Usually, you see them coming. But sometimes they come from behind and are inches from your back before you sense their presence. They carry guns, so you don’t have to be a genius to instantly realize that whatever they ask, you will do.
Many photographers consider the tripod as one of their most important tools. Other than the extra weight, using a tripod out in the wilderness is not a big deal. But when you are in an urban environment, especially one with a lot of high security issues such as Washington DC, you will soon run into the “Tripod Police.”
This is the affectionate nickname local photographers have for the armed men and women wearing uniforms and badges who often appear from nowhere and always start the dialog with those three little words, “Excuse me, sir (or ma’am)…” As soon as you hear that phrase, you know there is a 80% chance that you will be packing up your tripod and moving on.
Over the past 15 years as a photographer, I’ve often been interrupted by guards, park rangers, and police officers and I should say right away that I understand they have a job to do. In every case but one, they have been polite and in many cases they have shown some flexibility. Nevertheless, to improve your chances for getting the photograph you want, there are a number of ways to avoid their interference.
The most obvious first step is to find out where tripods are allowed and where they are not. For example, the U.S. Capitol grounds are generally off limits to tripods unless you have a permit. But you can use a tripod on the sidewalk a few inches from the forbidden zone. The image above was taken shortly before sunrise on April 4, 2010 (Nikon D700, 0.8 sec. @ f/18, ISO 200). A Capitol Police officer came up to remind me that tripods were not allowed on the grounds without a permit but he was fine with my location on the sidewalk (1st Street NE). The shot below was taken deep inside the no-tripod zone, but it was 30 minutes later when there was enough light to shoot hand-held (Nikon D700, 1/160th sec. @ f/10, ISO 200).
One can also get a four-day permit for photography on the U.S. Capitol Grounds (but only the grassy areas, not the sidewalks or driveways). Click here for details. Also, during the month of December when the Christmas tree has been installed, the requirement for permits is usually waived. This is quite a treat since it is difficult to tell in advance when a snowstorm will occur. Such an event happened on December 16, 2010 (Nikon D700, 1.3 sec @ f/14, ISO 400) and there was a whole gaggle of photographers out there with tripods.
The Lincoln Memorial has a strict rule against tripods on the steps or inside. Actually, this makes sense because of the crowds and one can imagine the difficulty for tourists if every local shooter wanted to bring a tripod. But the plaza is generally OK. Moreover, there are exceptions, such as when you and the guard are the only two people there. The image below was taken on a cold morning just before sunrise in September 2012. There was no one else present, so I asked the guard if I could use my tripod (which had no metal spikes on the legs) for a few quick shots. He agreed and I set up quickly and took about five images.
Sometimes you will be interrupted when you least expect it. Last year, I was looking for a new angle on the Washington Monument before the scaffolding was removed and chose a spot on the edge of the Tidal Basin, just north of the Kutz Bridge (Independence Avenue). I had thought this was probably one of the least sensitive spots in the Mall area so I was not expecting to attract the attention of any security people. But sure enough, over the din of the passing cars, a voice behind me said in that unmistakable tone of authority: “Excuse me, sir. What are you doing here?” The answer seemed obvious to me—a camera on a tripod, a camera bag open next to me, etc. But I followed my own advice and played it straight: “I’m photographing the Washington Monument.” She seemed a little uncertain—not a good sign with a person who is packing a pistol. After a few questions, she told me a passerby had alerted her of a “suspicious person” and she was checking it out. What I had interpreted as uncertainty was actually a slight case of embarrassment because the officer knew exactly what I was doing. But she had to go through the procedure because I had been “reported.” After a brief interview, she allowed me to continue and wished me well.
Above image: where I was reported as a “suspicious person” : Nikon D800E, 24-70 mm zoom at 29 mm,5 secs. @ f/16, ISO 100)
About 10 minutes later, I crossed the street for this one (Nikon D800E, 24-70mm zoom at 38 mm, 8 secs. @f/16, ISO 200)
The one location where you absolutely have to play it straight is when you are taking photographs from an elevated position—such as a roof terrace—in view of the White House. I recently was given permission to take photographs from the 9th floor terrace an office building with a fabulous view of the Executive Office Building and a partial view of the White House. I made the mistake of assuming their permission was all I needed and with great excitement about this opportunity set up my tripod and camera overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. It looked like there would be some excellent conditions for a sunset followed by a perfect twilight scene. I had taken a few shots and suddenly heard the all-too-familiar question coming from behind me. I turned to see three armed police officers (but their pistols were holstered) approaching me in a “spread configuration.” Behind them were two individuals in civilian clothes who turned out to be the head of building security and the property manager.
Taken before my “Security Check” (Nikon D800E, 70-200 mm zoom at 200 mm, 1/125th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400)
One of the officers showed me his credentials and I knew this was not a tripod problem. They were Secret Service and wanted to know what I was doing on this roof. As I explained, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that three more men were observing all this from the rooftop of a building behind the Renwick Gallery on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. One of my interrogators asked for my identification and then walked some distance away and made a phone call apparently reading the details from my driver’s license to the person he was calling. While this was going on, the officer in charge very politely explained to me that they had no knowledge I was going to be there and that while photography is permitted, advance clearance is necessary. He added that, assuming the clearance call revealed no issue, I would be allowed to continue my photography. At this point, I had two questions running through my head: who were those guys on the roof across the street? And would the light, which was now becoming very nice, be OK if and when I was permitted to resume shooting? I never did find out the answer to the first question, except that they disappeared as soon as the clearance on my ID check came through. As for the second question, here is the image I took after I was left alone again on the roof. In retrospect, the fact that eight people were actively engaged in making sure I was just a photographer on that roof convinced me that I had better not be making casual assumptions when I get a similar opportunity in the future.
Taken about 30 minutes after my “clearance.” (Nikon D800E, 24-70 mm zoom at 24 mm, 2 secs. @ f/16, ISO 400)