-the-leaves angels that make the white dome stand out with the green leaves as a frame and the blue sky as a background. (Be sure to use the polarizing filter on some of these.) The Botanic Gardens just to the right as you face the Capitol will provide masses of foreground color for a different look.
The Jefferson Memorial is a natural from across the Tidal Basin. A particularly good spot is by the Japanese Pagoda, where you can shoot a classic through-the-cherry-trees shot of the white temple-like structure. Another element that can add foreground interest are the colorful paddleboats on the Tidal Basin.
The Lincoln Memorial is best with its own reflection cast in the Reflecting Pool. The other classic view is inside -- the huge marble statue of Lincoln (if the figure were standing, it would be 29 feet tall). Don't make the mistake of using flash for this one, because the light just won't carry that far. Instead, use the marble columns as a support for your camera and set a slow shutter speed by meter. (If your meter doesn't work, set for f/4 at 1/30th of a second with average color film and f/5.6 at 1/60th with the faster emulsions.)
The Washington Monument is an any-time-of-day shot. Try for looking up through the flags if you have a wide-anle lens. If not, just move back and be sure to turn your camera to the vertical to include the very top.
The best time to go to the top of the monument is just before sunset when you can shoot both day and night views in one trip. Between 6 and 7, most of the tourists are at supper and the lines shorten dramatically.
You will have to shoot through the protective glass, so look for an area clear of hand and nose prints and hold your camera right against the glass for support. (We used a small table-top tripod to hold the camera steady against the glass for the night exposures.) Luckily, the glass is tilted so you don't catch the sky reflection.
If you have a tele lens be sure to take it up with you. A moderate tele of about 105-mm will frame the monuments nicely, and a 200-mm or longer will enable you to pull up the major attractions to frame-filling size.
The daylight exposures from the top are the same as for the normal views, but you'll have to bracket the night shots. (One warning is not to use flash -- from 555 feet in the air, it will never reach. This may seem obvious, but we saw some photographers try.)
The way to make sure of the night shots is to take a series of exposures -- called bracketing. Start wth f/4 at 1 second on average daylight color film and make three more exposures at B (bulb) of 2, 4 and 8 seconds. If you are shooting with a high-speed film, cut these exposures to f/8. The best exposure will be at about midway during twilight when the scene isn't completely dark; by bracketing, you'll have a variety of effects to choose from at only a slight added film cost.
The same rule will apply to picturing other attractions around D.C. Watch the direction of light -- make sure it shines on the front of the building -- and look for a good vantage point to shoot from.