From time to time we all visit locations that are amazing to see and experience but can be pretty played out from a photographic perspective. The Lincoln Memorial certainly falls into that category. It was thrilling to stand before the statue of one of America's greatest leaders. It is a place that began its own history as a memorial but over time has established its own historical and cultural legacy. It's probably been photographed about 10 billion times and hosts about 8 million visitors every year. How can anybody produce a new image of this iconic structure?
The short answer is that while you might be unlikely to produce something wholly original it is possible to develop ideas that aren't quite the same as what everybody else is shooting. Varying the time of day or your shooting angles you can quickly start to separate you from the masses.
When it came to the Lincoln Memorial there were a few considerations that went into planning my shots. Did I want to incorporate people? What type of light would be ideal? What was the story I wanted to tell?
The space inside the memorial is quiet, peaceful, and reflective (at least when there isn't anybody around). I wanted my final image to reflect that atmosphere. The best way to achieve that would be to try and avoid the crowds. In my experience most people visiting aren’t all that interested in standing around for more than a couple of minutes before the selfie sticks emerge or it's time to take a group photo. That’s fine by me but that’s not the story I wanted these images to tell. I was looking to cast the memorial in its best light which wasn't necessarily its most common.
I needed to be there when the crowds were not. Google has a handy “Popular Times” graph for million of locations throughout the US. Looking at their entry for the Lincoln Memorial I could see it would be best to arrive between 11PM and 7 AM during the week to avoid the crowds. That certainly makes sense. The story on the weekends is a little trickier since it looks like there are a fair number of people visiting on early Sunday mornings to view the sunrise. Good for you DC!
Lighting was the next factor to consider. There are generally three ways to light the statue.
Artificial lights from above - this is the standard shot you always see of the Memorial at night. In other words it is a little boring (to be fair it actually looks cool but there isn’t much you’ll be able to do with it that hasn’t been shot before).
Indirect light from the front - this is the look you typically see from every daytime image. This is decent light but you’ve also seen this a million time before. There isn't a ton of contrast between the limestone walls and the marble statue with this lighting.
Use the sun as a direct light source. I am certainly not the first to photograph the Memorial at dawn but it isn't photographed this way nearly as often as the other two options. Additionally the sunlight moves creating a dynamic lighting situation which allows a photographer to capture several different looks within a short time frame.
After considering the three options the third one seemed like it might be the most fun to play with. The sunlight would create areas of bright, directional light set against deep shadows and if I could get into the right position I could start to have some fun. The smaller crowds at sunrise was just an extra bonus.
A wide angle shot towards the statue would accomplish several of my goals. The scale of the space was important to capture and the dialogue between the Lincoln statue and the rest of the chamber was one that I wanted to explore. i wanted to use the symmetry of the space to visually reinforce the idea that the Lincoln statue is the main event here. It is a a simple space and I wasn't interested in disturbing the balance the architects had carefully established. It was critically important to me that the sunlight also appeared symmetrical within the image.
While locking the concept was in place was relatively easy figuring out when the sun would be in the right position took a bit of work. For one thing the sun needed to reach the back of the memorial where the Lincoln statue sits. This meant the sun had to be relatively low in the sky. The sun also had to be pretty much due east for the shot to work.
Doing a little research (have you noticed I get a little geeky from time to time?) I knew the sun had to be lower than 9 degrees in the sky. It also needed to be higher than the Washington Monument which extends about 8 degrees above the horizon.
In the end the sun needed to be exactly due east and within a very small window if I was going to pull this off. The good news is that does actually happen. The bad news is that it only happens about 10 days each year (April 2 - 6, and September 5 - 9)*. As fate would have it our plans were to arrive in DC on one of those dates. The time of day isn’t quite perfect. The alignment takes place about an hour after sunrise at 7:39 AM. That's good because you can shoot the sunrise and play around with the light coming into the chamber before it moves up into the final positions. The bad news is that after the sun is up the crowds begin to arrive.
*According to Google Maps and a couple planning apps the Washington Monument isn't exactly due east of the Lincoln Memorial. If true it may be possible to extend these date ranges if the sun is able to peek around the Monument's southern edge.
The morning of April 3 finally arrived and I headed out to shoot. I was in position to shoot the room with a 17mm lens. For a very long time the room was nearly empty. There were a few other photographers around but we mostly stayed out of each other’s way. 10 minutes before the sun moved into position the first tour bus arrived. They wanted the same thing I wanted - a shot of Lincoln - so I could hardly be mad. The first shooting position was about 57 feet away from the front of the statue. As the space kept filling up with people I was forced to move closer and closer. The final shot I made was about 25 feet away from the statue. In these situations you just have to go with the flow. Some people are considerate and try to stay out of your way or ask if it's alright if they jump in (I always say yes), and some people re clueless or rude and will just barge into the scene anyway even if they see what you are trying to do. What can you do? I waited it out and started to think about ways to stack a bunch of images to erase people from the shot. In the end the closer shooting position helps make Lincoln look and feel larger in the space. That's the sense you get when you are in the room so from that perspective the crowds pushing me forward helped me helped me out a little.
It was important for the sun to perfectly line up in order to minimize any distracting shadows that might throw the image off balance. In perfect alignment the light and shadows help emphasize the vertical space but if they were off a little bit it would be noticeable. Look at the image with the tourists above. One arm is in shadow and the other is in light. It feels off-balanced. Eventually the interior cleared out of people just after the sunlight lined up with Lincoln. i was able to step back to my original shooting position and grab a version of the shot I had always intended.
The result is that I now have a few shots that most people won’t ever have. A little planning, a little luck (we had clear skies that morning), and most importantly a clear understanding of the story will always help photographers make images that stand out.