Fred Ward, a longtime Washington photographer who captured memorable images of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy and the Beatles’ first American concert and who traveled the world on assignment for National Geographic magazine, died July 19 at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 81.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Charlotte Ward.

On his first day in Washington in 1962, Mr. Ward parked his Volkswagen van in the White House driveway, bounded inside and picked up his credentials as a photographer for the Black Star photo agency.

He often spent time with Kennedy and his family at the White House, photographing the president in his rocking chair or throwing out the first pitch at Opening Day for the Washington Senators.

When Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Ward captured a heartbreaking image of his widow, Jacqueline, returning to Washington with her husband’s blood caked on her legs.

A portrait of Fred Ward portrait taken in college in the late 1950s. (Charlotte Ward/Award Agency)

Days later, Mr. Ward portrayed a solemn first lady and her two young children as they watched the fallen president’s casket leave the White House on the day of his state funeral. The color photograph appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Mr. Ward went on to have a career of remarkable range. A 1963 photograph showed civil rights activist Gloria Richardson pushing away the bayoneted rifle of a helmeted National Guardsman during a demonstration in Cambridge, Md. He made rare color images of the Beatles’ first U.S. concert performance, at the Washington Coliseum, in February 1964. He photographed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy before they were killed by assassins in 1968.

During the 1970s, Mr. Ward spent time in Cuba, compiling a book of photographs that included revealing glimpses of the country’s dictatorial leader, Fidel Castro.

Soon after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Ward gained rare access to the White House and emerged with the 1975 book “Portrait of a President,” an intimate record of Gerald R. Ford’s early days in the White House.

“He was a truly great professional photographer,” David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s official White House photographer, said in an interview. “He spent about three months with President Ford, and he had incredible access. They got along great. Fred’s disposition was a lot like Ford’s.”

One of Mr. Ward’s Black Star colleagues, Dennis Brack, recalled an instance when Mr. Ward had a two-minute portrait session in 1973 with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev for Newsweek. To check the lighting, Mr. Ward snapped a quick Polaroid test shot. It was obvious that Brezhnev and his aides had never seen a Polaroid photograph, which took only a few seconds to develop.

Activist Gloria Richardson pushes by the National Guard in Cambridge, Md., in June 1963. (Fred Ward/Award Agency)

Mr. Ward first gave Brezhnev the photo, then did his part to thaw the Cold War by presenting his Polaroid camera to the Soviet leader, buying a few more minutes for the portrait sitting.

“To have the presence of mind to give him that camera,” Brack recalled in an interview, “he was a very smart guy.”

Frederick Newman Ward was born July 16, 1935, in Huntsville, Ala. His father was a postal worker, and the family moved to Miami in 1948.

In high school, one of Mr. Ward’s teachers allowed him to borrow a camera and gave him access to a darkroom. When Mr. Ward had a photograph printed in the school paper, he knew what he wanted to do.

At the University of Florida, he studied photography during his first semester, then, according to his family, taught the course in his second semester. He graduated in 1957 with a major in political science and received a master’s degree in journalism from Florida in 1959.

While still in college, Mr. Ward photographed one of Elvis Presley’s early concerts in Miami. In order to take pictures under water, Mr. Ward became a scuba diver. He worked for a television station and taught at a junior college before coming to Washington.

He learned to fly a helicopter to make aerial photographs, often with one hand on his camera and the other on the controls. He would fly the chopper to his home in Bethesda, Md., touching down in the front yard.

In addition to publishing his photographs in Time, Life, Look, BusinessWeek and other magazines, Mr. Ward was a prolific freelancer for National Geographic, visiting more than 130 countries from 1964 to 1992. He published more than 850 images in the magazine. (He later lost a prolonged copyright lawsuit after National Geographic reproduced some of his images in digital form.)

Mr. Ward did several stories for the magazine on diamonds and gems, which led him to photograph actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he later described as “the only person in my experience who never blinked when the flash went off!”

From those assignments, Mr. Ward developed a specialty in photographing gemstones, sometimes showing their internal structure under a microscope, and became a certified gemologist. He and his wife published nine books on various gems and precious stones.

He also found time to produce two documentaries about Mexico and to become an early user of computer graphics and digital photography before settling in California in 2004. He never went anywhere without a camera, his wife said.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Charlotte Mayes Ward of Malibu; four children, Kimberly Litle of Belvedere, Calif., and Park City, Utah, Christopher Ward of Malibu, Lolly Ward of Portland, Ore., and David Ward of San Francisco; a sister; and four grandchildren.

When many of his fellow photographers developed specialties in portraiture, breaking news or landscapes, Mr. Ward seemed capable of capturing the entire world through his viewfinder.

“I specialize in versatility,” he once said.