Thursday, March 28, 2013

Photographing Hidden Gems in Washington, DC

Guest post by Brandon Kopp

Brandon Kopp is a Washington, DC – based amateur photographer. He has wide ranging photographic interests from cityscapes to landscapes to macro. Brandon uses high dynamic range (HDR) photography for most of his photos. Brandon maintains two blogs; one on photography in Washington, DC and another on miscellaneous photography topics.
I moved to the Washington, DC area three years ago. The day I moved to town was the second day I’d ever been in the city (the first being when I interviewed for my job). So I was new. I was fresh. I was a tourist. Every weekend, I would pack up my camera and head out to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, or the Capitol Building and spend the evening waiting for the sun to go down. My first couple years (yes, years) were spent in that same sort of pattern. I learned a bunch of new photography techniques and got the hang of how and when to photograph the hot spots around town. I began to divide my photography “career” into two eras: before DC and after DC.

About a year ago, my interest in those must-see locations around DC started to level off. I’d gotten most of the good shots that I was going to get of them. I needed a new challenge. So I started looking for lesser-known spots. In a city like Washington, DC, with so much history and so much fantastic architecture, there was bound to be such places. I looked through photo sharing sites, hoping that people would add a descriptive enough title or caption to their photos or would, even better, geotag them so that I could find some new inspiration. I was surprised to find some amazing photo locations hiding in plain sight. In some cases, I’d walked right by them without a second thought.

If you’re visiting Washington, DC for the first time, you’ll definitely want to see those must-see locations. If you’ve been there, done that on previous trips, if you live in the DC area, or if you’re a hipster photographer that wants to avoid the spots that have been “overdone,” below I provide a list of my favorite Hidden Gems in Washington, DC.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral
St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral

Churches

I am not religious, but that doesn’t keep me from appreciating a beautiful building when I see one. Some of the most amazing architecture I’ve ever seen has been in churches, synagogues, and mosques. In Washington, DC, the go-to religious venue is Washington National Cathedral. It is an amazing place, but it’s also, currently, covered in scaffolding and construction netting as it is repaired following the August 2011 earthquake. It’s still worth seeing, but you might want to try out these three locations to get your architecture fix.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral

This Russian Orthodox Church is only four blocks South of the National Cathedral and makes a good second stop while you’re in the area.  The interior of the Orthodox Church is covered with paintings of saints, known as icons.  It’s a small location so it won’t take up too much of your time.  When you visit, you may need to use the call box to get in. The staff there are really great people who welcome visitors.

The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception 

This Catholic church, located on the campus of the Catholic University of America, is gigantic.  I often recommend this as an alternative to the National Cathedral.  It’s easier to get to and has no construction work going on.  The sanctuary of the church is beautiful, but for me the real attraction of the church is the 7 or 8 “side-chapels.”  These small churches within a church each have their own personality; different colors, different shapes, different moods. They are also often empty, so you don’t have to worry as much about the clicking of your camera.

The Franciscan Monastery
The Franciscan Monastery

The Franciscan Monastery 

The Monastery is located about a mile from the National Shrine and they are both accessible from the same Metro stop (Brookland/CUA).  The main sanctuary, shaped roughly as a cross, has a beautiful central alter and dome. It’s like a scaled down St. Peter’s Basilica. The monastery offers guided tours, but if you get there early enough you may be able to walk around on your own (I did).  I’ve never been to the Monastery in the Spring through Fall, but I’m told there are lovely gardens that are also worth the trip.


The Freemasons

When I first moved to DC, someone saw my tourist-like enthusiasm and suggested I read the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The novel is centered around Freemason legends in Washington, DC.  The book talks about some of the places around town that have Freemason connections like the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress.  It also talks about lesser-known Freemason temples.  I was intrigued and went to visit.  Freemasons don’t consider themselves a religious order, but their buildings are reminiscent of the churches I talked about above.

