First they stop at the rendering of two bottles of Moet floating under a full moon. Then they decide to pose in front of the image of the Aston Martin roadster, airbrushed in brilliant black on an oversize canvas.
She smiles, hand on her husband's chest. He chews gum, deadpan cool beneath a Bullets cap.
"Okay, y'all. On three," says Darrin Clark, known as the Pictureman to patrons of his nocturnal photo studio -- a dank Florida Avenue NW parking lot now bright with his lights.
For $10 the couple departs with a memento of their Saturday night, a color photograph stapled inside a white cardboard frame.
The District is famous for its stock of monumental backdrops that lure tourists from worlds away. What the Pictureman offers instead are images of unfettered opulence -- Hummers and champagne bottles and sweeping stairways that lead to a shower of stars.
His backdrops are the world of the "bling bling," as the finer things in life are celebrated in the culture of hip-hop and rap music. "The things people can't afford," said Jamar McNeil, the deejay known as J-Nice on Hot 99.5-FM. "You can take a picture in front of a Rolls Royce even if you don't own one. It's ghetto fabulous, like when you're broke but looking good."
Instant portraiture such as Clark's has long been a staple of the black music scene, not only in the District but in such cities as New York, where cameramen, as they call themselves, have hung backdrops outside the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem.
In the Washington region, cameramen can be found at go-go clubs and strip joints, at the MCI Center and at private house parties and cabarets. What distinguishes Clark from his peers is geography, his spot being at the hub of the District's nightlife, on Seventh Street NW, just south of Howard University Hospital and east of the clubs along U Street.
Getting photographed is "instant gratification," said Clark, 36, pausing for a moment between customers. "A portrait studio? That's too expensive for a lot of people. They want the picture instantly. They come, they're done."
He and Reggie Cooper, 32, have been taking pictures during weekends for more than a decade, arriving after 10 p.m. and staying as late as 4 a.m., long after the CVS and the Popeyes and the flower shop across the street shut down.
"They're there after most sane people go to bed, and they're gone before they get up," said Stanley J. Mayes, chair of the 3rd District police Chief's Citizens Advisory Council. "Most people don't even know they exist."
Over the years, the parking lot has become a regular weekend stop for many black Washingtonians, a place to commemorate a birthday, anniversary or night out. A place for nurses and sanitation workers and young toughs wielding wads of cash -- and sometimes guns -- to bask in the bright lights.
"I'm a doll, baby. I'm a beauty queen," purred Tasha Howerton, 24, all legs and hips and sunglasses as she preened in front of a Mercedes backdrop. Her companion, Andre Stanton, 41, grinned as he watched sleepily from the wheel of his SUV, apparently oblivious to the faint odor of people relieving themselves wafting over the lot.
"It's like being at the Grammys," he said. "Ten years from now, you can say you were at Seventh and Florida, you dig?"
Natalia Joppy, 23, drove in from Gaithersburg with her friend Larae Williams, 24. During the week, they work as medical assistants in Maryland. But at that moment, they were dressed in matching camouflage shirts and black headbands.
"This is the hot spot, this is where the nice females are, this is where everyone is," Joppy said after Clark photographed the pair in front of another image of a Mercedes, this one beneath the words "Riding with Jesus."
There's a code to the poses. Women beam and stick out their hips, thighs and elbows. Men turn a shoulder or jam their hands in their pockets and rarely smile.
"Check it out; the ice is shining!" said Akil Davis, 25, in a red Chicago Bulls jersey, chuckling as he inspected a photo of himself glowering and raising a bejeweled middle finger at the camera.
Some have been posing for the portraits for long enough that their tastes have evolved. Carlet Grant, 28, a Rockville kindergarten teacher, said she preferred the images of the cars and expensive alcohol when she was a teenager. Now she and a friend stand in front of the grand, white staircase leading to the stars.
"We're ladies," Grant said, wearing pink shoes and a white dress with a plunging neckline.
By most accounts, the style of photography dates back to at least the 1970s, when cameramen could be found with their Polaroid cameras at such clubs as the Coliseum and the Howard Theater. In those years, their props consisted mainly of high-backed wicker chairs and potted plants against a curtain.
"It was a safari look," said Ivory McKnight, 54, a former District police officer who started taking pictures in the 1970s. "It comes with the African style, the king and the queen, the warrior."
By the start of the 1980s, the painted backdrops had become the prop of choice. "I figured a lot of people can't afford fancy cars, so they'll take pictures in front of them," said Greg Sanders, known as Mr. G on the club circuit. "My business tripled."
By most accounts, Sanders was the best known of the cameramen in the 1980s, a crowd that included men with such nicknames as Nat the Cat and James the Cameraman, who worked the clubs and such major intersections as East Capitol Street and Benning Road.
Richard Johnson, 57, who works weekends at a strip club in Capitol Heights, had been driving a bus for Metro in 1980 when he started using a Polaroid camera. "We were charging $5 a picture, and you could make $15 in just a few minutes," he said. "I quit driving a bus."
Clark, who grew up in the District's Barry Farm complex and owns a photo and music shop in Largo, discovered cameramen as a teenager when he met McKnight. After apprenticing for another cameraman, Clark struck out on his own in the early 1990s.
Since 1997, he and Cooper, who helps transport disabled children for the District's school system, have worked at the parking lot at CVS, where the manager lets them open when he closes.
"It's like the ice cream man coming out in the summer," Cooper said as he sat on a milk crate by a folding card table, where the men keep their cameras and digital printers. "It's all fun and love."
But they're unsure how much longer they'll remain. With the advent of digital cameras, there are more photographers competing. And the new development sprouting along U Street is an ominous sign. A Starbucks has opened a few blocks north on Georgia Avenue. "If you bought a condo for $400,000, you don't want to see this out your back window," Cooper said.
Clark nodded. "Our days are numbered."
For the moment, though, they're not going anywhere. On another night, their customers began arriving even as the men were hanging the background scenes from metal rods.
Monique Stephens, celebrating her 24th birthday, wore a tight, feather-light pink dress as she smiled in front of the stairway leading to the stars.
"I'm going to have this forever," she said, tucking her new photograph in her purse before heading off into the darkness.