Even though the spring cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin may arguably be D.C.’s most iconic scene, National Geographic photographer Daniel Westergren isn’t a fan.
“It’s very beautiful, but quite a circus with people and photographers everywhere,” he said.
Instead, Westergren heads to the Lincoln Memorial at sunrise any other time of the year for the type of memorable shot that has attracted almost 23,000 followers—and counting—to his Instagram feed (@danwestergren).
“First the sky turns blue, then the rising sun sends a ray of orange light into the memorial, making rectangles on the wall behind Abe Lincoln’s statue,” he said. “It only lasts for a few minutes, but it’s quite something to see, and adds color to the photos.”
Look for Good Light and New Angles
The longtime photo director for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Westergren now works as a freelance photographer and photo workshop leader. He said one of the most common mistakes people make when shooting in D.C. —as in other places—is not understanding the importance of good light.
“If you’re willing to get up early, or be out taking pictures when most people are eating dinner, you’ll find never-ending great photo ops.”
Another main challenge for shutterbugs is creating fresh images of Washington’s well-known monuments and memorials.
“They are so good-looking that most photographers just stand in front of them and take a picture,” said Westergren.
“That’s a good start, but to really utilize them, use the sites as a background and photograph people interacting with them, your family or just random strangers. I always joke with D.C. workshop participants that if I want a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, I can just pull a penny out of my pocket. So do something to make your photo your own.”
Also a National Geographic Traveler photographer and workshop leader, Krista Rossow—33.9k Instagram followers, @kristarossow—suggests looking “for angles and situations that are unusual. Instead of a straight-on shot of the Washington Monument, maybe photograph its reflection in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or shoot through all the flags at its base.”
Wait for It
Great snaps also require patience to see what events unfold around you, from parades to protests.
“You never know what activity will be happening on the National Mall,” Rossow said. “Some weekends there will be veterans who are visiting the World War II Memorial for the first time, and seeing people walk up and thank these men and women for their service can turn into powerful photographs. Other times there will be people crawling backwards up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial doing intense physical training courses. And if you hang around long enough, you’ll usually see a wedding proposal!”
Westergren likes how on most Saturday mornings there are crews scrubbing the wall of the Vietnam memorial.
“It really brings the importance of this site into perspective,” he said.
Go Off the Beaten Path
Once you’ve Instagrammed from the main D.C. landmarks, it’s time to head to less touristy places. Rossow suggests exploring different neighborhoods to see what they turn up: the brick townhouses of Georgetown, the bustling stalls of Eastern Market, the street art of Shaw.
“In the daytime, I love photographing riders coming out of the Metro at the north Dupont Circle station,” she said, “and at twilight, I like to play with long exposures to get the traffic around Dupont Circle to turn into colorful blurs.”
Westergren recommends going even farther afield.
“Head up the Potomac River a few miles to Great Falls. It’s an amazing site very close to the capital city. It’s probably best photographed from the Virginia side, because you can get closer to the water.”
Then, Snap Away
Ultimately, both photographers agree that Washington is simply super photogenic, period.
“The reason I like photographing in D.C. is the same as the reason I liked living in D.C.,” said Rossow, who moved away four years ago but returns often. “There is so much to see and do. D.C. has it all: the iconic memorials and buildings, off-the-beaten-track gems, vibrant neighborhoods, diverse architecture and lush green spaces.”
And it’s a city that can even win over skeptics. After years of avoiding the cherry blossom madness, Westergren found himself turning into a petal promoter when he agreed to create a portrait of a friend among the blooms. That led to another friend commissioning a portrait there, too. Then the following day, Westergren conducted a live video photo workshop for Nat Geo Travel from the Tidal Basin.
“So basically I visited the Tidal Basin at 5:30 am three times in four days.”