The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Temple
The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Temple

The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Temple 

This temple is located a mile or so due North of the White House on 16th St..  It has an unmistakable exterior, framed with columns and two large sphinxes flanking the front door.  You can take a guided tour for $8 and see several rooms in which sacred rites are performed, a number of trophy and meeting rooms, and several libraries.

The George Washington Masonic Memorial 

Towering over the King St. Metro stop in Alexandria, VA, is an unmistakable temple dedicated to one of the most famous Freemasons, George Washington.  For $5 you can walk through the main floor and several museum rooms in the basement.  For $8 you get a guided tour, which includes a view from the building’s steeple. The most impressive part of the whole experience is the main room that you will see as you enter the front door. With its murals, stained glass, and giant statue of George Washington, it has a shrine-like feel.

Hiding in Plain Sight

There are several small, yet impressive memorials in DC that for my first couple years I zipped right by without much thought. It wasn’t until I stopped and looked that I was drawn in.

The Japanese-American Memorial to Heroism During WWII 

Maybe this hasn’t caught on because of how much effort it is to write out it’s name, but the Memorial is a great place to stop as you’re going from Union Station to the Capitol Building.  Long curving lines, a reflecting pool, and a bronze statue of a crane wrapped in barbed wire offer a number of different photographic opportunities.  Because of its Japanese namesake, the Memorial is surrounded by cherry trees and is one of the best, lesser-known locations for cherry blossom pictures.

The District of Columbia WWI Memorial
The District of Columbia WWI Memorial

The District of Columbia WWI Memorial

I was surprised to find that there is no national WWI Memorial, but this Memorial, dedicated to the citizens of the District who died during WWI, suits that purpose.  It’s located halfway between the WWII and Korean War Memorials and is a short walk off of the Reflecting Pool. Its location and the fact that it’s surrounded by trees make it difficult to just stumble across and when people see it, they aren’t really sure what it is, so keep on moving to the MLK, Lincoln, or other memorials they do know.  This relative anonymity makes it a good spot for photos, unobstructed by people.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Several great photo locations around DC are far enough out of the way that you’re not going to stumble across them. You might not know they were there unless you came across a pamphlet or a sign.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center 

The Air and Space Museum along the National Mall is one of the most visited locations in Washington, DC, but it’s companion space located near Dulles Airport is far, far more impressive.  At the Udvar-Hazy Center, a converted aircraft hangar is filled with decommissioned airplanes, helicopters, and the Space Shuttle Discovery.  It’s a jaunt to get out there. The museum itself is free, but parking costs $15.

Great Falls Park 

Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park
I didn’t expect to be so close to an amazing set of waterfalls, but just 15 minutes outside Washington, DC you can find Great Falls, a location that more than lives up to it’s name.  There are miles of hiking trails but the centerpieces of the park are the three falls overlooks. You’ll definitely need a car to get to the park and costs vary depending on number of people in the vehicle.


Hopefully, this has enticed you to think outside of the box when visiting Washington, DC.  There is so much to see and do that it can be overwhelming to fit it into a few days or even a week.  If you’re looking for more advice than you see here, please check out my website about photography in DC, PhotoTourismDC.  If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on Brandonkopp.com.

- Brandon Kopp

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Adding Photos to Your Guides: Faster-er!

Well, we've been quiet again, and if you've been keeping up with us, you probably know that means we've been buried in the code, making things easier, faster, and generally more awesome so you can share your best photo spots easily. This time is no exception!

We've juiced up the guide creation process so that now you can add spots to your guide as fast as you can find them in your albums. No more waiting around for the photos to load in from Flickr or Google+. If you don't believe me, here's a video that shows the first step of adding photos to your guide, with a before and after for comparison:



You'll notice that the photos you select immediately get added to your guide, no spinner, no delay. We grab all the EXIF data for your photos behind the scenes to make things faster so you don't have to wait around for that (yes, I'd like to point out that the original slowness wasn't exactly our fault...cough cough...Google...cough cough...Flickr...but we've worked around it now to keep things moving).

So what are you waiting for? Head on over and add a photo guide for your city today!