Cherry Blossom Mania

It had been a quiet week, thanks to the cloudy weather and intermittent rain.  The cherry blossoms had not been officially declared “at peak.”  Few photographers bothered to show up in the wee hours before the sun made its appearance.  But on Saturday, everything changed.

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A little after 6:00 AM and there were only a few spots with some room.

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And it was possible to get a pretty decent image at 6:25 AM

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But soon it seemed that anyone who had a camera was here.

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Even an IMAX film crew working a documentary for the National Park Service.

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A few photographers were fashionably color coordinated (Note the teal accents).

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Even the Tripod Police dressed up with nice blue accessories.

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Everyone was in a good mood, some especially so.

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Those who got up late paid the price (But pink and blue was still the rule).

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Still, photo ops are where you find them

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Others used the blossoms as a prop instead of the subject.

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This magnolia tree is a favorite for wedding photographers

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A wedding announcement?  Not a bad idea.

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This pose started to draw a crowd.

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As did this one

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But the men practicing for the Kumu’ohu Challenge race on April 18 could care less.

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No need to hire a photographer, get a remote and Voila!

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A classic áo dài, and a perfect occasion for it.

Recipe for a perfect cherry blossom shoot?

The day before official peak must be a weekday, with a forecast that calls for clouds, rain, and wind. And the forecast turns out to be wrong on all three counts.

Keep shooting

Keep Photographing…

I admire photographers who undertake a mission to take at least one image every day for a specified period of time, often an entire year.  I don’t think I could pull that off, but they have a point.  One needs to keep practicing their craft so it’s a good idea to get out  fairly often even if you don’t have a specific subject in mind. So one afternoon last week I went out for a “practice session.”  The following images were all taken within about 90 minutes.

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US Botanical Garden and US Capitol Building

I just happened to catch a glimpse of this view as I was walking toward the Disabled Veterans Memorial.  I stopped and tried a few variations even though though the plants were in shadow.

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Late Afternoon, Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

The late afternoon sun was doing a nice job illuminating the west end of the Rayburn House Office Building and the lack of wind made it possible to capture a nice reflection in the Memorial’s pool.  I’m not thrilled with this angle, however, and another session might be a good idea.

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Heading back toward the Capitol Building, I was confronted with this composition and set down the tripod, hoping that I could get a picture before I was discovered by the ever vigilant Tripod Police.  There is nothing that motivates one to photograph quickly and efficiently like the knowledge that people with weapons are looking for you.

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U.S. Capitol Building and the “Artillery” Sculpture

This image of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial shows a portion of one of the large sculptures flanking the Grant stature about 100 feet to the left. This has always been a highly dramatic sculpture but now, with the bizarre appearance of the Capitol Building, their pose of wild panic might be viewed with a different interpretation than originally intended by the sculptor.

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Evening, Ulysses S. Grant Statue and U.S. Capitol Building

This was the last image of the evening.  I decided not to press my luck any longer with the the Tripod Police. Plus, I had added a number of images to my inventory documenting this stage of the Capitol Dome Restoration Project.

Washington, DC—August Scouting Report

Breaking News:  Local readers, photographers or not, should take into account that this coming Monday to Wednesday (August 4-6) could be somewhat chaotic in downtown Washington as the leaders of 40- 50 African nations will be here for a summit meeting.

OK, back to our normal programming:

Yesterday I thought it would be a good idea to zip down to the city and check out the status of possible shooting locations.  The weather was cloudy and it looked like we might get a shower or two, so the prospects for actually stopping and doing some serious photography seemed remote.  I almost didn’t take my camera, but a Little Voice said: “You might be sorry.”

As it turned out, the Little Voice was right.  My first stop was Union Station which is still undergoing a massive interior renovation started months ago.  The first sight when you walk in the front entrance is a mass of scaffolding, huge tarpaulins, and netting to protect pedestrians from falling debris.  (See image below)

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 Union Station Washington, DC Under Renovation

But then I turned left and I was already glad that I had brought the camera. The west wing of the Waiting Area was free of construction and the station’s famous centurions were on duty and alert.  Be aware, however, that there is a strict prohibition on tripods at Union Station, so one needs a high ISO and a wide aperture, especially on a cloudy day. (Technical Data: hand held Nikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 45mm; Exposure 1/125th sec @f2.8, EV= -0.67, ISO 800).  Three images, photomerged.

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 The Centurions of Union Station

Over at the Supreme Court, a new repair project has just begun.  The Capitol Police officer on duty told me that this set of scaffolding had just gone up this week.

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 Yet Another Renovation at the Supreme Court

Next stop: The U.S. Capitol Building.  The long awaited and much-needed repair of the Capitol Dome is now underway and the scaffolding is being erected now.  On the positive side, Congress is on recess and the shallow reflecting pools on the eastern plaza have been repaired and the water is running again (See image below).

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 US Capitol, East Plaza

 Photographers that want to include the dome will have to accept the presence of scaffolding for perhaps the next two years.  (See the list of the end of this post for details on the situation around the Capitol.)  But there is a positive side: it makes one think about different approaches as exemplified by the image below.

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The US Capitol, View from South Side

 And down the hill on the western side of the Capitol, the flowers around the base of the James Garfield statue are looking great.  I couldn’t resist this image, even with the scaffolding in full view.

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James A. Garfield Statue and US Capitol

 The following summarizes my observations on the drive:

Good news:

  • A lot of the fountains are running, including those in front of the American History Museum, the Library of Congress (Court of Neptune), Senate Garage Fountains, Supreme Court fountains, the Bartholdi Park fountain, the Haupt Fountains on Constitution Avenue across from the German Friendship Garden and most of those at the World War II Memorial (But see the Bad News Below).
  • Almost all of the scaffolding has been removed from the renovation project at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. (But see the Bad News below)
  • The eastern plaza of the US Capitol Building is no longer a parking lot (as it was on Thursday) for Congressional VIPS as they have departed for the August recess. The reflection pools surrounding the two main skylights for the underground visitor center are back up and running and there must have been a bump up in the gardening budget because the flowers around the Capitol are looking better than I have seen in a long time.
  • The National Park Service Tulip Library, located near the Tidal Basin at Independence Avenue and Maine Avenue, is well past the tulip season. But the annuals that were planted after the tulip bulbs were removed are looking good.  And it appears that an ugly wooden fence right across the street (ruining any possibility of combining these flowers with the Washington Monument) is in the process of being removed.  I have been hating this fence since I first saw it 7 years ago.

Bad news:

  • The work on the western wall (Freedom Wall) of the World War II Memorial is still not completed.
  • Although the renovation of the Arts and Industries Building is complete, there are no plans to open it due to a lack of funds. So there may be some minor gates and barriers to prevent people from entering the space.
  • The US Capitol dome project includes a large construction support zone on the northwest sector of the grounds and a lot of netting inside the dome. Tours are still ongoing.
  • The Supreme Court front entrance now has scaffolding for a new project.
  • The impressively tall fountain (name unknown to me) at the intersection of 20th and C St. NW is not running.
  • And, not surprisingly, the Columbus Fountain at Union Station continues its 10-year-plus streak of neglect, despite a recent renovation of the entire plaza surrounding it.

The Tripod Police

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.

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                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).

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                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.

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                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.

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                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.

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                            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)

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                               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.

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                                                  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.

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Taken about 30 minutes after my “clearance.” (Nikon D800E, 24-70 mm zoom at 24 mm, 2 secs. @ f/16, ISO 400)